The Railways: Nation, Network and People 
by Simon Bradley.
Profile, 645 pp., £25, September 2015, 978 1 84668 209 4
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The approach​ to the main southbound platform at Dundee Station has a sharp curve. People waiting there hear the trains coming before they see them, the noise amplified by the Dock Street tunnel and echoing off the rough red sandstone blocks of the high wall opposite. The small train whose journey will end in Glasgow or Edinburgh pulls in and whines off again. Minutes pass. The imminent arrival of the London-bound train from Aberdeen is announced. The passengers with the most luggage tense and shuffle closer to the edge of the platform. The tracks begin to sing, the platform vibrates with the throb of what sounds like the engine of a large ship, and the menacing rumble of an enormous weight rolling over the rails grows louder. Only when you start to think you’re on the wrong platform does a great yellow beak loom in from around the bend and the locomotive make its roaring entrance, seeming to squeeze through a space both too narrow and too ignoble for it. The old diesel engine and its antiquated carriages come to a delicate, gliding halt. The contrast between the locomotive’s ageing appearance and its latent power is disconcerting: it still pulls you to London at 125 miles an hour.

I’ve experienced this spectacle many times over, in the town where I grew up. Those engines were new in the 1970s. Unlike Simon Bradley I lack the trainspotter’s enthusiasm for locomotives, and I’ve had some horrible journeys on that train. But the theatrical grandeur of its arrival always alters my sense of my surroundings, as if a door had opened, offering a glimpse of an intricate, sprawling structure normally not seen at all, and never perceptible as a whole except through some transcendental sleight of imagination: the railways.

Something similar occurs in our relationship to cities. There are ordinary buildings you merely see and use, and other, more significant buildings or streets which, by their appearance and the drama of their setting, seem to give you a glimpse of the city as a whole, even though such a thing is empirically impossible. To look up late one night and see the lights shining through the rain on Old Compton Street can be to feel you’ve caught sight of a trace of the whole entity that is London – only a toe of the passing beast or the tip of its ear, never more, but enough to reinforce the notion that ‘London’ is a thing and not merely an agglomeration of things.

People who live in cities assume their city is a thing in the way they talk about it. They ‘hate’ London, they ‘miss’ Bristol, they ‘adore’ Belfast. We don’t speak of the railways as a whole in that way, with the same casual admiration and dislike, even though we move in and out of the railways constantly, and spend hours – years – of our lives there. The railways may, as Bradley writes, be ‘a uniquely discrete system: a physically separate domain, its thousands of route-miles fenced off from the rest of the country and ruled by their own mysterious rhythms and laws’, but you seldom hear ‘I love the railways,’ or ‘I hate the railways.’

What you might hear is ‘My husband’s obsessed with trains,’ or ‘My commute’s a nightmare,’ reflecting the two ways we do talk about the railways. For a minority, the enthusiasts, almost exclusively men (and not, on the whole, young men), the railways are a consuming, fanatical interest. No detail, past or present, is too minor or banal to escape celebration, classification, re-enactment, preservation and restoration. The majority, though, speak of the railways in the utilitarian terms of ownership, subsidy, efficiency, speed, overcrowding and ticket prices.

Both ways of approaching the railways have merit. Without the enthusiasts, many marvels and pleasing things – artefacts, structures, procedures, stories – would have been lost. They are the ones who try to articulate the transcendental notion of the railways as a near-two-hundred-year-old whole, rather than as a bunch of transport franchises that happen to run on rails. Without the pragmatic majority, on the other hand, it would be impossible to define, in a language our present rulers can understand, what a useful, effective and fair railway, on a scale commensurate with Britain’s resources, might look like, and why the system we have now, the wasteful offspring of blinkered ideologues, mendacious politicians and skilled subsidy farmers, needs reform.

The way these two approaches can come into conflict is illustrated by the saga of the Ordsall Chord, a sliver of new line being built in Manchester. It’s only 370 yards long and will cost £260,000 a yard – there’s a new bridge involved – but will, for the first time, link Manchester’s two main stations, Victoria and Piccadilly. This tiny bit of linkage is, in turn, essential to the Northern Hub, a plan to sew Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds and Sheffield together with fast trains in the hope of giving life to a trans-Pennine megalopolis, a kind of northern English Rhine-Ruhr.

