If you ever encounter railroad or railway enthusiasts, you may have heard the view that at some point in the past there was a golden age of rail transport that has somehow been lost. It’s something that’s up for debate as to when that age was or even whether with a selection of new super-high-speed trains snaking across our continents we’re in a golden age now, but it’s true to say that the rail business has had its fair share of decline in the last half-century.
It’s quite likely that when they talk of a golden age, they really mean a golden age of steam rail transport. At which point depending on where you live in the world it’s easier to put your finger on a decade. For UK residents a good candidate would be the 1930s; steam locomotive design had reached its peak, the rail network hadn’t been worn out by the demands of wartime, and private car ownership hadn’t eaten into their passenger numbers. The country was divided up into a set of regional rail monopolies, each of which had their own locomotive works and designers who were in fierce competition to show that their machines were the best and the fastest.
The LMS, the London Midland and Scottish railway company, served the northwestern segment of the country, North Wales, and the West of Scotland. Their high-speed express trains were in hot competition with those of the LNER, the London and North Eastern Railway, who served the eastern side of the country, to offer the fastest service from London to Scotland. It’s difficult to grasp through an 80-year lens, but this battle was one of national excitement, with the fastest locomotives becoming household names nationwide. The railway companies were justifiably proud of their engineering expertise, and so featured their locomotives as a key part of their marketing to the general public.
And so we come to the subject of today’s Retrotechtacular piece, a film below the break from 1935 following the construction of a high-speed express locomotive from start to finish in the LMS’s Crewe railway works. 6207 was one of a class of thirteen 4-6-2 Pacific locomotives designed by the company’s chief engineer [William Stanier], built between 1932 and 1935 and known as the Princess Royal class, all being named for princesses. In the film we see the various parts of the locomotive being cut, cast and forged from raw metal before being assembled in the Crewe plant. All the machinery is human controlled, and one of the surprises is sometimes the number of people involved in each task. The level of skill and experience in precision metalworking to be found in plants like Crewe was immense, and in some cases it is very difficult to find its equivalent in our own time.
Preserved railways are now an established part of the tourist itinerary. It doesn’t matter if you call it a railroad, railway, chemin de fer, Eisenbahn or whatever, the chances are that somewhere near you there will be a line rescued from dereliction on which you can spend a Saturday afternoon in vintage rolling stock being hauled by a locomotive long ago withdrawn from regular service. They are established enough to have become an industry in their own right, with the full range of support services to maintain hundred-year-old machinery and even build entire new locomotives.
So we’ve become used to seeing preserved railways in a state of polished perfection. Sometimes a little too perfect, there was a wry observation in a recent BBC documentary on the subject that a typical British preserved railway represents an average day in the 1950s when the Queen was about to visit. Anyone who lived through that era will tell you the reality was a little different, how run down the system was after World War II and just how dirty everything became when exposed to decades of continuous coal smoke.
A particularly worn-out section of railway in those days could be found at Tywyn, on the Welsh coast. A 2’3″ narrow-gauge line built in the 1860s to serve a slate quarry and provide a passenger service to local communities, the Tal-y-Llyn Railway (Welsh pronunciation help) had been in continuous decline for decades and on the death of its owner in 1950 faced closure. With only one of its two locomotives operational and its track in a parlous state it attracted the attention of the author Tom Rolt, already famous for kick-starting the preservation of Britain’s inland waterway system. A preservation society was formed, and in a joint enterprise with the former owner’s estate the line was saved. The world’s first preserved railway had commenced operations.
In a country reeling from the economic effects of fighting a world war there was no infrastructure for a group of enthusiasts rescuing a near-derelict railway. Nobody had ever done this before, there was no body of expertise and certainly no handy suppliers to call when parts were required. To rebuild their line the Tal-y-Llyn volunteers had to reach into their own well of initiative gained over the “Make do and Mend” war years and build their own way out of any challenges they encountered. In case you were wondering what the relevance to Hackaday readers has been in the last few paragraphs there’s your answer: what would you do if you were handed seven and a quarter miles of run-down track and a single barely serviceable locomotive that is one of the oldest in the world still running?
We are fortunate that in 1953 an American film maker, Carson “Kit” Davidson, visited the line, and through his affectionate short film we have a portrayal of the railway’s state in the early stages of preservation. When the footage was shot they had secured a second serviceable locomotive courtesy of the nearby and recently closed Corris Railway, but had yet to replace the majority of the worn-out and overgrown track. It’s a treat to watch, and sets the stage very well for the home-made machinery that is to follow.
In the early days of World War II, the Japanese army invaded Burma (now Myanmar) and forced an end to British colonial rule there. Occupying Burma required troops and massive amounts of materiel, though, and the Japanese navy was taking a beating on the 2,000 mile sea route around the Malay Peninsula. And so it was decided that a railway connecting Thailand and Burma would be constructed through dense tropical jungle over hilly terrain with hundreds of rivers, including the Kwae Noi River, made famous by the Hollywood treatment of the story in The Bridge on the River Kwai. The real story of what came to be known as the Burma Death Railway is far grislier than any movie could make it, and the ways that the prisoners who built it managed to stay alive is a fascinating case study in making do with what you’ve got and finding solutions that save lives.
Nutrition from Next-to Nothing
Labor for the massive project was to come from the ultimate spoil of war – slaves. About 250,000 to 300,000 slaves were used to build the Burma-Siam Railway. Among them were about 60,000 Allied prisoners of war, primarily Australian, Dutch, British and American. POWs were singled out for especially brutal treatment by the Japanese and Korean guards, with punishment meted out with rifle butt and bamboo pole.
With the POWs was Doctor Henri Hekking, who had been born and raised in the former Dutch East Indies colony of Java (now Indonesia). He had spent his early years with his grandmother, a master herbalist who served as “doctor” for the native villagers. Inspired by his oma’s skill and convinced that the cure for any endemic disease can be found in the plants in the area, Dr. Hekking returned to Java as an officer in the Dutch army after completing medical school in the Netherlands.
After his capture by the Japanese, Dr. Hekking did everything he could to help his fellow POWs despite the complete lack of medical supplies, all the while suffering from the same miserable treatment. Hekking realized early on that the starvation rations the POWs endured were the main cause of disease in the camps; a cup of boiled white rice doesn’t provide much energy for men building a railway by hand in jungle heat, and provides none of the B vitamins needed by the body.
There is a long tradition of hacking transportation to work on the rails. People have done it to all kinds of things for many reasons. Some are for rail maintenance, others are simply to enjoy the tracks. With as much unused railways as we have, it seems a shame to waste them. This hack turns a bicycle into into a rail bike with the use of some conduit, a cut up razor scooter, and a fork from another bike. After some tinkering with spacing to make the whole thing a little smoother on the rails, the whole thing seemed like a success. That is, until the front rail guide caught a railway tie and the rider was tossed. Not only that, the impact destroyed his bike frame.
So, does this wreck mark this as a failure? Or is this simply another step in the iterative process we all tend to use. The only difference is if he carries on to build another.