In Praise of the Steam Train

(A guest article written by Peter Moore)

In your regular habit of torturing radio anoraks you mention steam trains, but as an indicator of how things have changed, they make good subject material.

First thing Christopher is that they ran on coal. This was good because the UK had/has a great deal of coal, it is our coal. So many people got wages for digging up the coal and many people got wages for making and supplying the items that coal mines needed. Even ladies got wages for running the works canteens.

As for the trains themselves we built them in the UK and being rather good at this we sold a lot overseas as well. They needed a lot of attention, so aside from making them, many people had jobs tending to them. Of course some of the jobs were very skilled, but almost anyone could oil the bearings, clean out the fire ashes and sweep the workshops. So even the dullest of people could get work.

Then our coal, on our trains, aside from making them go along, was taken to our gas works to make gas for cooking and heating along with by products like coke for open fires, coal tar, creosote etc.

Of course, it was noted that this was not very efficient, but there was only the need to break even as all these things were being run by the State, for the people.

It was also noted that ‘the car is King’ so along with ditching the steam trains for diesel and electric, a great deal of our rail network was closed down and torn up. Now the car is evil and we are supposed to take the train, but in many cases there is no train to take. We cannot dig up diesel oil, we have to buy that. Maybe we can generate electricity in power stations dedicated to the rail network (that remains) but we cannot burn our coal since the EU says we cannot.

The rail network is far more efficient now, but it is in private hands so it has to make a profit achieved by putting the fares up and employing as few people as possible. This is why we have unmanned stations that are a magnet for street criminals.

What happened to all the workers who were suddenly no longer needed? Are we expanding so fast that they all found fresh work?  More likely they went on to benefits as did their children. And yet (touchy subject) we are still engaged in the mass importation of people.

So, by all means mock the noisy clanky old steam train, but it and all the infrastructure that supported it made a good degree of sense and, taking a broad view, was the progress that consigned them to the cutting torch really progress?

Peter Moore.
(Guest Author)