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The Railways: Nation, Network and People

Simon Bradley

(London Times)

Railway buffs tend to be such ardent enthusiasts for all the technical stuff that they lose sight of the bigger picture - the historical significance of railways as a whole, and their romance. They can't bridge the gap between knowing what a mixed-gauge track is, say, and having a general sense of railway 'poetry'.

On the other hand, the poetry - the puffs of steam obscuring Celia Johnson's tear-stained anguish in Brief Encounter, the toy-railway delight of the Crumlin viaduct - would not be discernible without the mechanical realities. This is why Simon Bradley is not an ideal, but the ideal railway historian. Yes, he is a buff of buffs, a trainspotter extraordinaire. But, as joint editor of the revised Pevsner Architectural Guides (and, incidentally, of a superb short history of St Pancras station), he is ever aware of the impact that technology and design have upon the everyday life of us all.

His book is, therefore, a rivetingly detailed technical history of railway engines and engineering, track, points and rolling stock, stations, bridges and signal boxes, as well as being a lucid guided tour of the evolution of steam to diesel to electric. It never stops, however, being a human story: an account of how all these technological innovations changed the nature of Britain for ever.

When this book begins, in the early years of Queen Victoria's reign, the poet laureate, William Wordsworth, was denouncing the building of a branch line to Windermere. At this date, relatively few people had been to London. Move on only a decade or so, and we are in the Victorian age of the Great Exhibition, where London is within easy reach for almost everyone. Britain had been connected up.

A poet of the next generation after Wordsworth, Matthew Arnold, could do his great work as a schools inspector precisely because there were railways, visiting as he did 15 towns across eight counties in one trip. Another government employee - Anthony Trollope, who worked for the Post Office - tells, in his Autobiography, how he "found after a few days' exercise I could write as quietly in a railway carriage as I could at my desk. In this way was composed the greater part of Barchester Towers."

Bradley is especially good on the way that the coming of the railways changed the very nature of Britain, its landscapes and towns. In two masterly chapters on the railway and the land, he shows how the nation swiftly became a place of embankments, telegraph wires, level crossings and signal boxes. Regionalism was immediately modified. Stable manure from Leeds could be transported quickly to the grateful potato farmers of the Derwent Valley, near York. Londoners could eat ripe plums from Evesham, fresh fish from Cornwall.

Bradley also evokes how the building of the lines changed the landscape, and very quickly became a part of it. Whole towns, such as Crewe and Rugby, were transformed by their importance in the railway scheme of things. Hence, when Dr Beeching closed the branch lines in the early 1960s he was not merely streamlining an inefficient bit of industrial plant, he was gouging out a part of the national imagination.

Railways, as many a film director, and Bradley, are aware, make an admirable backdrop for drama, excitement, crime and bloodshed, and Bradley's pages shimmer with dramatic railway accidents - such as the Staplehurst disaster, in which Dickens was involved, travelling with his mistress Ellen Ternan, and during which he heroically helped to rescue survivors. There are also murkier deeds. These range from the first British railway murder, when a bank clerk called Briggs was killed for his gold watch and hurled from a train between Hackney Wick and Bow in 1864, to the Balcombe tunnel case of 1881, when a Brighton stockbroker was shot, stabbed and thrown from the train.

Two of my greatest pleasures on trains are eating proper restaurant meals, and travelling in sleepers. I therefore especially enjoyed Bradley's two chapters on the history of these blissful activities. His story of the railways comes right up to date, so in both these cases - dining cars and sleepers - it is a woeful tale. Gibbon felt the decline of Rome to be encapsulated by the contrast between the great imperial days of the Forum and the feeble chanting there of Capuchin friars in the 18th century. A comparable sense of desolation will overcome the reader who turns from Bradley's account of the London and North Western Railway's 'boat train' to Liverpool, with its rich, well-dressed diners, the thick napery on the tables and the liveried waiters, to the contemporary fare of 'boxed sandwiches, crisps, floppy Danish pastries, with a premium-priced apple for the health-conscious'.

The trains between Paddington and Penzance have recently introduced a Pullman restaurant service where the food and wine are superb, so perhaps there will be a fightback against the horrible standard of catering today? Likewise, we still have our Cornish 'Night Riviera' and the Scots have two 'Caledonian sleepers', providing bedding as one rattles through the night. I was glad that Bradley mentioned Motorail, a wonderful innovation of the 1960s that's now long defunct. The happiest holidays I ever spent were those in which we put the Morris Traveller on the train at Euston, put on pyjamas, read a chapter of Agatha Christie, and, after six dreamless hours, awoke to drive off the train in the Scottish Highlands.

Forgive autobiography, but the joy of Bradley's book is that, by telling the story of railways, he has told the story of all of us British over the last 150 years. Turning the pages, we will cheer the ingenuity of the Victorians, curse the name of Beeching and Harold Macmillan, and recall the many moments of life - sobbing as one parted from a lover, delight as the train took us into new landscapes - in which the railways have played a central role. They made us what we are - both as a nation and as individuals, and this book is the classic, beautifully written, learned exposition of that glorious fact.

A mobile pub

One of the most bizarre of many railways experiments was the 1949 Bulleid Tavern Cars - essentially a pub on wheels complete with draught beer, and a low ceiling of real oaken beams on the inside and painted mock-brickwork and black-and-cream timbering on the outside. The designs caused much mockery but were popular enough to last for 10 years.

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