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Lost Leviathans

Colin Garatt outlines the story behind his amazing new album.

The decision to document the Last Steam Locomotives of the World was not taken lightly.

From the outset it was going to be a desperate race against time. By 1969, having turned professional to begin the task, steam traction had already vanished from the main lines of America, Great Britain and parts of Scandinavia. It was obvious that countries around the world would follow suit.

The steam age had been an incredible phenomenon by any standards. Steam was the driving force behind the Industrial Revolution; anywhere that was anywhere had a railway. The steam locomotive was also a sensual and beautiful creation, the one truly living machine.

Some 640,000 steam locomotives are believed to have been built, embracing thousands of different designs and shapes operating over a multiplicity of different gauges around the world. America built the greatest number with 177,000 examples.

Great Britain – railway builder to an empire and the world – produced some 110,000 locomotives and these came from an amazing total of over 350 different foundries over more than one and a half centuries.

Remotest places on earth

The diversity of railway operations led me to some of the remotest places on earth embracing all five continents. The first long haul expedition was to Finland and Lapland in 1972 to capture the Arctic snows.

This expedition included an overnight footplate journey on a ballast train from Rovanemi to the quarries at Raajarvi inside the Arctic Circle from which we were to bring a loaded train.

Chilled and covered in snow, I mounted the footplate of Finnish Railway’s TR1 Class Mikado No.1074 which drew into the yard at Rovanemi with a long string of empties. The cheery crew seemed pleased if surprised that an English visitor would be joining them.

We departed on time at 02.41 and entered a world of extremes. From the hot roaring locomotive to the arctic blizzard sweeping across the desolate white landscape. Our engine’s exhaust must have been audible for miles as, burning a mixture of logs and coal, the huge Mikado plunged into the darkness with headlamp blazing, the track ahead having disappeared under a blanket of snow.

Dawn broke whilst the wagons were being assembled at Raajarvi and coffee was brewed from a blackened kettle hung inside the firebox whilst huge Finnish skin sausages sizzled away on the Friedman injector mount. Never did food taste so good as in that remote Lapland quarry.

African expedition

Within months of returning from Finland came the first African expedition embracing South Africa, Rhodesia, Kenya and Tanzania. This three month tour had many highlights, not least working with the 234 tonne condensing 4-8-4s, built to work over the waterless Karroo Dessert between De Aar and Beaufort West.

Ninety of these 108 foot long giants were built by the North British of Glasgow in 1953-54 at a cost of £112,000 each. Prior to their introduction, water had to be specially conveyed into the desert.

An unforgettable week was spent photographing these engines whose exhaust steam passed through condensing elements in the tender. One of the pictures from that week was captioned: Eruption screaming. Two condensers ease up to the semaphores with fires made up and blow down valves screaming.

The steam giants which truly opened up the African continent were the Garratts. In Kenya I experienced the red liveried Mountain Class 2-8-4 and 4-8-2, thirty four of which were built by Beyer Peacock of Gorton in 1953.

These oil fired metre gauge giants were 104 feet long and weighed over 250 tonnes in full working order. They climbed the 332 miles long route from Mombasa on the Indian Ocean to the Kenyan capital of Nairobi, one mile above sea level.

Iron Dinosaurs

1974 saw the first incursion into south east Asia covering Java, Sumatra, Taiwan and the Philippines. This expedition gave rise to the term Iron Dinosaurs and rightly so as the island of Java was like a Jurassic park of locomotives.

Over a hundred different types worked hundreds of miles of sugar plantation lines and many lines of the state railways. I saw engines of every colour and shape, many were hybridised and some were up to a hundred years old.

The diversity was enhanced by the exotic nutshell burning veterans of neighbouring Sumatra’s palm oil estates. Incredible apparitions were also to be found on the Philippine island of Negros where on the logging and sugar railways the fabled Dragons of Sugar Island coloured the night sky with their fiery endeavours. These engines threw shrouds of crimson embers forty feet into the air, burning either wood or bagasse – the straw-like waste fibres of sugar cane processing.

