There’s a fascination about steam trains, isn’t there? This photo (taken by Richard) is of one of the most famous of all steam locos, the Flying Scotsman, when it came belting along our local line a few years back. I’d love to have been riding its train, not just watching it go by.
Its usual home is the National Railway Museum at York, where I and a group of friends went last weekend. It’s a great place for an outing, with more than 100 historic engines and masses of other railway paraphernalia, from the technical to the trivial.
There are exhibits right up to the present day, but it was the ones from the past we all wanted to see: like the replica of Stephenson’s original Rocket, the first modern steam loco, which achieved a whopping 24 m.p.h. in trials in 1829.
My favourites were several royal trains built for the likes of Queen Victoria and Edward VII…the height of luxury, naturally, with beautiful wood panelling everywhere, and wonderfully comfortable-looking chairs and beds.
We couldn’t actually go inside Their Majesties’ coaches, but we were invited to sit in a first class carriage used between the wars, and luxuriate in the soft, roomy seats which presumably kept you content and relaxed over even the longest trip. And the bathroom next door…I wouldn’t mind something like that at home!
OK, I know I’m being over-romantic about the old days of steam. The journeys were long and slow, and if you opened a carriage window, soot blew in your face and spattered your clothes. I remember all that, from rail trips as a child. But I also remember how exciting those trips were, a real adventure.
Someone at the Museum, discovering my interest in the Romans, asked me about the theory held by some train buffs that the Romans were responsible for the gauge of our modern railways – 4ft 8.5 ins between the rails – because that was the standard gauge of an Ancient Roman war chariot. This is proved, they maintain, by wheel-ruts in Roman roads, which caused the standardised width to be handed down through generations of vehicle designers till Stephenson adopted it for his trains.
It’s a nice colourful theory, but it’s wrong.
First, forget the idea of war chariots; the Romans didn’t have them. Chariots were important for racing and for grand parades, not for fighting. Boudicca had chariots when she fought the Romans; that’s why she lost.
But they had farm carts, travel coaches, and heavy freight wagons, capable of wearing ruts in roads, and yes, similar in gauge to modern rail tracks. But there was no official standardisation, no set rule for vehicle design. In a pre-industrial society, how could there be? It’s just that if you build a wagon or coach to be pulled by a pair of oxen or horses, the natural length of the axles is determined by the beasts’ width, and comes out at between four and a half and five feet. That was as true for Stephenson as it was for the Romans.
He simply constructed his rolling-stock and tracks to a width that was familiar from the carts and wagons he saw every day. So he was, in a sense, following in the wheel-tracks of former generations, because that was what common usage and common sense dictated.
But not because of war chariots. That theory has gone well and truly off the rails.