Veteran British trainspotter Peter Snow on Great Rail Restorations

by Russell Brown / 03 November, 2018
Great Rail Restorations, Tuesday.

Great Rail Restorations, Tuesday.

RelatedArticlesModule - Great Rail Restorations

Peter Snow follows the restoration of some classic locomotives in a new television series.

If you were asked to guess which famed BBC news presenter was a secret trainspotter, well, of course it would be Peter Snow, he of the legendary election-night swingometer.

Snow, now 80 and retired from daily news, first came out as a lifelong railway enthusiast in 2010, when he led Today presenter John Humphrys up to the attic where his elaborate model train set is laid out. Then there was 2016’s Trainspotting Live (not to be confused with the stage production of the Irvine Welsh novel, but actually about spotting trains on live TV). And now, there is Great Rail Restorations (Prime, Tuesday, 7.30pm), in which Snow finally fulfils his childhood dream of actually driving a steam locomotive.

“It was very exciting,” says Snow. “The lovely thing about driving the steam engine was the two huge controls. One’s called the reverser, where you get this socking great lever and you pull it forward and you push it back and that makes it go forward or backward. And then the accelerator, which is a great big rod, which you pull down from the ceiling and that makes the thing go chuff-chuff-chuff all the faster.

“Those two rods control the whole engine. It’s actually not difficult driving a steam engine, funnily enough.”

The drive is the culmination of five episodes following the restoration of four vintage carriages from different eras of British rail – from a classic passenger car on a Welsh line to Queen Victoria’s state coach from 1886. And although Great Rail Restorations feints at the modern mission-style urgency of reality TV, its charm is really in the solid beauty of these things as objects. Well, that and the enthusiasm of the presenter.

Along the way, we learn about how passengers used to pass time (“nowadays, they sit there with their mobile phones – in the old days, they read books”), toilets (there were none, until someone thought of designing corridors) and restaurant cars (“these days you get in a buffet car and grab a sandwich if you’re lucky, but in the old days, you sat down in this wonderful splendour”).

Having done the drive, Snow has no immediate plans for more train telly. But, he says, “there is talk” of bringing back Tomorrow’s World, with him presenting.

“But I’m not sure about that. The turnaround in television these days is such that you never know what’s around the next corner.”

This article was first published in the November 3, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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