Book Review: Battle for the North

Charles McKean, Battle for the North, Granta, £9.99

Competition rather than cooperation was the stimulus for the construction of the British rail network. Unlike several European states which laid out the pattern and extent of their railway systems, the British government stood aside as rivalry between private train companies resulted in the creation of a dense network with much duplication and uneconomic branches.

This was particularly true in Scotland. There, the fierce battle between the country’s two biggest railway companies, the North British and the Caledonian led to the construction of two world scale bridges, the Tay and the Forth, which McKean reckons would not otherwise have been built.

The results of this fierce rivalry were not all positive, however. The collapse of the first Tay bridge in 1879 was the result of shoddy construction work occasioned by the need for economies by an impoverished company embarking on a project whose viability was always doubtful. Shareholders, for the most part, suffered, but by the turn of the century Scotland had a remarkably extensive rail network.

McKean’s tale is particularly entertaining when he delves into the murky world of 19th century railway economics and at times the drama and the conflicts behind the creation of Scotland’s railways are worthy of a page-turning novel.

Christian Wolmar’s history of the railways, Fire and Steam, has just been published by Atlantic Books.

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