The International Steam Pages

Dervla Murphy - Honorary Railfan, 1931 - 2022

Robert Hall writes affectionately about one of his great heroes, someone of whom it can truly be said "they don't make them like that any more".

This is by way of being a tribute to one who has to be my all-time favourite travel writer: Dervla Murphy, who died on May 22nd 2022, aged ninety. Ms. Murphy was from Lismore, Co. Waterford, Republic of Ireland; except when travelling, she resided in that town for the whole of her life. Circumstances did not permit her engaging in ambitious travels, until her early thirties but she made up for that over the following half-century. Either solo, or accompanied by her daughter; she made numerous journeys of many weeks / months in length, seeking out by preference, rurally remote and less-developed / frequented parts of the world predominantly, though not exclusively, tending to home in on Asia; Africa; and after the early-1990s end of Communism, the "Soviet bloc as had been". (She was not a foe of Communism as such perceiving some good features about that mode of running nations; but the restrictions on movement and on interaction with people usually imposed by Communist states, were inimical to the way in which she wanted to travel.) She tells of these travels in some twenty books plus writing a few more books, not about "faraway places"; and visited various other regions of the globe, which she chose not to write about. 

In the main, I delight in her accounts of her time spent in exotic parts; and her variedly wry and zany humour, and sense of the ridiculous including, endearingly, mocking her own personal quirks and flaws. Coming across equally strongly in her books, is her understanding and compassion toward the great majority of the people who came within her ken; this notwithstanding the strong sentiment voiced by her: that mankind and its assorted activities were, during the majority of her lifetime, in most aspects ruining the world at an increasing pace.

She most preferred doing her travelling by bicycle or foot; when, for whatever reason, that could not be: she used public transport owning to, as regards this medium, preferring rail to road when rail was available. (She was no friend of the private car, seeing it as tending to affect adversely both the environment, and human character and behaviour; she never learned to drive.) Going by most of her body of work, she would not have claimed to be a railway enthusiast in the normal sense of the term. However, with her most extensive and intense spell of rail use: namely, in her visits to Russia near the latter end of her travelling life, written of in two of her books her rail-consciousness was brought herein to a considerable height, plus a degree of affection being inspired in her, certainly for parts of this particular rail scene: one might see her here, at least as approaching "enthusiast" status. Plus, in her earlier works, plenty of usually brief and glancing, but interested and appreciative, references to "things railway" encountered by her. I would all in all, be very ready to propose her for honorary membership of our august if eccentric railway-loving company. 

Her time and place of birth might have provided opportunities for her to experience in her life's first couple of decades, wondrous things on the Irish rail scene; but context would suggest, not so certainly, nothing such indicated in her writings. There is the odd in-the-bygoing mention; though not of any outstanding rail "gems". For the first two-fifths of DM's life, her home town had a rail passenger service: that of the Mallow Waterford line. For sure, that service saw some use by her her autobiography of her early years tells of travel on that line first trip in 1944: surprisingly, her first ever train journey; her parents were committed car-owners and -users over the couple of years which she spent as a boarder at a convent school in Waterford city. (Interesting to find thus, that here late in World War II: the extreme shortage of locomotive fuel which during that conflict bedevilled the Free State / Republic's railways, would seem not to have totally crippled passenger services at least on this particular route.) 

In DM's book on her mid-2000s travels in Cuba she briefly mentions a passing encounter with the short preserved-steam outfit, on sugar-lines trackage, at Trinidad: "Then an odd sound intrigued me, a prolonged wheezing, moaning whistle coming from an 1890's [sic] steam engine, drawing two carriages at five miles per hour and emitting a spectacular column of thick black smoke that half-filled the sky for ten minutes and smelt of my childhood." Further memories evoked of some three-quarter-century ago, from visits in adolescence to Dublin relatives writing of Rostov-on-Don's city trams, observed and used in 2004: "[the trams'] tracks were laid in czarist times and the trams themselves have been in use since the 1920s, according to [local contact]. Their unmelodious yet cheery bells took me back to Dublin c. 1945." (Dublin city trams' last workings were in 1949.) She remarks correspondingly in same book about same journey on municipal transport in Komsomolsk-na-Amure, at the opposite end of Russia: "These battered trams, surely as old as myself...". I infer approval of aged trams' continuing to do their job. DM was passionately in favour of conservation in all aspects, and opposed to the discarding of old but still serviceable "gear" and wasting of resources by replacing it, just in the interests of being "with-it". This carried over into her personal life, in respect of money and other things; alert as ever to her own oddities, she confessed to often being borderline Scrooge-like.

