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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

Review: Video 125

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As I’ve said before, this isn’t on football or anything at all interesting to most my regular audience. It’s on railways – DVDs about railways. I’m an unashamed train nut. Eventually I will have a train-based blog if I can be bothered. Just an advanced warning on what is to come…

As an unashamed train nut with a taste for the visual, I’ve always loved collecting videos and DVDs on trains. Among the most treasured of my collection were the three Classic Train Journeys (CTJs) videos my grandparents bought (or maybe even had via some voucher system in a catalogue – I can’t remember exactly) in what must have been the late 1990s – that’s certainly when they were made, anyway. They are basically a compilation of snippets of driver’s eye views on various scenic railways in Britain, with music and narration.

The first focused on Scotland, covering the West Highland line from Glasgow to Mallaig via Fort William, the line from Edinburgh to Aberdeen via the bridges over the Forth and Tay, and other scenic highland lines. The second focused on South West England, most of which covered the Great Western Main Line from Paddington to Penzance, as well as the run from Weymouth to Waterloo. The third focused on Wales, covering the Heart of Wales, Cambrian, Ffestiniog and Conwy Valley lines.

To me this was a trilogy as perfect as Star Wars Episodes 4-6. The scenery on most lines is stunning. The narration from Chris Denning was full of lots of historical details. Even the music felt right. OK, so in more recent years as I’ve grown up, my perspectives have changed somewhat as I’ve grown up – I’ve realised the music would probably seem a bit cheap if I was listening for the first time now, the segments on each line are quite brief, the recordings of the lines cover about 10 years, and Chris Denning is a convicted paedophile (no, really, he is). But they’re still great.

I discovered a fourth CTJs video a few years later, focusing on Northern England – including the Cumbrian Coast line, Manchester to York, York to Berwick on the East Coast Main Line, and the Settle and Carlisle line. But like all sequels made years later, it was a tad underwhelming – the music wasn’t the same, the narrator wasn’t the same, and it didn’t have the warmth of familiarity that the other three brought. It was no Star Wars Episode 1, but I decided not to buy the fifth, focusing on Ireland. A few years ago I discovered a company selling driver’s eye views, thinking they were the full versions of the lines sampled in CTJs. Unfortunately, they weren’t the same, nor were they as interesting – there was no narration (apart from the odd conversation in the cab) and the lack of music meant it sounded quiet and dull.

However, all was not lost – last year I discovered Video 125 on YouTube. I recognised the name – though a different company name was on the first three CTJs videos, the fourth was by Video 125. And soon I recognised the videos – the stack of promos on the channel matched up with the snippets on the old videos. It turned out that they were selling DVDs of (pretty much) the full routes after all, and loads more on top. Video 125 has released 65 driver’s eye views (or DEVs, as they are referred to) in total.

Today, I’m sat here with 13 of them. I’ve taken advantage of their offer of 15% off if you buy five or more DVDs – I’ve got two more coming on Christmas Day. Here’s a review of each one – if it appears that I’m being critical, don’t take this as moaning, as they are all very very good; it’s just that some don’t quite live up to the high standard the best set:

The Down Fishguard – Swindon to Fishguard

This was the first full DEV I watched, after getting a sneak peak when it was posted on YouTube. Though illegal downloads and suchlike are said to be unfair on those who produce them, in this case it was what led to me buying more, including a copy of this one, so Video 125 did rather well out of that one.

The reason it inspired me to buy more was because it was so good compared to anything I’d seen before. It’s a particularly long DEV, coming in at just under 2 hours in length, but it’s not a minute too long. Although you would think that it wouldn’t be that interesting a route, you’d perhaps be overlooking some pretty key features – as well as capturing a HST service to Fishguard (now consigned to history), you also get the Severn Tunnel, the whole of the South Wales Main Line to Swansea and the coastal route from Llanelli to Carmarthen. The route gradually gets increasingly interesting the further it gets from the border; what starts out as a classic main line becomes a long branch line through wonderful rural scenery, especially with the Fishguard section being single track and having restrictive speed limits around increasingly tight curves. By the time the train reaches Fishguard, it does feel like you’ve been on a genuine journey.

Rating: 9/10

HST Great West – London Paddington to Exeter St David’s

This includes the original Great Western Railway from London Paddington to Bristol Temple Meads in full, and a large part of the Bristol & Exeter Railway. This was the final part of the HST West trilogy (the other two parts will be reviewed next) and was filmed and released in 1993, completing the full route from London to Penzance. It isn’t the most scenic of lines, but then that’s not the point – it’s the perfect summary of the classic Brunel route, with features such as the “billiard table” route through the West London suburbs, Box Tunnel, the classic station at Temple Meads and a brief look at the broad gauge recreation at Didcot Railway Centre. The Bristol-Exeter section doesn’t quite live up to that as it’s an inherently less interesting section of lining, largely running over the flat Sedgemoor plains. It may now be nearly 20 years old, filmed just before the electrification of Paddington to the then-absent Heathrow Junction, but as with the other DEVs, that adds to its charm and value.

