Thursday, 18 February 2016

Steam work

The mighty steam engines that surround the enormous turntable in the Great Hall of the National Railway Museum in York can take away the breath away. Partly, it's the fact that several of the engines gathered here (and the engines on display change, from time to time) are not just the fun little steam engines from most remaining steam railways, but are the enormous giants of steam history - Mallard, the Duchess of Hamilton, the Evening Star. These steam engines are at once beautiful and physically imposing, like mighty wild animals that have - just about - been tamed.

I first visited the National Railway Museum around thirty years ago and, whilst I think I have retained a vague sense ever since of the presence of the engines, for some reason the place was not entirely familiar when I went back recently. Doubtless, this unfamiliarity may have had something to do with a change in displays, and in museums in general, over the intervening three decades, but as I walked around these shining testaments to engineering, it dawned on me that I was experiencing them from an entirely different level to last time. Aged around seven or eight, I was probably a couple of feet shorter than today, and the engines around me must have been even more vertiginous and awe inspiring than they are now.

Visiting today, one doesn't need to remember what the experience of viewing these machines was like as a child, however, because there's something immensely childlike about being allowed to be in close proximity to such vast objects. I realise that plenty of people find great joy and fulfilment in watching modern trains go by, and I am certainly not going to mock trainspotters; the fact remains, however, that, by and large, modern trains don't manage to capture the same sense of excitement, of sheer raw almost animal power, as their ancestors.

The old trains, in comparison, along with the obvious mechanics that make them go - steam pipes, pistons, cylinders, crank shafts - they can also be almost heartbreakingly beautiful; the Duchess of Hamilton (the red train in the picture, above, designed by William Stanier) is "streamlined", meaning that she hides her boiler and pipes beneath a curved red ballgown of immense elegance; Mallard (the blue train, above, designed by Sir Nigel Gresley) is a stylish and graceful curve that one can easily imagine carving a path through the night air, art deco clouds billowing in its wake.

The other thing that makes these objects so fascinating, so enigmatic and worthy of attention, is the knowledge that, when they run, they are genuinely alive, in a way that diesel and electric trains just aren't. Steam engines (in the UK, at any rate) rely on the burning of coal - and lots of it - to heat the water to make the stream that drives the pistons that turns the wheels. This belly of fire, like a dragon's, relies in turn on the hard manual work of a fireman (and it does usually appear to have been a man's job) physically shovelling coal - tons of coal - into the firebox.

Today, standing in the cab of the Mallard, it's hard to imagine how it must have felt when engine was at full speed (it still holds the world speed record for a steam engine, which it reached on 3 July 1938, of 126 mph (203 km/h)). The heat, the roar of the engine, the fire and the wind, and the smoke and dust from the coal are almost unimaginable, but time spent among these mighty beasts is the closest many of us are likely to get to what must nevertheless have been a thrill.

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