From the age of five, I was allowed to spend entire days hanging around Darlington station, with a packed lunch, watching the trains heading north to Aberdeen and Edinburgh, south to London and (in those days) Richmond, Yorks. I suppose they’re a boy thing, trains, but it wasn’t the serial numbers on the locomotives that captured my interest, nor even the grand green diesels themselves, with their commotion, their serious-looking windows and strange military nameplates – Pinza, the Green Howards, the Durham Light Infantry. It was more the sense that they were rushing to places, purposefully, with all that implacable, thundering majesty and power. And maybe it was also in the blood: my grandfather drove trains out of Darlington, as did his father before him. My dad and uncle both worked for British Rail. The northern half of my family was steeped in the railways and hailed from their two most historic towns, Stockton and Darlington. Even today, I get irrationally excited, seeing a railway line: where’s it going to, what’s at the other end? And I still can’t drive a car, clinging to the belief that they are a mean-minded, claustrophobic form of transport. So I was always going to like Christian Wolmar’s marvellously informative, entertaining and rightly partisan book: a history of how our country has been shaped, for better and worse, by the railways. It is also a lament for the way in which governments – going back nearly 200 years –– have always taken the railways for granted, starved them of investment, lacked the imagination to plan ahead and, at worst, wreaked upon them all kinds of deliberate damage.
As Wolmar, our most knowledgeable transport journalist, contends, it is hard to imagine more blatant examples of official vandalism and stupidity than the Beeching report of 1963, which proposed closing 7,000 stations and 5,000 miles of track, and John Major’s boneheaded, ideologically driven privatisation in 1993. The appalling congestion on our roads is just one legacy of the former; the present misery and extortionate cost (to the taxpayer as well as the passenger) of travelling by train the direct result of the latter. Neither act could have been contemplated by anyone who understood how the railways created modern Britain.
Wolmar takes us on a journey that begins at Darlington station on September 27, 1825, when George Stephenson’s Locomotion puffed and heaved its way the 12 miles to Stockton-on-Tees in a little under three hours, occasionally reaching speeds of 15mph before an entranced public who had been given the day off work. Within a quarter of a century, the country was crisscrossed by a quite staggering 5,000 miles of track, a rate of development inconceivable today. As a result, new towns sprang up alongside each route, creating our first suburbs; small towns – such as Southampton – were unexpectedly transformed into cities. And all the while, the railway companies found their thirst for expansion impeded by the landowning aristocracy, who extorted criminally vast sums for the privilege of traversing their swathes of the countryside. Then there were the luddites, who thought that people would go blind if they travelled at more than 15mph and that sheep grazing along the track would abort their foetuses in fright. The modern railway network, with all its flaws – Kent, for example, has slow, rotten train services today because of wasteful competition between two companies back in the 1850s – was laid down by private enterprise in an extraordinarily short period of time. Aside from the dreadful Beeching, the basic layout has not changed much in 150 years.
Wolmar charts the progress in terms of travelling times, passenger comfort and safety; his judgments are astute and sometimes surprising. He is less than dewy-eyed about the supposed golden age of rail, those interwar years when the Mallard and the Flying Scotsman tore north from London, smashing records on the way; he is rather nice about British Rail. It really was “getting there” in the end, he reckons. Then look what happened: a privatised network that now costs the taxpayer more than double, in real terms, than it ever did under public ownership. Wolmar has an international perspective, too: he contends that outside the crowded Far East, national railways will never turn a profit because the supposed “free market” is weighted in favour of the car.
There are one or two mistakes. Northampton Town Football Club’s nickname is the Cobblers, not the Saints, and Middlesbrough is spelt wrongly throughout. More important, no matter how much Wolmar might insist, with the fervour of the revisionist, that the Manchester to Liverpool line was the first passenger railway in the world, I won’t swallow it. It was instead the aforementioned Darlington to Stockton line: the world’s railways, like the best footballers, were born in the northeast of England, and don’t you forget it, Wolmar.
Yet these are minor cavils at a book that has given me more pleasure than any I can remember in quite a while. Wolmar concludes with the optimistic suggestion that the tide has turned; it is no longer seen as a dying industry, and “the new focus on the environmental damage caused by road and air transport strengthens the case for investment”. Trains are the safest and cleanest form of mass transport. With a bit of imagination and money, they could be the fastest, most comfortable and most reliable. Make this man secretary of state.