22 January 2013

the final days of steam

Lately I have been riding a wave of nostalgia. This should come as no surprise, bearing in mind my preference for looking to the past rather than the future. I believe I am in a minority there but a sizeable minority. After all, how glorious it is to bask in the warm glow of happy memories and uncomplicated times. Our brains cleverly filter the not so good and the plain awful leaving a sense that life used to be better.
In particular I have been wallowing in The Rank Organisation’s “Look at Life” series of documentary ‘shorts’ from the nineteen fifties and sixties. That bastion of the British film industry Rank, which blossomed from unlikely roots in flour milling, produced and distributed its own films and screened them in its own cinemas to fill slots between features. There is a store of some five hundred of these miniature ten-minute classics covering technology, culture, sport, transport and innovation, a showcase for all that was great about Great Britain.
Sixty years ago the Second World War was a very recent memory, there was unemployment, often poor sanitation, no central heating, and life was devoid of the luxuries we take for granted today. So, yes, life was harsh. But what shines through in these films is an indomitable spirit and an optimism which seems to have vanished from Britain today.
The narrator’s excitement when describing the launch of a new hovercraft on the Solent, or the introduction of Motorail, a miraculous new system for transporting cars on trains, is infectious. Progress happened because of decisive action. Plans were laid quickly but mostly carefully. This was all long before the arrival of decision by committee, when even the simplest idea becomes bogged down in endless enquiries and feasibility studies. It was an age of confidence and hopefulness. However it would not last.
Chill winds began to stir with publication of the first Beeching Report in 1963. Doctor Beeching took an axe to the British Railway system, hacking off four thousand miles of line and earmarking for closure, one third of the country’s seven thousand stations. This came at a time when the railways were already struggling to consolidate in a new era of diesel and electrification.
That brings me neatly though not consequently to the demise of the steam locomotive, still in the 1950s a technological wonder. In the glory days of steam entire families found jobs for life and shiny-faced schoolboys scampered along platforms clutching notebooks and pencils to record their sightings. Trains clanked into stations puffing and hissing like massive lungs while others streaked through non-stop whistle screaming and smoke flattened to its back. There is something elemental about steam power, the production of staggering forces of locomotion from the simple fusion of fire and water.
But all too quickly steam trains had become dinosaurs with their reliance on coal. Soot blackened hulks were shunted to the scrapyard like huge, gentle beasts to the slaughter. Steam trains continued to run on the Southern Railway, my own neck of the woods, until June 1967 when the final steam locomotive puffed out of Waterloo on its way to Weymouth. I am delighted that far-sighted souls have preserved the very best examples for posterity allowing ninety tons of steel and iron to thunder across countryside at one hundred miles per hour, steam and smoke billowing in its wake.
Now, back to my Look at Life!


Russell Duffy said...

I have a vague memory of a steam train. I guess I would have been about four, maybe five. This monstrous, or so it seemed to me, smoke belching, hissing, clanking machine pulled into the station and I, forever the coward, ran behind my Mum to hide beneath her fawn coloured, typically fifties overcoat. Having had such a terrifying first experience it should have put me off steam trains for life. The fact it hasn’t has to be down to my love of those old, muck churning, filth emitting engines. I love them. I despise bloody Beeching and his idiotic, destructive methods. They now have roads where lines ran straight and true. Trains (electric and diesel) provided a far better, more green, method of delivering goods. Now, following the awful Wapping strikes, we have road hauliers clogging up the UK roads and emitting far worse fumes than even the steam trains did. Please see my latest post on political foresight.
Excellent post of yours mate!

Russell Duffy said...

PS. Bring back steam trains and open up the canals.

Nostalgia not only rules it provides fuel for the future!

Perfect Virgo said...

I remember travelling to Truro by steam train. My dad was moved there by the Bank in 1964.

There is sonething terrifyingly elemental about steam power - so much force from coal and water. Granted it was smelly, dirty, noisy and probably poisonous but what a thrill!

Judgement within politics is sadly lacking. No one seems to have the courage to take great decisions ay more. Yes, with a foresight that's quite obvious to us mere mortals, the 'powers that be' could have used rail far more effectively. Sadly the opportunity is probably lost now for a generation - or more.

PS: Nostalgia "ain't what it used to be"!