What is it about steam trains?

On this day in 1960, the naming ceremony took place for the very last steam locomotive built by British Rail. The 999th locomotive of the British Railways Standard range, the Evening Star was the only locomotive built with the object of preservation in mind.

Britain had continued to build steam locomotives after the Second World War when electrification would have been a better long-term investment. In post-war Britain, a thousand pits employing a million miners,  and traditional steel works producing the materials for locomotive production, meant that successive governments were loath to quickly adopt changes that would have been to the ultimate benefit of the railways.

Perhaps it was more than economic factors that shaped the decision, perhaps steam locomotives had a place deep in the British psyche. No-one would have anticipated that the Evening Star would be one among more than two hundred that would be preserved. When steam engines were withdrawn from service, some 297 were sent to the Woodham Brothers scrapyard at Barry in South Wales, an extraordinary 213 of those were saved for preservation. It is a number worthy of a tale told by the Rev. W. Awdry.

On the day of the naming of the Evening Star, R.F. Hanks, chair of the Western Area Board of the British Transport Commission made a speech which seemed to anticipate the endurance of British love for the steam train:

But it is also a very great day for Swindon, and, to my friends from other Regions and from the B.T.C., I trust I shall not be considered parochial when I say that it is a proud day for Great Western men everywhere who will find much satisfaction, since there had to be a “last one” that it should fall to the lot of Swindon to see the job through. [..] I am sure it has been truly said that no other product of man’s mind has ever exercised such a compelling hold upon the public’s imagination as the steam locomotive. No other machine, in its day, has been a more faithful friend to mankind and has contributed more to the cause of industrial prosperity in this, the land of its birth, and throughout the world.

Hanks was right about the hold of the hold upon the imagination. Three of my earliest memories are of steam trains: standing with my mother on the platform of Langport West station when not yet four years of age: watching the level crossing gates of the station at Martock swing open to allow the passage of a train; being at Weymouth while very young and seeing a train travel the line through the streets on its way to the docks.

The hold is undeniable, its reason unclear.

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2 Responses to What is it about steam trains?

  1. Timbotoo says:

    They were slower, noisier, smellier and dirtier but I loved to ride them.

    • Ian says:

      The Somerset and Dorset Railway, on the route of which John Betjeman made “All Change at Evercreech Junction,” is said to have deserved epithet as the “slow and dirty.”

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