The problem, for some, is that the short sweep of track carrying the new Chord over the River Irwell will cut off railway access to the world’s oldest station, the original Manchester terminus of the Liverpool & Manchester Railway, opened in 1830.1 The station is now part of a museum, but until work began on the Chord, excursions hauled by historic trains could come in and out via a connection to the national railway network. Now they are confined to chugging up and down on the museum’s own tracks, which rankles. Nobody is suggesting knocking down the station, once described by English Heritage as the railway equivalent of Stonehenge; nor is anyone suggesting that Victoria and Piccadilly don’t need to be joined by a new bit of track. Yet even though work on the Chord has begun, its opponents haven’t given up their legal challenges. ‘This is the oldest passenger railway station in the world,’ one local politician said when the dispute began in 2012, ‘and it’s going to look ridiculous for a modern railway to compromise its history in this way.’ A respectable rhetorical point; but it would have been just as fair had he said: ‘This is a modern railway, and it’s going to look ridiculous for the oldest passenger railway station in the world to compromise its progress in this way.’

Bradley’s wonderful book doesn’t mention the Chord, although he does dwell lovingly on that oldest station, and how so much that was to come flowed from its design – the separate entrances for first and second class, the novel situation for early passengers that you went in at one level, then climbed steps to meet your conveyance at another. He floats no resolution to the tension between heritage and modernisation. His book is part social history, part architectural guide, part nuggety contribution to the ‘world-changing Victorians’ genre, and part justification of railway enthusiasm. He is an enthusiast himself. Here he is on the steam locomotive:

No other land-bound machine can match the impact of a powerful engine working hard. The sharp propulsive beat of the exhaust, synchronised in sight and sound as the wheels and rods revolve, the smell of coal-smoke combined with steam mixed with its own fine suspension of hot oil, the penetrating shriek or hoot of the whistle, the orange-red glow of the firebox within the cab and the sparks hurtling from the chimney when working in darkness – all these are sublime.

He compares the hundred-plus preserved lines around Britain rescued and run by railway enthusiasts, often using restored steam trains, to ‘a 1:1 scale model railway club layout’. He sees their existence as a dividend from rights fought for in the pre-Thatcher decades – shorter hours, paid holidays, pensions, universal healthcare – that have permitted the growth of a pool of volunteers with the time and fitness to maintain the preserved railways. These lines cover hundreds of miles and serve, for tourists at least, hundreds of stations that would otherwise have closed. The steam railway, Bradley writes, has become ‘a giant communal enterprise carried on down the generations, a sort of post-industrial folk performance’.

Bradley mourns the loss of railway landmarks vandalistically demolished, like the Euston Arch, the original neoclassical entranceway to Euston Station, torn down by 1963.2 He loves details of the bygone, whether he is picking out extant architectural moments or delving into the arcana of long-lost working practices. He launches fearlessly into complex, precise technical descriptions of vanished artefacts, as if probing how far he can go in conveying the workings of mid-19th-century railway carriage windows or freight-wagon brakes. (‘The lever was held in place within a vertical housing made of two bars, with a toothed ratchet on its inner side …’) There are times when his preoccupation with the smallest historical railways-related facticle verges, perhaps deliberately, on self-parody. (On the history of dining cars: ‘A straw in the wind was the abandonment of croutons with the soup course, after the Pullman company was finally absorbed into the nationalised system in 1962.’)

But Bradley is able to set his enthusiasm aside to resist heritage fundamentalism. Reflecting on the vanishing from big stations, along with steam trains and uniformed porters, of a hectic multitude of activities (parcel collection, special trains for soldiers and football fans, stockyards), he turns his eye to brightly lit, contract-cleaned, digital-signboarded places like London’s Liverpool Street Station, transformed between 1985 and 1991 into one of those termini where, as Martin Amis sneered a few years later in The Information, the trains have become an awkward adjunct to the business of retail and catering. ‘The old Liverpool Street,’ Bradley counters, ‘was a dirty, baffling place’:

The 1991 incarnation with its all-electric trains is bright and convenient, and has even extended the best part of the Victorian train shed in a carefully matching design, while sweeping away the bottlenecks and confusions caused by the original, piecemeal construction process. The old railway ambience may have gone, but cappuccino and croissants smell better than diesel fumes, and polished terrazzo flooring and white-enamelled steel have more appeal than sooty brick and the brownish, magnetised dust from cast-iron brake blocks that formerly clung to every metal surface. After all, railways never set out to be ‘atmospheric’, but to perform a valuable and profitable service; they can survive and flourish only by adaptation, for they belong to the future as well as the past.

