An Indian summer for main line steam?

FEBRUARY’S main line charter debut of BR Standard 2-6-0 No. 76084 cannot be but heartily welcomed, along with the John Coiley award that its owning group has been presented with by the Heritage Railway Association.

Now David Smith’s Bulleid Merchant Navy Pacific No. 35018 British India Line, restored from Barry scrapyard condition, will shortly be returning to the main line in the year of the 50th anniversary of the end of steam on the Southern Region.

Having seen the nearly-finished locomotive close up at its Carnforth base, if it runs as good as it looks, and to me it appears magnificent, undoubtedly it will take the network by storm. With running-in tests and proving runs still to be undertaken as we closed for press, there is every indication that it will write another page or two, or three, in the heritage era history of main line steam.

But – how many more chapters are left to write?

John Cameron has already talked about taking his A4 No. 60009 Union of South Africa and K4 2-6-0
No. 61994 The Great Marquess off the network and placing them on static display in a museum when their tickets next run out. And while the Great Western Society still intends to run repatriated 4-6-0 No. 4079 Pendennis Castle and ex-Barry hulk No. 6023 King Edward II on the main line, it seems to have had second thoughts about new Saint No. 2999 Lady of Legend.

Recent gauging issues and the cost of installing modern safety equipment such as ETMRS may well see the locomotive consigned to a working life on heritage railways, even though it has been built to main line standards.

The question now remains – how many more ‘new’ main line steam engines – as opposed to overhauled locomotives that have already run on the network in the heritage era – are we now ever likely to see?

Regarding the other new builds, it seems certain that LMS Patriot No. 45551 The Unknown Warrior, GWR 4-6-0 No. 6880 Betton Grange, and anything that The A1 Steam Locomotive Trust decides to build, the next in line being P2 2-8-2 No. 2007 Prince of Wales, will be there.

There has also been talk of GNR N2 0-6-2T No. 1744 becoming registered for the main line, although tank engines are limited to comparatively light payloads and much shorter distances.

But how many more Barry wrecks, or other locomotives based on heritage lines, have a realistic chance of ‘graduating’ to the main line in the future?

The cost of restoration itself is colossal, and then there is the additional equipment needed to run in today’s more exacting than ever before railway environment. Unless you are a multi-millionaire lover of steam, the business case may well not even approach stacking up. And will there be enough support crews to go round the locomotives that are approved for main line running in years to come?

So in the year that British India Line makes its debut, are we now living in an Indian summer for main line steam? Yes, there will be newcomers, but by no means at the rate we witnessed following the relaxing of the BR steam ban in 1971.

Steam on the main line is a brilliant advertisement for the rail industry, and works wonders for the tourist sector too, especially with 500 passengers decanting into a destination out of season.

Yet I fear that more locomotives will drop off the register as the years roll on, and steam where it was meant to be will become an increasing rarity. So with the likes of No. 76084 and British India joining the heritage fleet, and Flying Scotsman enchanting a
new generation of admirers, let’s all enjoy it while
we still can.

Robin Jones, Editor

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