Robert Fisk: Steam trains, relic of a bygone era that will outlast us all

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The Independent Online

The 10.50 from Dublin Connolly to Maynooth, No 186, a J-15 class 0-6-0 steam loco in spit-and-polish black livery, was born exactly 20 years before my father. Bill Fisk was born in 1899. But No 186 moved out of the Manchester factory of Sharp, Stewart & Co in 1879, and looks like it was born yesterday.

More to the point, it is still steaming and hissing and chuntering its way across Ireland's broad-gauge metals to this day. Indeed, there it was this week, standing at platform two at Connolly – we Brits obediently call the station by its official "martyr's" name (Mr Connolly being uncharitably shot by British Crown forces for his part in the 1916 rebellion) although the Irish still call it by its pre-independence title of Amiens Street station – just waiting for Master Robert to board.

Many were the rain-soaked days when Bill Fisk stood forlornly on Southern Railway platforms while his wretched son, Ian Allen, loco-spotters' book in hand, ticked off the tank engines that pulled the Maidstone-Ashford local down to Bearsted. In those far-off years there was no thought of being a foreign correspondent. I wanted to be – like millions of my juvenile contemporaries – an engine driver. And like those children who worshipped steam and hated diesel, I never really gave up on my dream. I didn't really want to be a driver. I just wanted steam to last forever.

Thus did the Middle East Correspondent of The Independent stand with almost possessive affection beside No 186 this week, its crew, all peaked hats with glossy black rims, a teenager shovelling coal from the oversize tender – never made for a J-15 class, but at least No 186 hadn't been meanly converted to oil like the puffer on the track from Peshawar to Landi Kotal in what we must now call Khyber Pakhtunkhwa – and enter the fantasy world of the English schoolboy.

Steam locos, you see, live. Their smoke-belching, their smuts and steam and raaooow-raoow whistles and those thrashing pistons – I leaned out of the window and could see them as they "Titanic-ed" us past Croke Park and Drumcondra, Ashtown, Castleknock and Clonsilla, the old Lucan station house and over the Leixlip viaduct and on beside the Grand Canal – that were the heartbeat of the industrial revolution. And of the Empire, I suppose. For when No 186 was born, Dublin still had more than four decades to run as second city of the United Kingdom. Its creators, Sharp, Stewart, also built locos for Argentina and 19th century India – or the Great Indian Peninsula Railway as it was called – and a few tiny specimens of its handiwork still puff away at Darjeeling. No 186 proudly displays its (Irish) Great Southern and Western Railway plate to remind the world that Ireland once led the way in UK railways; from Dalkey to Dun Laoghaire, there was once an "atmospheric railway" run entirely by wind pumped through tubes equipped with greased leather flaps (which, being eaten by rats, prematurely terminated the service).

At Maynooth, the kids and their dads and mums and older sisters – few of whom (unlike Master Robert) could boast of seeing steam locos regularly pulling trains – disembarked to watch No 186 speed down the "up line" to switch points and pull the train back to Dublin. There were those thrashing pistons and that chimney drumbeat and the stench of pure, unadulterated coal smoke that took me back to family picnics at Headcorn and the eternal Golden Arrow to Dover Marine on the fastest stretch of track in Kent. Didn't all those steam locos affect the ozone layer back in the 1900s, I asked old David Seymour of the Railway Preservation Society of Ireland? He shrugged. Well, he said, "there were fewer cars in those days and fewer aircraft".

And a lot of smog, I thought. The smoke of steam trains and the factory chimneys and steam-boats must have done a fair bit for global warming. And if our one steam loco could make the sheep run and the cows turn their heads, then the age of Victoria must have been insufferably noisy. The Irish railway society is just as obsessive as its opposite numbers on the other side of the Irish Sea – their locos switch homes on either side of the border – and are always appealing for more money to keep their locos on the tracks, mainline as well as local. A new firebox and boiler can set you back £200,000, but when No 186, all 37 tons of it, glides out of Maynooth, its creaking green carriages swaying in forward motion with the pistons – Guinness is served, by the way, in the 1936 dining-car – you know you have been re-born.

There's a Catholic spire beyond the trees but I suspect that No 186 will outlive the power of the church, just as it did the Empire. And as Master Robert leans out of the window once more, blasted with grey smoke and smuts and keeping a wary eye out for the regular diesels in the opposite direction, I catch sight of those pistons again and the tracks curling alive beneath the four driving wheels. "This is the Night Mail crossing the border,/Bringing the cheque and the postal order,/ Letters for the rich, letters for the poor,/The shop at the corner and the girl next door." It wasn't Auden who wrote this. It was the train. And the tracks. It is about those metals and their joy and tragedy and wickedness. They carried the Orient Express and the Trans-Siberian and they delivered their passengers to Baghdad and Saint Petersburg and to the Grand Union in New York and, alas, to a Polish town called Oswiecim, which the Germans called Auschwitz.

Machines have no morality; nor the internet – though we don't realise this. We created them and they are us, and if the signals beckon on the branch-line to Treblinka, so hatred passes through the blogosphere. Our engineering can be kind – like the friendly gauges in the cabin of No 186 and the howling wheels of the old 1950s rolling stock taking Master Robert and the other kids back to Connolly – or it can be cruel. In northern Lebanon, the Kaiser's old Reichsbahn steam locos (handed to France as post-Versailles reparations and then put to work in its Middle East mandate) are pitted with civil war bullet and shell holes. Lakes of oil still bleed from the engines.

No, steam trains are not sacred creatures. But somehow, they remain a part of life, far longer than the life of long-dead Bill and, I fear, of Master Robert. And of Empires. The next ten-year overhaul of No 186 is due in 2014. And then in 2024. And in 2034. And 2044, when she'll be 165 years old. And we'll all still be alive then, won't we?

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