Train of Events is a small team that organises events with a railway theme.
Railways and the military are very good at evocative mission statements. Berlin Infantry Brigade had Hold until Relieved – a polite euphemism for a bloodbath of bitter street fighting. The RAF had Per Ardua Ad Astra, and the majestic Great Western, always the most Bell Book and Candle of the Big Four railways, had the very righteous Domine Dirige Nos – Virtute et Industria written on its solid-as-a-cathedral express engines. The LNER used a powerful single word – Forward.
If Train of Events was to have a single word to sum up its essential character and purpose, it would be Grumpy. If space permitted, it would be Grumpy Old Men.
We, a small and ragtag coalition of retired and semi-retired railwaymen, first came together in 1999. Two former BR Public Relations Officers (no, honestly, its true, BR did have such people), had been in a pub near London Bridge Station, as part of an on-going programme of mid-life crisis mitigation. On the pub television the news showed pictures of a faded Kosovo Railway shunting engine at the head of a train of pretty rickety passenger carriages.
It was obvious that there was something horribly wrong; the bewildered civilian passengers were being denefestrated from the train by armed soldiers. It was the ethnic cleansing of Kosovo Albanians by Serb troops, the final act in the long and bloody disintegration of Yugoslavia. It was inhuman and brutish. And it was a European railway not very far from the UK, getting its hand dirty again.
Further investigation, which in those primitive times involved a bit more effort than just typing a couple of words into Google, revealed that our chums in 79 Railway Squadron, led by Major Marco Ciotti, were to deploy to Kosovo to run that very railway.
One of the jaded BR men had some experience of military matters, having previously arranged for Stanier 8F steam engine No 8233 – a military engine with an impeccable service history – to be dedicated as a War memorial for army railwaymen who died in WW2. This of course made him an instant expert on defence matters. With the wisdom that only a full afternoon on the beer can bestow we decided to go with them.
We assembled a team, 'blagged' three elderly but rock solid Class 20 locomotives from, of all places British Nuclear Fuels, and a train of freight wagons to convey civilian aid backed up in UK lacking road transport, and enjoyed several weeks of expert opinion that we could never ever pull it off. Luckily they were expertly wrong, and the train, which turned out by the time the 'blagging' was done, to be longer and heavier than a Eurostar and generously assisted on its way by the British Army rail office in Germany, took 14 days to cross 14 railway administrations. That's 4200 kms at an average speed of 300 kilometres per day, which is not bad for a freight train whose crew only spoke one of the 12 languages encountered en route. During the operation, it grabbed world media attention including the BBC.
When it was all over General Sir Mike Jackson, in his outgoing speech as K-FOR Commander, said the train 'had saved lives'. Even the grumpiest of the Grumpy Old Men shed a tear at that. It remains the record holder for the furthest distance travelled by a UK civilian train on its own wheels.
Running to Kosovo had given us a taste for what we like to call 'extreme railway', something more challenging than running trains for angry commuters who write to their MPs at the drop of a hat.
Our next adventure was less successful: three hot and sweaty years trying and failing to reopen the Jamaica Railway, the worlds oldest colonial railway, linking Kingston with Montego Bay in a beautiful and friendly but crime-riven Caribbean country. It was all great fun, but in the end, the political will wasn’t there, although a culture based on bribery and cocaine smuggling was. But we got to drink a lot of rum, and over time, walked all 119 miles of moribund single track quietly rotting into the jungle. Some day someone will breath new life into this beautiful but tragic railway and we will be first in line to buy tickets on the train, but it won’t be us running it. The place is just too bent.
For the last 12 months we have lived and breathed the Berliner project, another child of too much beer in a pub. At Halloween we are heading to Dracula’s castle for a very alternative night of blood, gore, and fine dining in the Hungarian Presidential train.