English Steam Trains

There’s nothing quite like the sound of pistons pumping, wheels turning, steam bellowing, and steam engines straining hard upon the track to pull carriages onwards and upwards.  There’s nothing quite like the deep, gut-churning throbbing of coke-burning boilers applying power to pull the coaches down the track – not forgetting the black soot on boilermen’s faces, smeared grubby with sweat in shovelling tons of the black gold with their work-hardened hands.

Contrast, then, in the clip below,  the chirping bird.  Sweet melody breaking through the rural tranquility providing contrast to the smoke-bellowing beast.

It’s a majestic beast, oozing individual personality – for no two steam engines are exactly the same.  A  wondrous beast, lovingly crafted with pride and passion; built with men’s oily hands; with skill and technical know-how, with hours-and-hours of long, dedicated, hard work.

Together, bird and beast, we hear the 19th century:  This was the age when technological innovation spread across England, linking towns with villages, coal mines with factories and ports, making travel and transport times far quicker than the canal systems and muddy country tracks had previously done.  The age when mechanical might came into its own.

Watch and listen:

But then came tarmaced roads which could deliver people and goods speedily from door-to-door.  And as a result rail travel began to decline and the British railway system began to lose money (£104M in 1962).   A report was commissioned seeking solutions.   It was a report whose conclusion signaled the need for a great rationalisation of British Rail, for small, local branches serving small village communities were costing the country millions by not being used.   Hence, from 1963 to 1970,  Dr. Richard Beeching, chairman of British Rail, announced the closures of numerous branch lines.   And wherever the Beeching axe fell, Britain moved more definitively away from 19th century rural regionalism and more into the 20th century’s ethos of modernity, economic accountability, and central administration.

The 19th century was now dead and buried.  The steam train era was over,  being replaced by the diesal train and electrification.   In fact, although complete electrification was recommended in a 1981 report as being financially ‘worthwhile‘, this still has not completely come to pass.  Privatitization of the railways during the 1990s led to profit-margin-determined, short-term views for the development of British railways, and investment for this long-term project fell short.

Renovation of old steam engine projects began in the mid-1980s.   Old rail-hands, remembering ‘the old times’, retired, and  their days of nostalgic reminiscences began.  The old steam trains were then slowly located rusting away in branch line sidings having created homes amidst brambles and nettles for myriads of creepy-crawlies besides fields where rabbits scampered and bounded.  But these ‘old-timers’ knew how to restore the battered, dying old engines.  They came from another age in which all that was not new was not thrown away.   And so began the restoration of the old mechanical beasts that had been so hastily discarded when the diesal age had arrived.  The old timers then taught new, younger railway enthusiasts their old skills and the rusting old trains were slowly restored to their former glories.

Several branch lines too, yes – those closed by Dr.Beeching, were then re-opened, upon whose lines the restored magnificent engines can now run.  And today,  the little branch line stations are run by voluteers, with interests far removed from considerations of profits and bottom-lines, who keep the platform signs painted, plant flowers in rail-side gardens, and dress up in station guard uniforms to proudly announce the arrival of the old steam trains when they come rolling in.

Bishop’s Lydeard station is a classic and perfect example.  The line from here runs to Minehead and the coast.  Well worth the visit and well worth the trip!

2 comments on “English Steam Trains

  1. Nostalgia, nostalgia… In Anduze (Gard département), there is a steam engine train still running. There is also a nice botanical garden that I’ve already been to. But I haven’t tried the train. Why not go together some day? But it’s a bit a long way: we’d better go on a fine spring day. What do you think?

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