With the earlier couple of decades of DM's travels being in a time when certainly in the less "cutting-edge" parts of the world to which she gravitated steam rail traction was still the norm; though (the above-cited Cuban experience aside) she would seem from her works, not particularly captivated by the steam locomotive for its own sake, there is the odd mentioned encounter: sometimes just for "atmosphere", sometimes otherwise. Such cherished-by-me references from the books, include an incident at the start of the author's otherwise with zero rail content 1966 journey on foot from Massawa (Eritrea, then part of Ethiopia) to the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa. Always a rather accident-prone lady (she sometimes wondered whether she was truly cut out to be a "roughing-it" traveller), on the way out of Massawa she experienced a missed footing involving a tumble into a railway cutting and on to the track of Eritrea's 950mm gauge railway then in regular everyday service, in the times before its being wrecked by years of war, and subsequent renaissance as what has proved so far, to be solely a "heritage"" operation. Worse an advancing train was bearing down on her: hauled by what one deduces to have to have been one of the line's Mallet 0-4-4-0Ts. Fortunately she was able to scramble out of the way just in time. She comments in the book, to the effect that "slaughter by a steam engine" would have been an ignominious end to her journey, almost before it had begun.

The previous year had seen DM as a rail passenger en route to Nepal via India's North Eastern Railway. This was from a relatively central / metropolitan location, northward to the India / Nepal border point at Raxaul: accomplished over a fairly minor metre-gauge route by a glacially slow stop-everywhere passenger train, steam-hauled as a matter of course; with the author travelling third-class, from both habitual parsimony, and a wish to get the feel of the locality to the maximum extent. A journey uncomfortable, done at a crawl, and amid flat, un-scenic landscape through heavily-populated scenes of depressing abject poverty.

Considerably later (mid-1970s), DM toured south India her first safari with her daughter, then aged five. This venture largely by foot / bus but there stays in mind, a spot in the book involving a brief spell for DM of acute feverish unwell-ness: in which the pair arrive (not by rail) in a city Madurai is the one which comes to mind for me and in a rather fraught quest for accommodation suitable in the circumstances, somehow find themselves at the place's locoshed, with our author, feeling as in a somewhat hallucinatory state, picking her way across track after track in front of a rank of hissing, vapour-exuding steam locomotives. Later in that journey (with author restored to health), in Kerala state, a choice of options presents itself; one of which being, a long A-to-B overnight train journey along the main line which parallels the coast in those parts. DM initially sees this as a less-favoured candidate, suspecting that it would be a bit tedious; but becoming aware that daughter much likes the idea, accepts this accordingly and daughter indeed finds this lengthy moonlit run by rail, a magical experience. So far as I recall, the motive power thereof is not specified; going by what I think I know of the period and venue, diesel would seem the more likely.

DM spent much of 1990 in Roumania, a version of the name which I prefer to today's widespread "Romania". She uses another older usage, "Rumania"; reckonably, the universal "English" spelling in her youth. The country had fascinated her since childhood but with her requirements for worthwhile travel: she had classed it as personally off-limits until Communist rule there came to an end almost within days of the Ceausescus' being "terminated", she was on her way eastward.

