Tag Archives: Trains

Steaming into the Firing Line: Tales of the Footplate in Wartime Britain

Steaming into the Firing Line by Michael Clutterbuck


Steaming into the Firing Line: Tales of the Footplate in Wartime Britain by Michael Clutterbuck is a collection of short stories about the lives of railway workers during WWII. Clutterbuck is the son of a Chester railway man and he, much like myself, spent many childhood hours spotting trains. He currently resides in Melbourne, Australia.

For some, trains are more than just machines to move people and goods. There is a mystique with trains, much like biplanes and old motorcycles, and steam engines hold a special place. In America, they helped build the West. Steam engines connected the coasts of America and every school kid has seen the picture of the driving of the golden spike linking the coasts by rail. Trains made America. Today our rail system is neglected and far below the standards of the rest of the developed world. In Europe trains still live on and are considered a part of everyday life. The connection to the rails still exists.

Steaming follows the lives of driver (engineer) George Denton and fireman Lance Hargreaves. George is the conservative, professional, father figure to the young fireman Lance. Lance is young and a bit rough around the edges. His actions at times make him an example for others rather than an example to others. He tries his best and has promise to be promoted to driver. George does his best to guide him along.

The book spans years and the beginning at the dawn of the second world war. Thoughts of the war being over by Christmas are quickly crushed by the previously unimaginable bombings of England. Railroads take on an important role in the war effort. From hauling wounded from the evacuation of Dunkirk to hospitals in the interior of England to carrying war supplies military bases, the railroad workers were the unsung heroes of the war. Working the rails was by no means safe, in fact trailways were prime targets for the Luftwaffe bombing raids.

The setting and storytelling is superb. Reading the book felt very much like watching an old 1940s movie: A little gritty, maybe a bit over acted to make the point, and characters that are very familiar. There was almost the feeling I was reading in black and white instead of color. The characters make real life choices and get caught up in real life dilemmas. You feel the pain of the war and at the same time comfort of a pot of tea boiled over the engine’s fire. There are slightly humorous stories such as being mistaken for a spy and some very serious stories too. The stories are important too in that they give a picture of wartime England.

“Get your facts right” shows how quick people were to make judgments. People were losing their sons and spouses in the war and then see railroad drivers and firemen living in the “safe” civilian world while ours died. Firemen and drivers were protected positions; they could not even volunteer for combat because they were so badly needed at home to support the war. England did not have enough drivers and the training was long. There was a formal apprenticeship program that took years to for a person to move to the position of driver. War accelerated the process, but there still remained a shortage of drivers.

Trains, of course, make up the other part of the story and the casual reader will learn a few things about the steam engines and maybe a bit of English geography too. There is an appendix that will help the readers with the railroad terminology. For Americans reading the book, your Kindle dictionary and Wikipedia will help with the English slang of the 1940s. For those not familiar with steam engines, there is also a helpful guide to explain the number strings like 2-4-0 or 0-6-0. Once you understand the engines they are very easy to visualize.

Steaming is a combination of of steam engines, World War II, great characters, and very good story telling that link a collection of short stories into a fine novel. A great book for fans of steam engines and the home front of WWII.

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Book Review: Train: Riding the Rails That Created the Modern World — From the Trans-Siberian to the Southwest Chief

Train by Tom Zoellner

Train: Riding the Rails That Created the Modern World — From the Trans-Siberian to the Southwest Chief by Tom Zoellner is an account of the author’s travel on some of the historic rail lines from across the globe. Zoellner earned his B.A. in History and English from Lawrence University and his M.A. from Dartmouth. He has reported for several newspapers and has published several nonfiction books on a variety of subjects: from uranium to diamonds. He has also been a speechwriter for Gabrielle Giffords which prompted him to write A Safeway in Arizona: What the Gabrielle Giffords Shooting Tells Us About the Grand Canyon State and Life in America after the tragic shooting in 2011.

Train starts in England as Zoellner rides across the country visiting places of interest from the world’s first railway, to where the steam engine was invented, improved, and eventually made into a train. He ties aspects of the region, coal for example, from the dangerous work in the mines to Thatcher’s effective shutdown of coal mining when breaking the miners union in 1984. England is the heart of railroad history. Trains were needed to move raw materials to factories and finished goods back to port. In India, the railroads claim to be the biggest employer in the world, not true, but nonetheless and very impressive sized employer. The British brought railroads to India for their economic benefit, but in the long run the railways united the formerly fragmented Indian people and perhaps helped India on its way to independence. 

Some countries see rail as the future. China’s centralized government is spending an incredible sum of money building a rail infrastructure. People will need to move in the future and a train is far more efficient energy-wise and far more affordable for the people than automobiles. Peru is in a financial do or die railroad project. Trains, although costing more initially, will move the country’s raw materials far more efficiently than an army of trucks. China is also exporting its rail building expertise throughout the world, including the United States. 

