Blog : Posts tagged with 'steam train'

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Summer railway

In which we have a trip out by train


Never mind “Spring Bank Holiday”: it’s June, and it feels like it’s summer already: last weekend, we had a day at the beach, and both ended up horribly sunburned. As shorts aren’t an option for work, I winced every time I moved my legs. Yesterday: a bank holiday weekend, and beautiful sunshine again, so we went off for a cream tea and a steam train ride.

The footplate of a steam locomotive on a summer’s day is a horribly hot and airless place to be. Nevertheless, riding behind a steam engine seems like such a naturally summery thing to do. So we travelled down to the South Devon Railway,* for a day’s relaxation sitting in railway carriages and watching trains go past.

The South Devon Railway is, as steam railways go, an unusually scenic one. Being in Devon it’s surrounded by lush, verdant countryside; it follows the River Dart down from Buckfastleigh, past rough, rocky rapids; weirs and once-busy mill-races; finally alongside the more placid deeper, lower stretches of the river, down to its tidal weir just by Totnes station. It doesn’t take much effort for a train to trundle downriver; as we sat in the front carriage with the windows open, we could hear the locomotive clanking its way down the valley with barely any steam on, the vacuum pump making a light chiff noise for each revolution of the wheels. Every so often, a gentle touch of speed was needed, and we heard the deeper huffhuffhuffhuff of the cylinders, four huffs to each vacuum pump chiff. We passed sleepy red cattle, wading fishermen, and groups of wading photographers standing on mid-river rocks to take photos of the passing train.

Country trains often ramble a little, and pause unexpectedly. Midway along the line, we halted in a loop, and waited quietly for another train to pass. Other passengers, not used to this sort of thing, looked around and wondered what the problem was. We were too far away from the signalbox to hear the block bells chiming; but we could hear the rattle of the signal wires as the signals for the down train were pulled off, then we watched it slowly chuff past us before we started on our way again.

This is not Photo Post Of The Week, incidentally. That’s because the photos below aren’t ones I took yesterday; as usual, my photo uploads are far too backlogged for that. These, though, are from the last time I visited the South Devon Railway, about three years ago. The fixed stop signal has been repainted since, but not much else has changed.

Buckfastleigh station, South Devon Railway, down end Watering an engine whilst rounding the train, Buckfastleigh, South Devon Railway GWR tablet catcher, Buckfastleigh, South Devon Railway

* Things it is important not to confuse pt. 373: the South Devon Railway, the line from Exeter to Plymouth designed by Brunel, opened in the 1840s, and bought out by the Great Western Railway in the 1870s; with the South Devon Railway, the heritage railway formed in the early 1990s to take over the Dart Valley Railway’s tourist line from Totnes to Buckfastleigh and turn it from a business-oriented tourist attraction into a more charitably-run steam railway. You may spot a problem of similarity with the names there.

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Steamy

In which we dream of speed and vampires


August is, as you can see, another quiet month.

A strange dream awoke me last night, so strange I was tempted to turn it into some kind of ghost story. It involved a pair of fu dogs, possessed by a pair of non-human, vampiric, shapeshifting creatures. The dogs themselves would move, when nobody was watching them; and bringing them into your house brought untold dread along with them, because the vampire-type creatures needed them and would do anything to get them back.

In other news: I rather liked the news story, the other day, about the team who broke the world steam car speed record. I like slightly quixotic challenges like that one. 139mph, with all the team’s modern technology, is only 12mph above the previous, hundred-year-old record. For that matter, it’s only 13mph above the 1938 steam train record, set by Joe Duddington of the London & North Eastern Railway on a special test run with the A4 class Mallard. The train had a slight advantage: nobody, when computing train speed records, has ever bothered about the effect of hills or slopes, so Mallard was going hell-for-leather downhill. It did have rather more work to do than the Inspiration, though, weighing 167 tons* itself and pulling a six-coach train behind.

* according to Wikipedia, at least

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Photo Post Of The Week

In which we look at an old diesel train and a newer steam train


Another thing I mentioned that I hadn’t posted really: some pictures of old trains. Which, I know, isn’t something unusual for this site. But I did rather like this one:

Hymek passing Washford, West Somerset Railway

Which, I like to think, could almost be a Western Region publicity poster – or rail safety poster, maybe – from around 1964. The impressive new Hymek diesel-hydraulic, made in Britain with the latest German mechanical technology, sweeping past Washford with a non-stop express to Minehead. Here’s some more, and a rather newer steam engine.

Carriage window, West Somerset Railway
Track circuit indicators in "Midford Signalbox", Washford, West Somerset Railway
60163 "Tornado", Washford, West Somerset Railway

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Local Transport

In which we consider the Wensleydale Railway


Sometimes, when we’re idly sitting on the sofa after work, we put the telly on and can’t even summon the energy to change the channel. Instead, we leave it showing things we’d never normally bother watching; but sometimes that throws up an interesting gem.* Like tonight’s One Show for example. We wouldn’t normally watch The One Show, but occasionally it does have some interesting inserts. Tonight: an item on the Wensleydale Railway.

Coming from Oop North, I’ve been on the Wensleydale Railway a couple of times. It’s pretty long, for a private railway, pushing the length of busy, popular private railways such as the West Somerset, the Ffestiniog or the North Yorks Moors.** Unlike those railways, though, it’s something of a quiet backwater, slightly ramshackle, with a sparse service operated mostly by 1950s diesel trains which main-line companies retired in the 90s. Being a bit of a backwater, appearing on the telly will hopefully be a big boost for it: not many people tend to know it’s there. It may be in the Yorkshire Dales but it stops just short of the National Park; it may be on the A1, but it’s damn hard to notice from the road. If you want to see what it looks like, I run a small Flickr group for Wensleydale Railway pictures, largely because I had some Wensleydale Railway pictures on there and there wasn’t a group for it already.

