|On first consideration, one could be forgiven for asking why anyone would want to write yet another book on steam trains. Surely the subject is dead as the proverbial dodo, and the amount of hot air which has already been expended on it would fill the boilers of all the steam engines that ever were, with plenty to spare?
Ah, but this one is different. Author Owen Jordan re-tells a story which grows more amazing with each telling. From the railway's early origins as a crude horse-and-gravity means of getting coal tubs from the pit head to the canal basin, through the eventual mastery of technical problems by "derring-do", industrial espionage and experiments (some more disastrous than others) the coming of commercial interests, and the almost inevitable resulting clash between what was best for the railways, and what was most profitable for the shareholders, the author then charts the drastic impact of the two world wars, the struggle to innovate through the balmy but becalmed days of the 1930s, and the inevitability of the advent of British Railways and with it the end of the steam age. Anyone who thinks this is a dead story, with no relevance to today, will find significant parallels which will soon cause them to revise their conclusions. Squabbling companies, trade rivalries, and a speed restriction for the safety of the passengers could equally be the story of Victorian railways or Railtrack versus ATOC, post-Hatfield.
And while it is fashionable to believe that the present state of the railways, which everyone agrees is due to under-investment, dates back to Dr Beeching and the inertia of 1960s nationalisation, this re-telling of the tale demonstrates that the seeds of that decay were sown as long ago as 1914 in some cases, as the First World War precipitated a set of circumstances, forcing the changing of the points for ever on the tracks of railway history, leading to today's inevitable conclusion. Not so much a case of the wrong kind of snow, but the wrong set of decisions, the signals already set for the end of the line. This is a story which has more than its share of characters, all of them larger than life, and some of their names form a familiar tapestry of railway poetry; Stephenson, Trevithick, Gresley, Stainier, Bulleid. Not to mention the names of their creations, the Atlantics, the Pacifics, the Britannias, the Royal Scots, the Castles and the Kings. This guide, then, is a book which will appeal at two levels. All those who have ever spent either a cold winter day or a warm summer afternoon with thermos flask and notebook on the end of the platform just to see the Flying Scotsman speed byen route from Doncaster to York, and smelt the steam and coal as she thundered past., will find plenty of detail here to satisfy them, even if they already know every cog of a valve actuation gear and can cobble together an inside piston valve from spares found in a Barry Island scrapyard, while the interested general reader will find much to enthrall them, in a story which sees intrigue, romance, stupidity and greed triumphing while good ideas are shunted into the siding of history forever, a story which is crucially interwoven with the history of Britain at every critical juncture over the last two hundred years, and explains in no small way how the train system came to its present sorry impasse.
This is a book for all those whose imagination is stirred by grainy 1930's Ministry of Information films about the night mail crossing the border and pulling up Beattock, a book which tells it as it really was, about a myth that never was, but which still continues to grip our imagination.