Published: Jinty 7 February 1976 – 17 April 1976
Artist: Phil Townsend
Writer: Alison Christie
Translations/reprints: None known
Billie Stephenson and her grandfather live and work at the local railway line of Whistledown, and for years grandpa has run Old Smokey, the commuter steam train between Whistledown and the big city. But then Councillor Gresby sets up a garage, offering rival commuting by car, and is trying to push out Grandpa. He even puts up an ad outside the railway station (cheek!) saying, “It’s cheaper by far, to travel by car!”. His selling point is cheap petrol, and, as the Stephensons soon discover, his scheme is making the villagers so dependent on car travel they lose interest in the trainline, thinking they don’t need it anymore.
Before long, Gresby is pinching not only Grandpa’s customers but his staff as well. Grandpa has to cover their jobs as well as his own, and it’s wearing him out. A flu epidemic closes the school, enabling Billie to help with Grandpa’s workload. But Gresby sends in a railway official to inspect things, and after seeing how poor custom has become, he closes down the railway line altogether. And Gresby still isn’t through; he tries to buy out Grandpa by offering him a job at his garage, and then he buys all the railway cottages for his garage employees. This pulls out the Stephensons’ home right from under them, and now they’re homeless. Gresby’s game is clear to Grandpa: “Take a job from him or get out!”
Still, it’s not all going Gresby’s way. The housewives have wised up to how Gresby pulled strings to close the railway line. As they need the train because they don’t have cars, they rally around for Old Smokey and launch the fight to reopen the line. This gives Grandpa the resolution to fight as well. He soon finds a way to stay on living at the railway line – buy an old railway coach and convert it into a home. Billie organises a petition to Save Old Smokey.
But Gresby is finding his own way around the difficulties, and he seems to be cutting off the Stephensons at every turn. People are treating the Stephensons’ railway home as a joke, and Gresby takes advantage. He pays off the girls at school to really bully Billie over it. He then deals with the housewives by offering them a luxury bus to take them to the shops. Now they now say they don’t need Smokey and won’t bother with the petition. Billie only gets a handful of signatures. She also finds the closure of the railway line has driven more people to buy cars because there’s no other way of commuting, so now they don’t think they even need Smokey anymore. Gresby has the Stephensons’ water supply cut off, and the neighbours seem too scared to give them water (probably under threat of losing their jobs). Gresby sends in a scrap merchant to have Smokey scrapped. However, Billie manages to get a letter from British Rail telling Gresby he does not have the authority for this because Smokey is their property, not his. When the railway home springs a leak, giving Grandpa bronchitis, Gresby has the sanitary department around to inspect the home. They tell them to make the place damp proof or find another place to live.
On the bright side, Billie finds a surprise ally – Gresby’s son Simon. Simon says he loves trains and stands up for Billie against the bullies who were paid off to pick on her. At first, Grandpa doesn’t trust Simon, but Billie thinks she can. Another friend is Farmer Miles of Whistledown Farm, who helps with water and other supplies.
Simon soon proves he can be trusted. He repairs the leak in the railway carriage as the Stephensons can’t, and seeing how poorly the petition is going, comes up with an interesting way to help it along – take the petition and get signatures himself. He gets into a fight with his own father over it, right in front of everyone in public. The rough way the enraged Gresby treats Billie and Simon shocks everyone so much they rally around with support and signatures. Hmm, did Simon plan it this way, or did it just happen?
The fight is not the only reason why the villagers have turned against Gresby; they are finding his service and maintenance charges are too high, so they’re looking at Smokey again. His petrol is the only thing that is cheap, but Billie knows that will increase too, once Gresby has gotten rid of them.
Gresby tries to destroy the petition by having one of his mechanics setting fire to the railway carriage. The arson does a pretty good job of making a mess of the place, but Grandpa was one step ahead of Gresby on the petition – he hid it inside Smokey in case Gresby tried to destroy it. Gresby is seething to see the petition being posted to the railway company.
Billie soon gets warning Gresby is up to something else, and she also sees his garage is doing extremely well despite people turning on him after the public fight. He takes over the village dump site for his new car show room, so what’s going to be the new dump site for the old rubbish? Yep, you guessed it – the railway station. Billie and Grandpa are horrified to wake up to find themselves woken up surrounded by rubbish, and Gresby renames the old railway station “Whistledown Scrap Yard” (more of that cheek!). He is confident that as the railway line is closed, the railway company will not make a fuss about all the rubbish dumped on its property.
But Gresby soon finds he has miscalculated. When Mr Martin, a representative from the railway company, comes in response to the petition, he has Gresby remove the rubbish or face legal action. What’s more, as the council won’t remove the rubbish, Gresby has to pay a private firm to remove it, and there’s nowhere to put it but his own front garden! The Stephensons really have the last laugh on him this time.
