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April 29, 2010

There is no greater thrill than witnessing the passing of an iron dragon. After weeks of thinking there would be no way to see the steam train running on the Ferrovia Val d’Orcia, I did.

I spent a beautiful sunny day in Siena sketching and enjoying baking in the Campo, and afterward decided to go all in and try to see the train as it passed Asciano, the junction between the FVO and the FS line from Chiusi to Siena. I knew I would be spending a lot of time waiting around and would miss dinner at Santa Chiara, all for snapping a few pictures as it blasted through. But as I stepped down at Asciano from the sleek Regionale train, I told myself I wasn’t about to come all the way to Italy and miss seeing a steam train in my regional backyard. As I wandered around the outer platform at Track 3  snapping pictures of the small junction yard and its signals and water columns, a tour bus blasted into the parking lot and ground to a halt, disgorging a flood of elderly people and a man in what from across the tracks appeared to be a conductor’s uniform. They all rushed for the stairs to the subway under the tracks, heading for my platform. With a jolt I realized the train would be stopping at this little station, and whipped around just in time to catch the first wisp of steam rising up over the trees in the distance. I bolted down the platform and took up position near the water column, so it would add some context to my video shot of the train coming in.

FS 741.120 at Asciano.

To my surprise the locomotive was the sole operating Franco-Crosti boiler locomotive in Italy, with its large feedwater heater slung between the frame and lopsided rear exhaust stack. The 741 class of engines were built in 1954, and have a space-age look due to the placement of the stack and the characteristically Italian streamlined industrial look.

The running gear, glowing in the late afternoon Tuscan sun.

The scene of the train leaving the station will live forever in my heart, as the conductor held out his cap and yelled “Heeeeeyyy, MAESTRO!” To which the driver replied with two blasts of the whistle, followed by the heavy exhaust of the locomotive dragging the creaking, rumbling wooden coaches out of the station. The image of the men in the cab splattered with a mixture of coal dust and sweat to the harried conductor hustling the elderly passengers into the coaches to keep the train on time, all doing hard labor because they like it contains all the joy and good will possible in the world.

The crew looks on as the passengers take their time boarding.

The true spirit of preservation lies not in the antiseptic galleries and restoration labs of art museums or in the obsessed bickering of preservation committees and academic authorities, but in the hearts of those people who put in a hard day’s work to keep something of the past alive. After the train left, I could hear the sounds of a lone workman hammering inside the neglected station building, doing his part. Someday I will do the same, putting my money and time and sweat into the iron horses still plying the rails around America.

The train ready to depart Binario 3.

It was the best day in Italy I could ask for, and a wonderful way to top off these four months abroad. I did end up missing dinner and suffered through an extremely tired panino at the bar in the Chiusi station, but it was a small price to pay for a lifelong memory.

One Comment leave one →
  1. May 5, 2010 3:53 pm

    Okay, even I’d miss dinner for such a sight!

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