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Scottish Parliament Speech: Scottish Railway Museum (February 2010)

See this speech in context on They Work For You.

If I cast my mind back - to longer ago than I care to do - I recall being in the big classical building that used to stand outside Glasgow Queen Street station, which was, regrettably, smashed a few years later, and hearing someone remark, "This place looks like a museum."

They were looking at the booking office, where one could still get tickets in a paper wrapper that was printed in 1842, for the opening of the first Edinburgh to Glasgow railway. They were beautiful, standard Edmondson card tickets that were just ready to be issued - someone could have been conned into believing that it was possible to travel to Edinburgh with one of them, but they came from a railway that had not been a railway in Scotland for more than 100 years.

The tickets that I have described were one of the things that those of us who set up the Scottish Railway Preservation Society in 1961 happened across. To some extent, the railway was itself a museum piece. Its Victorian infrastructure had survived, largely because of the disruption of the two world wars. In the first, the heavy industries of the Clyde valley, adapted to munitions production, shifted the balance of the war of attrition on the western front in favour of the allies - something about which the Kaiser had not really thought. However, the result was that in the 1920s the Scots economy collapsed; it stayed depressed until the rearmament programme after 1935. As a result, in the 1950s much of the railway system still looked as it had in 1914, with the same engines, the same stations, the same carriages and the same delivery of coal and general freight to hundreds of traditional goods stations all over the country. By 1970, little of that remarkable heritage survived. For many of us, it was everywhere in danger; that is why the SRPS was founded in 1961.

We were finding our way, and some us had a steep learning curve, not least because we were not engineers by training. That changed when John Burnie - whose death we mourn, along with his wife Ann and his family - turned up from Strathclyde University, just on time. From the start, John concentrated on a different sort of preservation from other schemes, which were mainly about getting railway lines functioning - he wanted to give a picture of the transport system that was embedded in the history of Scotland's industrialisation and urbanisation. Visitors to Bo'ness station, which was more or less a hole in the ground in 1970, get to see the coaches, wagons, pug engines, tanks, stations, bothies and sheds; 75,000 people visit every year.

For nearly the next half century, during which John Burnie headed up the Bo'ness project, Scotland's manufacturing capability tended to dwindle. Much inventiveness, skill and talent was literally offshored to the North Sea and, later, to other rigs in other oceans. As a result, our production of engineers declined to the point at which we now produce only about a fifth of the technologists produced by the German economy - I tend to cite that example, but I stayed there for 30 years. Even in sophisticated industrial societies, most technical instruction is bound to the workplace. As workplaces have closed down, competence has gone with them. Ron Hill, one of the stalwarts of the SRPS at Bo'ness, says that when he joined Motherwell College in the 1970s it had 170 lecturers in mechanical engineering; the number is now down to single figures.

In contemporary Scotland, we have a past that we ought to treasure and maintain, because it is the structure of the industry that created us and the way in which we live now. The great promise of financial services and housing booms has been evanescent in comparison. Now, we need wind, wave and current generators and carbon capture schemes - in fact John Burnie was shift manager at Longannet power station, which has become our centre for that technology. In conversations with John over the past year, he told me about his thoughts that Bo'ness's contribution to engineering and education could be balanced by building workshops that preserve the museum stock but enable people to be trained under practical conditions.

We will have to go back to the era of heavy engineering, not least that of the expansion of the Scottish railway system. That is important, because we need low-carbon transportation systems. Within 15 or 20 years at most, we will have hit peak oil and will possibly be coping with oil prices of anything up to $300 a barrel. Remember that, in the 1970s, they were practically giving it away free. Oil everywhere is running out and becoming harder to exploit. Many of our hopes for new and renewable energy industries are clustered in the Forth industrial basin, from Grangemouth to Leven. Bo'ness, in the middle of it, could be a training centre linked with Scottish universities and colleges to provide an important impulse for retechnologising the Forth basin.

Bo'ness museum would benefit from some tender loving care from the Scottish Government. I have certain reactions when I hear about large paintings belonging to an aristocrat who is possibly not best known for favouring Scottish crofters in the past being bought for several million pounds, when we would budget about 400 quid to get a coach. The first cheque that I signed was for the royal saloon of the Great North of Scotland Railway, which Edward VII would use to take his lady friends for runs into the country - "Darling, I think we've run out of steam." The fact that it costs £400 for a royal saloon gives a sense of proportion.

I also make a miniature plea. Recently, I discovered in the Beveridge park in Fife a little-used but still usable miniature railway. The SRPS could go into partnership with local schools to get kids interested in practical engineering by running their own railway. God knows what health and safety would say but, nonetheless, that could be tried. Oddly enough, I have just the man for that - a retired Black Watch officer who taught me how to drive a steam engine, which I never knew how to do until about three years ago. He has a splendid steam engine called - what else? - Black Watch. It would be good if the SRPS moved in and expanded the tourist industry around the Forth, as it is doing with its circular trains.

We will live somewhat different lives in future. We will have to be more dependent on the localities where we live. We will need to keep them accessible and have places for family excursions and holidays. Our railway heritage can help with that. It can also generate a lot of local technology input and output. The preservation movement is a way of making the transition efficient and enjoyable. So, John Burnie, thanks.

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