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What are they on about?

Once upon a time, there were three splendid engines, and they were called Gordon, Henry and James. They were quite proud of their smart paintwork and perfectly happy with their names, which were solid and sensible and perfectly appropriate.

But one day, the fat controller told them that they were to be given new names, thanks to a new sponsorship deal. From now on, Gordon was to be called Councillor Enid Sibley MBE, Henry was to be known as What Car Monthly? and James, while retaining his shiny red coat, would sport the title BBC National News on one side of his smoke box and Regional News and Weather on the other.

You think this sounds unlikely? Better put that crossword down and look out of the carriage window, for strange things have been going on in the engine shed.

Back in the days when lavatory cisterns were called The Victory and manhole covers were stamped Indomitable, locos were named after castles. And when they ran out of castles, there were any number of warships, cities, public schools, mythical beasts and characters from the Waverley novels.

Many of these charming if bombastic names have been passed down from steam to disel to electrics, so that you can still travel behind Royal Scot, Scafell or Hal o' the Wynd.

But according to a trainspotters' pocketbook that I happened to find , er... well, in my pocket, you're just as likely these days to be dragged along by an engine called BBC Midlands Today, or whisked away by a diesel named British Transport Police.

While freight is drawn under the Channel by Milton, Brahms, Stendhal and Victor Hugo, passengers travelling north of London may be led by the Institution of Electrical Engineers, Rotary International or Brookside. TV programmes are everywhere ("Coming next at platform 3, Songs of Praise, followed by Clothes Show Live and BBC Wales Today"). And not content with getting their names in print, just about every local newspaper in the land is now pulling a train (Wow! There goes the Reading Evening Post!).

How do you fancy doing 95mph behind Royal London Society for the Blind? Or plunging through the night behind Johnnie Walker or Glenfiddich? Gordon, Henry and James would not approve. They would have muttered something about dignity and family silver, and told the fat controller where to get off.

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