Mr Martin says they will reopen the line, but only if they can find a guard and a station master. So the Stephensons advertise, but Gresby is onto it with his own advertising, to tempt the jobseekers away with better jobs at his garage. However, the railway company find the men to do the jobs. Gresby bribes the coal merchant not to sell them any coal for Old Smokey, but the villagers overhear and rally around with their own coal.
Grandpa insists on fixing up Old Smokey for the big day despite stormy weather, which makes him ill again. Gresby takes advantage by telling everyone they can’t have a sick old man like that as a driver, makes the train service unreliable, and they’re far better off with cars. Grandpa overhears, and this time he wonders if Gresby is right; he’s old, getting sick, and Smokey needs a young driver although it seems unthinkable that anyone but Grandpa can drive her. Though he recovers, he grows depressed and loses interest in everything, even in Smokey.
Then, on another stormy night, matters come to a head when Gresby comes to the Stephensons begging for help. Simon’s got appendicitis and the storm has blocked the road, so no cars or ambulances can get to the hospital. Grandpa and Smokey are his only chance of saving Simon, as the railway line is the only other way to the hospital. So, Gresby is now forced to use the very steam engine he’s forced into retirement for months. And now he has discovered the hidden folly of making everyone in Whistledown – including himself – too dependent on just one means of commuting to the city and putting all their eggs in one basket.
Of course, the mission of mercy to the hospital on Smokey is how it’s all resolved. Simon is saved, and a grateful Gresby apologises, makes peace with the Stephensons and leaves them in peace, and concedes there’s room for both the railway and the garage in Whistledown. Smokey and Grandpa become heroes in the press and are back in business. Smokey is now tooting merrily along the railway track again.
According to Comixminx, at the time of publication, the story illustrated the increasing move to car usage. Nowadays, nearly fifty years later, we live in an age where increased car usage is causing multiple problems: too many vehicles, traffic congestion, traffic jams, parking problems and costs, increasing pollution, environmental damage, carbon footprints, fuel shortages and increasing petrol prices. These are driving us more and more to alternative forms of transport, preferably ones that are cheaper and more environmentally friendly.
None of this was really in vogue at the time of publication, and none of it comes up in the story. All the same, the themes that come up in the story – too much car usage, not enough alternate means of transport, discarding existing means of transport that are still serviceable and could be upgraded, profitability at the expense of welfare and common sense – now seem more relevant today than in 1976.
The only major concern at the time of publication was rising cost of petrol. This is probably why Gresby’s cheap petrol is such a selling point. His other selling points include reliability, convenience, and cars being cheaper to run. Against this are his exorbitant charges for car maintenance and services. The petrol is the only thing that is cheap, but that will rise too, once the Stephensons are out of the way. If it happens, Gresby could well price himself out of the market.
However, from the outset we can see Gresby is so greedy at making his the only means of commuting to keep his garage profitable that he fails to see the folly that has been there from the start – having only one means of commuting puts too many eggs in one basket, which makes people over-reliant on it. But there will be times when it fails for one reason or other, and can’t always be available. He finds this out the hard way at the story’s climax. Besides, not everyone is willing or able to use that particular means of transport and may prefer others. Trains and cars have their pros and cons; rail has advantages that cars don’t have, and vice-versa. Therefore, both have ended up complementing each other, and this is what happens at the end of the story.
The Stephensons, in their own way, are as short-sighted as Gresby. The reason they want people to continue to use Smokey is that she is their life and blood, and they can’t live any other way. Moreover, to them, Smokey is not just a train but a person and their dearest friend, and they will move heaven and earth to save her. However, they are not looking all that much beyond this, to look at other reasons why Smokey should carry on, or if not, what else she could be used for. There are so many arguments they could use for public appeal. Over-dependency on one means of commuting has already been discussed. Heritage value and tourism could be another. This was used in a Button Box story (also written by Alison Christie) where a railway company closes down a railway station for economic reasons, to the devastation of the dedicated station master. As with Grandpa, the station was his life. However, the station’s heritage value comes to the rescue. A railway enthusiast converts it into a railway museum, beginning a whole new life for the station and its station master. There are also people like Simon who just love trains, and an old steam engine would build up on nostalgia appeal. And of course, there are people who prefer to be taken along the scenic route and avoid the traffic.
The villagers get so annoying in the way they constantly change back and forth between supporting Smokey and not doing so because of Gresby’s crafty manoeuvres to keep their custom. One minute they begin to see the pitfalls of the garage and the switch to cars, and even see Gresby for what he is. Then they change their minds in a flash once they receive yet another lucrative offer from Gresby or, in some cases, an off-panel threat from him. However, in the times when they do support Smokey, they always leave something behind to help. Ultimately, this takes the form of the filled petition. The petition in itself does not save Smokey, but it opens up the avenue to what ultimately does – prove to everyone, including greedy Gresby, that there is still a use for rail in Whistledown and they should not rely on just one means of commuting.