The 10.50 from Dublin Connolly to Maynooth, No 186, a J-15 class 0-6-0 steam loco in spit-and-polish black livery, was born exactly 20 years before my father.
Bill Fisk was born in 1899. But No 186 moved out of the Manchester factory of Sharp, Stewart & Co in 1879, and looks like it was born yesterday.
More to the point, it is still steaming and hissing and chuntering its way across Ireland's broad-gauge metals to this day. Indeed, there it was this week, standing at platform two at Dublin’s Connolly station.
Many were the rain-soaked days when Bill Fisk stood forlornly on Southern Railway platforms while his wretched son, Ian Allen, loco-spotters' book in hand, ticked off the tank engines that pulled the Maidstone-Ashford local down to Bearsted. In those far-off years there was no thought of being a foreign correspondent. I wanted to be — like millions of my juvenile contemporaries — an engine driver. And like those children who worshipped steam and hated diesel, I never really gave up on my dream. I didn't really want to be a driver. I just wanted steam to last forever.
Thus did I with almost possessive affection beside No 186 this week and enter the fantasy world of the English schoolboy.
Steam locos, you see, live. Their smoke-belching, their smuts and steam and raaooow-raoow whistles and those thrashing pistons — I leaned out of the window and could see them as they “Titanic-ed” us past Croke Park and Drumcondra, Ashtown, Castleknock and Clonsilla, the old Lucan station house and over the Leixlip viaduct and on beside the Grand Canal — that were the heartbeat of the industrial revolution. And of the Empire, I suppose. For when No 186 was born, Dublin still had more than four decades to run as second city of the United Kingdom.
At Maynooth, the kids and their dads and mums and older sisters — few of whom (unlike Master Robert) could boast of seeing steam locos regularly pulling trains — disembarked to watch No 186 speed down the “up line” to switch points and pull the train back to Dublin. There were those thrashing pistons and that chimney drumbeat and the stench of pure, unadulterated coal smoke. Didn't all those steam locos affect the ozone layer back in the 1900s, I asked old David Seymour of the Railway Preservation Society of Ireland? He shrugged. Well, he said, “there were fewer cars in those days and fewer aircraft”.
And a lot of smog, I thought. The smoke of steam trains and the factory chimneys and steam-boats must have done a fair bit for global warming. And if our one steam loco could make the sheep run and the cows turn their heads, then the age of Victoria must have been insufferably noisy. The Irish railway society is just as obsessive as its opposite numbers on the other side of the Irish Sea and is always appealing for more money to keep its locos on the tracks, mainline as well as local. A new firebox and boiler can set you back £200,000, but when No 186, all 37 tons of it, glides out of Maynooth, its creaking green carriages swaying in forward motion with the pistons — Guinness is served, by the way, in the 1936 dining-car — you know you have been reborn.
Steam trains are not sacred creatures. But somehow, they remain a part of life, far longer than the life of long-dead Bill and, I fear, of Master Robert. And of Empires. The next 10-year overhaul of No 186 is due in 2014. And then in 2024. And in 2034. And 2044, when she'll be 165 years old. And we'll all still be alive then, won't we?