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Special Features

Steam Railways in Britain

Manohar Rakhe, who has written about several train journeys in India is equally fascinated by trains in Britain and shares his romance and nostalgia for steam engines.

There was a time when all trains in Britain were hauled by steam engines. With the advent of electricity and diesel as well as reduced costs and pollution, the steam engines gradually vanished. In fact there was a time when it was feared that the railways themselves might vanish from these islands. However, the railways survived and so indeed did steam engines. Even today there are steam engines driving trains operating throughout these islands. While British Railways is nationalized, the steam railways are privately owned. Moreover, these are operated by volunteers.

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Hyde Park The British love for tradition and history is well known. The idea of preserving this heritage is possibly a natural consequence. Or perhaps, the steam engine has always had a romantic international appeal. As the railways and steam engines started disappearing, some enterprising steam engine lovers all over the country got together and decided to keep the steam engines alive. They formed private companies and bought rolling stock, track, stations and everything you need to run a railway, from wherever they could. In some cases, they even bought steam engines that had already been scrapped. With infinite patience, dedication and sheer hard work, they restored those engines and carriages to their former glory, by devoting all their spare time to the restoration work. The end result is that you can still go to any part of the country and find a steam railway company, not very far from where you are. Just south of the English mainland, there is a tiny island called The Isle of Wight. Even there, there is a steam railway in operation during the summer months.
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Britain is a really scenic country. All that incessant rain has to do some good somewhere! To a railway, all these steam railways run through the most picturesque parts of the countryside. One such railway, The Severn Valley Railway, runs through the Severn Valley. Apart from everything else, it also offers one of the longest rides. It begins from Kidderminster in Worcestershire and goes till Bridgenorth in Shropshire. The journey lasts just over an hour. For most of the journey, the River Severn runs alongside the track. On a summerís day, the scenery has to be seen to be believed. The whole landscape is a riot of colour. Green fields stretch into the horizon. Well fed lambs graze lazily in the meadows. Tiny villages with colourful cottages suddenly appear, and just as suddenly, disappear. Every station on the way has been preserved exactly as it was in the heyday of steam. Advertisement boards appear on the platforms, promoting products long since extinct. Station staff appear wearing uniforms that remind one of the bygone days.

In fact a few of the stations are still used as sets for films that depict war time England. If the film needs a locomotive of a particular type, they do not need to use a clip from an old film & splice it in. They can actually procure it from one of the steam railway companies. The well known film The Railway Children, starring Jenny Agutter & Bernard Cribbins, amongst others, was actually filmed using real rolling stock from one of the railways in Yorkshire. One of the stations on The Severn Valley Railway, Bewdley, even has sidings, and goods wagons from the old days, waiting patiently for an engine to couple to them and pull them away to some faraway destination.

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I have travelled on this particular railway a number of times. Every time the train passes through Bewdley, I cannot help thinking of our very own Kalyan Junction, although Kalyan Junction is gigantic in its spread, compared to Bewdley. There is one more thing about this railway that reminds me of Kalyan. Just after leaving Kidderminster, the train goes through a long tunnel, just like The Parseek tunnel. This ride is more or less a duplicate of our Mumbai to Nashik ride. Admittedly there are no mountains or ghats along the way. But there are a few hillocks by the trackside and when it is raining, you do see a few streams cascading down the hillocks. Also, the speed of the train is more or less the same as that of ours, in those ghats.

However, this particular railway has something that perhaps no other railway anywhere in the world has. To the best of my knowledge, this is the only passenger railway that passes right through the middle of a safari park. Just after the train leaves Kidderminster and emerges from the tunnel, it goes through a safari park. It is quite common for giraffes or other wild creatures to peer curiously at this contraption chugging along with humans training their binoculars at them. On my last trip on this railway, in early November, I saw something I will never forget. As we were approaching Kidderminster, there was a herd of elephants running along the side of the train.

toy train All these railways have special open days, where the public can visit the workshops and signal cabins. The workshops have modern machinery, but the signal cabins are preserved as they were in the old days. One thing that catches oneís eye in these signal cabins is that everything in there is spotless and gleaming. The whole thing makes me wonder, why canít we have a steam railway like one of these? Apart from a few steam engines preserved in The Rail Transport Museum, in New Delhi, all the rest of our vast fleet of steam engines seem to have gone into oblivion/scrap yards. It is not that we are not interested in steam engines. Recently the Indian Railways arranged an exhibition run of a steam hauled train from Borivali to Mumbai Central. The pictures of vast crowds thronging to see the train were very heart warming. Perhaps the Indian Railways could run a steam train say, once a month from Mumbai to Amritsar (old Frontier Mail?), for fare paying passengers? Even if they charged twice the normal fare, I am sure it would be a sell out even if there is no getting away from the issue of pollution, economy and time.

Worth considering perhaps?



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