Steaming into post-war Britain

It was the dawn of a new age for Britain’s steam-powered trains. After years of neglect and underinvestment, the railways would be revitalised and the country would regain its position stoking the furnace of innovation and enterprise. Thousands of brand new steam engines were ordered to haul Britain back into pole position.

Over the next 12 years, 2,500 engines were produced in workshops across the country – literal cast-iron commitments to a belief in the future of steam traction. Streamlined and standardised designs were developed, reducing running costs and improving reliability. Everything was in place for a new golden age of steam.

The glaring flaw in the plan was that it came some fifty years to late. The modernisation plan was launched in 1948, when the rest of Europe was steadily abandoning steam in favour of diesel and electric-powered trains. Whilst war-shattered continental networks were being rebuilt, electrified and modernised, Britain’s railways were patched up and upgraded on the cheap.

Was the modernisation plan a colossal folly? A piece of socialist hubris in the face of logic and rational thinking? In reality, the planners understood all too well the limitations of steam, but were powerless to adopt the more costly alternatives. Britain’s finances were strained, foreign exchange was at a premium and investment priorities centred on industry, housing and the National Health Service.

As a result, wholesale electrification of the network was ruled out. This was simply too expensive an option. Diesel trains could run on existing tracks but they ran on oil, which, in the pre-North Sea Oil days, was an expensive imported commodity. Switching to diesel would have rapidly consumed the country’s already dwindling gold and foreign exchange reserves.

The least costly solution (at least in the short-term) was to rationalise and develop steam power. This had the added advantage that it was powered by domestically produced coal. For a documentary about trains and trainspotters, BBC4’s Timeshift – the Last Day’s of Steam was a fascinating, lively and touching tribute to a last gasp (or puff) for steam power.

Steam trains continued to be produced in the UK until March 1960, when the appropriately named Evening Star rolled off the production line at Swindon. But the fate of steam trains had already been sealed – they would not survive the rest of the decade.

The last scheduled steam service on Britain’s mainline railways set off on 11 August 1968 from Liverpool to Carlisle via Manchester and Settle. It was nicknamed the ‘Fifteen Guinea Special’ because of the premium price its tickets attracted amongst an enthusiastic public.

On 12 August 1968, British Rail introduced a ban on steam across the standard gauge network. It seemed as though steam trains would never return to railways in the UK. All across the UK, thousands of engines were sold for scrap. In total some 250,000 tonnes were dismantled.

This assumption was disproved by the passion and commitment of dedicated enthusiasts who set up preservation societies. These groups bought and repaired steam engines and rolling stock and started running heritage railways. Today, Britain has over 100 heritage railways running 1,300 steam engines and attract 6.8 million visitors a year.

Another landmark was reached on 1 August 2008 when an A1 Class Tornado rolled off the production line in Darlington. Sixty years after nationalisation and forty years since the end of normal steam-powered services, a brand new, £3 million steam locomotive engine had been built. Whilst passenger transport has indeed moved on, nostalgia and a passion for celebrating the engineering triumph ensures that steam power thrives in 21st century Britain.