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It’s alive and well where it all began

Posted by Justin Franz
on Friday, April 28, 2017

London & North Eastern 0-8-0 No. 63395 rolls through the Grosmont station on the North Yorkshire Moors Railway in May 2016 on the Trains tour of Ireland and England. No. 63395 was built at Darlington North Road Works in 1918. Photo by Brian Schmidt
My fiancée and I have been talking about where we should go on our honeymoon. England is high on my list of ideal vacation spots but she keeps shooting it down because she believes a honeymoon should include plenty of sunny beach time (as a fair skinned redhead, I disagree). But it’s also because she probably knows I have an ulterior motive: I want to see Britain's steam railways.

Now, as a good, red blooded American, I’ll still take a meaty Reading T-1 or a stylish Southern Pacific GS-4 over an unfamiliar 4-6-2 with no headlight and a pip-squeak whistle any day of the week. But there’s something intriguing about British steam, and it’s not just that there’s so much of it. For me, it comes down to the atmosphere that surrounds their heritage railways. Check out this shot from Andrew Southwell. The locomotive, the semaphores, the tower, it all harmoniously screams “steam era railroading” in a combination that can be challenging to capture on our side of the pond. Sure, it is possible to go to places like Ely, Chama and Alna to create believable representations of the steam era. But usually it doesn’t matter if you decolorize an image in Photoshop, you can still tell it was taken last weekend. Maybe it’s the Amtrak P42 right behind the tender or the locomotive from one road and the coaches from another. If you’ve been railfanning here long enough, you can pick out the discrepancies. Of course, that still won’t stop me from at least trying to get that perfect steam-era inspired image.

Perhaps the atmosphere that surrounds their heritage railways is also aided by the fact that I know so little about railroading there. Names like the Great Central Railway and the London and North Eastern Railway sound vaguely familiar but I couldn’t tell you where either one went (I assume the latter went somewhere northeast of London). So if you’re running a GCR locomotive past a L&NE-style signal tower, I will be blissfully unaware of the historical inaccuracy.

Even if Britain's locomotives do not look like the ones closer to home, at the end of the day the fact that they are live and running is really all that matters. Legendary Trains Magazine editor David P. Morgan put it best in a 1966 story titled It’s Dying Where It All Began, when he wrote, “Once you adjust to small cabs, six-wheel tanks, pip-squeak whistles, and an absence of bells, headlights, and pilots, the British locomotives spotted en route are charming creatures.”

Morgan would be pleased to know that a half-century later it is indeed alive and well where it all began.

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