Updated: Oct 17, 2020
One of the features of coronavirus lock-down I have heard many people talking about is the rediscovery of activities and pastimes previously set aside through sheer busyness. Some are oriented towards a return to basics and necessities, such as the mania for baking evidenced by empty supermarket flour shelves, whilst others are perhaps hobbies and interests that circumstance once more makes possible.
For me, alongside gardening and (more reluctantly) DIY, it has been revival of my long dormant model railway. Yes, an esoteric and obscure interest in the eyes of many, but we'll simply acknowledge that and let it pass, shall we?
Taking out old engines and carriages from their boxes and smelling the ingrained dust being scorched as the electric motors were coaxed back into life brought back memories of their first use, inevitably infused with childhood recollections. My very first gift after a clockwork train set starting point was an electric locomotive and a couple of coaches sent to me by my grandfather, who had ended up in France via an escape in early 1957 from post-uprising Hungary and a Yugoslav refugee camp.
That electric locomotive was a model of CC 7107, which I quickly learned was the world rail speed record holder, attaining 331 km/h in March 1955. Very proud I was as a five-year-old to own such a model and it marked the beginning of what is now an extensive collection of model trains from the UK, Europe and North America.
Little wonder then that when I chanced some 15 years ago across a film of that record-breaking occasion taken by French railways SNCF that was part newsreel and part propaganda, I was captivated. Thrilled to follow the build-up, technological drama and capture of an unbelievable speed record for its time and a symbol of the post-war rebirth of France.
What I didn’t know though is that this fast run by CC 7107 was part of a set of trials of two locomotives from competing companies, a bit like the famous Rainhill trials in 1829 that made world famous George Stephenson’s Rocket steam engine. A second engine, BB 9004, was lined up on the following day to see whether it could beat the first. The way the film unfolds is fascinating and, I want to say, very French. By an amazing chance, it exactly matched the original engine’s speed and so became joint record holder, highly convenient for the commercial purposes of the two engine builders both to be able to claim the record!
I can’t quite bring myself to adopt to my heart the second engine, this johnny-come-lately, but what is interesting is to view the Wikipedia entries for each engine (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SNCF_Class_CC_7100 and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SNCF_BB_9003-9004, always with the health warning not to take Wikipedia as absolute truth). In the first the convention of joint record holding at 331 km/h is maintained whereas in the latter a scurrilous claim is made that CC 7107 only ever reached 325 km/h. So, two versions of the truth as a matter of quasi-public record – who knew?
But CC 7107 is sans pareil on my layout, incontestably so.