Her time in Roumania included a sojourn in the remote mountain town of Sighetu Marmatiei, hard up against the Ukraine border. She reached this settlement by road, but left it by rail: viz. the 80km. run by local train, to the main-line junction of Salva. This occasions in her book, a rather enigmatic paragraph, as follows: "The long but almost empty... train was a marvel. There seemed to be no technological reason why such a specimen of nonagenarian machinery should have retained the power to move, even at ten m.p.h. At frequent intervals it paused for breath, as nonagenarians will, allowing me ample time to appreciate the landscape." One feels that this "nonagenarian" stuff must be an exuberant and hyperbolic flight of fancy on the author's part. More's the pity, there is no way that in 1990, a state railway system in even the wildest-and-woolliest corner of Europe would have been using a locomotive built around the turn of the century in any regular public-service operation. With DM having been a "lay person", not a card-carrying railway enthusiast; and writing for a lay readership; she saw no need here to stipulate the means of power generation and transmission which obtained for the loco hauling this train. Likeliest case seems to me (would that it might be otherwise): a diesel loco, and coaches of old-fashioned pattern the whole ensemble dingy and in poor repair causing the author to "kick up her imaginative heels". A good way back during the 1980s, the Roumanian State Railways had ceased any regular use of steam on line working; though much steam continued to work daily on shunting. The scenario most pleasing for the likes of us, at a Roumanian backwoods location in 1990, which I would be prepared to "buy" while reckoning it not very likely would involve a modern steam loco, in poor shape, borrowed off shunting duties in emergency substitution for a failed diesel. Nonetheless, it's a tantalising few lines of text in the book... 

Snail-paced travel afforded by putatively ninety-year-old consists, notwithstanding DM expresses a fair degree of admiration for the Roumanian State Railways' passenger services as at 1990. This is admittedly relative, against a background of general chaos and deprivation in the country as a whole; but she found that in that overall situation, train and ticketing services were functioning with surprising efficiency. Not everything was rosy: "many of the trains are disintegrating; sometimes gaping holes in the corridor floors allow one to study the state of the sleepers (poor) as one chugs along. The carriages are usually filthy and the "toalets" catastrophic in fact unusable, unless one can tolerate wearing shit-clogged boots."
Not a big deal for DM: with the attitude which comes through strongly in her books, of scorn for modern "spoilt feebleness and germophobia", and assurance that halfway having one's wits about one will in most cases, keep one safe.

One land whose decrepit and unsafe rail passenger facilities troubled even the super-stoical DM, was Cuba. Her visits there were in 2005 07, after the end of on any scale the sugar-steam scene; which would in any case (save for the fleeting encounter mentioned above, with the preserved Trinidad operation) probably not have been on her radar. Cuban-rail-wise, it was the state railways' passenger services with which she had ado. (As one would have tended to expect: DM found most aspects of Cuba under Castro, admirable though in her Cuba book, she doesn't gloss over those flaws of it which she perceived.) DM's Cuban travels, when she was not trekking on foot: were accomplished by a mixture of rail, and road coach. At the time when she was there; the latter, with services extensively covering the island, was faster, safer, more frequent, and more comfortable but a lot more expensive than the former. Rail passenger services were also extensive; but hideously run-down, with execrable timekeeping, and passenger stock often in an outright dangerous condition frequently, track likewise. Concerning the author's overnight rail journey from Havana to Bayamo, toward the eastern end of the island quoting at some length, is irresistible.

DM boarded the train at its starting-point of Havana's main station, with some confusion involved as to allotted pre-booked place re coach and compartment no interior lights working. The train set off two and a half hours late (good going, by Cuban rail standards). After maybe a couple of hours, a lady conductor turned up, and declared that DM was in the wrong coach and compartment "mine was seat three in compartment B in coach six three coaches away." The lady conductor insisted on dislodging DM and taking her, by faint torch-light, to her correct location in the train (a fellow-passenger was conscripted to carry her rucksack). "... hereabouts the train was behaving like a small boat on a stormy sea. One is accustomed to the bits between coaches moving beneath one's feet that's unalarming. In this case however there were no bits: one had to leap from coach to coach. As we moved slowly along the corridor of the second coach I felt the floor giving beneath my feet and momentarily I panicked. However, the sinking floor sensation happened repeatedly and was just another of the Bayamo service's idiosyncrasies and not immediately threatening though one day those rotting boards may well claim victims.