Rating: 8/10

HST West/Far West – Exeter St David’s to Saltash/Saltash to Penzance

Both of these features are now included on one DVD but I’ll review them individually.

First, HST West, the beginning of the trilogy and only the third Video 125 DEV to be made. This covers Exeter St David’s to the Royal Albert Bridge over the River Tamar in Plymouth, at the time clad in scaffolding. The first thing that strikes me is how dated it looks – it was made in 1986, 26 years ago, and it hasn’t aged brilliantly, which may explain why only a brief sample was included in CTJs South West England: it doesn’t really fit the continuity, as the HSTs weren’t painted in the famous Intercity Swallow livery, while Class 50s occasionally appear which dates it. The picture quality also looks very “80s” in comparison to later DEVs, and like other early releases it is punctuated by cutaways (in this case a look at the now-gone Atmospheric Railway Museum at Starcross, an interview with David St John Thomas at Newton Abbot, a rare glimpse at the South Devon Railway’s operations into Totnes station, and a look at the town of Ivybridge) which are of considerable value today but break up the flow. Despite all this, the journey is a very good one, along the spectacular coastal route via Starcross and Dawlish and then over the South Devon Banks via Totnes. I have travelled over both parts several times so it’s nice and familiar, but at the same time it’s also a little underwhelming. However, you couldn’t really remake it now: Anton Rodgers, who narrated all three parts, has now sadly passed away, so you’d need to redo all three parts to maintain continuity, and it’s not worth it.

HST Far West, though, was much better. Filmed in 1990, it follows on from the scaffolding-free Royal Albert Bridge into Cornwall. Like The Down Fishguard, as the train goes deeper and deeper into Cornwall, it feels like those bends through the hilly terrain are getting tighter and the speed is dropping, while the number of large viaducts bridging one valley after another is very surprising. If you watch this trilogy as a single entity from London to Penzance, as I did the first time I watched them, this feeling is particularly exacerbated – you start out on long straight flat 125 mph runs through the suburbs of the capital and end up winding through the countryside on a hilly peninsular, before ending up at a small fishing town on the coast. Inspired by this, I caught a HST from Newton Abbot to Penzance this summer – the DEV was a great advertisement for the route and it lived up to the billing. It was every bit as good as HST West was underwhelming.

HST West Rating: 6/10
HST Far West Rating: 10/10
Overall Rating: 8/10

Cornish Branches – the branches to Looe, Fowey, Newquay, Falmouth and St Ives

Also narrated by the actor Anton Rodgers (which really helps with the continuity with the HST West trilogy), this DEV from 1991 covers all the Cornish branch lines. Therein lies the major issue – because it’s so fragmented, it doesn’t really flow well and it’s hard to get into. Added to that, not all the lines are equally fascinating. On CTJs South West England, only the Looe and St Ives branches were included (featuring to break up the main run through Cornwall), and I can see why – the lines to Newquay and Falmouth aren’t quite as interesting, while the Fowey branch is lovely but the Class 37-hauled china clay train it is filmed from is painfully slow. That being said, there are some great features: the passenger branch trains are all operated by ageing first generation DMUs as opposed to Sprinters, and the lines are all in pre-privatisation rustic state. The Looe and St Ives branches are magnificent relics of a bygone age, running through unspoilt countryside that only a train could run through. It’s worth getting this just for those two lines. This probably works best as a DEV to dip into and out of just for the individual lines.

Rating: 7/10

The West Highland – Glasgow Queen Street to Fort William

The magnificent West Highland Line from Glasgow to Fort William was the first route covered in CTJs Scotland, meaning it was the first DEV I saw. I am still in awe of this line – constructed ostensibly as a main line into the Highlands (how they ever thought this would work I don’t know), it remains arguably the most spectacular branch line in the country, as well as one of the longest. The full DEV, which includes a few interesting scenic sections missed out by the original sample in CTJs Scotland such as the spectacular Horseshoe Curve, is another fantastic advertisement for the line: initially running through suburban Glasgow (perhaps a little bit too much of which is shown, though I think that would be being overly critic), it gradually transforms into the classic route we all know and love, with curves, inclines, viaducts and lochs galore, but not many people.

