I recently took the long train journey from Helsingborg, where I now live, to Stockholm. That’s a distance roughly equal to London to Glasgow. I made that trip too just over seventy years ago, but the journeys are hard to compare. Sitting in my comfortable first class armchair, my complimentary coffee in front of me as I gazed at the countryside silently gliding by at 130mph, I couldn’t help thinking how train travel has changed.
For one thing there is no longer that clickerty-clack-clickerty-clack-clickerty-clack that used to remind you that there were rails under the wheels that were bolted together in sections, instead of, as now, being welded into a continuous rail. That thought brought back the memory of Reginald Gardiner. Do you remember him? He was an English actor who was most famous on radio for a silly recording he made for children called "Trains" in which he described how bad-tempered steam trains were and how they interacted with the world through sound. His talk was illustrated by sounds that he made into the microphone with his voice. Clickerty-clack was just one of them. Clickerty-clickerty-clickerty-clack was the sound of crossing lines and woosh was the sound of another train passing in the reverse direction. If you can’t remember him try You Tube - Reginald Gardiner Trains to refresh your memory or hear him for the first time. It is one of those silly, ephemeral things that get lost in time because they belong to their time and are meaningless to later generations.
It is hard to imagine that children of today will ever become railway enthusiasts. Trains are no longer alive. How can anybody be enthusiastic about a silent cocoon that floats along on endless rails, making no sound and little movement. I was never a railway enthusiast myself, but I was always impressed by that great monster of steel and steam that seemed to lay panting at the front of a train, impatient for passengers to board so that it could be given its head and charge off down the line. Reginald Gardiner knew what he was talking about.
At one of my places of employment in London in the sixties we had a pensioner appear in the despatch department one day who was employed as a messenger. He was a mild and gentle man who quietly did the job. After some time it transpired that he had once been a railway engine driver. Better still, he had been on the LMS line and on occasion had driven the Flying Scotsman. Never underestimate that old man you see in the park feeding the pigeons. You have no idea what he might have been doing twenty years ago.
Imagine the feeling: Sitting on a metal seat with your hand on the brake bar; it is pitch black outside because it is past midnight; the wind is rushing past your head at the open window and beside you there is a man shovelling coal, continuously, into an open furnace door; you are surrounded by all the deafening sounds and movement of a steam engine racing at full speed. You are travelling at close to 100 mph and you have ten carriages of sleeping passengers behind you, totally reliant on your skill and experience. Can there be anything more exhilarating? Piloting a Boeing 747 comes nowhere near. Riding Red Rum in the Grand National might be similar, but unlike famous jockeys the men who drove those trains were anonymous, just doing their job. If you are musically minded, try listening to a recording of Pacific 231 by Arthur Honnegar. You can find that too on You Tube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rfysyex_DAk Somehow I can’t see music ever being written to images of SJ’s X-2000 or the Japanese Bullet Train.
To get some idea how "easy" it is to drive a steam locomotive take a look at these videos, but remember, these were made in daylight under ideal conditions. It would be different at night, during a thunder storm. There was much more to "driving" a train than just sitting enjoying the ride.
There are plenty of stories and anecdotes about life on the footplate. One I enjoy is about the driver and his newly appointed fireman who climb aboard the Glasgow express at Euston. The previous team had been up for hours, had lit the boiler and raised a good head of steam. The engine is ready, the tender is filled with 5 tons of coal; the red light turns green and the driver releases the brake and opens the steam valves.
"Right lad" he says to the young fireman, "Start shovelling".
"When shall I stop" asks the lad,
"When we get to Carlisle" is the reply.
A steam locomotive was reliant on good coal for top performance. The smog that killed thousands in London in the fifties was caused by low grade coal that was sold to the general public for domestic use. The best quality, so called steam coal, was reserved for the main line railways. It burned fast and hot and an engine at speed devoured about a ton each hour. So being a fireman on an express train was no job for a weakling.
The journey to Glasgow in 1942 was crowded, noisy and slow. My mother, sister and I were the only ones not in uniform. Slow and noisy pretty-well described most normal train journeys before Beecham used his axe and modernised the railways network in the late fifties by chopping off most of the branch lines. There was never much peace between those who agreed with him and those who thought he was a philistine, but both groups are now mostly dead and buried and railway travel has become a totally different experience. It is now an alternative to air travel. Getting there is what matters, not how. "Beam me up Scotty !" will happen one day, but men will still reminisce about the days of steam.
European railways were usually more efficient, but then they didn’t invent them, did they. They simply had to copy what the British had done, whilst leaving out the parts that had proved to be less than a good idea. That was why Beecham was necessary: to get rid of the parts that were less than a good idea. People complain about trains running late, but few are aware or remember that it was the railway system in Britain that made universal time necessary. Before that, each town or city or even village, had its own time and was governed by the local church or town hall clock. Compiling a railway timetable was an impossibility before it was agreed that 12-Noon in Glasgow, Bristol and London should be at the same moment - in time. Railways united the country in more ways than one.
Like me, you might have wondered why there are so many main line stations in London; why did they not all continue to one giant station in the centre? The answer is simple. If you draw a line between Paddington, Euston, Kings Cross and Liverpool Street you will have described the outer, northern boundary of London at the time these stations were built. That was as close as they could get to the centre. The various lines were also owned by different companies who were not much interested in cooperation. South of the Thames London was not as developed so the southern railway stations are closer to the river.
If you walk across Euston Road and stand on one of those traffic islands in the middle you may be aware of some large iron gratings under your feet. You may even hear an Underground train rumble under your feet. The very first Underground railway in London ran the length of Euston road and was a cut and cover railway. That is to say they cut a long trench, laid rails and then covered over the top and built a road above it. The iron gratings were there to let out the steam and smoke that filled the tunnel as the open carriages were hauled along by steam locomotives. There was no complimentary coffee on that line. What would the builders of that railway say to the Crossrail project, I wonder; and what will the railways in a hundred years time be like.
The first time I saw a French railway engine I thought it looked much bigger than the English ones. But that was because French platforms in the fifties were only about 12" high and one had to climb into a carriage, so those 6’ wide driving wheels were not hidden as they were at home. Talking of wheels, did you know that the 231 of Honnegar’s music refers to the 2 bogies at the front, the 3 drive wheels and the single rear wheel. The Pacific 231 was an American locomotive. Had it been British it would have been called a 462 because we refer to all of the wheels and not just those on one side.
Nationalistic pride aside, I have to admit that the French knew how to operate a railway. I don’t know if it still applies, but in the fifties a train driver was fined if his train arrived late or even early. One could set one’s wristwatch by their punctuality. On an overnight trip from Paris to Spain I once woke in the night and could not figure out in which direction we were headed or how fast we were travelling, because the movement of the train was so smooth.
It’s easy to understand the feelings of the true railway enthusiast. There is something magical about a pile of metal parts that can be brought to life simply by lighting a fire in a boiler.