I once heard a commentator say that the United States has a rail system that would embarrass Bulgaria; I don’t think he was lying. Zoellner covers the rise and tragic fall of the American rail system from settling the west and unifying the country to state governments refusing to allow high speed rail to be built in their states. As someone who prefers to travel by train, anywhere that is too far to bicycle to, I see the same sad system. Amtrak estimated that over 95% of Americans have never been on a train. 

Perhaps the most unexpected thing in the book is the Tran-Siberian Railroad. Zoellner is quick to explain that this is not the Orient Express. In fact, when he tells Russian passengers that he plans to ride all the way to Vladivostok, they look at him in horror. Why would anyone want to travel voluntarily across Siberia is a mystery to a Russian. For days on end the landscape is unchanging. Russians ride the Trans-Siberian Railroad only because they have to. It is more of an engineering marvel for the Czar Nicholas II to brag about to his European counterparts than it was ever for comfortable train travel. 

Train is an exciting look at some of the world’s historic and greatest railways. Zoellner adds history and ancillary stories to the these important railways. It is not just trains, but politics that create and kill railways. It is also about planning the future infrastructure of rising nations and watching the failure of up until now successful nations. Railways were and still are a sign of power and pride in many nations. Zoellner’s first hand accounts, interviews, and related history make this a great book.

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Book Review: The Railwayman’s Pocket Book: Instructions for Engine Drivers & Firemen on the Great Railways

The Railwayman's Pocket Book by Richard Hardy

The Railwayman’s Pocket Book: Instructions for Engine Drivers & Firemen on the Great Railways edited by Richard Hardy is a collection of old railroad documents, instructions, and manuals for steam engines. Hardy is a forty-two year veteran of the London & North Eastern Railway and British Railways. He began his apprenticeship in 1941 and worked his way from boiler man to electrician on the new diesel engines. He writes the introduction and gives a short biography.

The documents presented in the book range from 1893 through 1947 and cover various aspects of locomotive era railways. It was an era where apprenticeship and evaluations controlled a person’s progress. So many hours and miles were needed and a test must be passed before rising in class, duties, and responsibilities. In many ways the old railroad was run much the way the military was run when I served. Promotions were based on merit and experience and the entire operation ran like a modern military. The rail worker had responsibilities coming on to a shift, the yard were regulated and restricted. Instructions and signals were standardized and some seem a bit humorous today. “The STOP SIGNAL is shown by holding both arms straight up, thus, or by waving any object with violence.” The testing covered practical duties: “How do you make a fire with Welsh coal?” and “In what condition should the engine be in before starting with a train.” The manuals cover practical subjects of engine mechanics and configuration, the proper fire in the boiler, safety, and security. Technology of the time was covered with coal loading and the rather amazing process of scooping water from a trough to feed a boiler. This was an innovation that allowed additional water for steam to be brought on board without stopping the train. 

It is a short book, but the primary source material is an excellent reference to an era long gone. Although plenty of areas still run steam engines from outside my current home in Dallas, Texas and my hometown’s Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad, it for recreation and nostalgia. It is part of a history that built nations and helped industrialize the world. A very good read for railroad historians and train lovers.

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Book Review: Rails Across Ontario: Exploring Ontario’s Railway Heritage

Rails Across Ontario by Ron Brown

Rails Across Ontario: Exploring Ontario’s Railway Heritage by Ron Brown is a history of railroads and the infrastructure that came with the railways. Brown is a geographer and a freelance travel writer. His other books are about, among other things, Ontario history and railways.

Trains are magical machines. They linked the nineteenth century world and further linked the world into the mid-twentieth century when they were killed off by highways and air travel. I was a child at that tail end period and loved trains. Late nights in East Cleveland, Ohio I would stand at the rise overlooking the tracks and wait to watch the trains roll by. I traveled by train in the 1980s in central Europe. A few years ago at the state fair, I spend almost my whole time mesmerized at the train museum. Today, when I have to travel farther than my bicycle will carry me, I go by train.

Rails Across Ontario begins with a short history of the railway build up in Ontario and presents some of the challenges both geographical and financial. Railway towns are discussed in some detail along with bridges. Bridges presented a challenge especially when crossing commercial waterway. Brown discusses the engineering that allowed both trains and ships to pass. Many bridges have been abandoned but the Wasauksing swing bridge is still operational and a tourist site.

Like the bridges, railway stations and hotels are described and likewise general locations of each are given. There is a call to preserve the heritage and save the buildings. Some have been converted to other uses. Ottawa’s grand Union Station has been converted to a convention center. Many are protected landmarks, but sadly left to decay on their own. Many of the ancillary structures are preserved, from round houses still in use to coal chutes.

Brown gives general locations of all the structures and if you are a train enthusiast or historian you can easily find all the places. It should be an easy task for those in Ontario, but detailed mapping might be needed for visitors. Individually covering each station and bridge will allow the reader to plan a day trip visiting different locations. The book is written as a guide more than as a history. There are very few photos and no maps in the book to help outsiders locate the landmarks and very little on the engines that ran on the rails. All in all it is a good book for railway enthusiasts and probably as very good book for enthusiasts and historians in Ontario. Three stars on the understanding that the audience for this book is Ontario residents.

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