Rating: 9/10

Steam to Mallaig – Fort William to Mallaig

The West Highland Extension from Fort William to Mallaig is probably best known for the steam specials that run during the summer (as well as for being the route used for filming some of the Hogwarts Express scenes for the Harry Potter films), and this DEV, filmed in 1985, coincides with the second year of what became known as The Jacobite, but was then still known as The West Highlander. As such, it is filmed from (in front of – but don’t tell anyone that) the unique LMS Black 5 44767 George Stephenson. The route, often ranked as one of the most beautiful in the world, is captured in its splendour, and before both the abolition of semaphore signals in favour of radio signalling and the encroachment of the widened Road to the Isles. But despite this, and having travelled the route behind a steam engine, it was a little bit underwhelming – I can’t quite put my finger on why, but it might be because of its particularly short length (at less than an hour in length, compared to the usual 80-100 minutes), the almost constant cutaways to lineside views (pared down in later DEVs) or because it’s now so old, which you don’t necessarily realise when watching on CTJs Scotland thanks to clever editing (as well as missing out the incredibly dated cheesy intro). It also lacks continuity with The West Highland – for some reason, I get the feeling that if it was done from a Sprinter and narrated by Paul Coia like TWH, perhaps even as an addition to that DEV, it would be better, but you would lose the gimmick of steam traction. But it is the biggest-selling Video 125 DEV so I may be an exception.

Rating: 7.5/10

The Cambrian Coast – Machynlleth to Barmouth

Though I said at the beginning not to take my niggles as criticism, I was particularly underwhelmed by The Cambrian Coast. But this might again be due to age rather than anything – at that point, Video 125 were still developing their DEV style. This was perhaps one of the victims. The footage is great, with an excellent recording of Wales’ most scenic railway in glorious weather – it worked well on CTJs Wales. However, it’s what it didn’t include that perhaps frustrates a little – it’s only 80 minutes long and covers only a short part of the Cambrian Coast route. Yes, it covers the most scenic part, but the remainder of the line to Pwllheli via Porthmadog isn’t without its merits, and that it is missing is a disappointment. Added to this, as with HST West, it’s broken up by significant interludes focusing on the Talyllyn and Fairbourne Railways, as well as filler for each station stop, and the narration by the Welsh character actor Dafydd Hywel is a bit over-the-top – Video 125 later went with HTV’s Arfon Haines Davies to record their other Welsh DEVs, and it’s disappointing in hindsight that he wasn’t used for this one, particularly as he narrated a documentary series on the Cambrian Railway around the same time as this DEV.

I hate to go on about it because I don’t want to be critical, especially of something that was filmed nearly 25 years ago, but this feels like a missed opportunity, and is perhaps the only one that I’ve seen that I think would benefit from being redone – longer, without filler, and with a better narrator. Video 125’s DEVs have improved enormously since then – I believe the feedback from customers said similar things about the filler content, as there’s little of this in more recent DEVs. One is planned for the line from Shrewsbury to Aberystwyth, including part of the route covered by The Cambrian Coast. Perhaps that would be the ideal time to redo it, this time all the way to Pwllheli.

Rating: 6/10

Heart of Wales – Swansea to Shrewsbury

This is not advertised as a full DEV of the route, so I can’t really complain that it does skip chunks of the route. Taking that into consideration, it’s another great advertisement of the route, which, as it’s name suggests, runs right through the centre of Wales. It is another distinctly rural route, mostly running through villages and small towns. One of the high points (quite literally) is the climb through Sugar Loaf Pass between Llandovery and Llanwrtyd Wells, where the single track winds its way halfway up a mountain. It’s one of those routes that’s almost continuously pleasant throughout, even though it lacks “big name status” and the jaw-dropping sights of some of the Scottish routes.

Rating: 7.5/10

Ffestiniog and Conwy – Porthmadog to Blaenau Ffestiniog; Blaenau Ffestiniog to Llandudno

This is a DEV of two distinct halves, and both halves leave you wanting more, even though there’s little else they could offer. The first part is the full length of the Ffestiniog Railway, one of the most remarkable narrow gauge railways in the world, which twists and climbs its way through Snowdonia from the port of Porthmadog to the slate town of Blaenau Ffestiniog. While we see the spectacular cliff faces and dense forests from in front of a double-Fairlie steam engine, we are told about the construction and reconstruction of the line, itself a fascinating story.

