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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…

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Written by James Bennett

February 5, 2013 at 18:14

Posted in History, Rail, Reviews

Doctor Beeching and his associates

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If you’re only interested in football or F1 or something, it would probably best for you to look away now, as this one is on trains…

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Pride of place in my collection of books goes to two enormous green atlases by the name of The Railways of Great Britain: A Historical Atlas (Second Edition) by Colonel Michael H Cobb. I’ve loved trains since I was a toddler, although it’s a bit more closeted these days (let’s face it – it’s not cool), and I’ve had an interest in maps for a while as well, so this makes total sense. It all sounds incredibly nerdy but behind it there lies a story that sums up the development and decline of Britain’s railway network, with significant wider implications today.

As far as I know, this is the only large scale atlas documenting virtually every railway line ever built on this group of islands, detailing when they were opened and closed and the companies that operated them, up until the privatisation of British Railways in 1994. What it depicts is the enormous frenzy of the construction of railways in the 19th century, dubbed ‘Railway Mania’, before the gradual scaling back of the network from the 1930s to the 1950s, and the eventual mass culling of a third of the remaining lines in the 1960s and early 1970s overseen by the notorious railway butcher Dr Richard Beeching.

Beeching in particular is despised nationwide, although it is fair to say that many of the closures of the 1960s were earmarked before his appointment to the British Railways Board in 1961 or were almost certainly inevitable. It would be wrong to pin the blame solely on him, as there is little doubt that if he hadn’t taken his place on the board, whoever would have would probably have done the same or worse – Tory Transport Minister Ernest Marples escaped the blame despite being just as culpable and having a stake in a road haulage business, and his successor Barbara Castle only reprieved a handful of lines after Labour swept to power in 1964 pledging to halt the cuts. Beeching also made a number of other good decisions while in the position, such as the development of the Freightliner service and the merry-go-round coal hoppers, and he also oversaw the transition from steam power to diesel and electric, which although handled badly was the right decision. However, that is not to say BR’s closure plans weren’t flawed and executed badly.

The state of British Railways after World War II was not particularly healthy. The nationalised network was making big losses, in part a legacy of the war but also of the development of the system itself. There were hundreds of loss-making lines, many of which were duplicates of successful lines. An example of this can be seen in my native South Wales, where numerous small companies had sprung up in the 19th century to build lines from collieries across the valleys to the docks in Cardiff, Barry, Newport and Swansea, and all were competing with rivals. This often led to two lines for every valley, despite each valley being barely able to sustain the one line. Indeed, a number of valleys in South Wales lost both in the 1960s.

Closures here had begun as early as 1930, although it would be during the ‘Beeching period’ that the majority of cuts would happen, decimating an extraordinarily complex network of lines. This would be an experienced shared across the country, from the Scottish Highlands to Cornwall and the Isle of Wight. It was as if Beeching and his associates had looked at a map, started cutting genuine duplicate lines and got carried away in the process.

The upshot was the loss of railway links for hundreds of isolated rural communities, often the only reliable transport links they had – a promise to replace the railways with bus transport or improved roads for many of these either proved unsuccessful or never materialised at all. Thousands of jobs were lost, with even the lines and stations that remained open being scaled down.

There were even some former trunk routes closed, with three classic case studies. The Somerset and Dorset Joint Railway which linked Bath with Bournemouth was a controversial closure. The Waverley Route from Edinburgh to Carlisle via Galashiels and Hawick was said to be a large loss-maker at the time but is about to be partially reversed in the 21st century.

But arguably the most controversial, and in my opinion the biggest mistake, was the closure of the Great Central Railway from London Marylebone to Nottingham and Sheffield and the adjoining trans-Pennine route to Manchester. The GCR was a modern route, having largely been built in the last decade of the 19th century with minimal curves to a continental loading gauge in preparation for any future cross-Channel links – in this way, it was well ahead of its time. It served a number of large towns on the route, including Aylesbury, Rugby and Loughborough.

However, it was decided that the line was to close on account that it was a duplicate of the numerous other lines in the locality, even though it was generally a profitable route and despite its potential for the future. Likewise, the trans-Pennine route to Manchester via Woodhead Tunnel was not saved despite heavy investment, including early electrification and a new tunnel bore in the 1950s. Today, parts of the GCR remain, either as part of the national network such as the route out of Marylebone to Aylesbury, or preserved as part of the revived GCR which runs two sections around Loughborough. But in a time where the government is now proposed a costly, controversial high speed link from London to the north, and trans-Pennine capacity remains stretched, the closure of the GCR network now seems incredibly foolish.

The lack of foresight in the closures is their most significant flaw. Beeching and co did not account for future developments such as the growth of towns, urban road congestion and environmental problems. While rail freight was dying on its arse due to the deregulation of road haulage and would never recover despite Beeching’s innovations, passenger numbers have recovered somewhat, and have continually grown in recent years. Beeching reversals such as the reopening of the lines to Ebbw Vale, Alloa and Mansfield have exceeded expectations.

While many of the lines that were shut were unprofitable, it is not a surprise that they were considering the number of people they were employing for services that few were using – with the decline of goods and freight by rail, staffing every station with a number of employees had become a historical anachronism. Compare that to today’s railway system, which is stripped down to the bare minimum, arguably having gone too far the other way in some instances, but perhaps providing a model for how many of the now-closed lines could have been run effectively had they stayed open. As well as this, the Parry People Mover and innovations in signalling are examples of technological developments that would have helped smaller lines.

