Thursday, 16 December 2010


Peter Hitchens, in a memorable Question Time exchange with Iain Duncan Smith, once dismissed as "foolish Tory nonsense" an accusation that he wanted Britain to return "to the Age of Steam".  Yet it would be difficult to deny that there is an air of whistfulness in a piece written by Mr Hitchens earlier this month which touched upon the subject; indeed his closing comments seem to suggest he thinks a return to the Age of Steam might be worth considering.
"Steam will work when almost everything else doesn't", he asserts, prompted by the sight of aging, coal-fired locomotives pressed back into service during the recent snowfall.  "When I lived in Moscow, I visited a vast park full of enormous black steam engines, each with a red star painted on its smokebox, waiting to be recalled to service when the great day came. ... All motorised transport, and even aircraft, would be knocked out by the Electro-Magnetic Pulse (EMP) from nuclear weapons.  The only machines which would continue to function were steam engines and bicycles.  So the Soviet Army had maintained a reserve of steam engines, ready to roll westwards in case there was no other way of invading Germany."
Continuing this Cold War theme, Mr Hitchens asks the following: "The AK-47 is the absolute proof of the contention that simple, crude, reliable devices are often more use than over-engineered, needlessly complex ones. ... Does this have any implications for the way in which we design and build such things as railways, now?"
I make no great claims of expertise on transport matters, but recent criticisms of High Speed Rail 2 by Conservative MPs such as Steven Baker (highlighted by ConservativeHome) make it a question worth exploring.  Mr Baker has declared that "It is a myth that the UK lacks a fast national railway network" at a Westminster Hall adjournement debate, and that in fact "We have routes capable of 125 mph, with quicker rail journey times between the capital and the five largest cities than in other major western European countries.  For instance, the average journey time in the UK is 145 minutes.  It is 151 minutes in Spain, 184 in Italy, 221 in France and 244 in Germany."

Personally, I have always been broadly in favour of investment in a modern high speed rail network, but prejudice should not be allowed to get in the way of the facts (if facts these are) and if Mr Baker is correct a steam renaissance would not be too ridiculous.  Sir Nigel Gresley's Mallard reached speeds over 125 miles per hour as far back as 1938, after all, and in following years the Milwaukee Road class F7 would often touch 125 mph while undertaking day-to-day duties.  More than once an F7 was observed forging through heavy snowstorms, still maintaining speeds of up to 110 mph.  Is there any reason to doubt that similar and more than likely superior performance could be achieved today with modern materials and metallurgy?

The traditional coal-fired steam engine is anathema to the age of climate targets and carbon mania, of course, but Mr Hitchens need not fear.  "Fireless" steam locomotives, fitted with a large reservoir tank instead of a boiler and firebox, are already enjoying a mild resurgence. Once valued for their ability to carry out duties where cleanliness, quiet and the elimination of fire hazards were important – mines, mills, plants and so on – they are now being reconsidered for service as shunts.  This is because they lose less energy idling than their diesel-powered equivalents, while being capable of utilising otherwise useless waste steam from industrial processes for power into the bargain.  Modern, more efficient fireless locomotives, scaled up for mainline use, could easily be powered entirely from renewable sources (though traditional methods could provide their power equally well, if necessary) and their steam accumulators complemented by solar cells and waste heat engines.
The Devil is in the detail, as ever, and in all likelihood issues associated with cost or infrastructure make modern steam a wholly impractical proposition.  Still, in the country of Stephenson it has to at least be worth the price of a feasibility study, no?

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