Rail travel today undoubtedly lacks romance. From the architecture, to the rolling stock, to the sheer presence those magnificent trains had in the British landscape, the necessary evil that was the modernisation of the railways came at a considerable cultural price. You can hardly see Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson meeting over two take-away Americanos in paper cups while a couple of franchised Pacer trains lumber clumsily past in the background. On today’s railways, that particular brief encounter would almost certainly have been no encounter at all…
I’m reminded of this unassailable fact as a two unit Class 150 ‘Sprinter’ limps its way inelegantly across the Ribblehead Viaduct with a glum looking cohort of passengers this morning. I’m standing at the top of the embankment at the northern end of the impressive structure waiting to be transported back to the age of steam – an age that was unceremoniously consigned to the history books back in 1968. It’s not even 9am but there are hundreds of people below, lining the moorland, waiting to catch a glimpse of something special. From small children to elderly gentlemen, word was out – there’s a steam engine passing over just after 9.30.
In actual fact there would be a double header of two LMS ‘Black Fives’ pulling the Cumbrian Mountain Express: The engines British Rail consigned to scrap in the sixties, passing over the line they tried to close in the eighties. Both now celebrated as cultural icons of the golden age of British Railways. 45407 and 44871 remained in service until the end of steam on BR arrived in August 1968, seeing out a decade in which their numbers had dwindled from 842 to 151. Just eighteen remain today.
It was cold up there this morning as I waited, not quite sure how the scene would unfold, but in spite of the flat light I knew I had an unusual vantage point to capture as much of the train as I could while still framing it on top of the actual viaduct. I waited, and waited, and then with a nod to the notorious unreliability of a British Rail timetable it finally appeared. Half an hour after we’d been expecting it.
Clouds of thick smoke began to permeate the distant landscape generating a wave of excitement in the still swelling crowds below, as the toy-like engines made their way along the line towards me. Unlike the earlier train there were happy people with dirty faces hanging out of the windows waving. As the smell of burning coal engulfed me I felt more like one of the Railway Children standing trackside than the photographer I’d arrived as, but I only had one chance at this so fired off a few shots.
The resulting image is very much made by the thick smoke framing the scene, slightly highlighted by the weak sunlight behind, an almost oil painting quality taking it into the realms of surreality. I like the fact that it could have been taken at any time in the last 75 years. The steam era may be long gone, it may have been of its time, but in many ways it’s timeless.