The north of England is known for different things to different people. To the outside world, it is famous for iconic films such as Billy Elliott and bands including The Beatles and The Smiths. Within the United Kingdom, memories of the 1980s struggle between northern mining towns and Margaret Thatcher's government still strike a strong chord.
Look further back, however, and great northern cities like Sheffield have an industrial heritage that has shaped their history and that of the world. Of particular importance is the birth of rail. This is a part of England's identity which engineers in Humberside have returned to with a renewed interest in recent years, building the first steam powered trains since the Second World War from scratch.
Perhaps surprisingly, this is a project that really got going in the depth of the recent recession. In 2009, a Peppercorn class A1 Pacific steam engine belatedly rolled off the production line, having been built in Darlington and the surrounding area. Even more interestingly, the project had by that time already been running for eighteen years, with more than £3m raised by trusts to fund the build.
The next leg of the project, to build a new Prince of Wales P2 locomotive, got under way recently as steel for this second new steam engine was cut at Tata Steel's Humberside plant, in Scunthorpe. The company behind the project is P2 Steam Loco Company, a Darlington based locomotive trust. It aims to deliver a second brand new steam train over the next few years. A1 Steam Locomotive Trust, a separate trust, was behind the first train.
This move to literally remake two icons of the north of England's manufacturing and engineering heritage is of interest for a number of reasons. Firstly, it reveals a deep desire to rekindle the region's historic industry, expressed in expensive heritage builds that between them cost an enormous £8m. The willingness of members of the public, the trusts themselves and local engineering firms to get behind the project is testament to the region's desire to get behind British engineering and rekindle the region's industrial fires. The steam locomotives of the past were more than just machines; they were icons.
It is, of course, equally worthy of note to observe that steel for the new train was cut in Indian-owned Tata Steel's Scunthorpe plant. Just as Britain's last commercial train builders – Bombardier – are Canadian-owned, Britain's engineering and manufacturing sectors are far more globalised than could ever have been envisaged when Sir Nigel Gresley designed the original P2 class steam trains back in the 1930s.
What this means for the future of the region's industry is difficult to say. There have been calls for a rebalancing of the UK economy back towards manufacturing of this sort for years now. What has changed, perhaps, is that in the wake of a recession created in the large Financial Sector, there has been a relative rise in the competitive advantage of UK manufacturing in comparison to that of China and other big manufacturing economies.
The challenge for Humberside manufacturers is to respond to the desire and improving climate in innovative ways. If they can do that, we might yet see more that two iconic pieces of British engineering roll of the production lines in the years ahead.