I caught half an hour of a programme called Speed Machines this evening. It was covering the rivalry between the LMS and LNER railway companies trying to outdo each other for speed, one running the west coast mainline from London to Glasgow, the other the east coast to Edinburgh. Imagine the 1930s, a time when long-distance overland travel meant going by rail and that railway was (if you could afford it) almost like travelling by one of the great liners of he age, with silver service in the restaurant car (no Maxipack cardboard cup here).
This was the final hurrah of steam powered locomotion in Britain, as diesel and electric engines were just round the corner after the looming war. But what a finale! These enormous engines with drive wheels taller than a grown man, breathing smoke and fire like an iron dragon, thundered across the length of the islands, breaking new world records as they went. 112mph, 114mph. Seems slow to us now, I know – how many of us have had the illicit pleasure of matching those speeds in our own cars? But this was bloody fast, world-record making as I said.
And speed and wonderful service was only part of it. This was the Art Deco era and these prestigious machines had to not only be fast but be beautiful; a marriage of contemporary art, science and engineering. Effortlessly elegant, with the coaches also streamlined and all in fine matching livery, streaking across the landscape. People used to come out to watch them go past and the driver would always blow the whistle and wave to the round-eyed kids. Just before war blew across the land they reached their apogee when the gorgeously-sculpted Mallard charged across the British Isle in 1938 at 126 MPH, streaming smoke, bellowing steam and fire from her fiery heart, almost a living creature. It’s a record that was never beaten.
Its 2003 now and we have a crapped-out rail service which struggles and creaks and falls apart (often literally) if the wrong leaves fall on the line (assuming the incompetent privatised engineering firms who do the maintenance have managed to put proper track down). The trains are often late or cancelled, the staff surly and the service piss-poor. What ever happened? Didn’t we invent this entire technology? And doesn’t this remind us of how we nurtured and perfected it for decades? One old driver of these magnificent creatures compared it to being the ‘Concorde of its day’. Another piece of fantastic engineering that was coupled to the most simple and elegant, artful lines and another piece of British engineering history, a world-beater, which was allowed to be wasted and scheduled to take her last flights this very month (for shame). Even if we had a good, modern rail service today it wouldn’t quite match the magical elegance of the pre-war era – over-priced sandwiches and instant coffee don’t match eating silver service in a restaurant car with food prepared by a real chef. And no modern engine, not even those Japanese Bullet trains or the French TGV holds the sheer magical wonder of those fire-breathing beasts. As one old driver put it, they brought together all four elements; fire to burn, coal from the earth, water to boil into steam and air to combust the hole thing and produce awesome amounts of power, all controlled by two sweating men.
But it’s not all doom and gloom – we still innovate in these islands, as our newest Nobel Laureate today can attest (as can the fact that we have produced so many Nobel winners). And yes, I did have a train set as a boy. A bloody huge one as a matter of fact. And yes, I did have to wrest my father away from it to get a chance myself.