Wednesday, 10 May 2017

Preservation? Restoration? Conservation?

The truth is I haven't done a lot of modelling recently, and neither has Himself for that matter.

You see we've just had a week of unbroken sunshine here in the west of Scotland.

What a time to be alive!

(I was also kept busy making a batch of castings for a customer.)

So instead I thought I would offer up a few thoughts on a subject of narrow gauge current affairs - the rebuilding of Welsh Pony.

I was most amused by an intense debate on a narrow gauge interest group on a popular social media network which was sparked by this picture of the new frames and cylinders for the engine alongside the old ones which were judged beyond repair.

As is often the way it degenerated into an ill-tempered flame-war which led to users blocking each other.

The gist of the argument, to start with, was about whether it was right to embark on a rebuild / restoration which has required the replacement of parts which some believe are the essence of a locomotive - its frames.

It then developed into a row about to what degree historic objects should ever be repaired and renovated?

A very militant argument was advanced which suggested that an object's value is based solely on its antiquity and authenticity, and thus replacing bits of historic steam engines like Welsh Pony is wrong.

The logic of this position is that to do so is destroying the value of the entity and it should be conserved as a static exhibit - if we want steam engines we must build replicas.

The problem with this line of argument is that any machine deteriorates as soon as it is used, and a steam engine more than perhaps any other

Today's replica soon becomes tomorrow's artifact.

Many steam engine components are by their nature consumables and the machines were generally intended to be either rebuilt or recycled or replaced.

Questions about when a object ceases to be itself anymore quickly move from the science of engineering to the art of philosophy.

For myself I tend to take a rather Humpty Dumpty-esque view that it is because I say it is.

My position on question of Welsh Pony is very clear and as a long-term supporter of a return to steam I put my money where my mouth was as soon as the plan was announced, as you can read in this archive post so I won't repeat it here.

Should you wish to know more about what has done to the engine during the rebuild , including details of what parts are being reused and which replaced, it has been extensively documented on the Society website.

What I was reading online got me thinking about the nature of preservation, restoration and conservation, and the peculiar context of the FR.

Many believe - and I'm one of them - that the present day FR is an extension of a history which began in 1836.

We are not about 'preservation' so much as 'continuation'.

(This was one of many moot points in the online debate with the argument advanced that FR history ceased in 1946 - I regard this as nonsense.)

To get back to Welsh Pony, however, it occurred to me that there is a peculiar distinction with the FR in that as well as asking how much original material there may be in a locomotive or carriage we much also ask to what it extent it is in original specification?

The England engines are a case in point.

Take Prince, which when it was rebuilt in the late 1970's emerged oil-fired, superheated and with a superstructure that had been force-fed a diet of maxi-muscle.

This resulted in it being used once more in front line service in the years of the final push to Blaenau, rather than the vintage attraction that it is mostly today.

There was a logic to what was done then although I doubt anyone would seriously propose doing it again - I think the lesson has been learnt - but this too is now part of the story of the England engines.

As a man in my 40s I can only remember seeing Prince in this condition.  To me, and anyone younger than me, it is Prince.

That is also why it is important that Palmerston and Welsh Pony are restored to steam, because if they weren't how could future generations know how an authentic late 19th / early 20th century FR England engine performed?

No amount of study of Princess is going to tell you that, however much it remains mechanically in a 1946 timewarp.

This is why we will learn more from Welsh Pony in steam, and appreciate it more when it is back in steam than languishing like this.

The same argument could even be applied to the Double Fairlies.

If Livingston Thompson is never to steam will anyone ever again get to know how a saturated double engine with slide valves performs?

Anyway, I have rambled on long enough here.

There is a comments section below, so let the flaming commence!


  1. The same arguments are made about cages on the Isle of Man. My feeling is that it's a railway with a continuous history but many people wish to pickle it in a aspic. Exactly when history is supposed to stop is less clear. Nor is whether they would be willing to forego toilets and cafes for the sake of authenticity.

  2. ...and bung some more wheels under the Penrhyn ladies!

  3. Steve Cheetham11 May 2017 at 08:53

    Entirely agree with the "continuation, not preservation" point. Clearly historical material demands conservation, but if all we have is lifeless hulks in sheds, future generations will lose all connection to steam railways. And in the real world the distinction between "historic" and "replica" is always a grey one. The people who get stuff done wind up making trade-offs, not just the FR, but elsewhere - see - restoration of two super metre-gauge rack locos including new frames and cylinders as well as sheet metal...