Riding the Rails
Text and photos Ross Hunter
As soon as I thought he was old enough, I took my young son to enjoy the delights of steam trains. A picturesque French narrow gauge line, restored and run by enthusiasts winding through glorious countryside, full of bends and ravines and improbable viaducts and sudden tunnels on a sunny Sunday: What could be better?! As we waited amid the enthusiastic throng at a tiny halt in the middle of the line, the train did not let us down, as she puff ed and wheezed majestically into view and cacophonously announced her arrival and willingness to take the lucky passengers on board. So far so good. But two stops up the line, with our faces full of fine soot and backsides numb on bone-hard wooden seats, the boy spotted a routine issue 1950s diesel railcar and asked to change.
Steam locos are therefore better to admire than to travel. And the fascination is endless. The railway museum at Rizhsky Vokzal on Prospekt Mira offers a fine selection for all tastes with nearly a century’s worth of exhibits. The visitors are as varied in age and origin as the engines, which include Russian and Soviet beasts as well as German and American and Czech examples.
Steam trains are not only the very engines of the industrial revolution, they are arguably the last and greatest engineering feat where the transformation of fuel into work is thrust at you — by sight and sound and smell and touch (and taste!). In short, they exude power.
While all steam engines are amazing, the great Soviet behemoths are awesome. Britain built the first railways, and Brunel helped Russia extend the empire. With a larger gauge and taller tunnels, Russian trains have sheer scale and raw power on their side. No messing with modest little 4- 6-2 wheels; most serious Russian trains have 2-8-2 or even 0-10-0 formats: the massive, mighty scarlet-spoked wheels project dynamism.
The earlier engines, from the turn of the century have a sit-up-and-beg quality, with modest boiler tubes and tall funnels telling of power harnessed slightly against the odds. These give way to ever larger beasts, massive cylinders sitting proud above the bogeys, funnels built in and mighty lights on their cyclopean crowns, and streamlining panels reinforcing their presence. And with the red star emblazoned on the front, off setting the imposing but unavoidable coalsoot hue. Who needs jet? Black is the new black.
All things pass, even the age of steam. The later rows of engines faithfully track the progression to modern traction, diesel, and electric, with brighter colors and “go faster stripes” needed to enliven duller panel sides. With form dictated less and less by function, styling takes its place, and the resulting trend toward anthropomorphism is undeniable: Amble down the second line of haulers and see the drivers’ paired windscreen eyes evolve atop bearded chin, and between them, a decorated nose, showing off Russian Railways’ livery or makers’ logos.
Train travel is inherently democratic and egalitarian. Everyone is in it together, and as any rail-set novel or travel journal will remind you, experiences are to be shared. This, plus the inescapable romance of heading off down the line, following one’s destiny to discover exotic locations and equally exotic companions. That rail travel is the safest of all modes of transport hardly dims the vicarious possibility of death under the wheels (Mr. Tolstoy), at the hand of a fellow traveller (Ms. Christie, Mr. Greene, Mr. Fleming), or witness to life at its beginning, middle, and end (Mr. Th eroux, Mr. Newby) or spectacular conflagration (Hollywood, passim).
The third row of Rizhsky exhibits is devoted to the people’s carriages. Who can resist the allure of a 1930s sleeping car, with wood-paneled opulence and even an enameled bath? The sight of a green wagon with “Arctic Express: Moscow to Murmansk” on its side raises the little hairs on the back of the neck. On the other side of the tracks, literally as well as figuratively, the hope and the horror of cattle wagon travel for the poor or the captive are evident in the wooden vans, displayed with copies of art works to remind us of how desperate folks’ travel can be.
Finally, a small branch line offers an amusing selection of wacky ideas and ugly sisters: self-propelled sheds with snow ploughs attached, rail maintenance cranes, coal tenders and tankers, and a really sweet railcar, my dream 24-seater limo, in tasteful claret and cream livery.
The mixture of exhibits is the delight of small boys, who are seen mobbing the displays. In truth, the railway museum at Rizhsky is not the world’s greatest — it needs more interactive, hands-on, and get-inside-and-play features. But it is here, easy to visit, and very good value.
Museum of the History of Railway Technology
1 Rizhsky Vokzal Ploshchad
Open Wed.–Sun., 10:00-16:00
A Side Track: The etymology of vokzal
Evidently, main line stations are named after the now rather minor south London station at Vauxhall, but why?
The most popular legend has it that when Russia’s first railway engineers visited Brunel’s GWR to see how it was done, they alighted at the eponymous terminus, duly noting and then copying the name.
Delightful as that is, the real reason is probably a shade more prosaic. Near Vauxhall Station, there was a pleasure park, called Vauxhall Gardens. With good entrepreneurial initiative, the owner took his idea to the Russian capital, St. Petersburg, establishing a Vauxhall Gardens there. When Russia’s first railway was opened in 1837, it ended near the park. Vauxhall (or vokzal) became the popular name for that railway terminus and subsequently all termini.