#369 – Union of South Africa on the East Lancs Railway


If I could draw an automotive comparison to the sound of a streamlined A4 steam loco it would be to a flat 6 Porsche engine – a taut, highly tuned mechanical beat with the underlying threat of huge power. I’m not well up on the different noises of steam locomotives, but hearing the Union of South Africa (or USA as it’s been nearly abbreviated to) on the latest 3P20 charter at the east Lancs Railway gave me a new appreciation for this kind of thing.

While the A4’s are of course renowned for their high speed London to Edinburgh runs, epitomised by the immortal Mallard in 1939, they were also to be seen on high speed freight runs. So when given the option of seeing USA on a charter hauling a freight train or a passenger set, I chose the passenger option. To my eyes, seeing an A4 hauling wagons is like seeing a Maserati towing a caravan or a race horse pulling a Brewers dray – rare, and thankfully so.


Of the surviving locos, I’d only ever seen Mallard, and that was in the National Railway Museum in York, and a striking thing it is too, positioned next to the equally striking Japanese bullet train. From a photographers perspective, it’s a bloody nightmare though. Seeing USA out on the track was a different proposition altogether and gave me a new appreciation for its styling.

Like the wonderful noise it makes, the styling is taut and muscular, like a lean light heavyweight boxer. But the wonderful sweep of the line above the wheels, which were originally semi covered, was something I’d overlooked before and it intrigued me.


Charters of course are a double edge sword. On the one hand, you have the opportunity  to shoot in the best locations, in the best light, exhaust effects on demand, and multiple run pasts. However there are constraints to work within – the obvious H&S issues of being on a live railway line, plus you are kind of restricted to shooting (to an extent) with the rest of the group so that you don’t get in someone else’s shot. So what better way to deal with these constraints than by giving myself some more? I now shoot only with prime lenses on charters for their superior image quality, and lightness. I previously carted round a 28-70, 16-35 and a 70-300, which are all brilliant lenses, but big and heavy, so carrying 3 primes in my gilet pockets is far less effort and allows for superior results.

The other thing with fast primes is that they are all F1.4 or F1.8, which allows for some interesting depth of field experiments. As noted, A4’s are striking looking engines, so I tried using a very shallow depth of field to separate the nose of the engine, the bit which really distinguishes it from other engines, from the background. Has it worked? To a degree, although it goes against the established aesthetic, which is probably why it takes some getting used to.





But for wider, more traditional shots, a much greater depth of field is required. Unfortunately the light and wind direction were not really in our favour and the images were somewhat unremarkable compared to some from the day before.


‘Little Burrs’ is off limits normally, but it was out of the wind, so the exhaust wasn’t billowing all over the place like it was at ‘Big Burrs’ just up the line. A spot for a wider angle lens, the 35mm in this instance.




Big Burrs and the exhaust is getting blown over the other side of the line.


The East Lancs Railway does have some reasonably good line side vantage points, although encroaching undergrowth and tress doe restrict some of these, especially when trees are in leaf. Summerseat viaduct is a very popular spot on steam galas, and does allow a half decent view of the engine as it passes, although for something as big as an A4, timing is crucial.


Similarly, there is also a view of the train across one of the bridges approaching Burrs, somewhere I’d never tried before, but I took a quick look before leaving and it looks like a good spot for the winter months when there are fewer leaves on the trees, and a nice afternoon light glinting off the boiler.


Of course, it’s not all rural locations, but the urban locations around Bury aren’t really accessible. Even those around the railway station are only accessible on occasions like this, but it did allow for some variety as I do like to capture the people side of the railways where I can.



Finally, some alternative views. I always try to mess around and look for something different, away from the crowd. This isn’t easy as you are always conscious of getting in other peoples shots, but a lunchtime stop at Ramsbottom station allowed some time and space to approach from different angles, as well as amusing the stuff on the platform.







My rarely used 20mm came out of the bag for this, it was as close as I managed to get before having to move on. It’s not a bad lens actually as it doesn’t exaggerate perspective as much as something like my old 14mm, or the wide end of the 16-35.

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