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Review: Locomotion – Dan Snow’s History of Railways

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The BBC seem to have started making railway documentaries again, which is great. For years we train buffs have had a bit of a raw deal from major TV channels. I’ve still got loads of Making Tracks episodes from the mid-1990s on tape, in which Bob Symes and Mary-Jean Hasler introduced me to steam engines here in Britain and around the world, and this is alongside the John Peel-narrated Classic Trains on Channel 4 and HTV’s series on the Cambrian Railway presented by Arfon Haines Davies. When was the last time there was a good series on railways on TV? The last I can remember was Channel 4’s Waterman on Railways, presented by Britain’s most famous enthusiast Pete Waterman, but this must have been a decade ago.

So Locomotion, Dan Snow’s series on the history of Britain’s railways, is a nice a touch after all these years. And for the most part, I think it was done very well. In the first of three episodes, he started pre-Trevithick and concluded with the opening of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway in 1830, charting how tramways and wagonways were developed into the modern railway with steam engines for carrying first freight and then passengers. So far, so good.

The second episode picked up where the first left off, covering the railway boom from the L&M through to the financial crash of 1866 (in which he was pointing out the similarity between that financial disaster and the global financial crisis of 2007-08 which we are still feeling the effects of. He deals in case studies like George Hudson and Samuel Morton Peto, who made and lost a fortune in the development of railways, without dealing in specific lines themselves other than the London and Birmingham (and the incredible achievement that was the construction of Kilsby Tunnel) and the British influence in the construction of the Grand Trunk Railway in Canada.

At this point, though, alarm bells start ringing – not because of the episode itself, which dealt with the process of the development of what is still the spine of our railway network pretty well. The problem is that it left one episode to cover the period from 1866 to (presumably) the present day, which is a lot of ground to cover when you’ve just spent one episode covering 36 years. And so it proved to be a bit more problematic.

The problem wasn’t necessarily what was covered – it was all very interesting, talking about the development of railway safety, British influence in Argentina and the role of the railways in World War I. The problem started with about 15 minutes to go, as you realise that only now the programme was getting to 1923, when the railway companies of Britain were grouped into the Big Four companies. Within that last 15 minutes, the programme tentatively covered the issue of the development of road transport, how the Metropolitan Railway helped develop the suburbs of London, and the battle between the LMS and LNER to break speed records. The section on Mallard’s record in 1938 finishes with just a couple of minutes left.

It is at this point that things fall apart for me, as Snow concludes a whole series that on the whole felt more like social history by effectively saying “Britain created the railways which created the superpowers which then overtook us so we weren’t the leader of the world any more. The end.” After all that, he just rams it into the classic grand international political narrative, effectively rendering all railway history after World War II irrelevant because our empire was finished and we were America’s bitch. For a moment I thought I was watching a Niall Ferguson documentary.

Now of course Snow may not have been meaning to give the impression that he was supportive of the idea of our global domination (although coupled with the section on British influence in Argentina, it bloody looks like he does). But even so, it feels tacked on and completely ignores what he had spent the previous 3 hours of programme building up – the idea that Britain was changed socially and culturally by the railways in ways in which few people acknowledge. Yes, there is an idea running through it that “Britain built the railways and the railways built Britain”, but I never interpreted that in a global way until the conclusion.

A far more appropriate ending would have been to finish talking about the rise of the motor car – just before the bit about us not being powerful any more, he had been talking about this, and it certainly felt that this was the note he was going to end on (and what a thoroughly negative note that would have been, considering more people travel on trains today than at any time since the 1923 Grouping and we’re in the middle of a new period of enormous investment in the railways by the government). But then at the last minute it switched direction. I’d have preferred it (if he still wanted to ignore pretty much everything that happened in railways after 1945) if he had instead said “And so car ownership boomed, and the railway fell into decline…(sentence or two about Beeching)…but today things look much brighter…(sentence or two about current developments).”

The problem I have with finishing a series about Britain’s railways by talking about global politics is that it isn’t relevant. Just because the Cold War started and we weren’t a world power any more doesn’t mean anything changed on the ground. Britain’s railways kept running and kept changing, and they still are today. This is the problem I have as a historian-in-training with the idea of grand political history as a whole – it’s all very nice focusing on kings and queens, but did the people of Britain notice any difference when one monarch died and another was crowned? Social and cultural history is far more relevant because it includes a far greater proportion of people in a history, rather than focusing at a tiny minority at the top. Britain’s fall from superpower status is meaningless to Britain’s railways unless you expand on that – specifically, de-industrialisation, which was absolutely huge both for the railways and because of them.

And therein lies the problem with this series – it needed another episode. Along with deindustrialisation, it missed out the Beeching era of closures, dieselisation and electrification, the HST, nationalisation and privatisation, the Channel Tunnel and HS1, and the future developments like HS2 and Crossrail, which all have (or will have) varying levels of social and cultural influence in Britain beyond their significance in the sphere of railway history. Plus this is not to mention the almost-total overlooking of the London Underground (bar the Met), which is an absolutely enormous development not just in London but globally, and the role the railways played in developing seaside holiday resorts (and the role of the loss of the railways in their decline). Maybe I’ve missed the announcement of a second series or something, but it just feels odd that these significant events, which most people who know anything about railways today will know about and would be interested in finding out more about, are completely ignored. It’s a missed opportunity.

It is a shame that most of this article focuses on this rather negative facet, because on the whole I really enjoyed the series. It was slick and accessible, and focused on the important parts of railway history pre-1939. Yes, it was a narrative and you should always be suspicious of historical narratives, but it was done well – I can see the influence here of Professor Colin Divall of the University of York, to all intents and purposes Britain’s top railway historian. Dan Snow is a talented presenter who conveys his passion for the subject well. There were a few gimmicks which people might have a whinge about being unnecessary but I don’t mind those.

The problem is that I don’t think it stands up well to earlier efforts like Channel 4’s Classic Trains, which remains my favourite railway history series. It worked because it wasn’t in a narrative format – instead each of the 6 30-minute episodes were done thematically: industry, suburbia, narrow gauge, trams, expresses and freight. It was broad and yet specialist. It was a history of railway development and social history, by talking to people and charting how places were influenced by railways. It covered a lot more ground than Locomotion despite effectively having less time for content (because of adverts). And it still managed to cover that narrative of Stephenson to Beeching.

Locomotion gets a 7/10 from me, because it was largely enjoyable but the contrived end left me puzzled and unsatisfied. Classic Trains, which is all available on YouTube, gets a 9/10, because it was virtually flawless.

Coming soon: in the not-too-distant future, I will be launching a new blog focusing on the history of the railways of South Wales…


Written by James Bennett

February 5, 2013 at 18:14

Posted in History, Rail, Reviews

2 Responses

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  1. […] February I wrote an article on Dan Snow’s documentary series Locomotion, which was quite good until the last episode […]

  2. […] this sort of series being made any more? Yes, the BBC have done series on railway history – Dan Snow’s Locomotion aired last year and Michael Portillo’s Great British Railway Journeys has lasted for five […]

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