The Age of Steam

I recently took a trip on what claims to be the oldest train line in the world that is still in operation, at Tanfield, North East England.  It made me think about how rail travel has changed over the last two hundred years.

The age of steam must have been smelly, noisy and fairly slow by today’s standards.  It’s obviously very photographic and it can look great in movies, but the steam from a train is not the same as the steam you get out of your kettle.  It’s not clear and odourless, it’s dark grey and it’s mixed with fuel.  The thought of being in one of those big, old London train stations at rush hour with about twenty of these locomotives on the platforms makes me want to put on a gas mask.

The partitioned carriages are nice when you’re with a small group, enough to almost but not quite fill the compartment.  But when traveling alone, they can feel claustrophobic and not the sort of seat you want to have on the last train from Kings Cross.

It’s definitely more ‘organic’ than today’s trains.  When in motion, the clunky rhythm reminds you of the engine, the couplers and the wheels on the tracks.  It keeps you in touch with the mechanics – today’s technology is about presenting the passenger with the illusion of minimal effort and keeping us away from anything that might remind us of  danger.

There’s also something inherently unsafe about putting your arm through the window to open the door from the outside and being able to get out before the train has stopped.  There’s no pre-recorded safety messages or automatic doors to guide you through the process of getting on and off and there’s no coloured wall charts in ten languages either.

Overall, its  a nice way to travel when you don’t really need to get anywhere fast e.g. a tourist.  I wouldn’t like to spend an hour a day in each direction commuting on one of these things.  There’s no doubting the effort that  a mostly volunteer staff put into keeping these vehicles alive and in safe working condition.  They charge nominal ticket prices and put in the hours so the public can sample the old ways of traveling.

So the steam train has gone from pulling hoards of commuters into cathedral like stations to day trips for the Woman’s Institute.  How times change.

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