Steam special: The Night Mail train rides north once more

It seems odd that one of the most striking and enduringly popular British films is in black and white and it's about the postal service. Why would anyone want to watch letters being sorted in 1936, when Night Mail was released, never mind today?

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The answer is because the film puts the audience into a unique position – the speeding footplate of a London, Midland and Scottish Railway engine as it hauls the overnight mail train from London to Glasgow.

It invested a workaday subject with a special glamour and gives the narrative a powerful urgency. Visual momentum was created by swift cutting and editing and the impact of the pictures was allied to imaginative music and words supplied by Benjamin Britten and WH Auden.

This vivid and evocative film is especially remembered because of Auden's contribution which mimics the compelling rhythm of the train.

This is the Night Mail crossing the border,

Bringing the cheque and the postal order,

Letters for the rich, letters for the poor,

The shop at the corner and the girl next door...

This sequence is now popular on YouTube and lasts under three minutes. It comes at the journey's climax, as the train reaches the roof of England and then rushes down to its destination.

One of the stars of the film was nine years-old when it was made. The engine, Scots Guardsman, was a product of Glasgow's North British Locomotive Company. Rebuilt in 1947, her long career went on until 1965. And then that seemed to be that. For some time, Scots Guardsman languished and at one point she lay in bits in some West Midlands sidings. But a new career opened when she was bought by the West Coast Railway Company and restored to mainline running standard.

The star made a re-entrance in front of an admiring public at platform 11 at York station. To an older passenger, the pungent reek of burning coal brings back memories like you've never been away.

Looking a million dollars in British Railways Brunswick Green livery, the engine was hitched to the Cumbrian Mountain Express to haul a day excursion along that climactic part of the Night Mail route as far as Carlisle. Seventy years on, how does that journey look from the footplate?

Climbing into a cab like this used to be every little boy's dream. The designers made no concessions to creature comforts. The engineering came first and the crew must manage as best they can. But it is fairly spacious and accommodates a journalist as well as driver, fireman and spare fireman.

The latter, Peter James from York, is on his way to Scotland to bring south another vintage loco. It seems there are now more of them up and running again than at any time since steam passenger trains ceased in 1968. This one is of the Royal Scot class of which several were based at Leeds and worked the Settle-Carlisle line. "This is the horse for the right course," says Peter.

There's no ignition key. You make it go by taking hold of a steel lever three feet long that swings down amid an array of pipes, brass wheels, and gauges. This is the regulator and it seems to need a fair bit of muscle to shift it and increase the flow of steam. The departure note of the whistle is just as you remember it.

From up here it's hot and fumey and the din is tremendous. Amid the background racket a separate sound indicates something amiss. So at the first stop to take on water, a man in orange overalls with a knotted hankie on his head climbs into the cab. He pulls out a couple of wooden chocks and dips underneath to adjust the brakes of the tender which are catching, mildly insisting, "they were all right yesterday". Just after Settle, the vigorous pulse of Scots Guardsman falls to a slower rate as we begin the serious climb up to Dent, the highest station in England, and over the Ribblehead viaduct, that extraordinary monument to Victorian navvies who built with no more than pick and shovel and trowel.

The engine surges upwards, shovelling gouts of steam over her shoulder exactly as Auden recorded. Put out your head to take a photo and your hair is full of cinders. But there's plenty of power in hand for Ron Smith, the driver, even though we are pulling what appears to be an immense weight – 12 carriages weighing 36 tons apiece.

Fireman John Fletcher scoops coal from the tender with a narrow shovel and in one practised movement swivels to thrust it into the firebox. An implacable gauge reveals whether his efforts are enough to maintain the correct steam pressure up the gradient.

In pauses between shovelling, the mountain of coal in the tender must be clawed down and forwards with another implement to make it reachable. It's British coal from the Dormil pit in Coventry – which means good heat, not too much ash. A lot of clinker causes havoc in the firebox.

In breaks between these tasks, John seizes a hose to spray hot water over the coal heap, then directs it onto the floor of the cab so that steam rises round your feet. It keeps the dust down.

Shooting through tunnels where the date 1875 is carved on the keystone, we are over the summit. For comfort, going up has been the easy bit. Racing downhill on indifferent, old-fashioned track, the engine bucks and shakes in places like a fairground ride. It makes you keenly aware that we are riding on a tube on wheels filled with boiling steam and beneath it is a blazing furnace.

It's an exhilarating descent. At the front near the firebox you are cooking. Standing back, braced against the tender, you stand in the path of blasts of the purest Dales summer air. A gap between tender and loco is covered by a nine inch-wide steel hinged flap. When the engine bucks, the flap lifts briefly then slams down. The others are wearing sensible work boots, so are not required to do a little agitated dance now and again to keep their toes intact.

