I was recently doing some work in Zambia and kept meeting conservationists with an interest in steam railways; it’s a an interest I share with them, although many people think it’s at odds with a passion for the environment because steam trains run on coal.
So, why do a number of conservationists and environmentalists share a passion for trains?
To be honest, I'm not sure.
The founder of one of our partner charities, David Shepherd’ was a great steam train fan (he even owned his own locomotive and had it run on the mainline track next to the charity offices in Shalford).
Several UK wildlife parks also have railways running through them, including a live steam railway in Whipsnade Zoo that even offers a footplate experience.
I think it could be to do with ‘getting back to nature’ in a certain way; steam trains are perhaps the closest thing we have to a ‘living machine’.
Each locomotive responds differently and has its own rhythm and quirks. You have to fuel them up with coal and water in a very manual process and keep the water levels high, making sure you are never too far from a water tank; much like with any animal, water sources are vital and routes have to be plotted to make sure both animals and locomotives don’t run out.
It could also be something to do with the sounds and smells of steam locomotives, like how keen birders can identify a species from its call, so a keen trainspotter can identify a locomotive from distance.
It could be any of the above, or it could be something completely different, I’ve never been able to exactly put my finger on why!
But there is certainly something about the slow clickety-clack and gentle chuff-chuff of a steam railway ride that is both relaxing and reminiscent of a lost era. In many ways much like a slow safari trip through a national park, imagining how life was before industrial development, taking us back in time in a small way.