Is Russell a boy or a girl!?! Courtesy Welsh Highland Railway.
Enthusiasts recounting tales of such locos as the Flying Scotsman or City of Truro thundering up and down the railways of Britain tend to refer to them lovingly as 'she'.
Like the world of steam itself, some traditions die hard and a row has broken out at the Welsh Highland Railway after a fund-raising leaflet used the word 'he' to describe an engine.
The Porthmadog arm of the WHR is trying to raise money to restore the historic tank engine Russell to full working order and, what with its having a male name, referred to it in their literature with a masculine personal pronoun.
"We certainly never meant to cause offence with this leaflet," explained WHR operations manager, Martyn Owen. "We were surprised when feelings started running so high among our members."
The Welsh Highland Railway project is restoring steam travel between Caernarfon in the north to Porthmadog in the south. Courtesy Welsh Highland Railway.
Built in 1906 for the as yet uncompleted Porthmadog, Beddgelert and South Snowdon Railway, Russell was named after James Cholmeley Russell who in 1878 was appointed as receiver when financial problems beset the company. When the WHR ceased operations in 1937, Russell was put to use at pits and Fayles tramway in Dorset before being snapped up by rail enthusiasts and restored to steam.
Having worked back on the WHR for a time, Russell was retired in 2003. Now volunteers are keen to get it back on the tracks, but need to carry out major work on its boiler and motions.
But when a fund-raising leaflet was produced to help raise money for the work and referred to Russell as a 'he', some volunteers were a little put out.
Russell has been described as the pride of the Welsh Highland Railway. Courtesy Welsh Highland Railway.
For volunteer Mark Seale, the affair "is no laughing matter. All steam engines are 'she', whether they are called Flying Scotsman, Princess Elizabeth or King George V! Steam engines have been feminine ever since they were invented."
However, other volunteers are seeing things from the other side: "For goodness sake, this thing is called Russell," said James Hewett. "The engine was named after a man, and it is just silly to call him 'she'!"
"Calling Russell 'she' is as daft as the man who called his son Sue in the country music song," he added. "When did you ever hear of a Jill Russell terrier? And what about Bertrand Russell? Or Russell Crowe? No one with half an ounce of sanity would ever get it wrong with them, so why make a mistake here?"
As the debate rages, WHR staff have decided to make it official and try and come up with a definitive answer. As such two volunteers have been given the chance to set out their arguments on the organisation’s website, one backing the 'he' campaign, the other the 'she'.
The volunteers behind the Russell restoration project need £30,000 to carry out the work needed to get the loco going again. Courtesy Welsh Highland Railway.
Other volunteers and members of the public can also give their verdict by taking part in the site’s online poll to help come up with a solution - he, she or it.
"We've decided to try and resolve the issue by running an online poll where people can vote on whether Russell is he, she or it, so we can settle the issue once and for all," said Martyn Owen.
At the time of publication 'he' was ahead by a nose, but anything could happen. For Martyn, it’s all about making sure people are aware of the need to restore the locomotive.
"To be honest, I don't mind what you call it," he said. "Just get it steaming again!"