The crew are on their toes all the time, their eyes and hands constantly occupied as they tend the needs of what seems more like a live thing than a machine. Back down on the flat, we stop for more water, and the crew also need liquid. John adjusts a valve which shuts off most of the noise and sits down to unscrew his flask and eat a scone. "Thank God for that, a bit a peace at last." Dehydration comes with the job.

There's time to reflect on what an exotic piece of engineering this is. If a new part is required, there's no maker's catalogue to order from. It has to be made from scratch.

When Scots Guardsman first ran, we led the railway world. These days, the only place where it's possible to source copper plate of the required thickness for her boiler is Brazil. Steel for repairs is ordered from British stockholders, but is manufactured in Italy.

At least we seem to be in front with heritage railways and Ron Smith from Leeds is one who is relishing the opportunity to go round again. A former fireman and driver, he retired at 58 from the railways, latterly as a manager, five years ago. "Back driving steam again – it's a bit good," he grins.

The journey passes in a flash, so hard has everyone been concentrating. The regulator on Scots Guardsman has a first and second valve setting. Ron Smith has rarely had to come out of first valve, so this has been economical working today. Pretty good for an old girl from 1927.

The mood in the cab has been buoyed by the crowds along the route, waving and taking photos. It has felt at times like a Royal progress. Maybe it would not feel so much fun to do this again on the next shift and for the rest of your working life, especially in wintertime around that draughty tender.

By Carlisle, John Fletcher reckons he's shovelled three or for tonnes of coal to heat 8,000 gallons of water. "I used to be a fireman on BR in the steam days," says John who lives on the North York Moors. "Who would have thought then that 40 years later, we'd be back on and enjoying ourselves."

As we come to rest, a bird, larger than a pigeon, is handed up into the cab, its wings outstretched. Is it a gift of a game bird, or some mysterious ceremony of the steam railway fraternity? No, it's a large hawk that's been hit and killed and remained stuck on the front of the engine. It goes into the firebox.

Into the adjacent platform slide today's state-of-the-art railway expresses – sinewy Pendolinos that tilt on corners, painted in Virgin livery. These are made in Italy.

From a seat in a First Class, Scots Guardsman's return leg commences with that old familiar prelude of tightening, squeaking and groaning as the vintage carriages are persuaded into motion. The Cumbrian Mountain Express departs Carlisle at a stately pace before the speed picks up.

The trip is more informal than usual on the railways. Appleby station looks a picture, cream and red, with hanging baskets and flower tubs. So we disembark into the sunshine for half an hour to stroll and watch water being taken on from an ancient-tower at the end of the platform.

Nigel Dobbing, a hotelier from King's Lynn whose hobby is trains, is the managing director of the Railway Touring Company who have organised this. He says the market for these excursions has changed from the days of bobble-hat enthusiasts with dirty faces leaning out of the window with stopwatches. Dining is the way forward now. The enthusiasts (there seems a fair number of these at the front of the train) can pay the basic price of 65. The diners, who make up the majority of the 370-odd people aboard, have paid 159 for the top-end ticket. And food and service are good.

One satisfied customer comes down the aisle to thank me for his day out, until learning of his mistake. Another is Gordon Clark, who has travelled down with his wife from their home in Consett in County Durham with overnight stays in York. Was he a former railwayman? "No, I just love railways."

The travellers are mostly middle-aged and after dinner has been cleared away there's a brief chorus of Sing Something Simple (well, it is Sunday evening) and someone mentions the Mike Samms Singers, maybe ironically. Not a single mobile rings. No deep sighs are heard when we halt and no fingers drum impatiently on armrests. Everyone knows what's going on and why.

It's a grand day out, even for those not paying. Against the early evening sun, the flanks of the high moorland are dotted with what look like Apaches gathering to descend on the cavalry. They turn out to be more photographers and excited well-wishers. As we reach Aisle Gill summit, ranks of snappers peer into their viewfinders.

At Hellified station, a family with three little children are so thrilled they hang around on the next platform for 50 minutes, just so they can give us a wave as we steam off.

Since Dr Beeching, we seem to have become accustomed to regarding our railways as dysfunctional. In the aftermath of National Express being stripped of its East Coast franchise, privatisation seems to have entered a further period of uncertainty; less a solution, more like part of the problem.

This Sunday excursion suggested how different things can be with the right people in charge and good teamwork. It was made a cordial and pleasing trip because of the dedication of the staff who showed no hint of the familiar railway indifference or boredom. They comprised full-timers, part-timers and volunteers and they were enjoying themselves, too.

It's a business model where everyone's a winner.

The Cumbrian Mountain Express is running every Sunday in August, hauled by one of a pool of historic locomotives. Tickets must be pre-booked on 01553 661500 or visit www.railwaytouring.co.uk

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