Our leading writer and commentator on the railways is Christian Wolmar. He is perfectly normal, you understand (“My trainspotting days ended when I became interested in girls”). But he happens to regard the railways as the best and safest form of transport, and one that has long been martyred to executive stupidity and short-sightedness.
The heyday of our railways was relatively short. Wolmar points out that nearly 90% of our network was authorised during the railway mania of 1844-47. In the years immediately following … Well, Wolmar says that it would be easier to list the things the railways didn’t change than the things they did, but he pinpoints many vivid instances of their power. For example, they banished the “agricultural” smell of early 19th-century London, milk deliveries from the countryside having removed the necessity of keeping cows in the streets (and so profoundly did railways undermine localism that the main milk producing areas were left with shortages of it). A few decades later, there was a daily newspaper about railways: the Iron Times. The railways were responsible for Greenwich Mean Time being adopted across Britain, and this for a while was known as “railway time”.
Later innovations were admittedly on a more modest scale. The first PR was a railwayman: John Blumenfeld Elliott, appointed by the Southern Railway in the mid-1920s; and while the mythology had it that British Rail sandwiches were dried and curled at the edges, it was in fact the railways that pioneered the shrink-wrapping of food.
But the history of the network in the 20th century is the stuff of black humour, as Wolmar makes clear. The railways’ performance in the first world war gave them heroic status, but many young men learned to drive during the conflict, allowing them to set up haulage businesses free of the restrictions imposed on the railways’ carriage of freight. Too few uneconomic lines were closed in the inter-war years, leading to the over-reaction of the axe man and chairman of the British Rail Board from 1963-65, Dr Beeching. (It is tempting to write “mad axeman” but in fact the murderer of our branch lines was an urbane fellow, fond of a good cigar.)
Whereas the railways had once been seen as the products of dangerously unrestrained capitalism, by the time of British Rail they were seen as bureaucratic and sclerotic: socialism on wheels. Actually BR was the most cost-effective railway in Europe when a Treasury that had, as Wolmar laconically puts it, “run out of things to privatise” turned its sinister gaze upon it. A privatisation meant to reduce subsidy and government involvement in the railways has steeply increased both, and the one man who might have stopped it, Robert Adley, Tory MP and chair of the Commons Transport Select Committee, died of a heart attack before his campaign came to fruition.
Fire and Steam is so efficiently organised that you can imagine Wolmar calmly superintending some vast marshalling yard. It is written in a brisk, down-to-earth style (a favourite adjective is “daft”), and is enjoyably replete with bizarre details. In the 1840s, the signal controlling the entrance to Reading station “was a ball hoisted up on a pole when the line was clear, which meant that the regulations were a double negative: ‘If the ball is not visible, the train must not pass it.'” In the early days of the Great Western, drivers and firemen were required to wear corduroy suits of pure white. On average, one navvy died every week during the construction of the Ribblehead viaduct on the Settle-Carlisle line. The Forth Bridge, built in the 1880s, was deemed sufficiently impressive to appear in adverts for ladies’ stockings.
A particular strength of Wolmar’s book is the way it makes the past relevant to the present. He unpicks the speculative free-for-all that resulted in the tangle of lines south of the Thames, the legacy of which is the raised blood pressure of thousands of commuters daily. But our railway history is circular in another, more promising way. No new main lines were created in the 20th century, but the high speed Channel tunnel link which is about to open might presage a return to the optimism of the early days. Environmental concerns and road congestion are helping the cause, and all right-thinking people will find the title of Christian Wolmar’s last chapter stirring indeed: “The Future is Rail.”