Memories of the Railway Steam Age

Vol. 6 No. 1 - 1989

Memories of the Railway Steam Age

by Harold E. McIntyre

For more than a century steam was recognised as king of the railways, and it was only in the depression years between the two world wars that its dominance was challenged, when the emergent, but not yet fully tested diesel, made its appearance.

World War Two, when oil was in short supply, halted this challenge, but in the early post war years, when the railway systems, particularly those in the war-torn countries, were being restructured, a more sophisticated and technically advanced form of diesel transport gained favour, and by the early sixties steam on the railways in most of the developed world had been phased out.

Steam had always attracted a host of devoted followers, most of whom had made it their lifetime hobby, and they must have been dismayed as they witnessed its decline. While they were powerless to prevent this, they nevertheless adopted a bold course of action which was to give it a new lease of life, albeit in a different role.

The Beeching axe falls

While the transition from steam to diesel was taking place, the railway network was undergoing spectacular change, with hundreds of miles of uneconomic lines being closed under the "Beeching axe". A golden opportunity was thus presented to the steam enthusiasts to rescue some of the best loved locomotives from the breaker's yard and set them to work over these abandoned lines. It took courage and boldness to take on this formidable task, but they set about it to such good effect that there are today more than one hundred preservation societies operating train services throughout the length and breadth of the British Isles and Ireland.

On all these systems the members devote all their spare time, including weekends and holidays, discharging duties similar to those carried out by their professional counterparts, such as the maintenance of rolling stock and track. As well as giving their spare time, they also dig deep into their own pockets to help finance their operations, though the bulk of the income required comes from fund raising schemes, and from tourist train excursions. Indeed the latter has been so successful, that British Rail followed suit and re-introduced steam for the summer months on the scenic Carlisle to Settle and the Fort William to Mallaig lines.

I have the greatest admiration for those amateurs, who in a very professional way have kept steam on the map when the railways abandoned it, and in some ways I can share their enthusiasm; but frankly, I have to confess that I am ambivalent in my attitude to steam.

Steam - a joy to the eye

A railwayman all my working days, I experienced the discomforts as well as the pleasures of the steam age. The discomforts can be summed up briefly: dirt and grime. The majestic locomotive, the sight of which can bring joy to the eye of the beholder, is a monstrous pollutant, expelling smoke and soot which irritates the eyes and throat of the person and despoils the landscape. An American railway historian writing of this particular aspect said, "Dust is the great foe on the Pacific Railroad. No brushing, no shaking removes it. It sifts, it penetrates, it pervades everywhere".

The pleasures of steam are not so easily enumerated; not everyone would put forward the same reasons for their affection for it, but most people would speak of the animal-like qualities of this inanimate monster. Not for nothing has it been referred to as the "Iron Horse". Indeed, the Americans, with their facile ability for coming up with the unusual word, have referred to it as a "Behemoth" - an old biblical word for gigantic animal. On the other hand the American Indians, according to R L Stevenson, called it, "The white man's bad medicine wagon".

All my time on the railway was spent in that area of the Civil Engineering department concerned with the maintenance and renewal of the permanent way - a misnomer for the track if there ever was one; for under the pounding of heavy trains it was for ever subject to faults and failures. One way of detecting these faults in their initial stage was to travel on the footplate of an engine; for it, being rigid and more poorly sprung than the vehicles it hauled, reacted more sensitively to poor track. Thus it was that I began my love-hate relationship with steam, by travelling, as occasion demanded, on the footplate.

Steam engines are like individuals, in that some are elegant and manageable; others are ungainly and unresponsive, and riding on some of the latter was like riding on a vehicle with square wheels.

In recalling times when I had an uncomfortable journey I am reminded of the story of one of my counterparts who, while walking the track to locate a fault, met up with the gang who were carrying out repairs and greeted the Foreman thus:

"I travelled over this piece of track on the footplate, yesterday, and lost my pipe".

"I'm sorry to hear that" was the Foreman's reply. "If you have any idea of where you dropped it I will get one of the men to walk the track and look for it"

"Don't bother" was the response, "I didn't drop it; I swallowed it".

Somehow, I think, I might well have travelled on that same footplate at one time or another!

I would not like to give the impression that footplate travel was all discomfort and misery for indeed through it I had many good times and formed many lasting friendships. I've heard people who didn't know better, claim that an engine driver had an easy time; easier than a bus driver, for he did not have to steer or contend with passing traffic; but if these critics had had the privilege, as I had, of travelling on the footplate, on a pitch black night, they would have become aware of the unique skills of an engine driver.

The night train

The footplate of a night train presented an eerie and unforgettable picture, one befitting the popular concept of Hades; with the ruddy glow of the fire high-lighting the wisping trails of smoke and steam and the clang of metal on metal reverberating around the tightly enclosed cab. The driver, deprived of all the familiar daytime landmarks, had, like a blind man, to depend on the sounds around him to form some idea of his whereabouts. Each bridge that he passed under gave out its own distinctive "whoosh"; each one that he passed over had its own recognisable rattle, and even the ever changing rhythm of the rail joints' click had a message to help him find his bearings. Striving to pick up these sounds through the cacophony around him he had, at the same time, to look out for signals and level crossings, dimly lit by low burning oil lamps. Without a speedometer, he had to judge his speed from the time taken to cover a distance between two fixed points.

Today thankfully conditions are so much better, diesel and electric trains have powerful headlights, modern electric signals are clearly seen from a distance and with two-way radios and speedometers in the comfortable cabs, driving by night is only fractionally more demanding than daylight driving. Modern transport, in fact, with the help of advanced technology is far superior and safer than the old steam train and in this era, so concerned with the protection of the environment, steam as we used to know it would be totally unacceptable.

This is the age of nostalgia with people delving into the past, hoping to find something that will link them with history, and the steam train is one of the strongest links one could find, for it is still re-enacting history as it puffs around in its role of "fun train". The years between the "Rocket" and the "Mallard" marked a period of change and development surpassed only by the changes at present taking place around us; and the steam train had a major role in that development. In the old world countries it provided fast and reliable transport and established communications between nations, and in the new world of the Americans it opened up the vast uninhabited plains.

Coast to coast in America

The American story of the linking up of the east and west coasts by rail is one containing all the best elements of fiction. It is a story of greed and corruption overshadowed by the thrilling accounts of courage, daring and adventure. It tells of how an army of men, mostly Irish, struck out from Omaha in the east to meet up with an equally strong army of Chinese, laying track from Sacramento in the west. They endured incredible hardships and faced terrible danger. They lived off the land:- Colonel William Cody - "Buffalo Bill" - had a contract to shoot buffalo to keep the construction gangs fed.

The Sioux and Cheyenne Indians, resenting the white man's intrusions, scalped any unfortunate worker who strayed beyond the confines of the construction camp. The cruel winters and awesome precipitous mountain passes claimed hundreds of lives, but finally, on 10th May 1869, the Chinese, fuelled on tea, met up with the Irish, fuelled on whiskey, at Promontory Point on the Utah plateau. The completion of the railway link was marked with the ceremonial driving of gold and silver spikes, which were promptly stolen!

That story epitomises for me all that was good and wonderful about the great steam age.