I spent most of Sunday riding on steam trains at the East Lancs Railway. There is something very appealing about the size and elemental power of mainline steam locomotives. They harness fire and water in ways that would have impressed Milton or Blake. Railway posters from the 1930s take pride in the scale, speed, and modernity of the venture. The famous ‘summer comes soonest’ poster for Southern Railway, showing a small boy looking up at the driver of a huge engine, was parodied "with apologies" by LNER, using an even smaller child and an engine with even larger wheels. These things were a status symbol then and in steam, 70-odd year-old museum pieces that they are, they are still glorious.
But while they can be beautiful and awe inspiring trains are also suggestive of loss and tragedy: the lovers parted on the platform, the cattle trucks heading for Dachau or Auschwitz, the soldiers off to war. Perhaps more than anywhere off a battlefield, the railway platform is where soft humanity and hard modernity meet. This poem by Wilfred Owen captures that idea of machines in service to humanity’s causes and the fatal pact we sign with them: "Then, unmoved, signals nodded, and a lamp / Winked to the guard":
Down the close, darkening lanes they sang their way
To the siding-shed,
And lined the train with faces grimly gay.
Their breasts were stuck all white with wreath and spray
As men’s are, dead.
Dull porters watched them, and a casual tramp
Stood staring hard,
Sorry to miss them from the upland camp.
Then, unmoved, signals nodded, and a lamp
Winked to the guard.
So secretly, like wrongs hushed-up, they went.
They were not ours:
We never heard to which front these were sent.
Nor there if they yet mock what women meant
Who gave them flowers.
Shall they return to beatings of great bells
In wild trainloads?
A few, a few, too few for drums and yells,
May creep back, silent, to still village wells
Up half-known roads.
by Wilfred Owen