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Steam railways fit nicely in Britain

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Bigger, faster, more modern: that is what all transport planners seem to want, whether they are talking about airports in southeast England or a new railway connecting London with Leeds and Manchester. However, the British -- especially British boys and men -- beg to differ.

The mode of transport that is really popular these days is small, slow and old.

Britain has fully 108 steam railways, the highest concentrations of which are in northern Wales and the Midlands. In 2011, they carried 7.1 million passengers, 25 per cent more than they had four years earlier. Passenger trips on boring ordinary railways went up by 20 percent in the same period. Some heritage railways are little more than a few men in overalls tinkering with locomotives. Most are semiprofessional, however, backed by trusts and staffed by volunteers. Some 18,500 people volunteer on steam railways, and the number is rising.

As well as tourists, lots of enthralled British children visit. A day at a steam railway is cheaper than taking a family to a theme park, points out Robin Jones, editor of Heritage Railway, one of several specialist magazines that report on extensions to lines and run features with titles like: "LNWR Webb Coal Tank No. 1054.'' The lines evoke a nostalgia for the time when Britain was the world's workshop. Fences and gangways at the Bluebell Railway in Sussex are plastered with old advertisements for long-gone cigarette brands and now-defunct newspapers, including The News of the World.

Inadvertently the heritage railways boost an almost-forgotten government policy. In 2010, Prime Minister David Cameron vigorously promoted the "big society,'' a vision of Britain in which local communities band together to run schools, post offices, transportation links and the like. It was going to "turn government completely on its head,'' the prime minister promised. Few talk about the big society these days -- it's an idea that has been dropped more or less unceremoniously -- but in these anachronistic, sooty corners of Britain, it is thriving.

Steam railways cast a dimmer light on another big idea. In 2011, ministers hoped the economy would rebalance from financial services to honest manufacturing. George Osborne, the chancellor of the exchequer, spoke of "a Britain carried aloft by the march of the makers.''

That has not happened. Britain used to have armies of engineers. Today, in retirement, they run the steam railways. It has so few working ones that big infrastructure projects struggle to recruit enough.

Steam railways are a "reminder of our industrial heritage," says Barry McGuinness, a visitor to the Bluebell Railway, which recently has expanded.

He means it kindly, but his judgment is painfully accurate.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 24, 2013 A9

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