The peculiarity of the railways in the country that invented them is that everyone involved can claim to be playing a heritage role, whatever they do. Modernity at its most destructive and ruthless was as essential a characteristic of the railways in the 1830s as engineering flair and craftsmanship, and capitalism at its most exploitative and greedy was a greater driver of the initial rapid growth of the network than abstract concern for progress or the good of society. I simplified the story of the Ordsall Chord. A nuance: the leader of the campaign to stop it being built as planned, Mark Whitby, former president of the Institution of Civil Engineers, proposes an alternative route that would retain the historic station’s access to the rail network and keep intact more of the structures designed by George Stephenson, the engineer who built the Liverpool & Manchester. But Whitby’s route, apart from costing £20 million more, would run through, and interfere with, a project on a long-derelict piece of land, Middlewood Locks, where the state-owned Beijing Construction and Engineering Group is about to begin building a dense block-scape of shops and offices on behalf of a larger group of investors from Britain, China and Singapore. (If railways are the thread that will sew the disparate limbs together, Chinese investment is the electricity with which George Osborne – the chancellor who promised a Northern Powerhouse – hopes the assembled body might be jolted into life.)

Those whose priority in 2016 is the preservation of George Stephenson’s walls and bridges no doubt love railways. But paradoxically they are re-enacting the role of Victorian opponents of the intrusion of railways into spaces where they had previously been completely absent, preservationists like John Ruskin and William Wordsworth (‘Is then no nook of English ground secure/From rash assault?’). The agents of Network Rail, who are building the Ordsall Chord, can and do portray themselves playing the Stephenson role. They claim originality: the bridge, an arch with a kink at one end like a giant dog ball thrower, is, according to its designer Peter Jenkins, the first of its kind in the world. ‘I’d like to think that George Stephenson would have approached the challenge in a similar manner, laying the new railway infrastructure over the old,’ he told the Manchester Evening News. Even the Chinese and British developers of Middlewood Locks can be said to be performing a heritage re-enactment, in their case the roles of the Earl of Sefton and the Earl of Derby, the 19th-century landowners who resisted the course of the railways across their private estates.

The notion​ that the built inheritance of the Victorian railways must be preserved is itself so familiar, the costume drama tropes of the quintessential Englishness of the Edwardian station so dinned into us, that it is difficult to imagine how great an upheaval to the perceptions the coming of the railways was (in origin the railways are neither Georgian nor Victorian: the Liverpool & Manchester was opened in that historiographically awkward interlude just after the coronation of William IV). The shock of the speed of the first trains, three times faster than a stagecoach, wasn’t only physical, embodied in the sensations of acceleration and travel, but conceptual: the old measures of distance, how far town X was from town Y, were rendered irrelevant, leading to what commentators as early as 1833 were calling ‘the annihilation of space by time’, 25 years before Karl Marx used the phrase in the Grundrisse. Along with the speed of the trains was the shock of the speed with which the railways spread, gouging cuttings out of hills, flinging embankments across bowls of land, boring and blasting tunnels through solid rock, hurling viaducts over valleys and gorges. Bradley points out that bridges were a relatively rare sight in Britain before the railways. Suddenly they were everywhere. Writing in the 1960s, Michael Robbins said: ‘The Victorians who created the railway look like a race imbued with some demonic energy.’

In the prologue to Railways and the Victorian Imagination (1999), Michael Freeman prints three maps of the railways from the period 1840-52. In 1840, the tracks have barely reached Wales, the south-west of England or East Anglia; Wordsworth’s Lake District is untouched; and there is no railway between England and Scotland. Only 12 years later, there are 6600 miles of track, including many of the main and branch lines used today. By the time Victoria died in 1901, it was almost 19,000 miles. In one ten-year period in the middle of the 19th century the railway companies built five bridges across the Thames. ‘The railway,’ Freeman writes,

was enmeshed in the spirit of the age, an undiminishing zest for bigger and better, for an all-pervasive machine technology and, in concert, a perpetual fascination with a sense of becoming, of living in an age of transition, in anxious and sometimes fearful contemplation of what the future held … So breathtaking were the changes they brought that history was being written in the present.

