Write away – the story of my books

I have written more than a dozen books on the railways. And unusually among railway authors, I make my living from them, earning enough from the advances and occasional royalties to allow me to pay my way during the nine months or year they take me to write. That makes me very fortunate as I get paid for doing what I love. And despite being in my mid-seventies, I have no intention of stopping unless sickness (or worse) intrudes both because it is very enjoyable but also as I have no significant employment-based pension.


Of course, my income is supplemented by journalism, including my fortnightly column in Rail and various articles for national newspapers, along with media appearances and even the odd bit of consultancy and public speaking. Essentially though, the books make up a good 60 – 70 per cent of my earnings and in a good year they may even exceed that.  I have never written about the background to these books and how I produce them, so this is something of a groundbreaking piece. And perhaps there will be a few tips for those trying to follow my path.


I came to book writing relatively late, publishing my first transport book in 1999 after a career in journalism stretching back to the early 1970s. My first effort was not really a train book, but rather the history of Stagecoach the bus company. I was commissioned to write it by a business publisher, Orion, after covering numerous stories on the controversial bus company while transport correspondent of The Independent, a job I started in 1992 just as the railways were being privatised. That was my heyday on national newspapers as the rail privatisation story was constantly in the news but I had moved on to a political writing job by 1997. With the book contract in hand and the regular Rail column, I decided to go freelance and concentrate on books. It was to prove to be a fortuitous decision.


 Stagecoach was fun to write. I had the cooperation of Brian Souter, the boss (though his sister, Ann Gloag, did not wish to go public) as over a breakfast in the Tower Hotel, I had persuaded him to be interviewed for the book. It was a great story given all Stagecoach’s numerous controversies – at one point when refused permission to build a bus garage in the middle of Keswick, they swamped the town with battered old buses until the council relented. And in Darlington they run buses for free in order to kill off the local authority’s service.  Stagecoach proved to be the gateway to other commissions.


There’s a rather Catch 22 aspect to being an author. If you haven’t had a book published, agents will not take you on because you are unpublished. But once you do have one in print, then it becomes much easier. I then produced a couple of books for Aurum Books who had approached me to write a book on rail privatisation which I had covered in great detail for The Independent. This came out first as Broken Rails which got me into a lot of trouble. I was sued by a Network Rail executive who claimed, not entirely wrongly, that I had libelled him. I cannot go into the details but suffice to say I had been misled by another senior rail manager over the precise causes of the breakdown of the railway after the Hatfield rail disaster caused by a phenomenon known at gauge corner cracking. I managed to come to an agreement with the guy who sued me whereby I changed the first chapter of the book in a second edition which gave a somewhat different – and more accurate – account of the causes of the meltdown of the railway following the accident and I escaped the lawsuit with fortunately, no money changing hands. A later and more extended third edition of the book appeared under the title On the Wrong Line and, though I say it myself, it remains the best account of this dreadful period for the railways and sets out clearly why privatisation was a fundamental mistake which wrecked a very well-functioning organisation.


Jumping out of this chronological account for a moment, my latest book, published in paperback in the summer of 2023, is a history of British Rail published by Penguin Books. British Rail, a new history, debunks the myths about the organisation such as the usual rubbish about sandwiches and wrong types of snow but also, more importantly, about its failure to be commercial and innovative. Indeed, the more I studied the history of BR, the more I became convinced not only that privatisation had been a calumny, but also that BR had found its best structure in its last decade and we would have a far more effective and efficient railway today had it survived. My BR book reads well in conjunction with On the Wrong Line which sadly is out of print but available, as are several of these books, in electronic form from Amazon for Kindle or whatever device you have.


Back to my chronology. Aurum also suggested I wrote a book about the part privatisation of the London Underground and that became the appropriately named Down the Tube as the whole Public Private Partnership soon fell apart. In some respects, I am most proud of the book as it covers a very complex subject in detail while making it intelligible for the general reader. Again, it is out of print but available online. None of these books earned me much money but at last I started getting commissions which allowed me to devote most of my working time to writing them. An agent rang me and said he had met a publisher who was seeking to produce a history of the London Underground and had suggested I would be the ideal person to write the book which became The Subterranean Railway, an excellent title suggested by the publisher. I had by then left my job at The Independent and therefore I could easily accept a rather tight deadline of nine months in order to cater for the Xmas market. The advance was enough to allow me to spend sufficient time on the book which I largely researched in the London Transport Museum. But here I have to confess. I am a retail historian, not one who relies on months spent sifting through original documents and dusty lists of shareholders. I cheat. My skill is not in finding gems in these obscure corners but rather in using already published material to write engaging stories.  There are countless – literally tens of thousands – of books published on the railways and more are produced every year. And many are terribly written. They focus far too much on details of interest only to fellow rail enthusiasts, they are written in impenetrable language with acronyms in every sentence and their structure is muddled.  But often they are thoroughly researched which means they contain lots of gems and lots of wonderful information, ready to be mined, and retold in a better way. That’s my skill. I write better than all those hardworking railfans, and use this source material to tell stories, which is the key to all good writing. That’s what people want to read – a good yarn. I do at times feel guilty about this, but then I always reference everything in detail and, crucially, if I paraphrase a chunk of someone’s book, I invariably add a direct quote so that there is a clear reference and acknowledgement of their efforts.


