Why wasn’t it made in Yorkshire?

Travelling to Scarborough last week on a business trip I used the still very restricted rail service from York, and though trains are currently only two hourly it was great to find a reasonably busy (though socially distanced) train service available.

The train provided by TransPennine, on what is now a somewhat truncated service between York and Scarborough, not only had bright new carriages but a handsome new 100mph Class 68 diesel locomotive at the front.

I confess a slight quickening of the pulse – boyhood memories of trainspotting when steam reigned supreme. The sleek, carefully designed and streamlined Class 68 train, in its smart blue and grey TransPennine livery, was remarkably like that of a famous Yorkshire-made A4 steam locomotive; the world-record holding Mallard, now displayed in the National Railway Museum only a few hundred metres away.

It was also obvious from the sight of one or two other middle-aged men (some with their sons in tow) that a rare chance to travel behind a locomotive rather than in boring powered railcars, meant that others like me were relieved to discover that the great art of locomotive engineering had not entirely vanished.

A metal plaque near the footplate indicated that this beautiful machine was made by Stadler engineering in Valencia Spain in 2017. So, it was a piece of beautiful Spanish engineering.

Only a couple of generations ago such thoroughbreds would have been made in Doncaster, or perhaps even York.  Apartments, warehouses, shopping centres  – even  job centres  – now occupy the land where once the great engineering shops once stood.  Low skilled manual or service centre jobs have replaced the high-skilled, machine manufacturing crafts that made Britain, and Yorkshire in particular, one of the world’s centres of engineering excellence.  We can’t even make a new tram, let alone a train, and our one surviving, if brilliant, bus manufacturing company, Optare, is owned by an Indian based international conglomerate.

Why has this happened?  There are some exceptions, some wonderful hi-tech companies in our region doing great work and actually making the things we need. But they are too few in number.

Railways and light mass transit between and within our cities and towns are the key to a greener future for our world, but why do we have to import almost all our railway equipment and components?

Maybe a post-Brexit Britain, with the introduction (or not) of import tariffs and striking (or not) of new trade deals will be a wakeup call. Could we become, once again, a region where high value technologically advanced equipment is produced and sold to a waiting world?  We should be utilising not only the skills of our young people, fresh from universities, but the huge under-utilised sources of knowledge, skills and experience that still survive within the memories of the people of Yorkshire, who once worked in such industries and who would be only too willing to pass on their skills to a younger generation, in maybe new kinds of apprenticeship, rather than facing early retirement or a life on Universal Credit?

How wonderful it would be to see a fine piece of engineering pulling up at Platform 4 on York’s grand Victorian station, hauling the 15.00 from Scarborough, with its makers’ plate proudly announcing that it was made, if not in York, at least in Yorkshire?

Colin Speakman

Proud member of The Yorkshire Society

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