I seldom travel by train these days. I suppose it’s partly the inability to walk past the car and do something different, but it’s also that modern locomotives are as dull as ditch water compared to the mighty steam engines of my childhood.
To see the ‘Union of South Africa’, the ‘Dominion of Canada’ or the magnificent ‘Mallard’ thundering, all smoke and steam, through the High Station was an unforgettable experience.
We brave trainspotters with our Ian Allen guide books waited for many an hour by the line to catch a glimpse of the green or blue engines all fitted out in gleaming brass with smoke streaming from the chimney and steam hissing and spitting from every part of the magnificent machinery.
In my mind’s ear – and nose – I can still hear the sound of pistons pumping and wheels singing on the rails and smell the burning coal, hot oil and grease which filled the air long after the train had disappeared from sight. However, the excitement we felt must have been as nothing compared to the effect the very first steam locomotives had on a rural population used to the plodding step of horses or the silent glide of a canal barge.
February 18, 1842 is a red letter day in Falkirk’s history. Just 13 years after Stephenson’s ‘Rocket’ ran on the Liverpool and Manchester line, the first major Scottish service linked Edinburgh and Glasgow passing south of Falkirk and Polmont where the railway company decided to build ‘halts’ or stations.
On the great day a train carrying 1000 enthusiasts of the Glasgow and Edinburgh Railway Company reached Falkirk High after a journey from Glasgow lasting one hour and a quarter.
Reporters wrote: “The sides of the railway were lined with admiring spectators, the bridges across the line, the station and every height which commanded a view of the train were crowded and young and old rent the air with their cheers.”
The locomotive was fed with “fresh water and coke”, given a second engine and cheered on its way into the mouth of the tunnel. Soon four trains left each day in both directions and the rough track that was part Cow Wynd and part Coal Heugh Brae now became High Station Road with passengers collected by horse buses for the bumpy journey to the town centre. A few years later a second line from Polmont to Stirling was routed through Falkirk by the Stirlingshire Midland Railway and a new station at Grahamston was constructed.
The train age meant the beginning of the end for the canals. Firms sought out sites near the track and great sidings and marshalling yards were built in the town and networks appeared across the district linking collieries and iron foundries.
Soon every town and village had its own station and the lives of the population changed for ever. For well over a century steam powered engines carried passengers and freight to all corners of the land and helped link communities in a way that had not been possible before.
In time they brought the magnificent examples of engineering design which so thrilled us all as children. Thankfully these days we can still experience some of the magic down at the Scottish Railway Preservation Society’s excellent facilities in Bo’ness. A visit there is a steam-powered trip down memory lane.