The Great Modernisation


I found this wood-engraving on google by accident…it shows happy factory workers leaving the railway workshop against a backdrop of brand new diesel locos…This is obviously an image associated with the great Chinese modernisation of the 1950s. Implicit in this image is the idea of technology and production expressing the idea of progress.

The Chinese weren’t the only people to embrace this idea – each of the major western economies recast themselves as technologically and socially progressive in the years after WW2.

These Chinese engines look like the French SNCF locos that were the fastest in the world at the time…obviously, the French were pioneers of electric power and overhead cables; so diesels didn’t really cut it. But they certainly looked modern at the time.

Incidentally and with the benefit of 50 odd years of hindsight…it would have been better for developing economies to embrace the modernisation of steam power. The rush to electrification or diesel power, ruthlessly promoted by western industrial interests, has tended to place developing economies in-hock to western suppliers.

In Africa, steam power has allowed for a level of local autonomy and allowed operators to side-step problems with parts, maintenance and fuel. Still, it must have seemed like a good idea at the time.

What most of the world really needs is actually a 21C super-efficient steam loco. Jonathan Glancey has written convincingly about this.

Still and in the great scheme of things, railway engines are the least of it.


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