Full steam ahead?

It’s time we simply threw in the towel and admitted our network is on its deathbed. The way to good health is to go back to steam, says Max Glaskin.

The UK’s rail network has lost the plot. We sit by its bed and hold its hand while cash is injected. We smile hopefully as a once-closed station blinks open again. We nod in feigned understanding when a specialist pops his head round the door to explain the miracles of integrated transport policies.

It doesn’t seem fair that other, lesser, forms of human transport have got stronger and fitter as the years have drawn on. It hurts when we remember how vibrant it used to be.

Orthodox treatments don’t seem to have worked. The sequence of cutting branch lines, reducing investment and privatising the network looks, in hindsight, like a rota of punishments rather than a programme for health and well-being.

Is there a complementary therapy that may strengthen the system so that rail can once again make a useful contribution to society? It’s tempting to argue that the patient’s best days were when it was powered by steam.

The justification for the steam treatment is simple. Last year in Britain and Ireland there were nine million journeys made on steam railways. They were not vital journeys by any means. The customers were not aiming to get from A to B. They were on the trains simply because they were being hauled by steam locos. It is clear, unambiguous evidence that people like steam. And if people find a vehicle attractive they will buy into it.

Even the dimmest car designer knows that but it is still a problem with contemporary trains. A Smart car is more exciting to look at than a million-pound diesel electric. In other words, modern trains no longer have star quality. People’s fond memories of the Night Mail, Sir Nigel Gresley and the Golden Arrow are more than mere nostalgia. Steam trains can have a majesty that verges on the awesome. They breathe power.

A modern steam loco with retro styling could be as attractive as the current VW Beetle or Chrysler PT Cruiser but would reduce road congestion and aerial pollution.

Second, steam traction is not affected by electricity cuts. Thousands of commuters in the south-east were stranded on the last Thursday of August when the power failed during the rush hour. This may seem like a small point but some doom-mongers say such power cuts will become more frequent as the century progresses.

Third, modern steam technology is more environmentally friendly than diesel electric. It produces a tenth the amount of NOx and one fifth the amount of carbon monoxide as a modern diesel loco. The eco-rating of steam will get even better as it is adapted to use other fuels. Timber gasification is being studied in Poland and the use of the by-products of sugar cane as fuel has been considered in Cuba.

Finally, some steam trains can be cheaper to build than conventional diesel electrics. A rack-and-pinion loco for a Swiss mountain railway has cost 3.5m Swiss francs (£1.5m); the conventional rival would have cost 8m Swiss francs (£3.5m).

In Germany and Austria steam engines are used to replace diesel electrics hauling scheduled services on specified days. In the Netherlands some trains are hauled by steam because they use less fuel and are quieter when idling. And they’re easier to fix when they go wrong – that’s why Eritrea has readopted steam.

There’s no need to go overboard with the medication. It should be administered step by step. There’s a serious and deeply researched project called 5AT that could deliver half a dozen modern steam passenger trains to Britain’s main lines soon enough.

5AT is an international collaboration that aims to produce a modern steam locomotive, based on the designs of the last great steam engines. The outward appearance will be designed to capture the romance of the former age of steam, but inside the trains will be running on new steam technology.

They will burn light fuel oil and will also be capable of converting to biomass. The engines were originally intended for tourist trains. However, with a top speed of 113mph, they would be suitable for scheduled commuter services. Their impact could be gauged before applying the solution throughout.

There is the nagging fear that the UK’s rail system has slipped beyond help, but it will flourish when people fall back in love with trains and train travel. A few doses of a mild steam treatment will reveal how easy it is to make this happen.

Then the patient will thrive once more, clear of vision and certain of purpose, with sufficient sense to rebuild its own life.

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