The London Underground is full of good stories. I must have given my talk on the book up to

50 times – I have PowerPoint illustrated talks on all my books – and I know the bits people love: the story of the Metropolitan Mixture given to people overcome by fumes after travelling in the steam powered Metropolitan Railway; the closed stations; the battle between the two moguls, Forbes and Watkin, who built what became known as the Circle Line; the wonderful art deco stations of the interwar period; and so on. It remains my best seller, and has now stretched to three different editions. People are just intrigued by the Tube and its history. The book was a great success, receiving lots of good reviews and selling in vast numbers. I knew it would do well when a friend said piles of the book were on display in the Leeds Waterstones and were being snapped up by customers.  Atlantic Books, my publishers, were delighted and over the next 15 years would publish a further eight railway history books, one of which is due to come out next year. Given the success of The Subterranean Railway it was easy for my agent to negotiate a deal for a further book, a history of Britain’s railways. I can’t remember whose idea that was, but there was a clear gap. Similar books had been written 30 years previously by long forgotten authors such as O.S. Nock and the excellent Jack Simmons but there had been no recent concise version of this basic history.


Fire & Steam therefore also sold well, as it fills a gap in people’s knowledge about the railway’s history and, indeed, it will be republished in a new version as part of the Rail 200 events scheduled for 2024. And this was the start of a theme for my future books. My books are not about technology and I do not cover the minutiae of history of particular lines or services. Rather, they are about the political, economic and social impact of the railway, or, to put it simply, how they have changed the world. And there is a conscious aim in writing these books to alter people’s perception about the importance of the railway in world history. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that the invention of the railway enabled the massive economic development across the world in the near 200 years since their invention and my books try to convey that.


Therefore, to continue the theme, my next book – which I admit is one of my least successful, though the most translated – was Blood, Iron & Gold, the story of the world’s railways. It was perhaps too broad a theme to put into one 350-page book, and it concentrates a lot on the way that the transcontinental railways – across America and Russia, for example – brought together those countries and cemented the very idea of nationhood. That book though also stimulated me to write what is the favourite of my own work, Engines of War. In researching Blood, I had noticed that the railways played a vital part in many conflicts across history. I decided to bring together that story by highlighting the role of the iron road in various conflicts of the 19th and 20th century, notably the American Civil War, the first railway war, and, of course, the First World War, emphasising in both cases how railways were responsible for the extent and length of those wars.


That led me to the longest book I have written, The Great Railway Revolution, the story of American railroads. Again, the key role they played in that nation’s history is indisputable but has largely been forgotten, and not surprisingly the book sold well in the US as a result. There are still a lot of people around who think that the invention of the motor vehicle was more important but, to put it bluntly, they are wrong. Nowhere was the role of a transcontinental line more important than in Russia where the Trans-Siberian built at the turn of the 20th century was an astonishing enterprise for a country that was only just emerging from feudalism. That was, therefore, an obvious book to add to my bibliography. I had enormous fun travelling on the line and remember how, arriving at Vladivostok to travel back westwards on the line, me and my wife looked over at the sea and thought we were at the edge of the world – so that became the title.


It is very important as a writer to travel to the places which are the subject of my books even though I am not a travel writer. Therefore, again, I spent several weeks on the trains in India before writing Railways and the Raj which covers the chequered history of the railways in the sub-continent and in particular, the role of the British in their construction. Again, many myths were dispelled, such as the idea that this was an act of altruism on the part of the British Government.


I was diverted from Atlantic Books to write Crossrail which came out in late 2018 in time for the scheduled opening of the line in December that year. Unfortunately, as we all now know, while my book came out on schedule, the line was delayed for three and a half years. The book, therefore, did not sell very well, but I produced a second edition, explaining what went wrong after carrying out some fascinating interviews, and that has done much better.


I was lucky that as Covid struck, I was writing a book that needed no significant travel. Cathedrals of Steam, the idea for which was given to me by the guy at slip when I was wicketkeeping for my cricket team, is the story of the London terminal stations. Indeed, London has more of these than any other city in the world and the history of our capital has been greatly influenced by their construction. Having to sit at home during Covid proved a great way to write a book though I did break the rules somewhat at the end when along with a mate I cycled round London to all the dozen stations when they were virtually deserted because of the pandemic to write the last chapter which was a mock conversation with John Betjeman who himself published a book on London’s stations. He had expected that like Euston they would all be destroyed but fortunately, not least thanks to his efforts, all but Broad Street have survived and most have been blessed with fantastic and appropriate renovations.


During the second lockdown, I wrote the British Rail book and since then I have produced The Liberation Line, the story of the railwaymen who were enlisted in the Second World War to rebuild the railways in France, Belgium and beyond after D-Day. Amazingly, no one has told their story, not even the remarkable tale of how General Patton ordered a 135-mile line to be reconstructed to Le Mans in just three days by 10,000 men in order to enable him to advance to Paris. The book is due to be published in early May 2024 to tie in with the 80th anniversary of D-Day. Watch this space.


 I have left out various compilations and general books on the railways I have written or contributed to but you can find a full list on my website, www.christianwolmar.co.uk . And you can contact me for signed copies of many – but not all – of these books by emailing me at christian.wolmar@gmail.com


Scroll to Top