Poetry in motion disappears down the tracks

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The Independent Online
THOMAS COOK is a good enough name for a travel agent, but is it good enough for the fastest locomotive in the history of Britain's railways? In the brave new market-led world of pre-privatisation BR, the answer is yes.

The naming of trains used to be a poetic process. Sir Nigel Gresley, chief engineer of the old London and North Eastern Railway, was an amateur ornithologist. During the Thirties, with his new streamlined express locomotive about to roll out of the works, he sat watching wild birds in Hertfordshire when the two subjects merged in his mind.

Thus Merlin, Mallard, Falcon, Kingfisher and Golden Eagle, the great blue iron birds of the East Coast main line, took wing.

Nothing reflects the change from idiosyncratic engineering genius to market dross more than the current British Rail Motive Power Pocket Book, the train-spotters' bible. Flicking through it, you cannot help but be amazed at what that irrepressible breed will stand on freezing platforms for.

Today's descendant of Gresley's record-breaking A4 Pacific is the Class 91, otherwise known as the InterCity 225. The Class 91 is not without glamour. In fact, with its chisel nose, it almost echoes Gresley's world-beating A4, which, at 140mph, it comfortably outpaces.

Of the 30 Class 91s in service, 14 have so far been named, and at first glance the spirit of Gresley seems to live on. Top of the list, 91001, is Swallow, although it transpires that it was named not after the bird but BR's InterCity logo. An unhappy combination of do-gooding and marketing then begins to emerge. Number 91028 was commissioned by Princess Alexandra with pomp and ceremony. 'I name this locomotive,' she said in ringing tones, 'Guide Dog.'

Guide Dog's kennel mate at the Bounds Green InterCity depot in London, 91025, rejoices in the title of BBC Radio One FM.

In the age of steam, even humble little freight locos had names with a certain ring. I remember making a five-mile dash to the Blaydon sheds outside Newcastle Central Station when word spread that Loch Oich was making a rare visit to those parts.

Thomas the Tank Engine is Shakespeare compared with the names dreamt up for today's railway workhorses. Class 56 Number 56099 has somehow got itself called Fiddlers Ferry Power Station. Alongside it is Scunthorpe Steel Centenary. There are locos trundling about the network called Blue Circle Cement, Capital Radio's Help A London Child, Top Of The Pops, Songs of Praise, The Coal Merchants' Association of Scotland, and Derby and Derbyshire Chamber of Commerce and Industry. If the names get any longer, they'll have to start building bigger locomotives to carry them.

But imagination is not completely dead. The Motive Power Pocket Book yields the occasional shaft of light in the corporate gloom. There is Helvellyn and Liathac and Robin Hood and the mysterious Class 60 Number 60050, one Roseberry Topping.

BR's Euston headquarters confirmed that the serious business of naming locomotives is no longer left to old men sitting by duck ponds. 'It's much more customer-oriented these days,' a spokesman said. 'We get thousands of requests every year from organisations, charities and firms for locomotives to be named after them. The decision rests with the managing director of the region concerned. We try to choose names that are to our mutual benefit.'

In the old days a locomotive was like a person - it carried its name from cradle to grave. No more. A loco is quite likely to be called one thing this year and something different the next. National Garden Festival Gateshead 1990, for example, was always going to have a short shelf life. And the Duke and Duchess of York could be another candidate for early revision.

Finally, the solution to something that has puzzled me for a long time. Some of the InterCity trains have locos at each end. Surely you can't have the same name twice? 'Ah,' said BR. 'In that case we would try to have two names that somehow linked. For example, you might have the front end called Laurel and the back called Hardy.'

Just BR's little joke, one hopes. But even that must be preferable to the Motive Power Pocket Book's prize entry. Class 86 Number 86419 surely carries the most unbeatably prosaic name of all time: Post Haste - 150 Years Of Travelling Post Offices.