The second half is the Conwy Valley Line from the joint station at Blaenau to Llandudno, which is another great snapshot of the recent past. It has a very 1980s BR feel: the train is a first generation DMU, and the line has that rustic, slightly worse-for-wear feel that you don’t get so much in the post-privatisation era. The line is a hidden gem, particularly the section after the long tunnel in Blaenau which takes you from under a slag-covered mountain into an unspoilt jungle. Like the River Conwy, it winds itself down the valley to Llandudno Junction on the North Wales Coast line, before taking the short double-track branch to Llandudno’s once-grand but now largely derelict station, again adding to that pre-privatisation faded feel. Added to the Ffestiniog, it’s a great double-DEV, the best of those covering Welsh branches.

Rating: 9/10

SkyeTrain – Inverness to Kyle of Lochalsh

I don’t think the promo on the Video 125 YouTube account sells this one particularly well – it is a very good DEV. The promo focuses on the run from Inverness to Dingwall, which doesn’t give a full impression of the balance of the route – the vast majority is fascinating, and the latter stages as it skirts along the edge of Loch Carron looking out onto the Applecross Peninsular are among the most scenic in Britain, if not the world. Granted not all the route can live up to that, but most of it runs through beautiful scenery – the climb to Raven Rock Summit is another stand-out section. The DEV is also notable for being filmed from a Class 37, as it was filmed in 1987 shortly before the end of locomotive-hauled trains, and there are useful insights into the radio signalling system (RETB) which 25 years on is destined to be replaced in the near future.

Rating: 9/10

The Royal Scot – London Euston to Glasgow Central

There seems to be a real contrast between the music, which seems to try and portray the West Coast Main Line in the mid-1990s as a fast-paced ultra-modern railway, and the West Coast Main Line in the mid-1990s itself, which feels rustic and dated – this is a WCML prior to modernisation and the arrival of the Pendolinos, Voyagers and Desiros which are ever-present today (or at least they are beyond my back garden in Coventry anyway). But that is part of the fun – yes, like many another Video 125 DEVs, it’s dated, but in this case, that’s the point. A DEV of the WCML at the moment wouldn’t be as interesting.

There are two parts to The Royal Scot, originally sold separately but now combined on one DVD. In the first part, the Class 87-hauled train heads from Euston non-stop at up to 110 mph as far as Preston, including the Trent Valley Line via Lichfield. It’s not particularly scenic but it is very interesting, as one of the most historic routes in the country. The second part, from Preston to Glasgow, is more scenic as the line climbs over the summits at Shap and Beattock. But the charm is the rustic nature – the distinctly 80s rolling stock and slightly shabby infrastructure. Though I don’t have it I’m guessing that gives it an advantage over the East Coast Main Line DEV, The Flying Scotsman, which was filmed at the turn of the century on board a more modern 225.

Rating: 8/10

Lickey Voyager – Bristol Temple Meads to Derby

For some reason, I had an urge to buy this one in my most recent batch of five. It’s an odd choice of route, seemingly running through large parts of mostly bland countryside with one feature of note, the Lickey Incline, the steepest incline on Britain’s railways. But it’s also a modern DEV, filmed in 2005 on-board a Virgin Voyager on a cross-country route, and I wanted to try it out to see if it was as bland as I originally thought it was. It was actually very good – the route from Bristol to Lickey runs through pleasant countryside, with narrator Alan Hardwick listing numerous closed stations as we travel through South Gloucestershire. The section of line into Birmingham New Street ran into the centre of the city alongside a canal, making for a pleasant run. And the line from Birmingham to Derby ran through more pleasant countryside. It was pleasant – that was what stood out. Other than a couple of minor niggles, such as getting the date of closure wrong for Filton Junction station (mixing up 1969 and 1996 could have been a typing error, mind), it was very good, a useful addition to the Video 125 portfolio without being too flash. Not all of them can run along ridges or plunge through long tunnels.

Rating: 7.5/10

Metropolitan and District – Hammersmith to Whitechapel; Whitechapel to Ealing Broadway

The first Video 125 Underground DEV is also my first Underground DEV. I bought it primarily because it is soon to be superseded by a new production concentrating only on the Circle Line from Edgware Road to Hammersmith. Aside from for the point of obtaining as complete collection as possible, the older DEV has unique features that won’t be replicated, such as the direction of travel (opposite to the upcoming DEV), use of two sides of the Aldgate triangle and the branch to Ealing Broadway. Having just watched it, my overriding feeling from this one is very positive – yes, the picture quality is a bit dated compared to recent DEVs, especially noticeable through the tunnels, but it has still blown away my expectations. Though I have done a few different Underground lines, I wouldn’t class myself as being particularly interested in it, but after this, I definitely want more Underground DEVs, especially the more recent ones. If you are in any way interested in the history of the Underground, these would be well worth getting.

Rating: 9/10

Written by James Bennett

December 21, 2012 at 01:14

Posted in Other, 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…

———

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