The Return of the Steam Locomotive

At the turn of the century, there was a certain prestige in traveling by train. Electric-powered trains hadn’t yet made their appearance, and the steam-powered locomotive was outfitted to provide every possible comfort: finely upholstered seats, musicians playing in for first class passengers. Perhaps a glass of champaign to put you in the mood for a long voyage. All with good reason: “high speed” was not exactly one of the benefits of the steam-locomotive. That wasn’t necessarily a bad thing – the slow moving steamer offered an opportunity to actually enjoy the scenery outside one’s window. A far cry from today, when everyone is in a hurry and the priority is in getting from “here to there” as quickly as possible.

So who’d have thought that in Europe, the steam-powered train would make a comeback. And tourists seem to be enjoying every slow second of it.

To be sure – there aren’t that many stretches of railroad track that exist anymore that can accommodate a steam-engine. But in many European countries there are still several original trains – huffing and puffing along on tracks that are pretty much as they were 150 years ago or longer.

Among the most popular:

In Borgona, France, a 17-meter steam-locomotive has been refurbished and put back in action after 37 years of inactivity. That’s one more addition to the 80 steamers already in operation and moving along a roughly 700 kilometer area in and around the center of France. The oldest surviving line (running for 150 years now) operates in France’s Loiret region and transports passengers back and forth from Pithiviers and Toury.

Over in Switzerland, a tour and travel operator called “Steam Dreams” operates a steam-locomotive along roughly 1600 meters of the mountainous terrain of the Oberland Bernese Mountains. Some of the most stunning scenery you’re ever likely to see.

Meanwhile in Italy, on October 8th a refurbished steam engine will once again hit the tracks and transport passengers along a scenic mountain route that reaches from Verona to Rovereto. This is in addition to one refurbished historic train – the “Steam Express” – that has run from Naples to Sorrento for about the last 10 years.

But while many European countries are enjoying the novelty of the steam-engine and it’s attraction to train-loving tourists, many other countries are still using the steam locomotive for more economical reasons: it was cheaper to keep these antique models up and running than install the expensive alternative in electric-powered transport.

In Zimbabwe, the steam engine is still the mainstay of the National Railroad, and many trains are still used to transport goods and services in addition to people. The most historic line runs right along Victoria Falls. Just has it has been since the early 1800’s. Many other parts of Africa still use the steam-powered train as well.

The Chinese may be the reigning kings of export, but the steam engine still rules supreme in this country where miners pull tons of coals out of remote mines every hour of every day.

And don’t forget the more remote regions of Russia, the Czech Republic, parts of Australia and New Zealand. All still refusing to let the steam-locomotive get phased out any time soon.

Finally, in the United States, the steam engine is a novelty: relegated to museums and history books but still running in some areas. The state of Utah’s Heber Valley Railroad is the most popular of the surviving steam engines that provide service for tourists.

The steam-powered train: born in 1803, and pretty much put into retirement in 1883 thanks to the introduction of electric power, but still much in use in many other parts of the world!

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