DID you know that, between the wars, the drivers of the LNER’s crack express trains had little slots on the sides of their cabs in which they put their nameplates, and people vied for their autographs? Did you know (you might have guessed this one) that the London commuter services have always been awful, perhaps reaching their nadir when an entire trainload bound for Orpington was mistakenly diverted onto the wrong line and only brought back after a 30-mile detour? Did you know that, under the pressure of this kind of publicity, the Southern Railway appointed what is believed to be the world’s first PR?
At the beginning of Fire & Steam, Christian Wolmar claims that this is not “a nostalgic book about the railways.” Thankfully, however, mixed in with a comprehensive survey of the way the iron rail really did open up the world, these and many other fascinating, dare we say nostalgic, stories are told.
According to one reference quoted in the book, some inter-war express drivers “became almost as famous as today’s football stars.” The idea of sooty blokes in overalls as the 1930s equivalent of Posh and Becks is enjoyable, and not quite as far-fetched as it might seem. Just like football – only with far more justification
– railways have often been confused with life itself. Our country, and especially our city, are the products, as much as anything else, of railways. In London, man is born free, and is everywhere in trains.
The story of how the railways created modern society is familiar enough, but it is told here with verve and vividness. Handlebar-moustachioed Victorian railway spivs, demarcation-conscious trade unionists and slide-rule Sixties network planners live in Wolmar’s pages. And the human account is overlaid with something else: the sorrier tale of how politics has got in the way.
As the broadcaster Jon Snow is quoted as saying, “since the very beginning, whenever a train has met a politician coming down the track, there has almost always been the most appalling pile-up.” Wolmar implicitly blames political meddling – from the onerous mid-century “common carrier” obligations which made railways uncompetitive against the growth of the lorry, through stop-go investment and the overzealous Beeching cuts, right up to the unparalleled disaster of privatisation – for the way in which railways have fallen from their superstar-driver pedestal.
The book, however, makes a rather good case for waste and poor management being just as culpable: failings that led ministers to push the privatisation button. Yet as Wolmar also shows, by the time BR was dismembered, the perception of the railways as ineptly managed was a decade out of date. By the early 1990s, Britain had the most efficient railway in Europe. And in a supreme irony, the privatised service is more tightly controlled by civil servants and far more heavily subsidised than BR ever was, even though quality has fallen, fares have rocketed and real improvement of the network has stagnated. On the railways, politics shows no signs of going away.