Recently I came across a random copy of the Railway Magazine for November 1975, which featured the Grand Steam Cavalcade that commemorated the 150th anniversary of the opening of the Stockton & Darlington Railway, the first public railway in the world to use steam locomotives.
As we contemplate the bicentenary of the S&DR, due in 2025, it’s worth remembering the context of the 1975 event. Previous celebrations in 1875 and 1925 were attended with pomp and pride by a railway industry that still dominated British transport. In the 2020s “heritage” railways are an essential part of the tourist industry.
Yet in 1975 British Rail looked towards an uncertain future, less than a decade after the Beeching cuts and the demise of steam. Steam traction had been banned on BR lines from 1968 to 1972 except for Flying Scotsman, which had the benefit of a contractual anomaly.
Nevertheless the British Rail Engineering Ltd wagon works at Shildon, located on the original line of the S&DR, put on a magnificent show which featured – in motion and where possible in steam – a chronological procession of railway locomotives led by a modern reproduction of George Stephenson’s Locomotion and ending with the last BR locomotive to be built, 92220 Evening Star, and the power-car of the prototype High Speed Train.
The Railway Magazine editor, J N Slater, wrote up the experience with the acumen of an aficionado. The enthusiast press-corps, “Your Editor and Assistant Editor (and the Assistant Editor of the Railway Gazette International)”, travelled by rail from King’s Cross on a sleeping-car excursion that included a second-class sleeping berth, full breakfast in the restaurant at Newcastle Central, travel out to Shildon and back and the return journey to King’s Cross for £9.00. Equivalent walk-on fares for this journey would have amounted to £16.11.
Between 250,000 and 300,000 spectators are estimated to have witnessed the Cavalcade on Sunday August 31st, and many more had previously visited the Rail 150 exhibition in the wagon works.
Of the thirty-five locomotives in the procession, two had previously appeared in the 1925 event – Great Northern Railway no 1 (hauled by LNER no 4498 Sir Nigel Gresley) and no 990 Henry Oakley – and one, North Eastern Railway no 910 (hauled by LNER no 4472 Flying Scotsman), had appeared in the 1875 and 1925 processions.
Without doubt the 2025 bicentenary will be an exciting show for tourists and enthusiasts alike, but 1975 will be a hard act to follow.
And it will most likely produce some entertaining hissy-fits in the preparation: https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2021/feb/15/rival-railway-museums-in-row-over-steam-train-ownership.