Full steam ahead for Sam Panster

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Full steam ahead . . . Sam Panster, who is training to be the Weka Pass Railway's first ever female steam train driver, shovels coat to fire up Engine 428. Sam is working toward her Fireman's licence so she can then gain her Boiler's Licence. Photo: Amanda Bowes

By AMANDA BOWES

The Weka Pass Railway has its first woman steam train driver trainee.

And when Sam Panster gets her ticket, she will be one of only four women train drivers in the South Island.

Sam, from Waipara, is doing the hard yards so she can one day take control of 428, a massive beast and drive the steam train from Waipara to Waikari.

Becoming a train driver isn’t the easiest of tasks and Sam fits in her apprenticeship between work and volunteering for the Waipara Fire Brigade, but she is determined to get her Boiler’s Ticket.

Sam says it all started when she and her daughter Claire shifted to Waipara after losing their house in Kaiapoi after the 2011 earthquake.

Claire had always been keen on trains and as luck would have it, they bought a house opposite the Weka Pass Railway depot.

The trains became Claire’s “sport” and Sam would go with her when she helped out in the workshops.

It soon became Sam’s passion too and one day she told members of the Weka Pass Railway she wanted to learn how to drive the steam train.

“No-one took me seriously at first, but then they realised I was and everyone was really helpful.”

Before she can put her driver’s cap on, Sam must first qualify as a Fireman.

Being a fireman is not just about shovelling coal, says Sam.

“There is a heap of technical stuff to learn. I need to know how the injectors work, what all the different gauges are and how they work, make sure the water glass is right – if you run out of water you could blow the thing up!”

Even shovelling the coal is an art form.

The fire is started up with two loads of wood to bring the temperature up gradually and the coal must be put on at just the right amount to slowly build up the heat.

It takes around five hours for the train to build up enough steam to go from Waipara to Waikari.

Once the train has finished its journeys for the day, back at the depot the fire has to be dropped out and all the bolts have to be undone on the smoke box to clean it out. It is then washed out and the back of the tender filled with water.

Finally the loco can be put to bed. It’s hard dirty work, but Sam loves it.

As part of her training, she says she has been “in,under, around and on top of” the steam engine.

She has worked in the workshop helping with maintenance and restoration of other parts of the train and has helped level the train tracks through the Weka Pass, cleaned and polished and done what ever is needed to help her learn everything she can.

“Getting my hours up is important, hopefully by the end of next year I’ll have my Fireman’s license, then I can go for my Boiler Ticket. That might be done at Shanty Town.”

Claire is an assistant guard on the train and Sam’s husband, Frank, pitches in when needed, looking after car parking and other things when the station is busy.

When Sam isn’t getting covered in soot and grease, she is also the treasurer for the Weka Pass Railway.

“I was madame secretary too, but now I’m just the Minister of Finance!”

Full steam ahead . . . Sam Panster, who is training to be the Weka Pass Railway’s first ever female steam train driver, shovels coal to fire up Engine 428. Sam is working toward her Fireman’s licence, so she can then gain her Boiler’s ticket.PHOTO: AMANDA BOWES