On the wrong track: Christian Wolmar gets all steamed up about railway preservation buffs

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The Independent Online
THE STEAM age is back for its annual temporary revival. Across the country, thousands of holidaymakers are taking train rides from A to B and back again, just for the sake of being pulled along by a steam engine.

I hate these little lines run by dedicated enthusiasts - although I should, by all accounts, love them. My best childhood memories are of standing at Euston station watching those enormous red engines puff away in the rain at the beginning of their journeys to Scotland, or dodging past the watchman at the Old Oak Common engine shed to collect all kinds of otherwise ungettable numbers for my Ian Allan train spotters' book.

The diversity of these enormous machines was fascinating, ranging from sturdy shunters to streamlined express engines that broke speed records. During my early teens, every spare moment was spent hanging around stations and sheds, and once I even travelled to Scotland with a group of fellow spotty zealots.

I grew too old for train spotting at just the right time, when steam engines were being replaced by their ghastly homogeneous successors, smelly diesels and box- shaped electric locomotives.

It would have been easy, therefore, to gravitate towards the short stretches of Beeching- scrapped lines that were taken over by preservation societies to run a few steam trains for tourists. But I shunned them, never going on one until I happened to be staying near a line in Wales while on holiday.

We paid our money, waited on the windy platform, sat down in the uncomfortable carriages and waited for ages for the whistle. Eventually we were hauled slowly up a hill for a couple of miles, unable to look out of the window because the smoke was blowing into the train, and left there to buy ice- creams. The train took an age to turn round on to the correct track to take us back down again.

Contrast that with the ride I took in Sardinia last summer, where genuine old railways still operate as important transport links. The seven-hour, 100-mile journey on a narrow-gauge track through a mountain range between Cagliari and Arbatax on the eastern coast was memorable, not least because many of my fellow passengers were local peasants for whom the railway is a lifeline. The train stopped occasionally to drop one off in the middle of nowhere, with not even a house in sight.

It isn't just the sheer banality of Toytown trips to which I object. There is something terribly sad about the whole effort of 'preserving' a bit of the past, pretending that it is still meaningful. It is like an industrial zoo. The engines are trapped on tiny little lines with never a chance to operate at full power and speed.

Steam engines were big, dirty, smelly and greasy, but they have been turned into industrial kitsch by the over-loving efforts of restorers who paint and clean them far too carefully.

The industrial revolution was a bloody affair, a battle between humanity and the elements which cost countless lives. Steam trains are one of the most visible remnants of that revolution and yet these leftover lines in bits of rural Britain do nothing to portray its realities. They are sanitised misrepresentations of our heritage.

The activities of the restorers may be generally harmless, but they do little to enhance the image of railways, instead harking back to a golden age which it is neither possible nor desirable to reproduce. The beauty of railways is that they are a wonderfully integrated form of comfortable travel that takes people through places which are often unreachable by any other means of transport.

Modern train rides, though more antiseptic, are still (unless you are a rush-hour commuter) a pleasant, even at times exciting, activity. The real train network desperately needs supporters to fight for its survival in the face of a hostile government. I wish the preservers would redirect their considerable efforts towards fighting to keep our remaining lines, and leave their steam engines in the museums where they belong.