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EVERY morning for the past two weeks, the steam engine which has run from the Severn Valley Railway’s locomotive depot at Bewdley, to Kidderminster, to work the first passenger train of the day from the railway’s southern terminus, has been taking an unusually long time to get there. And the reason is, ‘the elephant stop.’
Its possibly the oddest instruction ever given to an engine crew in the UK, but the men manning the footplate on the morning run to ‘Kiddy’, have been required to stop their locomotive for several minutes beside the adjacent West Midland Safari Park at Bewdley, while keepers bring the Park’s two female African Elephants, Latabe (pronounced Lat-ahbee) and Five, to the boundary fence to meet the steam engine.
If the engine’s safety valves are noisly blowing steam, that’s no bad thing, and the standard safety requirement that footplatemen sound the whistle of their engine before pulling away, is actually quite desirable too. Yes, it does ‘spook’ the elephants – but that’s the whole point, because what’s been going on here, is a daily exercise in socializing elephants and steam locomotives.
It’s all in aid of a very special event taking place this coming Thursday May 24th, when the Severn Valley Railway becomes the first of seven UK railways to carry the Olympic torch on its 70-day relay around the UK, en route to London, where the Olympics begin on Friday July 27th.
The flame will be carried by Kidderminster man Christopher Stokes on the footplate of Severn Valley Railway ‘flagship’ engine No.7812 Erlestoke Manor when it hauls ‘The Worcestershire Express’, carrying some 300 local schoolchildren between Bewdley and Kidderminster, and central to that ‘once in a lifetime’ event will be a media photo-call at the Safari Park, putting steam locomotive and elephants in the picture together - and hence the reason for the whole acclimatisation exercise.
Of course the elephants are quite used to seeing and hearing SVR steam trains pass by on the high embankment near the junction with the original SVR line to Stourport and Hartlebury - from a distance. That’s been daily fare for many, many years - but never before at such at close range.
It’s likely that with minutes of being taken, the photographs of engine and elephants will be flashing their way around the world, bringing for both the Severn Valley Railway and West Midland Safari Park a publicity spin-off that money can’t buy.
Of course, if the Olympic flame was to go out as a result of air pressure, atmospheric changes or drafts inside Foley Park Tunnel, the Severn Valley Railway could find itself staring down the barrels at entirely the wrong kind of headlines.
But LOCOG, the Olympic organising committee, have thought of that, and are providing a lantern, inside which the Olympic torch will be carried during its time on the footplate, without fear of blowing out.
They also say elephants never forget. At 19 and 20 years old respectively, Latabe and Five are still relative youngsters. Elephants (in captivity) can live to 70 or more.
Perhaps in the years to come, two old African elephants will rub trunks together, and cogitate (in Ellie-speak) about the time they got up close and personal with a Severn Valley steam locomotive, in the cause of publicising the Olympic Games?