One of the Wensleydale’s directors appeared on The One Show, and told the world what a unique railway it is; and how it performs a vital link in the community, and in Wensleydale’s regeneration, providing services to commuters and enabling them to get to major regional centres. Neither of those claims, really, are true. The director carefully skirted around the issue of whether the Wensleydale provides those services right now. Certainly, they’re hoping that it will do: that the company will be able to connect to the main line at Northallerton, and thence provide a connection to Newcastle, York, Teesside and Manchester. Right now, though, it stops short, and completing the connection seems to be on a distant horizon. When it does, the company will need a fuller timetable to be a reliable link: at present it operates three trains a day, on about 185 days of the year. The first one starts moving just after 9 o’clock; the last has stopped by 5.

Running a community rail service is hardly a unique aspiration to have, too. In fact, almost every private, preserved, or steam railway in the country has aspired to run a commuter and/or community service at some point. Very few have even got as far as trying it; the Worth Valley Railway did, in the late 1960s, and rapidly found it to be unviable. One private railway has done it successfully: the Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch, operating services for schoolchildren. They do not, unlike most private railways, rely on volunteer workers to operate. The Ffestiniog also provides a genuine service for local residents; but it is strongly subsidised by their tourist revenues, which the Wensleydale doesn’t have.

There are two big problems with trying to operate a community service; well, make that three big problems. Firstly, there are two connected problems: price, and workforce. Railways are workforce-intensive, and private railways have to either pay staff, or get volunteers to turn out every day. Moreover, if they want to run a commuter service, they have to persuade those volunteers to start very early in the morning. Paying the staff, and the running costs, is very expensive; when you’re operating a railway which was considered too expensive to run at a profit, you end up charging fares which are too expensive for commuters. A return ticket on the Wensleydale already costs over £10, for the full line.*** Moreover, there’s a third problem: speed. Nearly all private railways have to operate with a blanket speed limit of 20 or 25mph. Over the sort of distance the Wensleydale operates, that means a long journey. Fine for a summer jaunt; not good for serious travel. It’s the speed, more than anything else, that makes the Wensleydale’s long-term aims rather impractical.

There’s nothing wrong with the Wensleydale aspiring to their aims, of being a community railway operating a non-tourist service. I would be very surprised, though, if they do manage to complete them, purely because so many have gone before and so many have failed. If the Wensleydale think they are unique, and if they don’t realise that they are treading down a well-trodden path once more, they are very unlikely to reach that path’s end.

* such as a local news item about the wildlife of the BS3 district which made me laugh, for entirely the wrong reason – but that’s a story for another day.

** Incidentally, the local news has been annoying me recently, by proclaiming loudly that the West Somerset Railway is the longest steam railway in the country. It’s one of the longest, certainly, at just under 20 miles operational and 3 more miles not regularly used; but the Welsh Highland Railway, owned by the Ffestiniog, is longer and not yet fully open. By the end of the year, the Ffestiniog Railway Company will be operating a network pushing 40 miles in length. Longest steam railway in England, maybe.

*** The Ffestiniog gets around the price issue by having local residents’ discount cards.

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Photo post of the week

In which I spot a train


We discovered, the other week, that occasionally, just sometimes, if you drag yourself out of bed early on a Saturday morning and get down to our local railway station (1 train an hour if you’re lucky, to Weston-super-Mare), you can see something a bit more interesting than normal…

"Torbay Express" passing Parson St Station "Torbay Express" passing Parson St Station
Two "Torbay Expresses" passing Parson St Station Two "Torbay Expresses" passing Parson St Station

If one of the trains had been travelling a few seconds later or earlier, I’d have got a great photo of the equivalent 1930s and 1970s express engines passing each other.* As it was, the modern train is a blob in the distance. Ah well. Maybe I’ll get up early tomorrow too.

* With the added, slightly confusing detail, that both of the trains involved (not the engines) have the same name.

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Photo Special (part one)

In which we go by train


Time for a winter holiday photo special, as I’ve spent the day with The Parents, looking at steam trains. Much like I did last Christmas, in fact; except last Christmas I was still using a film-powered camera, so the pictures didn’t make it online for quite a while.* It’s high time I did more photo posts purely for the sake of posting photos. Future ones will not all be of steam trains, I promise.

Winter sunlight Steam Valve gear Platform scene Evening Under the bridge

* and I don’t think it was ever even mentioned here.

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Old romantic

In which we feel a community spirit


I was a little doubtful when I saw, on the front page of Friday’s Guardian, the tagline “Steam trains – the great aphrodisiac”. I like trains, but I wouldn’t say that about them.

It turned out to be subeditor’s hyperbolae. The article turned out to be about the radical romanticism of the steam engine, and eroticism was only briefly mentioned. I’m rather glad. Train-into-tunnel might be a classic visual metaphor, but I don’t think very many people would say that the train itself is what gets them going. There are people out there who haven’t just had sex on the train, but can remember the numbers of the trains they’ve had sex on – but I somehow don’t think it was the train itself that was turning them on.*

What I do like about trains is what that article calls “the rigmarole of trains”. The ritual surrounding the railway. The little bits of peculiar terminology that you don’t get anywhere else.** The natural romanticism of rail travel, and the community feeling that can spring up around the line.

* but if it was – on balance, I think I’d rather not know!

** phrases like “not to be used outside possessions”, or “not to be loose or hump shunted”.

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