As I glide into my vintage years, I have come to realise that trains and railways are a great way to understand and interpret the apparent confusions of modern life. You will find some examples of this approach in my blog. I’m glad to be old enough to have main line steam as part of my boyhood and adolescence and its great that steam trains are still flourishing in so many ways. But modern railways can teach us plenty too.
Alan and his wife Linda at the Skunk Railroad in California.
Why steam trains matter, and Dampfloks are AOK
Many men are searching for meaning, a sense that the events of their life matter and have a shape to them. I have hatched a belief that steam trains can help in this.
If you’re aged late fifties or older, you’ll have grown up with steam trains in your childhood. I can recall many maturing men who get excited when I broach this topic, and who plug into vivid memories of magnificent steam engines.
Ik droom van stoom! The Zuid Limburgse Stoomtrein Maatschappi in the Netherlands
I can bang on at length about the lousy features of my childhood, if provoked, but many of the happier times I recall as a kid involve steam trains – either travelling on them with my mother to see my grandparents in Bournemouth, or watching them as a trainspotter.
I know there are legions of other maturing men, as well as me ,who are still in love with steam trains. Just go to any preservation railway and you’ll see them, both working and travelling. And about 80% of all the people you see on these lines are men, mostly over 50. These railways, like The Watercress Line in Hampshire where I’m a Life Member, are magic bubbles, coherent worlds of innocence and delight where one feels remote from the miseries of yobs and evil dictators.
You could rubbish this as escapism, but I’d dispute this. These men are creating meaning in their lives, in a fairly functional and certainly harmless way. Most men need an activity to bring them together, and here’s a very sweet one, with these extraordinary engines at the heart of it. You may feel alone and unregarded out there, but here on the railway, you matter, even if you just inspect the tickets or maintain the track.
The other key point is that steam locomotives are the most lifelike, exciting, endearing of all the machinery man has created. The ways I can now explain why I loved trains as a child help me feel that my life has a shape and meaning: there’s an extra richness in enjoying steam railways now, because the child in me is rekindled in his delight.
I’m very lucky to have a girlfriend who quite enjoys steam trains too, so they get woven into outings and holidays. I am writing this in the small town of Wernigerode in eastern Germany, with more excitement than a hot first date. That could be heaven or hell, whereas I know my date with the Dampfloks of the Harzer Schmalspurbahnen will be heaven.
A year ago, I saw a photo in a colour supplement of a superb large steam engine powering along at night, through pine forests. Through this I learned that the longest steam railway in Europe is in the Harz Mountains: 140 km of routes, with Wernigerode being a main access town. And here we are!
Steam buffs reading this will already realise that mountain railways are great, because the engines will be stretched to perform. Now I’m here, I realise it’s even better. The HSB route from here, at 230 metres above sea level, actually climbs to the top of the highest mountain in northern Germany, 1125 metres, and in a fairly short distance.
A 2-10-2 tank on the HSB
I’ve come to appreciate the expressive qualities of the German language, but the word for a steam engine, Dampflok is a bit of a damp squib. However, the engines themselves are superb. They range from cute small tanks built 1890 and 1918, to massive 2-10-2s built in 1953.
The hot date with the trains surpassed my hopes: partly because the carriages have open verandahs at each end, so you can get the sound, smell and smuts as the engine roars up the gradients. And the line winds among beautiful forest, with occasional big views. The scenery is not as magical and dramatic as the Settle and Carlisle, or the Faenza in Italy, but it’s good.
For most maturing men, their favourite steam trains are those on the line they grew up near, so I hope you’ll at least understand why I am finishing this blog with a picture of my favourite engines, the original Bulleid Pacifics, at their prime on the Bournemouth Belle.
Bulleid’s Merchant Navy class Number 35030, Elder Dempster lines, with the Bournemouth Belle
This is a private railway, quarter mile long, owned by a guy who bought part of the old track bed near Riccarton Junction in the Borders.