Railway Remembrances

I am old enough to remember the big coal-fired train engines. They were just being phased out in favour of diesel when I was a young boy. Every boy my age wanted to grow up to be an engineer (or a policeman or a fireman). I remember standing at the railway crossings down the street from my grandmother’s house in Arnprior, Ontario, watching the big trains thunder past.

I miss these engines; there was a grace and majesty to them that today's more efficient machines lack.

I miss these engines; there was a grace and majesty to them that today’s more efficient machines lack.

The Canadian Museum of Science and Technology (located in my home town of Ottawa and at the moment closed indefinitely due to a mould problem) does have a few steam engines on display. After all, Canada as a nation was formed by the railroad so it makes sense to display that heritage. Yes, I know there were other factors, but the railroad joined east and west long before there were highways. Freight trains still are vital to Canada’s economy, though passenger service has almost vanished. I haven’t taken the train in more than 30 years, but when I was a child I took it occasionally to visit my grandmother. The train doesn’t go to Arnprior anymore, the station is closed.

The bathroom in Edward VII's saloon car. I'll bet he never ran out of toilet paper!

The bathroom in Edward VII’s saloon car. I’ll bet he never ran out of toilet paper!

Passenger trains are still a major people mover in Britain, though we found rail travel to be more expensive there than in France, Germany and Belgium. Denser population and closer cities make it a more viable economic enterprise than in Canada. We took the train from Manchester to York, from East Midlands to London, London to Colchester (and back) and finally from London to Horley. Given that travel, it made sense that we would visit the National Railway Museum in York in July.

The place is, as you might expect, huge, definitely a train lover’s paradise. A little overwhelming to tell the truth – there is so much to see, with more than a million items in their collection. We only had a couple of hours before closing, so I concentrated on the engines. (I am not sure what Vivian saw – we got separated looking at the royal trains and I only found her at closing time.)

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If you are a king, this is how you get to travel on a British train.

In Ottawa, if I remember correctly, the museum has the train engine and coach used for the King and Queen on their 1939 tour of Canada, though I don’t remember seeing it on display (admittedly I haven’t been to the Science and Technology museum for a few years). In York we were able to view several engines and cars used to transport the royal family on their various trips across the U.K. over the years. I must confess they travel with more style than I ever did. My last cross-country rail journey I was in the same seat, day and night. I certainly didn’t have an armchair, china tea service or a telephone at my disposal (no cell phones back then). There was definitely no bathtub.

While I concentrated on the engines, the museum covers the entire history of rail and what it meant to communities and people in Britain. On a subsequent visit I would take the time to absorb more of those displays.

This is how us non-kingly folks get to travel.

This is how us non-kingly folks get to travel.

I have this feeling that I should be telling you my favourite or a “must-see” from the museum, but I don’t know if I can make a choice. The two things I liked most from the train travels of my youth I didn’t see in York, they are North American and may not be part of their collection. Or maybe I just missed them: the cabooses and the dome cars the Canadian railways used on passenger trains going through the Rocky Mountains. And yes, I said railways plural – Canada used to have two national passenger rail services which were then amalgamated and service was cut back. They still have observation cars though. At least that hasn’t changed. I wonder how much it would cost to ship one to the National Railway Museum in York.

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