That spirit of modernity embodied in the early days of the railways – in the sense of being, for the first time ever, a passenger in a machine; being, for the first time ever, a self-consigning packet of information transmitted through a network; of witnessing the undreamed-of plasticity of familiar rock and earth under blasting powder and a purposeful host of navvies – can no longer be re-created on the British railways, however authentically preserved or however ruthlessly modern.

Britain today is already so well connected by fast railways that a handful of super-fast railways no longer quickens the pulse. There is no honest appeal to national pride, the perennial counter to British technological conservatism, in the building of high-speed lines in Britain, when the most advanced technology being installed is designed and often made abroad. Modern railway marvels are either hidden underground, like Crossrail and the Channel Tunnel, or built to a measure by which this relatively small, remote island comes up, literally, short. It is hard for Britain ever to be a centre of rail modernity on a European scale when it bears the same relationship to the Continent, geographically, as Scotland bears to England. France and Germany can be high-speed junctions; you can get to other countries through them. Continentally speaking, Britain is a cul-de-sac. The railway Victorians of the 21st century are the Chinese, who in the past decade have built ten thousand miles of high-speed railways in their country, starting from scratch. Just two of those railways, joining the eastern city of Xuzhou to the western city of Urümqi, span a distance greater than the distance between Inverness and Naples; heading for Xinjiang at 200 mph, the trains climb to more than 11,000 feet in the mountains, and are protected by concrete screens from desert winds strong enough to blow them over.

The annihilation of space by time is performed by aircraft now. A magazine article of 1839 speculated that, once the railways covered all Britain, ‘the surface of our country would, as it were, shrivel in size until it became not much bigger than one immense city.’ But when the reference point is the long-distance passenger jet rather than the horse, the effect on railway passengers is the opposite of that experienced by their forebears. One of the longest scheduled flights you can make is from London to Auckland. To get to the other side of the world takes about 25 hours, with one stop; with luck you’ll get six or seven hours of sleep along the way. One of the longest trips you can make on the British railways is from Penzance to Thurso. The quickest route takes 23 hours, with three changes; with luck you’ll get a night’s kip en route on the sleeper from Euston to Inverness. Vis-à-vis the horse, the railways shrank Britain, if not to city size, at least to the size of a large county. Vis-à-vis Air New Zealand, they expand Britain to the size of a planet.

When​ they first came along, the railways were more than new. They set the terms by which future new things would be deemed new. They established the link between social progress and the transformational effect of better and faster technology. They forced the growth of customs and practices now so deeply embedded in our ways of doing things that we no longer see them as offshoots of that primeval modernity, like the single universal time by which the railways suppressed Britain’s old, astronomically precise, sun-based local time zones (local time used to allow for the fact that it takes about half an hour of planetary rotation to give each point in Britain the same aspect to the sun: easternmost Lowestoft’s day is, astronomically, about half an hour ahead of westernmost Ardnamurchan’s).

The railways made possible national daily news media, and hence national public opinion. The railways were, as Bradley puts it, ‘the midwife at the birth of the entire modern system of insurance against accident and liability’. The way big corporations around the world are run today – owned by shareholders, with directors making strategy and managers running day to day operations – came out of the British railways. When in the 1850s Lionel Redpath, employed by the Great Northern Railway to look after its share register, was found to have secretly invented extra shares and sold them for his own benefit to the tune of £220,000, about £20 million in today’s money, the company called in an auditor, William Welch Deloitte. Deloitte’s name lives on in Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu, one of the big four global accountancy firms; his fellow railway auditor Edwin Waterhouse is memorialised in another, PricewaterhouseCoopers. The complexity and murkiness of railway company finances was the foundation of the principle that big shareholder-owned companies should have their books checked by outside auditors and publish annual accounts, one of the few ways the public has of finding out what is going on behind the opaque façades of the corporate world. Our very notions of ‘capitalism’ derive in large part from the vicissitudes of railway finance and ownership in the early years, matters which dominated the stock market and fascinated Marx.

