There is something about steam trains, and particularly something about steam trains for the British. Think of an idealized, romantic, semi-stereotypical view of Britain, and a steam locomotive is almost certain to feature at some point in the fantasy. From popular literature [1] to television shows and the more specialized world of dedicated railway enthusiasts and model railway owners [2] , the steam locomotive blazes a triumphant route through British culture. What is it about these machines that we so admire, and how did locomotives like the 'Duke of Gloucester' come to be considered so worthy of the special attention which we afford them?

A Labour Of Love

The 'Duke of Gloucester', as is well documented, was not considered a particularly brilliant engine in its time. She struggled to raise steam due to (as we now know) mistakes in the design and construction of the boiler. Yet she was considered worthy of rescue by a group of dedicated individuals. Brought forth from the scrapheap, she was meticulously studied, repaired, worked on, laboured over and loved until she once again set forth upon the rails - renewed and pumping steam at a brilliant rate. This was not a necessary undertaking. Those who rescued and repaired the 'Duke' did so for a love of steam and steam locomotives. It is hard to imagine anyone doing the same for an abandoned Virgin Voyager [3]. So what is it about steam engines that brings about this kind of strength of feeling? Of course, steam locomotives present the enthusiast with a degree of drama and character - the blaze of the fire, the plume of smoke, the hiss and squeal of the steam, the iconic blast of the whistle - but can this be the sole reason for our love of steam? Is it purely mechanical and aesthetic interest? Or is there something deeper within our culture which yearns still for steam?

Modern Adoration

Steam travel nowadays is something which thrills most of us to the bone. Reduced to a few specialist lines, steam railways prove an enduring tourist attraction. And they bring in plenty of money from abroad, as well. The indelible association of Britain with steam locomotion is not lost abroad, and huge numbers of overseas visitors are more than willing to plunge their valuable foreign-earned money [4] into the British economy in exchange for a ride through the British countryside in an iconic steam train. According to a report by the All Party Parliamentary Group on Heritage Rail [5], heritage railways are worth £250 million a year to the UK economy. But we don't love steam locomotives for their economic effect. Rather, the economic effect is a result of our love of steam railways. Perhaps our sense of wonder is partly to do with the fact that modern society associates steam railways with holidays. We no longer use steam trains for the odious grind of the daily commute. Instead, we travel on them for leisure and fun. Perhaps an indelible association has been formed in our minds between steam and the excitement of sunny childhood holidays? Perhaps, but there is undoubtedly more to it than that.

Cultural Nostalgia

Our culture reveres steam trains for much more than happy childhood memories - although memories of another kind may have a lot to do with the phenomenon. Steam locomotion emerged at a time when Britain was experiencing what many still consider to be a 'golden age'. We were on top of the world, economically and industrially. British technology was at the cutting edge, and the possibilities seemed limitless. We had a degree of national pride and self-respect which reflection upon our great wrongs (often committed during that very 'golden age') has since diminished. Britain introduced steam to the world, and a sense of pride in that perhaps still remains - muted and hidden beneath layers of culturally-induced nostalgia. Steam trains have also permeated popular British culture to such a degree that they're quite inextricable. It is a steam train which transports Harry Potter and his friends to Hogwarts - despite the books being set in the 21st century. Our great literary heroes - Poirot, Sherlock Holmes, the aforementioned boy wizard - all travel by steam. Steam trains remind us of Britain at its best, and have managed to avoid associations of Britain at its worst. And their appeal does not look like dying down any time soon. Locomotives like the 'Duke of Gloucester' have a long life ahead of them, it seems...

[1] E.Nesbit, "The Railway Children", Penguin Classics, 2010

[2] Christopher Middleton, "The irresistible allure of a garden train", The Telegraph, Jan 2015

[3] Virgin Trains, "Our Trains"

[4] Compare, Money for travelling

[5] All Party Parliamentary Group on Heritage Rail, "Report on the Value of Heritage Railways", July 2013