The Insular Lumber Company of Negros Island operated their No.7, one of the world’s most incredible steam survivors in the form of a four cylinder Compound 0-6-6-0 Mallett from Baldwin of Philadelphia in the early 1920s.

For years I had dreamed of catching this mahogany burning giant alongside one of the company’s vertical cylinder Shays, the classic logging engine of the American Pacific north west – the two veterans, side by side at the dead of night, spraying the tropical vegetation with fire.

It was also my dream to catch No.7 on the wooden trestle viaduct, built in the Wild West tradition under American colonial rule, with a line of active volcanoes in the background.

India and Pakistan

By the late 1970s I had reached India and Pakistan whose prolific railway network was almost entirely built by Britain during The Raj. India was to become my second home. Not only did I find the Britain of my childhood but also the trains I grew up with. Many of India’s steam locomotives had their spiritual home in the soft English countryside.

I was to make eight expeditions to India, including three to the Assam coalfield in the far north east corner next to the border with Burma and China. Here I found an Inclined Plane operated by a Lancashire Boiler drawing coal from a hillside mine, whilst a few miles away was Ledo Brickworks, where the steam powered machinery for cutting and shaping the bricks came from Wooton Brothers of Coalville, whilst the two stationary boilers hailed from John Thompson’s works in Wolverhampton.

Two foot gauge Saddle Tanks from Bagnalls of Stafford provided the mainstay of motive power on the Assam coalfield for over one hundred years. I mounted a desperate campaign to have Ledo Brickworks preserved but to no avail.

Also in India I majored on the X Series of standard designs sent out from Britain during the 1920s to reduce the amount of different types being demanded by the various railway companies. Included were the handsome XC Pacifics, which resemble the L.N.E.R.Gresley A3s, and the massive XE 2-8-2 Mikados with their strong Gresley P1 aura. My attempts to have an XE preserved were successful but I failed with the XC which are now extinct.

Latin America

The longest expedition was to Latin America where, in six months, Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil, Paraguay and Chile were covered. It was a non-stop adventure ranging from a Beyer Peacock Compound 4-6-0 in Argentina’s high security naval base to the world’s last Texas type 2-10-4s, caught highballing 2,000 tonne trains across the metals of Brazil’s metre gauge Teresa Cristina Railway.

Equally thrilling were the wood burning Edwardian Moguls, built in Glasgow, heading passenger trains over the international main line between Ascuncion, the capital of Paraguay and Buenos Aires.

But perhaps the high spot was the journey into Chile’s Atacama Dessert in search of the world’s last Kitson Meyer, built by Kitson of Leeds in the Edwardian period. The British-owned railways of the Atacama once brought gold and nitrates to ports along the Pacific coast.

I reached that wild place to find just one Kitson Meyer active on track demolition duties at Taltal. Amid the remains of an old office block I found a Girl’s Annual of 1912. What an incomparable history our tiny island has.

The World’s last great steam user

Over more recent years I have focussed on China, the world’s last great steam user, with twenty expeditions to date. Until the 1980s it was almost impossible to get into China and there were many rumours of exotic types lingering behind the Bamboo Curtain.

These included an ex-Great Western Dean Goods 0-6-0s, and 4-2-2 Singles, exported to the Shanghai and Nanking Railway in 1910 by Kerr Stuart of Stoke on Trent.

Then in December 1983, when I finally got access, the opposite proved to be the case. There were six standard types which, between them, amounted to some 11,000 locomotives with no sign of the exotic rarities of yesteryear.

Even more remarkable, steam locomotives were still being built at a rate of one a day. It was a strange feeling. I had turned professional some fifteen years earlier to document the Last Steam Locomotives of the World and here they were, still being built and some of them would possibly outlive me.

Colin’s book, Lost Leviathans, can be purchased here.

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