Today marks the 50th anniversary of the last mainline passenger steam train on Britain’s railways, yet, 50 years on, it’s really quite easy to find a steam train on Britain’s mainline railways.
An entire heritage market exists offering much needed doses of heritage to an ever hungrier audience who delight in seeing these magnificent beasts roaring towards them.
Throughout the country people standing on train station platforms will have their daily drudgery enlivened as a steam train unexpectedly charges past them. People on a day trip will smile even more broadly, and may indeed say that accidental sight of living heritage was the highlight of the day.
In a country already rich in heritage, and with more members of the National Trust than the UK’s political parties, why is the steam train both seen as a bit of a niche interest, yet also an icon that gives such outsized delight to huge numbers people who spot one?
Steam trains are dirty, noisy, filthy, huge, unrefined, dated relics of a bygone age — but in an age of the clean, the small, the digital… that’s what makes them stand out so proudly on the railways.
Modern trains are undeniably wonderful, with (sometimes) air conditioning, long carriages, plenty of lighting, wi-fi and power sockets, and are often faster than their older counterparts.
Yet, they are also shorn of glamour. Trains, even long distance trains are tubes that move people in the most efficient manner possible. The engine of a modern train is hidden away underneath the floor, and it hums rather than beats. Trains glide into stations and glide away. Just an electric whine from hidden motors as a metal tube slides up to you and with a beeping sound invites you within its brightly lit container.
Oh, but a steam train. They blast their way into your perception, a mighty roar that approaches from around a corner. Massive and magnificent the locomotive heralds its arrival with enthralling whistles and that oh so amazing sound of fire being turned into motion.
No sanitized hidden spaces here, the locomotive is alive. You see its exhalations, you understand the motions, you see huge metal wheels, gears, bars, oil and grease. All proudly on show for all to see.
A dirty face beams out from open footplates. Glimpses of the fiery heart of the leviathan remind us of the Almighty Power being held in check by the iron and steel. Constrained by man to serve the fire is alive and roars in anger in its confinement. We rejoice in our hearts at the living breathing power that moves both trains and emotions.
In a world that is safe and clean, where engines and energy are hidden away from sight, the steam train is wonderfully primal.
The glory of the steam locomotive is ably assisted by its train. Those long wooden carriages that whisper of luxury times past. People sitting inside at tables with crisp white linen and fine food. Gentle table lamps replacing overhead strips. Seductively comfortable seats that would grace a good hotel to sink into as waiters serve lunch.
For the passengers on board, the train is a luxury restaurant racing through the countryside with views to die for, hauled along by the massive steam machine at the front. No delicate electric gliding along the steel tracks for these diners, they are pulled around the country by a flaming god dragging his train.
Thanks to the people who want a good meal in a unique setting, the heritage steam train market has flourished and they almost always sell out on every trip. A train full of diners means that bystanders can gasp in wonder as the steam train rushes past, steam bellowing out from on top. A flinty smell and broad grins in its wake.
Celebrity locomotives such as the A4 Pacifics or the Flying Scotsman bring out the crowds to marvel at them, and encourage a few more people to think how wonderful it would be to drive one. To enquire hesitantly at a local heritage railway. To don the blue overalls, get dirty and go home with a big satisfied smile on their faces.
Hurrah for the steam train, 50 years on and still going strong.
Take a trip on a steam train: