Read the introduction to our Book of the Month for October, The Railways by Simon Bradley.
Until the age of eleven, I paid almost no attention to railways. The family went everywhere by car. Journeys to school were by bus, or on foot (this was the 1970s). What knowledge I had picked up came mostly from the few pages about trains – trains rather than railways, that is – that cropped up in books of the Our Amazing World kind. These introduced George and Robert Stephenson and their Rocket and proclaimed the Mallard’s world speed record for a steam locomotive in 1938 as another source of legitimate British pride; but this was tame stuff by comparison with atom-smashers, moon shots or Concorde. My great-grandfather had been an engine driver, and his son had briefly followed him on to the footplate, but it was Grandpa’s subsequent share in the defeat of the Axis powers that had value in the playground economy of competitive boasting. My father’s wistful cries when old footage of steam locomotives appeared on the television woke no echoes within me. I did not even own a Hornby model railway.
All this changed with secondary school. Mine stood on the triangle of land between the tracks leading away from Clapham Junction. Electric commuter trains passed on one side or another every few seconds, and many boys used them to get to school. This profusion had helped to keep the mid-century trainspotting cult alive for successive cohorts of incoming eleven-year-olds. Most gave up a year or so, but others stayed keen. We could even register as spotters with the school authorities, a bit like more serious cases of addiction in the world outside. Registered spotters were entitled to spend the lunch hour at otherwise out-of-bounds vantage points, including an iron fire escape with a panorama of the main line to Brighton. Here we were safe from harassment by the school’s hard lads and free from nosy invigilation by prefects and masters.
All the locomotives and passenger trains that passed had yellow ends for easy visibility and blue or blue-and-white sides: the corporate colours of our own nationalised British Rail, unchanged since the mid 1960s, the same from Penzance to Thurso. Highlights of the passing show were the diesel-hauled freights, especially those with mixed processions of wagons of every shape and size, sometimes with cargoes exposed: National Coal Board fuels, drums of British Steel Corporation wire, British Leyland cars. Their locomotives might come from depots hundreds of miles away, sometimes in obscure localities familiar only to insiders, such as Toton, Bescot or Healey Mills; places more resonant than suburban Wimbledon or Selhurst, where the commuters’ electric units were berthed overnight. Trains coasting down the slow incline towards Clapham Junction could be seen half a mile off, prompting competitive displays of recognition skills as the distant yellow blob gradually resolved itself into a distinctive configuration. Trains coming the other way were heard before they were seen, so we tried to memorise the various engine sounds.
We might even wave at the driver in his cab, in the half-ironical spirit with which adolescents carry on with things they fear may appear childish; but we valued the brief transmission of respect when a hand was raised in return. Less exalted in our eyes were the gangs of workers who came regularly to inspect and maintain the four lines of track, retreating to safety every few minutes at a signal from the lookout man; always just too far away for their voices to be overheard, or for their faces to be distinguishable. 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. For all that we dodged the odd fare and cheeked the ticket collectors, we sensed the integrity and purpose of the railway. Encouraged by vague ideas of expressing solidarity with the ‘real’, there was even a schoolboy fashion for versions of the black donkey jackets worn by the men on the track, the standard working man’s apparel of the seventies.
A few summers later, aged sixteen, I spent an entire August day on the end of Platform 4 at Newcastle Central station. The family had returned north to the city of my birth the year before. My new friends there were all mystified by the practice of spotting, and certainly it was hard not to feel self-conscious; surely I was too old for all this now? Dressed in a baggy black V-neck and black corduroys – an almost convincing attempt at post- punk style – I snootily noted the incongruity with the chosen-by-Mum leisure jackets of other teenage spotters. Yet if anyone had challenged us, we would probably have closed ranks and denied being mere trainspotters; we were ‘interested in railways’, we were ‘enthusiasts’.
Besides, there were extenuating circumstances: I was trying to give up. At least, I had decided that this should be the last trainspotting day. There was a target in view, too. In a few months, the most powerful express diesel locomotives on the system – the Deltics, British Rail’s Class 55 – were due to be withdrawn after twenty years’ service. These were as charismatic as locomotives could get without actually being powered by steam. At once huge and smartly styled, each was equipped with two marine-type engines and made an intense sound quite unlike anything else on the rails. All twenty-two bore names: some of Derby winners, others of Northern or Scottish regiments. With London school friends, I had clambered exultantly into their unattended cabs on weekend visits to the maintenance depot at Finsbury Park in north London, where the indulgent foreman allowed spotters the run of the place, or begged a few moments on board from their drivers on the platform at King’s Cross. I had since seen all the Deltics but one: 55 021, Argyll & Sutherland Highlander.
That this elusive machine should pull into the station half an hour before I was due to head home, taking the most cinematic approach across the Tyne Bridge and round the sharply curved viaduct towards the platforms, was almost too good to be true. There were even a couple of exposures left on the Kodak to capture the moment. Who cared about looking nerdy now that I had the set? The Deltic numbers printed in my Locoshed Book could become a solid block at last, zebra-striped by evenly spaced underlining. Future sightings would produce a sense of conquest and completion.
A year or so later Argyll & Sutherland Highlander was so many acetylene-cut chunks ready for the furnace and I was no longer spending days on platforms with notebook in hand. Yet the interest in railways endured, growing broader and deeper. Every public library then had a shelf-load of books by post-war authors such as C. Hamilton Ellis, L. T. C. Rolt and David St John Thomas, lively and engaging writers who leavened technical description with human interest and historical understanding. They described the railways of their own time, those of their youth and those of bygone generations. I read my way through these shelves.
Any aspect of the railways that was elderly, threatened or declining now assumed an increasing appeal. Those long trains of mixed wagons that had rumbled every day past the school fire escape were among the last of their kind: more than a century and a half after the first locomotive- hauled public railway opened for business, the ordinary general freight train had become hopelessly uneconomic and was disappearing fast. The future looked better for the bulk conveyance of minerals and chemicals, though here too there was change in the air. From the platforms at Newcastle it was still possible to see coal trains running without continuous brakes; when the locomotive stopped, the buffers pushed noisily together as each wagon hit the one in front. This relic of George Stephenson’s railways lingered into 1980s Tyneside, sharing the same tracks as the streamlined Inter-City 125s, the fastest diesels in the world. The raw, archaic sound resounded for a few more years over the ancient quays and crumbling warehouses, a rebuke to the shiny consumerism that was taking over the rest of the city.
Much else that was commonplace in the 1980s has since vanished too. Many passenger trains then still included compartments opening off a side corridor, a development of the non-communicating compartment type used on the very first pre-Victorian carriages. The Night Mail in the 1980s was still ‘crossing the Border / Bringing the cheque and the postal order’. Some mail trains featured special windowless carriages known as Travelling Post Offices, in which swaying night-shift workers sorted first- class letters into tiers of pigeonholes during the course of the journey. These carriages had slots in their sides, so that last-minute letters could be posted on the platform, subject to a small supplement. British Rail also transported much of the nation’s newsprint, and masses of parcels went by train too. This traffic required other specialised vans and carriages, and separate platforms and compounds at the major stations, where a great deal of shunting went on. There were Motorail trains, strange hybrids with carriages at one end and at wagons or covered vans for the conveyance of passengers’ cars at the other. Motorail’s advertising stressed modernity and convenience, but the practice had been going on since the 1830s, when private carriages were first mounted on flat trucks.
Such were the joys of train-watching in Mrs Thatcher’s first administration. Much of the network is busier now, although in terms of traffic it is much duller and more predictable. But trains are only part of the story. The railways remain a uniquely discrete system: a physically separate domain, its thousands of route-miles fenced off from the rest of the country and ruled by their own mysterious rhythms and laws. Parts of this system are new, other parts very old – some of them the oldest in the world and with buildings and structures intact. For those who have been initiated, a unique allure resides in the fabric and architecture of the railways, rather than in the trains themselves.
Take Newcastle station, an early-Victorian masterpiece, begun in 1846. Its frontage is a mighty display of classical architecture in the local golden sandstone, centred on a round-arched portico as roomy as a concert hall (Spoiled in 2013, when the open arches were glazed). Behind, trains still pass through the original curving shelter or train shed of iron and glass, three parallel arched spans following a steady curve, the earliest structure of this form anywhere. Newcastle’s street plan was revised in order to align with the station entrance, and the viaducts and bridges approaching it created the modern image of the city. A little way along the line to Carlisle, going west, still older station houses can be found, treated like ornamented lodges to a gentleman’s estate. These date from the Newcastle & Carlisle Railway’s opening in the mid 1830s: before Victoria and Albert, before postage stamps, electric telegraph companies, ocean-going steamships or photography. By comparison, Clapham Junction station in the 1970s was at a low ebb architecturally – the old booking halls had been shut to save money, and tickets were sold from a prefabricated kiosk. Yet the place inspired awe, both because of its unrelenting traffic flows and for its sheer extent; a quarter of an hour is needed just to walk round the public perimeter of all its running lines and sidings.
The lines themselves – the ‘permanent way’, in railway terminology – carried a historical charge of their own. Landscapes that had barely altered since Shakespeare’s time were suddenly scarred by gigantic embankments, or punctured by tunnels so long that the very survival of the enginemen amid the smoke and fumes was sometimes imperilled. Tens of thousands of bridges and viaducts carried the new routes across roads, rivers and streams, flood plains and estuaries. Some of these – the Forth Bridge, Brunel’s bridge over the Tamar at Saltash, the soaring viaduct across Newcastle’s Dean Street – still take the breath away; most now carry trains vastly heavier, faster and more frequent than those of their early years.
As teenage interests widened into new historical and literary terrain, I found the railways waiting there too. They had reconfigured many relationships between residence and place of work, and between town and country. They transformed the conventions of tourism and holidays. Regiments no longer marched for days across the land; prisoners handcuffed to their escorts found carriage seats amid the blameless citizenry; the rail-borne dead were smoothly conveyed across the counties to their ancestral parishes for burial. The railways’ size and complexity forced the pace of change in insurance, accountancy and management. Railways promulgated mass advertising, both for their own services and for anyone who would pay for display space. They had promoted changes in the national diet, which became at once more varied and less distinctive from region to region. They had fostered new publishing formats, and even new types of literature, easily consumed on the move. The everyday lives of those who wrote so vividly about railways – Dickens, Trollope and Ruskin among them – were in turn subjected to their inexorable discipline.
To travel through Britain equipped with a little knowledge of how its railways were built and operated is therefore to journey in time as well as space. This book attempts to explore further this railway-haunted territory. It does so not by chronicling the growth of the network – that has been ably done elsewhere – nor by turning the spotlight on that old scene-stealer, the locomotive. Instead, it begins by following an imagined journey. The starting point is the carriage itself, a space formed and transformed by ever-shifting forcefields in which technological change, safety, social class, gender relations and public health all exerted their pull on travellers’ bodies and consciousness. Infrastructure then takes command, from the ballast beneath the track to the grandest achievements of railway architecture and engineering. This leads on to the story of how the railways first fostered the growth of freight traffic and then had to cope with its painful decline. Questions of operation, control, management, communication and labour all come into play. The railway station follows, considered in the broadest terms of form and function and as a place of commerce and image-making. Lastly, the book explores the world of the railway enthusiast, from teenaged spotters to the adult volunteers who have saved entire lines from closure, as well as their forerunners in older generations: the first who came to understand the railways not simply as a force for modernity, but as a place where the present is confronted and enriched by the past.
Taken from The Railways by Simon Bradley
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