August 11th 1968 is a date embedded in the memory of railway enthusiasts across the UK. It was the date of the last steam train run by the nationalised British Railways. There are lots of great video clips from this era on YouTube. There is even one of the famous “£15 Guinea Special” that ran from Liverpool to Carlisle and back exactly 40 years ago today.
Many of us believed that it really was the end of an era, and at the time, there were a lot of us who didn’t regret the passing of these dirty old machines. Remember, we were also in at the start of the new era of cleaner, faster diesel and electric trains. But the passing of years can add a rose-tint to the memory of us aging anoraks.
However, it wasn’t the end. It proved to be a new beginning for an entire movement of heritage railways that can now be found up and down the country, occupying former branch lines and even some former main routes. Some of the earliest preserved lines must be approaching their own 40th anniversaries in the next few years.
There have been a few preservation efforts that have failed, but even these have not led to the loss of any restored steam locomotives, although there are plenty of machines dotted around the country that have not turned a wheel in anger in the past four decades. These are the restoration projects that are either ongoing, on hold or vaguely planned for some time in the future. Restoration of a steam locomotive is hugely expensive and their running costs are not insignificant, although the labour and skills of hundreds, maybe thousands of volunteers also provide a massive subsidy to railway preservation as a whole.
But it is not just on the preserved lines that steam continues to flourish. After a few years of a complete ban on steam on the main lines, the preservationists campaigns came to fruition when they were allowed to put these machines back on the long-distance routes that they were originally built to handle. Now there is a small industry that provides locomotives, coaches and train crews on a very regular basis for steam-hauled trains aimed squarely at tourists and enthusiasts. The Highlands of Scotland have been well served by steam and a couple of years ago, I was been lucky enough to travel behind a steamer on one of my own favourite routes, the Cambrian Coast Line between Machynlleth and Porthmadog.
Looking to the future, these old machines are going to continue to need maintaining and there the preservationists will have to ask themselves some tough questions about just how to balance the need to replace worn-out components with new ones to keep a locomotive running against the need to preserve our heritage. Fortunately, the National Railway Museum is acutely aware of this dilemma and has put policies in place that will mean that some much loved machinery will end up as static museum exhibits in order to conserve that originality.
However, this summer, the first main-line steam locomotive to be completed for 40 years, Tornado, moved under its own power and is currently being tested on the preserved Great Central Railway. This loco was built as the 50th A1 locomotive, closely based on the original plans, but with small improvements to make it suitable for main line work on the 21st century railway, including more water capacity and modern railway safety electronics.
There are other groups working on new-build steam locomotives as well, including the Betton Grange group at Llangollen.
Yes, there’s an anniversary to commemorate today, but not with any sense of sadness. Today’s steam locomotives are far more loving maintained than they were in the final years of their work on BR. They provide links to a past that could easily have become no more than a few grainy old films or that TV series, Thomas The Tank Engine.
40 years on, steam is very much alive and well.