Monday, January 05, 2009

The death of steam.


Prompted by recent posts on the excellent Viewliner blog, I decided to write a little about a subject that has until now avoided my interest -Railways!

In the period that immediately followed WWII much of Europe's rail network lay in ruins. Subject to heavy allied bombing, the rolling stock, marshalling yards, and bridges were all but destroyed which meant that mainland Europe had to begin again, but this time using diesel technology.

The railways of Britain suffered much less wartime damage than their European counterparts, and post war cash -strapped Britain decided to carry on with steam. This purely fiscal decision gave us a glorious period of anachronistic, yet endearing mode of transport.
There are few people who experienced those days that weren't moved by those big steam engines, they had a hissing, puffing, clanking presence unique to themselves, and the decision to replace them in the 1960's was a debatable one.

The task of modernising the British railways fell to a certain Dr. Beeching
who followed the mysterious logic that the best way to improve a service was in many cases to remove that service altogether! Consequently, by 1968 many thousands of miles of branch lines had been closed and those faithful old giants the steam engines were retired for ever.
What the Luftwaffe hadn't managed to destroy during six years of war Dr. Beeching managed with ease, although embarrassingly the new diesel locomotives suffered reliability problems and would often break down, leading to the reliance of an old steam engine to rescue it!

Nostalgia being what it is, those old engines are remembered in a multitude of paintings and Movie's appearing resplendent in their own particular liveries, puffing white clouds of smoke and steam as they traverse the land.
The reality was quite different however, these monsters were working vehicles and often as not were black with soot, and streaked with rust, oil, and other debris. To stand within a few yards of these magnificent machines was to become enchanted by them, the feel of the vibration as they bellowed, the smell of hot oil, the heat radiated from the steel boiler all create an unforgettable impression.

During 1968 these old giants were discarded in their thousands, 'Engine graveyards' developed, where rusting hulks stood for as far as the eye could see, awaiting the cutting torch. it is only now over forty years later, that I revisit those fine old men of steam and pay tribute to their beauty... in all their dirt streaked, soot stained grandeur!

There is a postscript to this sad tale however. Steam enthusiasts are a dedicated bunch, and the British love affair with steam has provided us with the first BRAND NEW steam engine to be constructed in 50 years! Named the TORNADO, she is set to bring the sensory experience of steam to a whole new generation of passengers!

RIP Steam?.... Not quite!

2 comments:

Viewliner Ltd. said...

British rail has always had a wonderful fascination for me. The diversity of the steam locomotives are second to none. Great write up.

Viewliner Ltd. said...

And thanks also for the link to my blog. Appreciated.