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The Modern GWR

High Tech Systems and the Worsening British Winter

This is a fabulous bit of footage on Youtube taken last week on the Southern. All electric services had been cancelled and  nothing seems to be happening as the camera peers into the whitening gloom until: you can hear it, the purposeful, defiant blast of the chimney, the headlights coming out of the white-out and Clan Line rushes past with the VSOE Pullman train.

Marvellous to see and it confirms what many of us have always thought: Steam runs when all else fails.  Cross Country Voyagers fail at Dawlish when the sea is too high and the salt water gets in their electrics and there was that great moment last year when Tornado took stranded commuters home because their trains had all failed in London.

It’s the ‘elephant in the room’ of the modern railway system – steam works better when conditions are less than perfect.   Our control systems have become so sophisticated and electronically based these days that the moment things turn nasty on the weather front, it all stops. Leaves on the line, frozen point motors, we laugh at them because it seems absurd but they are signs of the immense vulnerability of our modern railway to adverse weather.  And it’s getting worse.

‘Resilience’ is a popular management phrase these days to describe the ability of organisations to withstand adverse circumstances. Our railway is not resilient but steam engines are. They are simple and they work even when they have something not quite right about them. They plough through floods, snowdrifts and they do what they are supposed to do – pull trains of people and goods.

And now we are concentrating all the control systems for signalling from Paddington all the way to Plymouth in one place.  It’s a good job Swindon isn’t on a geodesic fault line because we would be in trouble then but when and if the system goes down through flooding or something, how much of the whole network could be paralysed?

And in an era when we can expect our weather to become more and more extreme as global warming messes up the flow of currents in the sea and in the atmosphere, will we get to the point when Paddington puts out the call to Tyseley – “Get those Castles in steam. We need you to rescue stranded passengers in Exeter!”  I would love to see it but I fear it won’t happen and we should just get used to a more and more inadequate railway system as the years go by and our climate becomes more and more unpredictable.

In the meantime, let’s just have fun and show what steam can do in any conditions. Who knows, someone may just start thinking…

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