The power of steam
I had never heard his name before, but among the enthusiasts who post on the Facebook group ‘Disused Railways’, the name of Dai Woodham is held in the sort of regard in which a religious person might hold a saint. Dai Woodham, it seems, was responsible for the survival of hundreds of steam locomotives.
Britain had continued to build steam locomotives after the Second World War when electrification would have been a better long-term investment. In post-war Britain, a thousand pits employing a million miners, and traditional steel works producing the materials for locomotive production, meant that successive governments were loath to quickly adopt changes that would have been to the ultimate benefit of the railways.
Perhaps it was more than economic factors that shaped the decision, perhaps steam locomotives had a place deep in the British psyche.
On 18th March 1960, the naming ceremony took place for the very last steam locomotive built by British Rail. The 999th locomotive of the British Railways Standard range, the Evening Star was the only locomotive built with the object of preservation in mind.
No-one would have anticipated that the Evening Star would be one among more than two hundred that would be preserved. When steam engines were withdrawn from service, some 297 were sent to the Woodham Brothers scrapyard at Barry in South Wales, an extraordinary 213 of those were saved for preservation. It is a number worthy of a tale told by the Rev. W. Awdry.
On the day of the naming of the Evening Star, R.F. Hanks, chair of the Western Area Board of the British Transport Commission made a speech which seemed to anticipate the endurance of British love for the steam train:
But it is also a very great day for Swindon, and, to my friends from other Regions and from the B.T.C., I trust I shall not be considered parochial when I say that it is a proud day for Great Western men everywhere who will find much satisfaction, since there had to be a “last one” that it should fall to the lot of Swindon to see the job through. [..] I am sure it has been truly said that no other product of man’s mind has ever exercised such a compelling hold upon the public’s imagination as the steam locomotive. No other machine, in its day, has been a more faithful friend to mankind and has contributed more to the cause of industrial prosperity in this, the land of its birth, and throughout the world.
Hanks was right about the hold of the steam locomotive upon the imagination.
Three of my earliest memories are of steam trains: standing with my mother on the platform of Langport West station when not yet four years of age: watching the level crossing gates of the station at Martock swing open to allow the passage of a train; being at Weymouth while very young and seeing a train travel the line through the streets on its way to the docks.
The hold is undeniable, its reason unclear.
Back in the 90s there was a steam loco in the carpark of the Ennis train station. It sat on about 20 yards of track looking like Plassy aground on Aran.
I would see it every week as I travelled up and down to UCG since Ennis CIE acted as a twin station for buses too. I stopped going up and down, and then went with a local bus fellow who was bringing from south Kilkenny and Tipp SR. For some reason I ended up in that car park a few years later and she was gone. Onwards a few more years and I was standing on the platform in Bray when a steam train halted and did her hissing and wheezing before heading off around the Head, leaving me hoping it was the sad engine from Ennis.
Nope, the one I saw was a different one. The engine beached in Ennis was part of the West Clare line named Slieve Callan.
Was the one in Ennis from the old Ennis and West Clare Railway (made famous by Percy French)?
Yep, so it would seem. Mid 90s there was moves to form a railway society.
I read that initially the locomotives held at Woodhams were saved by the volume of other, presumably more profitable work, going through the yard. Later on he realised that there were people keen to buy them as they were and so avoiding the work in cutting them up. I think he was probably more of a canny businessman than anything else.
Ah, profit being the foreunner of altruism!
It makes sense. A friend used to say that if you wanted an explanation for most things, just follow the money.