Irresistible romance of a steam train scarred with bullet holes ofba


The Independent (London)
February 12, 2005, Saturday


With a spare hour on my hands before lunch in Lebanon this week, I
revisited the joys of my childhood, crunched my way across the old
Beirut marshalling yards and climbed aboard a wonderful 19th-century
rack-and- pinion railway locomotive. Although scarred by bullets, the
green paint on the wonderful old Swiss loco still reflects the
glories of steam and of the Ottoman empire.

For it was the Ottomans who decided to adorn their jewel of Beirut
with the latest state-of-the-art locomotive, a train which once
carried the German Kaiser up the mountains above the city where, at a
small station called Sofar, the Christian community begged for his
protection from the Muslims. “We are a minority,” they cried, to
which the Kaiser bellowed: “Then become Muslims!”

But that is another story. The locos went on chuffing up the
mountains until 1975 when the Lebanese civil war destroyed many of
the trains and much of the permanent way. Up in the Lebanese port of
Tripoli, there are some far bigger 0-8-0s (the configuration of steam
locomotive wheels), engines which were installed to pull trains
between the Lebanese seaport and the Syrian city of Hama. They, too,
are perforated by bullets – they had formed part of the Palestinian
front line against Syrian troops in 1983 – and their oil is still
bleeding from their gaskets.

When first I discovered them, I was in contact with that renowned
expert on Middle East steam, Rabbi Walter Rothschild of Leeds, who
immediately told me their story. They had originally belonged to the
pre-First World War Reichbahn and had been handed over to the French
as part of post- war Versailles reparations. The French Middle East
mandate had just been created and Paris sent their German gifts to
operate out of Lebanon. So these great steam behemoths, which once
pulled the middle classes of Germany from Berlin to Danzig, ended up
in a north Lebanese railway junkyard.

All my life, I have been fascinated by trains. My mother used to take
me down to Maidstone East station in Kent to watch the tank engines
pull their local trains in from Ashford or the old Second World War
Super Austerity class steamers – big, ugly beasts with a firebox the
shape of a squashed toilet roll – with a mile of rusting trucks in

Sometimes, she would take me one station down the line to Bearsted
where my father would be playing golf, the compartment – we travelled
first class – filling with smoke in the tunnel beneath Maidstone
prison, the old black-out curtains banging against the windows. For
days, I would stand on the platform of Tonbridge station and watch
the Battle of Britain class locos and the Merchant Navy class and the
Schools class (from which, I would later note, my own minor public
school, Sutton Valence, was rigorously excluded) as they pummelled
through with boat trains to Victoria or Dover.

The Golden Arrow, in those pre-Eurostar days, was the joy of every
loco- spotter, its cream and gold carriages hauled by an engine with
the British and French flags snapping from the boiler. We all held
that train lovers’ bible in our hands, Ian Allen’s loco-spotter’s
guide to engine numbers.

I used to think all this was a fetish until I realised how deeply the
railway system had permeated art. Turner was obsessed with trains.
Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina falls in love on a train journey, decides to
leave her husband on a railway platform and commits suicide by
throwing herself in front of a goods train. “And exactly at the
moment when the space between the wheels drew level with her … and
with a light movement, as though she would rise again at once, sank
on to her knees … something huge and relentless struck her on the
head and dragged her down on her back. God forgive me everything!’
she murmured.” Tolstoy even died in a railway station.

Part of Doctor Zhivago revolves around his flight from Moscow by
rail, his sight of Strelnikov’s revolutionary locomotive and his
subsequent trek back to Lara down a partially snow-covered track. The
film’s treatment of this is not as good as the book’s, where a female
barber warns Zhivago that he risks arrest with “all this talk of
special trains”.

The point, of course, was that all trains were “special”. My mother
took early colour film of 10-year-old Robert watching the big cream
and red “Trans Europe Express” – a diesel-hauled all-first-class
train – sliding into Freiburg station in Germany in 1956. But equally
special was a wind- up model steam loco which my father brought me
back from Germany where he had been aiding the post-war
reconstruction of Hamburg. Being German, it was so powerful that it
once flew off its English Hornby tracks, raced across the front hall
carpet, jumped the front door step of our home and struck out across
the drive, coming to rest under my father’s car.

When the Lebanese authorities briefly restored the coastal line from
east Beirut to the Crusader port of Byblos, I travelled its length in
the driving cab of a big Polish diesel. It pulled just one wooden
carriage – an import from the British empire’s Indian empire after
the 1914-18 war – and travelled at no more than 15 miles per hour
because the Lebanese, being Lebanese, insisted on parking their cars
on the track when they went swimming.

Despite the great liners of the world and the growth of air power,
leaders – especially dictators – loved trains. Hitler had his own
luxurious train, complete with mobile flak batteries. So did Goering,
and so did Himmler. And Tito. Soviet commissars loved trains. And
trains, of course, became accessories to murder. Turkish railways
carried thousands of Armenians to their places of massacre. European
trains carried millions of Jews and gypsies to their annihilation.
The steam train whistle which permeates D H Lawrence’s Sons and
Lovers had a quite different connotation as it drifted over the
snowfields around Auschwitz.

Somehow, airports never captured the magic of railway stations. Name
me an air version of Saint Pancras or the Gare du Nord or Grand
Central. But it was years before I grasped – I think – just what the
fascination of trains involves. It’s about the track, the rails, the
permanent way as much as the locomotives. At Edinburgh Waverley, you
can look at the twin rails and know that, with points and unwelded
track and occasional changes of width, those minutely shaped ramrods
of iron stretch unbroken from Scotland via the Channel Tunnel to
Turkey or Saint Petersburg or Vladivostok or – save for the Iraqi
insurgents who keep blowing up the permanent way – to Baghdad.

I suspect this sense of continuity appeals to us. An airliner might
fly a route but never through the same stretch of air. Nor does a
ship pass through exactly the same waters each voyage. But the train
will always travel – to an inch – along precisely the same journey as
it took yesterday or a hundred years ago, the same journey which it
will take next week and in a hundred years.

In the overgrown Beirut marshalling yards, the tracks are still
visible, maintaining a ghostly continuum with the past, reminding us
of the permanence of history and power and – in its worst performance
of industrialised murder – of death. Which is why, I suppose, trains
capture our imagination and fear from childhood to old age.