Tourist potential was never taken into account. A number of lines used heavily in the summer by holiday-makers were shut, particularly in Devon and Cornwall which lost most of their rural lines such as those to Ilfracombe, Bude and Padstow. It seemed that no one took into account that traffic varied so much from season to season, or if they did, they didn’t think through the consequences. Many of these resorts have suffered considerably since – though it was anticipated that people would switch to travelling there by car instead, this never happened. Further to this, many scenic lines were shut despite their obvious tourist potential. Beeching and co assumed that the car would come to rule all as it did/does in the USA and thus made no effort to make concessions for any future shifts, but it never developed the way they expected.

But the biggest mistakes were made after closure. Within weeks of closing lines and stations, all of the infrastructure bar station buildings and large bridges were removed. Hundreds of former lines, stations and yards were then sold off and developed, often as housing, industrial parks or relief roads, preventing any possibility of reopening them. Thus, many towns which would now benefit from a rail link will probably never get one. The short-sightedness is staggering – while the US and France have also seen cuts as big or even bigger than seen here, they preserved former trackbeds in case of further developments. In Britain, this has only happened in one or two instances, and even then what has been left is very restricted. The only lines reopened in recent years, and the only ones likely to reopen in the future, are lines kept for freight. The room for further development of rail infrastructure is now mostly gone, save for demolishing houses, tearing up roads or ignoring NIMBYs.

It is easy to get nostalgic for the vast old railway network we used to have in Britain, especially if you never lived at that time, with no prospect of ever experiencing it, save for some brave bright spark designing a large virtual recreation of it (hey, I can dream – and if there are any games developers reading this…). Railways are in some ways a historical anachronism, and there are people out there who think Beeching didn’t go far enough, not least Beeching himself and his would-be successor in the 1980s, Sir David Serpell, who both proposed concentrating on only a handful of key routes.

But I believe that in these times of continuing urban development, and climate change and the end of fossil fuels on the horizon, mass transport is a crucial part of our present and future, and saving virtually the entirety of Britain’s rail network could have worked and, in my opinion, should have happened. Obviously there were some lines and stations that were shut correctly as they served little purpose, but from the 1950s onwards, the cuts became increasingly rash, driven by a desire to turn around BR’s losses there and then rather than thinking towards the future. Added to that, the reduction of infrastructure on other routes caused them to become loss-makers (intentionally?), forcing unnecessary closure, before tearing it all up to prevent anyone reversing the process.

At some point, there was a shift in approach, and it was the wrong one – they began to look at a railway or station asking why it should stay open, rather than looking at it and asking why it should be closed. A more lenient, considered approach could have saved an awful lot of trouble in the future and helped move BR back into the black quicker – it is clear that there were lines closed during this period that never should have been and would now been an important part of the network.

It is easy to say this with the benefit of hindsight, but the fact that BR’s profits did not recover with the mass closure of lines as they expected demonstrates that they got it wrong, and now we are all suffering because of it. Beeching was a man of his time, and it was a very different time, but clearly he did not realise this himself – or, to put it another way, he was unwilling to consider the potential for change, and ignorance is no excuse.

Now all we can do is look at lines on a map, or read books with pictures comparing a thriving railway in the 1950s to an overgrown wood or housing development today, contemplating what might have been, as traffic gets heavier and our skies are filled with ever more greenhouse gases. And yet we also look at the current government proposing a grand scheme at vast expense to suit a small percentage of the population of the country, and using it to try and show that they care about rail travel, while continuing to build new roads and proposing a new super-airport for the South East!

Surely 2 and 2 is making 5 here – if they had any sense, they would spend that money on undoing some the damage done in the 1950s and 1960s. Times change, but idiocy at the top does not.

Written by James Bennett

April 15, 2012 at 21:31

Posted in History, Other, Politics, Rail

British European Airways Flight 609

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I haven’t written much here lately because I haven’t had the time or will to do anything, and there’s no point half-arsing something for the sake of it. However, I’ve got a couple of weeks free before my next essays are due in so I may do something. However, I have done an article for We Are Going Up on a certain team’s excellent recent form (currently the main headline story on the site too – woo).

I intend on making this blog a bit less football-centric and have a bit of everything, apart from F1 stuff (if I ever bother again) which goes on Welsh Grand Prix. On that theme, here’s a new episode of Mayday/Air Crash Investigation (shown on National Geographic here) that may interest you. ACI is one of my favourite TV programmes at the moment, being simultaneously awful and brilliant at the same time, trivialising death with CGI graphics and emotional blackmail but actually being quite interesting from a historical point of view.

This one, from the most recent series currently airing in Canada, is on British European Airways Flight 609, i.e. the Munich Air Disaster of 6th February 1958. Obviously it is interesting from a football perspective (and Busby Babes ‘keeper Harry Gregg is a talking head), but that is largely a sub-plot here, so don’t expect too much on how good the side was. It mainly focuses on the pilot, Captain James Thain, and his battle to clear his name after being wrongly accused of causing the crash in the initial report. If you like it, check out some of the other episodes, although this is the only sports-related disaster they’ve covered so far, and the likes of Superga and the Zambia disaster are unlikely to feature. Enjoy.

Written by James Bennett

January 23, 2012 at 23:52