Since the early 1990s, Norfolk Southern (formerly Norfolk and Western) streamlined 4-8-4 steam locomotive has been dormant, with no plans for its revival, and placed in a museum.
In 2015, enough interest pushed finances to move forward to bring the beautiful locomotive back to life, and have the first test runs in the spring, then with full excursions from May through the summer.
Here is a wonderful short documentary done in 1959, logged in the National Film Board of Canada, documenting a small window panning across the middle of the last days of steam locomotive dominance in Canada in the late 50s to early 60s.
By 1960, all but preserved tourist locomotives were gone in the United States. But in Canada, a few steam locomotives were in service in the 60s.
In the UK and most of Europe and Japan, a few mainline steam trains were operating through the 60s and into the early to mid-70s. It is also true that in North America, trains in general, were becoming less important as the automobile and airline industries worked hard to push the railroad out of public consciousness (and did not succeed in many ways).
In Europe and Japan, for instance, the railroads have continued to play a major role. The nostalgic emotions for steam locomotives are still a major aspect of most cultures around the world. This beautiful documentary uses interviews and the lives of those who had worked intimately with steam trains, to portray loss, change, and the contradictions of the passing of steam locomotives into the category of ‘relic.’ However, train travel in North America is again on the rise. The railroads also understand the steam locomotive to be strong central figures in the bedrock of most modern societies and reminders of colonial and imperial might and industrial-technological advancement and and nation-building itself. The steam locomotive will most likely not go away from human consciousness completely.
This documentary is certainly worth a quiet 30 minutes of our time with a hot drink along with our deepest connections to our histories and where we are headed as humans.
Some of the most beautiful scenes of vintage European steam in film were crafted in French filmmaker Jean Renoir’s 1938 film entitled La Bête humaine (English: The Human Beast; and in the UK released also as Judas Was a Woman).
The film centers on an express train engineer who discovers his wife was seduced by a wealthy godfather and plots their murder. This murder is witnessed by a co-railway worker. The plot complexifies further with the ramifications of this murderous path.
The express steam train pulled by French steam type 231 plays a major star role in the movie throughout, representing and symbolizing the human journeys, with beautiful photography and atmosphere.
Often, unknowing people only see toy trains and tour trains that travel slowly, making the people of today have unrealistic memories and images of how steam travel was. Although I can say that in Europe, many steam excursion trains run at speed, sometimes, most of the steam trains in Japan and the United States travel at slower speeds than what it would have been like in the days when steam was everyday normal.
These videos give a glimpse of what some of the “at-speed” speeds were like. Most of the express passenger trains pulled by steam locomotives in the 1930s through the early 50s, traveled at speeds exceeding 80 mph and the best of them traveled at over 100 mph.
Today, the fastest electric and magnet-driven trains can go over 300 mph. In the United States, this has not been seen yet. The United States, at the moment, does not seem to care too much about rail travel, even as more and more people are returning to the joys of train travel today, becoming tired of the monopoly of air, bus and car long-distance travel.
Below, from 1995, is a clip from a PSOV DVD, of the Princess Elizabeth #46203 locomotive speeding by at over 60 mph, and at 80 mph at stations.
Below is a short, great overview video from Vimeo, of a discussion held in New York, with Christopher Brown, author of the excellent book: Still Standing: A Century of Urban Train Station Design regarding the notion of what civic life is in a democratically-inspired region/nation and its relationship to public life, transit, and political power.
As High-speed rail is on peoples’ minds in the United States, catching up with Europe and Asia, and South America as far as attention to railroads, is an interesting development. Most decidedly, it is about politics, money, and power. The way the people of power see themselves on the global stage, from the 16th century forward, has become an important aspect of how we are all, as citizens of the phenomenon of nationhood, see ourselves.
Ultimately, it is, as the video states, about how people may move between places in comfort, safety, speed, and enjoyment.