They are an elegant mode of transport which still evoke romantic memories of Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson at the station in Brief Encounter and a youthful Jenny Agutter in The Railway Children.
But, amid the romance of steam trains, it has been the result of a lot of hard work and many years of dedication from a volunteer army in Aberdeen which has earned national recognition for the Ferryhill Railway Heritage Trust.
Back in 2019, prior to the Covid pandemic, Tornado tooted its whistle and passengers enjoyed being driven back to the past on the first of seven charter services to the Granite City.
The sleek Union of South Africa also made the journey up the coast from Edinburgh and attracted plenty of attention.
And the applause from the myriad aficionados who go loco about trains – and the steam variety in particular – told its own story about the success of the venture and the pride they felt as they surveyed the majestic Aberdonian.
The extensive restoration work undertaken by the organisation is being recognised this week when a plaque for the Stagecoach Volunteers Award, presented to the trust by the Princess Royal at the National Railway Heritage Awards in December 2019, is finally unveiled by NRHA chairman Theo Steel.
And, although they have been frustrated recently, the FRHT members are hopeful that they will be able to welcome back the public in the coming weeks.
A turntable which changed everything
The award has been given to the Aberdeen-based body which successfully restored the 1906 Ransomes & Rapier locomotive turntable that has been brought back into active service after many years of disuse.
The NRHA event took place at the Merchant Taylors’ Hall in the City of London, where the Princess Royal presented the plaque and a cheque for £2,000 to the trust’s chairman Dr Jon Tyler.
The turntable, which was originally constructed 125 years ago for the Caledonian Railway, was built in Ipswich and it is 70 feet long and is capable of turning locomotives of up to 170 tonnes.
It is an essential component for reversing steam locomotives, so that they may be used to haul a train on its return journey. These are only permitted to run in a forward direction on the main lines of the national network.
Here was a proud day for the FRHT
The project was funded by The Railway Heritage Trust, Historic Environment Scotland and the Association for Industrial Archaeology, and it was a labour of love for the many people who helped bring it to fruition.
I was there on the day two years ago when the turntable was carefully, methodically installed with the assistance of a giant crane and the smiles and relief etched on the faces of those present testified to their belief that this marked the dawn of a new golden age.
Andrew Meff, one of the volunteers, said: “It was back in 1995 that a steam train – Blue Peter – was last turned here and it’s the best part of 20 years since any vehicle was turned, so you can imagine how we feel now that we know all our efforts have been worthwhile.
“When we took over this site a decade ago, it was overgrown, it was muddy, and an awful lot of work needed to be done.
“But although it has been a long and arduous task, it has been a great opportunity for us as well.”
Steam services are resuming in July
The trust has confirmed it will be welcoming steam-hauled charter trains back to Aberdeen next month providing a boost to the local tourist economy.
The rationale behind the National Railway Heritage Awards is “to recognise, acknowledge and reward, for the public benefit, the very best in restoration, conservation and re-use of our historic railway infrastructure.”
And the trust is now reaching the final stages of the restoration of the 1850s former engine shed at the Ferryhill site.
Major structural repairs have been necessary to the 16 original timber roof trusses, which had suffered from wet rot and decay after 40 years of exposure to the elements caused by vandalism to the roof windows.
Nearly 300 panes of glass have been professionally replaced in the roof, together with repairs to the astragals, guttering and drainage.
This latter work was all done by volunteer members and, as usual, they have poured themselves into their exertions with a can-do philosophy.
The hard work continues at Ferryhill
The trust is now seeking sponsorship for a project to repair and re-glaze the remaining timber window frames and they have plenty of toil ahead of them.
Eventually, the concrete floor of the building will be reinstated and rails will be re-installed to allow rolling stock and locomotives to be brought back into the property, restoring it to its original function after a 100-year gap.
Indeed, during the period from 1906 to 1970, the site was relegated to being used as a wagon repair workshop.
But recently, a grant from Historic Environment Scotland has been used to install an automatic pedestrian door and a roller shutter door in the gable end of the engine shed. Railway track will extend through the new opening and on to an apron in front of the shed for the display of rolling stock items.
Tyler talks about a bright future
Jon Tyler, a stalwart of the trust’s endeavours, has outlined how his organisation has exciting plans as the summer rolls on.
He and his colleagues have not been thwarted from staying on the right track.
He said: “This award is a welcome reminder of the value which is attached to Scotland’s railway heritage.
“While the volunteers have been restricted in what they can do during the Covid pandemic, great strides have been made in improving the outside area.
“Railway track is being laid which will allow the trust to operate limited diesel train rides, once our brake van arrives.
“Volunteers are working hard to get the diesel shunter fully operational and also to give it a much-needed coat of paint.
“Mainline steam trains are expected on July 22 and 31, August 12 and 21 and September 2 and 11. Depending upon the Covid regulations in force, visitors may be admitted to view the locomotives being turned on these dates.”
There is no doubt the members’ exertions have transformed a formerly dilapidated piece of land into a thriving hubbub of activity.
They have put Aberdeen back on the map when it comes to steam trains. Which is something the volunteers can feel very proud about.
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