In coach number 6 [the conductor identified and] roused a man comfortably curled up on two seats his and mine, apparently. Without complaint, he shifted his position... With rucksack on lap, because I couldn't see where to store it, I leant back in my seat and received a small but painful scalp wound; it oozed enough blood to matt my hair. Where a headrest had been three sharp metal spikes projected. My bag contained one tin of Buccanero beer, for emergencies. I now felt its time had come and quickly drank it a mistake...

In due course those 355 ml. sought the exit and by the light of a full moon, newly emerged from dispersing clouds, I located the 'bano' [toilet] seemingly occupied. Having waited a reasonable time I tried the door again, pushing hard. It swung open to reveal a vacuum: below was Mother Earth. At a certain point one ceases to believe in the reality of what's happening it must all be an illusion yet somehow one has to go along with it. But for the moon, I would have stepped forward to my death not exactly a premature death but an unpleasant and rather silly way to go. The door bore a prominent notice DANGER ! DO NOT OPEN ! but some more drastic deterrent is required in an unlit train that habitually travels by night. Opposite the 'bano' was the coach exit, its steps conveniently missing so that one could pee, more or less accurately, on to the track. But only more or less: such situations provoke penis envy.

The 'bano' at the other end of number 6, visited during the day, had no door or loo or washbasin, though their sites were obvious. Here one had to relieve one's bladder and bowels in full view of passersby. The latter activity was performed as close as possible to the walls a much used space, halfway through our twenty-hour journey."

The following year, DM found that at least on certain sections, the state railways had impressively cleaned up their passenger-service act. A shorter journey eastward from the capital, than the above-cited nightmare one, is thus described: "Punctually we departed in a conventionally comfortable train: open-plan, well-lit, unvandalised coaches, our tickets checked by a cheerful middle-aged conductress who dispensed complimentary salami rolls, bottles of [soft drink], and that morning's 'Granma' [Cuba's only daily newspaper]. I didn't grumble, though I do prefer corridor trains; they allow more freedom of movement and more bonding, in face-to-face carriages." There's no pleasing some people ! though one takes her personal point here.

One of the more fascinatingly obscure places visited by this author a connoisseur anyway, of the fascinatingly obscure was Madagascar, toured in 1984, this journey the subject of a succeeding book. Madagascar then was a country in various ways, "on the skids": most travel around the island, by DM and daughter, was done by hitching rides on whatever road motor vehicle could be found going in the desired direction. Toward the end of their time on the island, they took a journey over the upper end of the rail line linking Tananarive, the high-altitude capital, with the island's east coast. Forty years ago, that route had regular passenger services; per the most recent information available to me, those are no longer running hopefully the line still carries freight, with passenger reopening at some stage, not impossible. Re travelling on the line's westernmost 100 km. from the capital "down to the plains" at Moromanga: DM writes admiringly of this highly scenic section, with its remarkable engineering feats the line marvellously sinuous and including at least one spiral. She muses on numerous visitors' being attracted to making this journey, if Madagascar were more on the tourism map (though with her general turn of mind, her feelings concerning such a development would be very mixed). Goes on to draw a parallel with better-known but not more-exciting "mountaineering" rail routes, citing as an example, the hill section of the Guayaquil Quito line in Ecuador (one of various countries visited by her, but without having a book devoted to them).

