Minor British Institutions: Old trains

Officially, of course, they are so over, left behind like the coach and horse and carrier's cart, hissing, clunking, smudging antitheses to our age of supposed clean efficiency.

Really, though, like red telephone boxes, fox hunting and salad cream, they are still out there; from Strathspey to Swanage, Dolgarrog to Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch, venerable veterans cossetted, coaxed and cared for to within an inch of their gauge.

What's afoot? Well, a non-enthusiast might put down the pull of old trains to loss: of empire, innocence, industry, when we still made things and knew how they worked, all bound up in the perfect triple-hit for nostalgics – vivid sound, smell and sight. But that leaves much unexplained, including the popularity of Thomas the Tank Engine, and diesels.

Whatever, there remain 500 miles of 'heritage' railway, carrying around seven million passengers a year back to those heady traction-scented days of station cats, compartments, footplates and oily rags. All aboard!