The image above shows a 65 year old machine from a locomotive class first introduced 70 years ago, a class that would be the basis for the most numerically successful type in the history of railways in the UK. 21 of this locomotive’s 60 year-long commercial career was spent serving British Railways. Next to it is a steam engine that was built 9 years later that had a commercial career that didn’t quite make it to a two figure number – 9 years. Yet which of the two would you pay to see running?
The picture above shows a class 205 ‘Thumper’ Diesel Electric Multiple Unit. It was built in the same year as the aforementioned steam locomotive but was used for far longer. It lasted beyond the end of British Railways and was still of use in privatisation until 2004, with a revenue earning working life of 45 years (5 times as long as the steam locomotive!) Love or hate them, the diesels that many visitors are disappointed to be hauled by, are very important examples of our railway heritage. Since writing on this blog and learning about the history of railways, it has taken me time to appreciate the importance of heritage diesels, with the breakthrough moment when I visited a preserved railway specifically to ride on and see a diesel – the Thumper Unit mentioned here. However despite this, without doubt, it is scenes such as that below that make me smile the most and keep me entertained, much more than the scene above.
The statistics of locomotive years of service featured in this blog post probably will not come as a surprise to many of the informed readers of this blog, who will no doubt see quite a bias in the examples portrayed. I have unashamedly picked them out to try and highlight a specific point. The point being that there is more to the love of steam locomotives than heritage alone, as otherwise the overall collective following and interest of diesel traction across all levels of society would be of equal level or sometimes higher than the interest in steam. It is not the case! This raises the question of how to understand the love of steam and how we use it to promote all railway heritage – the good, the bad and the ugly.
The love of steam is a funny thing. Steam seems to be able to stir something in the hearts and imaginations that is seemingly independent of telling history. This is something that particularly interests me because I know that I have been infected with such an interest that will likely stay with me throughout my life. Steam locomotives harness all of the classical elements – earth, wind, fire and water. They assault the senses – they are big, dramatic machines that make a lot of noise, blow steam in your face and have a unique smell. Some say that they are the nearest that humankind has come to creating a living machine. They are evocative of a different era that felt and looked different to today’s relatively sanitised world.The world that the steam locomotive represents to most people is not necessarily an accurate one, but it is a different world to the modern-day. More often than not it is a quiet idyllic world, where the pace of life is slower where these lumbering beasts dramatically break the calm and quiet. This juxtaposition makes the steam engine almost a ruling deity that rules with power but also brings order.
OK, I may have been a little melodramatic there! But I think it’s important to begin to try and understand the love of steam, because it is arguably the thing that draws many thousands of people to buy a tickets and ride on a steam hauled train. It is this that helps preservation societies draw in visitors and so help the keep heritage alive. This is where the significantly historical machines come in and all aspects of the railways including those that do not involve carrying passengers are represented where possible.
Finally as an aside, steam lovers do not fret about the initial assault on their beloved locomotives. The steam locomotive featured in the above comments is a particularly young example. Looking at it in a different way, it could be argued that this steam engine, BR Standard 9F class 92212, represents an example of the pinnacle of steam locomotive development in the UK – a culmination of over 150 years of development. And there are other steam locomotives that are quite incredible examples of heritage in their own right and we’ll leave with one of them!
The Kent and East Sussex Railway’s A1X Terrier tank 32670 is 143 years old. After it had been in service for 19 years, the first manned glider took flight and around the time it had was finally withdrawn the first woman had ventured into space. In 32670’s life there have been huge social changes, with the UK developing into a fully fledged democracy with improving equality for all. It lived through two World Wars. It operated for 91 years in commercial service during which no less than 6 British monarchs ruled and saw many advances in technology such as (amongst many others) the petrol powered car, television, penicillin, nuclear power, the PC and the laser… Oh and lets not forget an invention by someone called Rudolf Diesel! Beat that diesel fans! 😉
Don’t forget to tune in tomorrow for the first advent calendar blog post! Thanks for reading!