DM's time spent in Russia essentially two long visits, spawning two books, during the period 2002 to 2004 sparked, as mentioned earlier, a higher degree on her part than hitherto, of keenness on and attention to the railway scene. This attributable in a large part, to an experience of which she writes: "Despite much preferring trains to motor vehicles or planes, never could I have imagined myself falling in love with a railway." But the unimaginable happened: the object of DM's affection being the Baikal-Amur Magistral route (BAM for short) the Trans-Siberian's "eastern northerly variant", located in the eastern half of Siberia; diverging from the "classic" Trans-Siberian route at Taishet turning left there, and thence running roughly parallel to, but a varying number of hundreds of kilometres north of, the "classic Trans-Sib"; and terminating on Russia's Far-Eastern seaboard not at Vladivostok, but some 800 km. north thereof at Vanino / Sovyetskaya-Gavan.

The author's Russian sojourns were mostly in the eastern half of Siberia, in parts thereof served by the BAM a thing which came to be, by an un-planned concatenation of circumstances (one of her relevant books is titled "Through Siberia By Accident"). Her coming greatly to love eastern Siberia and its inhabitants (while as ever, telling unsparingly of the perceived "bad stuff"), can be reckoned to have contributed to her turning into, as she puts it, a "BAM junkie". (She found European Russia, which she endeavoured also to sample, a good deal less congenial.) The BAM had been a very prolonged Soviet-era project, taking nearly sixty years from start to 1990 finish: involving much constructional heroism, especially re traversing often difficult terrain ("classic Trans-Sib" was mostly an easy assignment in comparison); and sometimes willing, sometimes otherwise self-sacrifice. In the worst times of Stalinism, the new route's construction camps were a particularly feared, and lethal, segment of the Gulag.

DM's great liking for the BAM partook maybe, of circumstances peculiar to the particular time-window of her Russian sojourns: at a time when much in Russia was visibly "falling apart" highly-flawed but in some ways benign Communism, gone; in the author's eyes, "dog-eat-dog-devil-take-the-hindmost" capitalism replacing it with nightmare speed the BAM, then still a state-run, undivided entity, was operating with, in essentially all respects, great discipline and efficiency, including well-kept and comfortable passenger stock. (How things are on that scene, twenty years on, is unknown to me my guess would be, "worse".) DM made many rail journeys, of varying length, geographically overall between Moscow and the far-east coast, involving BAM. In no case, horribleness for the passenger in any of the ways told of in previous paragraphs concerning other countries; BAM's comfort standard was high. Also, it traverses many wondrously scenic terrains.

Sundry remarks in the two books, re rail-traffic matters; a BAM / eastern Siberia example "At intervals the outside world agreeably intruded when prodigiously extended trains, needing two engines, chugged sedately along the shore. Once I counted ninety-five freight wagons, each thirty yards long. How many motor engines would be required to transport those goods?" DM tells of, at another point; on a westbound run, in the more westerly reaches of BAM's independent route, at that particular date: a diesel / electric change of motive power at Taksimo station a leisurely procedure at which "we all went walkabout"; a little later, "we were then sitting on a low wall watching the engine change but we didn't sit for long" (reason, midges in that respect, Siberia in summer would appear to be a serious rival to highland Scotland). One suspects that earlier in her life, DM would have had zero interest in types of motive power and switching-and-swopping-between, thereof: the likes of us might wish in respect of a Roumanian experience cited some way back a further-back conversion of the author, to noticing such things...

DM's last written-of travels to at-all distant parts, were in the earlier years of the 2010s; while she remained mentally highly alert to the last, increasing physical infirmity in her mid- and late eighties had to mean an end for her, to travelling. Her final book-yielding ventures two books were to Israel and Gaza: in that period, concerning that controversial area, she passionately espoused the Palestinian cause. Consequent on various factors, railways do not have a high profile in that part of the world they don't feature noticeably in her relevant writings.

DM was in my perception, a lover of her fellow-humans, with a heart very much in the right place; as one would expect, she had a Catholic upbringing she concluded at a fairly early age, that that strict path was not for her; no resultant hostility to Catholicism, and lifelong friendships "in both directions". Would like to envisage her in heaven, with wondrous fellowship and comparing-notes with other daring travellers from recent times, way back to millennia in the past; and likewise, with railway-lovers from various bits of the past couple of centuries, and areas of the world.

Rob Dickinson