IT HAD been a dull and wet summer, and the weather matched the mood of the Pentax-wielding spectators who had come to bear witness to the end of an era.
It was a Sunday in August, 1968. In Eastern Europe, the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia had brutally curtailed the short-lived Prague Spring of liberal optimism. It was not the only movement to pass into history that day.
The nationalised British Railways had placed a ban on all mainline steam traffic. When the last train pulled into Liverpool, from Carlisle by way of Manchester, there were no more. Until today.
The weather was drier but colder as a new generation of steam enthusiasts, waving aloft phones instead of Pentaxes, gathered at the picturesque station at Appleby-in-Westmorland, on the Settle-Carlisle line, in time for this morning’s 8.25 departure to Skipton.
At the platform was not one of the nameless diesel engines that have plied the line for decades, but the gleaming, Peppercorn class A1 steam locomotive, Tornado.
As it pulled out, to Kirkby Stephen, Garsdale, over the Ribblehead Viaduct to Horton-in-Ribblesdale and Settle, it wrote a new chapter in the country’s railway history: the first steam train for half a century to haul a service on a scheduled main line.
The rekindling of a love affair that had never quite died could not have been more appropriate for Valentine’s Day. Yet the Tornado was no relic of the original steam age, but a newly-built engine, constructed in Darlington over 14 years and completed in 2008 - the first such locomotive since British Railways’ Evening Star, in 1960.
It was hauled into service today to celebrate the next month’s reopening of the complete Settle-Carlisle line, which was blocked by a landslide following the 2015 floods.
Northern Rail, Network Rail and the Friends of Settle and Carlisle had arranged the outing, which was repeated in the other direction this afternoon, and will be re-staged tomorrow and Thursday.
Northern’s regional director, Paul Barnfield, said it was “quite a spectacle”.
“Valentine’s Day. The Settle-Carlisle Railway on a steam train. How much better does it get?” he mused.
Mark Rand, from the Friends Of The Settle-Carlisle Line, waxed even more lyrical. “What price can you put on a day like this?” he said. “We might have to wait another 50 years for the next one.”
The Tornado’s driver, Tony Jones, said it had been a privilege to be at the helm. He normally drives goods trains on the same route.
The 73-mile Settle-Carlisle line was opened in 1876 and survived attempts to close it as passenger numbers dwindled at the end of the last century.
The current repair project has cost £23m and will be complete at on March 31, when an even more famous engine, the restored Flying Scotsman, will turn out.
British Rail’s original ban on steam trains on the main lines lasted only three years, but by the time it ended, the engines were already history. Until today they had been confined to heritage lines and chartered services.