Railfest: One-track minds

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

The 'world cup of trainspotting' – begins in York tomorrow. And the enthusiasts aren't quite the anoraks Jonathan Brown was expecting

If this were a sporting event it would be the World Cup or perhaps the Olympic Games. A better metaphor, however, insists curator Robert Gwynne is a musical one. "It is a rock 'n' roll concert for rail enthusiasts," he explains. "It's capable of reminding everyone just how romantic and warm and friendly railways can be as well as how essential they are to our day-to-day lives," he adds.

For such railway enthusiasts, or puffer-nutters as they refer to themselves, the assemblage of 50 record-breaking locomotives next to the National Railway Museum in York represents the biggest gathering of locomotive superstars ever seen in one place.

By the time the first of the estimated 100,000 fans begin flooding through the turnstiles at Railfest 2012 today there will be on display the world's fastest steam locomotive; the newest, the oldest and of course the most famous – the Flying Scotsman – among dozens of other record holders.

But yesterday with just a few hours to go before the whistle there was a mood of quiet determination as the teams of dedicated volunteers set about polishing, oiling and firing up their mighty charges.

Standing on the footplate of the City of Truro, a prewar Great Western Railway loco which once clocked up 102.3mph between Plymouth and Paddington, Britain's oldest working boilersmith was looking back on a long career. "There was none of the glamour of the guard or the fireman for us. Just lost fingernails and plenty of bruised heads in the maintenance department," recalls Gordon Reed, 78. "This is Britain's greatest gift to the world and even in these days of privatisation there is a great community on the railways," he says.

Newer recruit Laura Hester, 34, was applying the Brasso to the steaming iron hulk's gleaming nameplate. The science explainer only got to drive her first steam train on a corporate team-building exercise two years ago but was immediately hooked.

Since then she has passed out as a fireman and is training to be a driver. She admits it is a bit of a man's world though that is changing. "There are a surprising amount of women involved but you do get a bit of a double take sometimes when people see you although you get plenty of mums saying to their daughters 'look there is a lady on the footplate'," she says.

There were certainly no women drivers in Caleb Priestley's days. Now aged 93, he started off as a cleaner on the railway near Barnsley in 1936 working his way up through the ranks. During the war he was called up to drive trains for the military and was part of an elite group sent to operate the vitally strategic Iranian railways between the Persian Gulf to the Caspian Sea.

Following the Allied invasion of Italy he was dispatched to take over the network, moving troops, supplies and prisoners. In the 1970s he became something of a celebrity when he set a new record by driving one of British Rail's new high speed trains at 143mph between Darlington and York – a feat that was unsurpassed for nearly a decade.

"I wish I felt a bit younger and then I could join in with things. It makes me feel I want to be part of it. I have been a railwayman all my life and I am very proud of that. If I could live over again I would do exactly the same thing. I loved being a fireman and I loved being a driver," he says.

For Alan Middleton, 74, a former engineer from Preston, Lancashire, who has helped restore the 1863 Furness 20, the oldest surviving working steam locomotive which spent 90 years ferrying coal from pit to Barrow steelworks before being left to rust, the attraction is simple. "I just like old engines. Victorian machinery is a joy to behold. The engine parts are all original. Stuff today is designed to last 10 years and then drop to pieces," he says.

But, explains Steve Davies, director of the National Railway Museum, Britain's railways never stop evolving and the future preservation of our transport heritage continues to pose challenges. The size of modern train units, which come in three or four carriages, means that future exhibition spaces will have a spatial problem to deal.

Only those assets which are of true technological significance – such as the British Rail Class 60 diesel or the InterCity 125 – will in future make the cut. Meanwhile, over the next 25 years there will be a phasing out of old Victorian semaphore signals, so again decisions must be made on which are retained and how they will be made available to the public

Yet despite the Government's quango cull which did for the Rail Heritage Committee, there remains a strong commitment to preserve the best of the current system within Network Rail and the Science Museum group, which took over its functions, he says.

Meanwhile the volunteer armies that regularly maintain and reclaim Britain's rail heritage continue to go from strength to strength, spawning thriving new industries.

But it is important not to overdo the romance and the nostalgia about our railway past, insists Mr Davies.

"The past is some place that the British always turn to for comfort," he says. "But the railway today is far superior in virtually every aspect of the past. It is cleaner, faster, more frequent and safer than it ever was."

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
News
Dawkins: 'There’s a very interesting reason why a prince could not turn into a frog – it's statistically too improbable'
newsThat's Richard Dawkins on babies with Down Syndrome
Sport
Malky Mackay salutes the Cardiff fans after the 3-1 defeat at Liverpool on Sunday
footballFormer Cardiff boss accused of sending homophobic, racist and messages
Sport
Rodgers showered praise on Balotelli last week, which led to speculation he could sign the AC Milan front man
transfers
Life and Style
life – it's not, says Rachel McKinnon
Arts and Entertainment
Eye of the beholder? 'Concrete lasagne' Preston bus station
architectureWhich monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?
News
Lizards, such as Iguanas (pictured), have a unique pattern of tissue growth
science
Arts and Entertainment
Arctic Monkeys headline this year's Reading and Leeds festivals, but there's a whole host of other bands to check out too
music(who aren't Arctic Monkeys)
Extras
indybest
News
Anna Nicole Smith died of an accidental overdose in 2007
people
Life and Style
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
'The Great British Bake Off' showcases food at its most sumptuous
tvReview: Bread-making skills of the Bake Off hopefuls put to the test
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Marketing & PR Assistant - NW London

£15 - £17 per hour: Ashdown Group: Marketing & PR Assistant - Kentish Town are...

Senior Network Integration/Test Engineer

£250 - £300 per day: Orgtel: Senior Network Integration/Test Engineer Berkshir...

Software Developer - Newcastle - £30,000 - £37,000 + benefits

£30000 - £37000 per annum + attractive benefits: Ashdown Group: .NET Developer...

Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £40,000: SThree: SThree Group have been well e...

Day In a Page

Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape
eBay's enduring appeal: Online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce retailer

eBay's enduring appeal

The online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce site
Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
Artist Olafur Eliasson's latest large-scale works are inspired by the paintings of JMW Turner

Magic circles: Artist Olafur Eliasson

Eliasson's works will go alongside a new exhibition of JMW Turner at Tate Britain. He tells Jay Merrick why the paintings of his hero are ripe for reinvention
Josephine Dickinson: 'A cochlear implant helped me to discover a new world of sound'

Josephine Dickinson: 'How I discovered a new world of sound'

After going deaf as a child, musician and poet Josephine Dickinson made do with a hearing aid for five decades. Then she had a cochlear implant - and everything changed
Greggs Google fail: Was the bakery's response to its logo mishap a stroke of marketing genius?

Greggs gives lesson in crisis management

After a mishap with their logo, high street staple Greggs went viral this week. But, as Simon Usborne discovers, their social media response was anything but half baked
Matthew McConaughey has been singing the praises of bumbags (shame he doesn't know how to wear one)

Matthew McConaughey sings the praises of bumbags

Shame he doesn't know how to wear one. Harriet Walker explains the dos and don'ts of fanny packs
7 best quadcopters and drones

Flying fun: 7 best quadcopters and drones

From state of the art devices with stabilised cameras to mini gadgets that can soar around the home, we take some flying objects for a spin
Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

The midfielder returned to the Premier League after two years last weekend. The controversial character had much to discuss after his first game back
Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

British No 1 knows his consistency as well as his fitness needs working on as he prepares for the US Open after a ‘very, very up and down’ year
Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

A descent into madness in America's heartlands

David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home