I’d like to be magisterial and say The Railways: Nation, Network and People by Simon Bradley is the definitive work, or as comprehensive a book as you can find on the history of Britain’s railways. I’d like even more to be the happy pedant, pointing out lacunae in the description of how Britain adopted the standard gaurge against Brunel’s broad gauge. But I know almost nothing of railways, though I love travelling by train, so have to come to this book as the general reader of a well-written, entertaining piece of social history that cites novelists and poets as well as engineers. Simon Bradley quotes the book-making Victorians – Dickens, Trollope and Surtees as well as films like Brief Encounter, The Railway Children and the opening scene of a Hard Day’s Night, where the Beatles dodge their screaming fans “behind poster hoardings and into telephone boxes and photo booths” in the cluttered concourse of the 1960s.
Bradley’s book tells a big story – the technical development of the railways and their social impact, and embroiders it with fascinating details eg the contents of the luncheon baskets and the placing of toilets, the slight ring underfoot on the Southern Railway’s preferred concrete over timber platforms. He devotes a whole chapter to signals, which doesn’t stoke my boiler, however, his writing flows and he never loses sight of the human beings – in this case, the solitary signal-man on duty in his box. He explains the sensible height of British platforms (set at 915mm i.e. 3 feet) with a step or two to the train compared to the steep climb on the Continent. He gives the reason why Cambridge station is such a trek from the town centre because the dons feared loss of control of undergraduates and pulled strings to ensure that the station was built well over a mile away from the town.
Former platform on National Cycle Network 1
The railways created their own kingdom “a physically separate domain, in thousands of route-miles fenced off from the rest of the country and ruled by their own mysterious rhythms and laws.”
Cyclist on National Cycle Network 1
Simon Bradley was a young train-spotter – not just of the locomotives but of those working on them. “Driver and ganger alike belonged nonetheless to the world of proper work, visible and practical and comprehensible – a world away from the office-bound lives of most of our own fathers.” He conveys the excitement of the Victorians as this great force entered into their lives, as transforming as computers and the internet in ours. The landscape was altered with embankments and tunnels and viaducts.
Detail of former railway bridge, now carrying cyclists and pedestrians
He points out that bridges were a relatively rare sight before the railways came. Oldest bridges were almost all bespoke structures. Only when canals arrived were bridges multiplied to standard engineers’ design. Now their striding arches are one of the splendours of the British landscape. (For cantilevered iron, the Forth Bridge beats the preening Eiffel Tower any day of the week, and how much finer the Glenfinnan Viaduct is than pompous static showoffery like the Arc de Triomphe.)
Viaduct on the National Cycle Network 1
“Part of the fascination of the railways is their permeation with memories and traces of obsolete working routes, and the human lives and destinies they shaped. The physical record is often patchy, because different aspects of the system have changed and developed at wildly varying speeds. The modernised freight network envisaged by Dr Beeching is already utterly lost; the diffuse small-scale system which he knocked for six is more remote still. Yet the bridges, tunnels and earthworks that carry the twenty-first century traveller are still predominantly those the Victorians witnessed take shape.”
Bradley moves beyond the Victorians and their share-owned competing railway companies through to British Rail and to today’s mess of ownership – state subsidy of dividends to share-holders:-
“The old British Rail system was subsidised between 1 billion and 1.5 billion. Subsidies since this time have reached as high as 6.3 billion….Much of this money comes nowhere near the operating side of the railway, but is sucked straight out again in dividends, administrative and legal costs ,inflated salaried and bonuses. Nor is the system cheap for its users. [Grossly expensive, and Byzantinely complex in fact.] All of these features are intrinsic, not accidental, parts of the business model under which the railways were privatised – a process that,… was meant to address the supposed scandal of a public opened system which required high subsidies in order to operate. It has proved an extremely expensive way of saving money.”
Though Bradley does follow to the modern age via the marshalling yards and the change to diesel, it is the Victorians and Edwardians who dominate from when the technology was innovative and exciting.
The new words such as stoke, shunt, siding, running out of steam, on the right lines. Time, once set by the “guildhall and town hall and church steeple” was set by the “power of capital”. The landowners were challenged and there would be battles between the surveyors and navvies and estate workers where theodolites would be smashed. (In Middlemarch there’s just such a scene – not quoted by Bradley.)
As the railways developed they were felt at the time to be as unstoppable and transforming as our own digital revolution. So in Trollope’s Rachel Ray set in Devon, which was late to be connected, the timid matron Mrs Ray says of her journey to Exeter:- ‘“I thought the train never would have got to the Baslehurst station. It stopped at all the little stations, and really I think I could have walked as fast.” A dozen years had not as yet gone by since the velocity of these trains had been so terrible to Mrs. Ray that she had hardly dared to get into one of them!’ ‘ There are obvious comparisons with the elderly of today who once wondered at the young’s sci-fi interweb thing now complaining of the speed of their Skype.
The railways have been with us for long enough to have created their own archaeology. I live across the road from the busy Edinburgh to Glasgow line, which I walk or cycle under every day. My commute goes past an embankment which was once a line and is now the National Cycle Network 1 cycleway. On the route are ghosts of platforms and you are riding unaware over a viaduct which is visible from the street a hundred feet below. There was a railway yard, now a place for billboards (advertising was a huge feature of Victorian stations). Another part of it is scrubland which the Council is planning to turn into a further cycleway, restoring a bridge or two.
Once a railway line, now scrubland, future cycleway
The living railway, Glasgow to Edinburgh line
When I see the great nineteenth railway structures – the viaducts, the Forth Bridge, the grander railway stations, I feel that we are lesser beings living in the half ruin of a mightier civilisation. We don’t build such grandeur any more but conserve with our heritage industries, our endless touristing.
Bradley’s last chapter is about the volunteers running old lines. He describes a “steam-hauled express arrives from a visitant from the another world, a sort of industrial unicorn or dragon.” Crowds gather to view this icon of another age, as beautiful and obsolete as a full-rigged man of war.
“Made vivid again, here is something that transcends Nature, an amazing work of man; what H.G Wells, writing in 1901, proposed as the best symbol for the century that had just passed, ‘a steam engine running upon a railway.”
The Flying Scotsman