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Monday essay: Thomas is a distraction the railway can’t afford

You may have seen reports that Prince William and his wife the Duchess of Cambridge are touring the country in the Royal Train to thank community workers and frontline staff for their efforts during the pandemic. Sim Harris suggests one small aspect of this tour is rather out of date.

THE tour by the Royal couple has been welcomed, and the reactions have included a celebratory drawing by the talented ‘schoolboy doodler’ Joe Whale from Shrewsbury, who has just turned 11.

His creations are being enjoyed round the world, and his Royal Tour drawing shows a train travelling through a varied landscape of doodles.

It is plain that he has been inspired by the Royal mode of travel, which is fine, except that the train itself is not much like the real thing, drawn as it is in real life by a diesel locomotive supplied by DB Cargo.

Instead, Joe has inserted a machine at the head of the train which is emitting a plume of smoke from a chimney – and which is plainly intended to be a steam engine.

Now artistic licence is one thing, but there are wider implications which are not necessarily good news for the railway industry.

When children in Britain draw trains they seem to frequently include a steam engine in the picture, although the last standard gauge steam engine was withdrawn by British Rail 52 years ago – probably before those children’s parents were born.

The steam engine – polluting and desperately ‘ungreen’ (most of them used coal, a fuel which is also now seriously out of favour) – might have faded into the past along with gas lamps, hansom cabs and ladies’ bustles, but it hasn’t.

The reasons are not difficult to see. One is the continuing popularity of that blue tank engine, whose books have inspired more than one tv series and also the appearance of full-size imitations at many heritage railway events, while another is probably the more recent arrival of the Hogwarts Express. 

The stories of Thomas and Harry Potter have given a great deal of pleasure to millions of people, and there is nothing wrong with that. They are also entirely fictional, which places them in the same category as the Railway Children (another steamfest).

But although they may be fiction these books seem to have left a lasting impression on their young readers, even though they may travel everywhere in the family car, including when visiting a heritage railway which almost inevitably features more steam engines.

So perhaps the railway is imprinted on their young minds as something quaint and even a little bit special, but not much to do with the modern, everyday world of traffic jams and Top Gear. Now, there is something wrong with that (unlike the railway books themselves), because when they get older and start considering a career they seem unlikely to choose railways, and the industry is feeling the pinch.

We hear a lot about the skills shortage in the world of railways, and it might just be that Thomas is partly to blame, much as that would doubtless have distressed his gentle Reverend creator.

Since Thomas is unlikely to chuff away soon, and since new generations yet unborn are probably destined to be fascinated in due course by journeys from Platform 9¾, some kind of compensatory information is needed.

Once upon a time, in a world that now seems far away, exactly that kind of compensation was provided in the form of the British Rail Education Service.

Perhaps needless to say, the BRES was a casualty of privatisation. It was not specifically abolished by Parliament, but its fate was left uncertain – and what is everyone’s responsibility is no-one’s responsibility, as the saying goes.

The railways are undergoing another major upheaval, as franchising comes to a (well deserved) end. As part of the reforms, in the interest of the future railway – including but not exclusively in the engineering branches – detailed railway education packs (in whatever format) for schools should surely find a place once again.

It is perhaps a little ironical that the BRES was flourishing when its parent industry really was thought to be in decline. In spite of the temporary distractions of Covid, that is no longer the case. Civil servants are busy drawing up lists of future railway projects, not future railway closures, while work is well underway on the first section of railway where trains could soon be travelling at up to 350km/h – speeds which would surely make Thomas’ eyes water.

Thomas, along with real steam engines, is still a genial part of the entertainment scene, but in the interests of the future railway industry and the country as a whole, it is surely time that this superseded technology, wonderful as it may have been in its day, was firmly banished to the fringes and marked ‘for amusement only’.

The real railway has moved on. If it is to continue to do so, it is high time to let its future recruits know more about the opportunities the industry offers, rather than leave them to be informed by fantasies based on an increasingly distant and largely irrelevant past.

The Monday Essay will be back on 4 January.

The next print edition of Railnews, RN286, will be published on 10 December. That edition and some previous issues can be obtained by calling 01438 281200 from UK numbers or +44 1438 281200 internationally, and selecting Option 2.

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