Fire and Steam Review by Frank McLynn

Railways in the 19th century had the transformative effect that the automobile would have in the 20th, and Christian Wolmar is a sure-footed guide to the oft-told tale of British railway history. The author has an unerring eye for relevant detail. His scholarship is everywhere evident and he gives us full measure on the three great accidents in rail history: at Quintinhill, Scotland in 1915; Harrow and Wealdstone (1952) and Lewisham (1957). There are innumerable anecdotes and lashings of informative asides.

The real interest of this volume, however, is the way it moves from a breezy, populist style when dealing with the 19th century to something like Swift’s savage indignation in the 20th. Three incidents rightly incur Wolmar’s wrath: nationalisation, Beeching and privatisation. Attlee’s Labour government botched the post-1945 nationalisation with over-generous compensation to shareholders, the result of a timid government beset by powerful lobbying. Ever after, the unholy alliance of incompetent administrations and the worst kind of capitalist greed ensured we have the most inefficient rail system in western Europe.

The Beeching cutbacks of the early 1960s were an example of mindless butchery. One-third of the entire network was closed because of a myopic bottom-line short-termism. Behind the despotic figure of Beeching stood the transport minister Ernest Marples, one of those dim provincial accountants who know the price of everything and the value of nothing. Marples, Thatcherite avant la lettre, insisted that the railways run at a profit – a species of impossibilism, as all transport experts know. Like all Tories, Marples detested the railways with an ideological hatred. He pioneered the warped thinking whereby expenditure on roads is an “investment” while rail spending is “subsidy”.

Yet not even Marples or Beeching could conceive the ultimate folly of privatising the railways. Even the ideological Thatcher, always a cautious day-to-day politician, drew the line at this. It was left to the egregious John Major to usher in this monstrosity.

Reading the final chapter on events since 1992 is like experiencing a nightmare, except that this continues in our waking hours. Not even Swift could devise the ludicrously convoluted permutations introduced by the moronic “internal market” concept. Brilliant though he is as a railway researcher, even Wolmar cannot explain where the £5bn paid to railway companies by the taxpayer in the past 10 years has gone. His outstanding analytical coda should be required reading for every MP. This is an excellent book which, like all the best stories, begins with something like comedy and ends with the blackest tragedy.

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