The English are a naturally conservative people; we instinctively resist change and yearn for the past. Many people take an interest in history by preserving old buildings and structures. Even those who do not take an active part in such work often visit ancient castles, houses and gardens or watch with interest the many TV programmes about archaeology and restoration work. One aspect of this is the proliferation1 of preservation societies2 dedicated to the task of restoring old railway lines and running old trains, frequently with steam engines3, on them. These are usually operated mainly by volunteers who once worked for the national railway companies. It is ironic that many of these volunteers now give their time and effort freely to tasks that they once complained about when they were paid to do the same thing – but that is another British characteristic! As the years go by, the pool of former railway workers diminishes, but they are, perhaps surprisingly, replaced by younger men and women, many of whom never saw the steam relics4 operating on the national railway system.
Some of these preserved railways were once privately owned by specialist companies and carried bulk minerals5 such as coal, iron ore, limestone6, china clay, etc, needed for the great industries that once filled our landscapes – and polluted the air with smoke and fumes! These railways were often ‘narrow gauge’7 lines, meaning that the rails were closer together than the normal ones, resulting in smaller engines, trucks and carriages. This made them cheaper to build and run, but they could operate only at slow speeds. However, it was not long after the introduction of national services that a standard gauge was introduced and this soon became almost universal for passenger traffic. The standard gauge required the rails to be four feet eight and a half inches (about 1.722 metres) apart. As Britain pioneered the construction of railways throughout its empire and much of the rest of the world, this strange measurement became and remains a common standard, even though many engineers believe that a broader gauge would be more efficient. The reason for this odd distance is based on the distance between the wheels of old horse-drawn carts and coaches. The early railway workers were accustomed to this measurement, so they continued to use it — I said, the English are a conservative people!
Although the original railways had been built by many different private companies, they gradually merged into four large ones, each covering a different part of the country. Then these four were nationalised into one huge industry which soon discovered that there was a great deal of duplication and many routes which were deemed ‘inefficient’ by the bureaucrats in London. The original railways had been laid to compete with each other, but now that they were all under common ownership, there was no need for competition, so many were closed and the engines and rolling stock8 scrapped9. This left many miles of derelict10 lines. In some cases, the actual rails were taken up and the tracks11 used as footpaths or cycle tracks12 enabling people to use them for pleasure and exercise away from the increasingly dangerous roads. This also left some villages and towns rather isolated since they had relied on the railway for basic transport to work, shops or school.
Some of these disused railway lines, or usually just sections of them, were bought by the preservation societies. There was also a rush to buy some of the old diesel and steam locomotives and the other rolling stock before it was destroyed, so many of the relics were saved from being scrapped. Most of these were, however, in a very poor state by the time that they were acquired for preservation and many hours had to be spent restoring them to their former condition.
Once the track, a locomotive or two and a few carriages had been restored, it was usually possible to apply for official permission to run the trains once again. This often took many hours of patient negotiation as officials are much the same all over the world and seldom hurry their work. The track and all the trains would have to be inspected to make sure that they were quite safe and, if they passed inspection, members of the public could ride on them again. Since many of the re-opened lines were very short, just a mile or two, they were not really as useful as they once had been, but were just interesting to visit and photograph as reminders of the past. As they were manned by the volunteers and costly to operate, the services were necessarily infrequent. But people turned up in hundreds just for the pleasure of seeing the trains run again; perhaps as reminders of their childhood, forgetting how slow, smelly and dirty they were an essential means of transport. As recreational facilities, however, they are a delight to many, both those who come to ride on them and to those who devote much of their money and leisure to keeping them running.
There is one such railway not far from where I live. At first, it was a very short section of old railway running through a beautiful valley with a river and a canal, but gradually the line has been extended in both directions and more locomotives and rolling stock acquired. They operate both steam and diesel trains, including special events for children which are always popular. One of the stations on this line, Consall, has no other vehicular access, so the railway is the best way to visit this little hamlet13. Great care is taken during all the restoration work to make the finished railway as similar in appearance to the original as possible, using authentic materials when they can be obtained even if this adds to the cost.
1 proliferation – распространение 2 preservation society – общество охраны (исторических памятников) 3 steam engine – паровоз 4 relic – реликвия ( вещь, хранимая как память о прошлом и являющаяся предметом почитания ) 5 bulk mineral – насыпной минерал 6 limestone – известняк 7 gauge – (ж.д.) ширина колеи 8 rolling stock – подвижной состав 9 scrap – списывать 10 derelict – брошенный 11 track – (ж.д.) колея, рельсовый путь 12 cycle track – велодром 13 hamlet – деревня