The railways made possible national entertainment by touring companies, with hundreds of theatre companies and their sets, costumes and props rushing from venue to venue every Sunday, in time to perform in a new town on Monday night. They launched the era of mass tourism and seaside holidays. And they became the conduit for advertising on a huge scale: a print by Alfred Concanen from 1874 shows passengers and trains in a large, busy station dwarfed by posters twenty feet across covering the wall of the train shed, promoting the virtues of Lamplough’s Pyretic Saline and Crosby’s Balsamic Cough Elixir.

The best way Bradley finds to convey the essence of that long-gone shock of modernity is through the confluence of the railways with archaic, violent rituals for which we already have idealised mental representations. Hanging, for instance. The Bodmin & Wadebridge Railway was still a tiny line isolated from the beginnings of the national network when it ran an excursion train to a double hanging at Bodmin jail in the summer of 1840. Nine years later, 100,000 people came to Liverpool to watch the execution – hideously prolonged by an inexperienced hangman – of John Gleeson Wilson. Many of the audience had come on trains specially laid on for the spectacle. Then there were the bare-knuckle boxing trains, a way to evade the ban on such fights: it was, Bradley writes, as if ‘British Rail had laid on special trains to the Ecstasy fuelled farmland raves of the 1980s’. Boxers would sell tickets on chartered trains to rowdy sporting gentlemen with money to burn and a zeal for punts and fisticuffs and cocking a snook. With fighters and well-heeled aficionados aboard, the train would shoot off into the countryside, pursued by magistrates, the police and mobs of less well-off fans who’d heard a rumble was in the offing. The trains would halt by a convenient field and the boxers would jump off and start fighting until the police turned up, when the cavalcade would rush off to the next ad hoc ring and the fighters would begin trading punches again.

The bare-knuckle specials were banned in 1868, but other forms of blood sport remained respectable. After a period of harrumphing and bloviation in the shires, it turned out that the railways could energise, commercialise and broaden participation in fox hunting. Casual hunters were able to pay their dues and whizz off for a weekend’s hunting like modern middle-class city dwellers flying easyJet to the Alps for a skiing minibreak:

A Londoner could hunt six days a week in season, meets being arranged on different days in different counties; Birmingham and Leeds men could pick and choose too … In heavily hunted areas, foxes became scarce; many hunts now tried not to kill their quarry at all. A Devon huntsman claimed that one of his foxes, ‘the Bold Dragoon’, had been caught and reprieved by a well-trained pack no fewer than 36 times. The shortage became so acute that live foxes had to be brought in from Scotland or the Continent. Huntsman, hounds, mount and prey must sometimes have been carried to the meet on the same train.

In hindsight, the railways in Britain were founded on two enormous, related misunderstandings, whose consequences linger. The first was to think that, because the earliest railways made such huge profits and paid such huge dividends to their shareholders, all railways would do so, always. Once word got out that shares in the Liverpool & Manchester were paying dividends of 9.5 per cent, double what you could get by putting money into government bonds, the stage was set for a series of speculative bubbles – ‘railway mania’, as it was known. Railway shares worth £100 in 1840 were worth £149 in 1845. Everyone wanted a piece. Much of the market was made by speculators who effectively traded in options to buy shares rather than the shares themselves. The pressure on Parliament to approve new railway schemes, meanwhile, assumed fantastical proportions. In 1845, when the November deadline for submissions of construction plans to the Board of Trade had passed, officials found themselves looking at more than six hundred proposed new railway projects. Among the constructors, there was some outright fraud: George Hudson, the ‘railway king’, ran his business as a pyramid scheme. By 1850, those £100 of shares were only worth £70, and speculators who’d failed to leave the party early were ruined.

The point about railway mania isn’t that it opened people’s eyes to the folly of expecting to be able to turn a fast profit from the railways. The point is that it didn’t. A decade or so after the first dotcom bubble, investors seem to have forgotten how much money got burned through by the doomed, Webvan and Kozmo; they only remember how they missed out on Google, Amazon and Facebook, and now see how they are missing out on Uber, and pile into SpoonRocket, DoorDash and Washio. So it was in 19th-century Britain. Once the dust had settled from the first bout of railway mania, investors looked around, saw that thousands of miles of new private railways had been built, noticed that shares in those railways (unlike the fanciful projects that never got off the drawing board) were still paying dividends, looked back to the fat years of the Liverpool & Manchester, and piled back in. What they ignored was the gradual, inexorable loss of profitability on even the most successful railways over the decades running up to the 20th century.

Which leads​ on to the second misunderstanding. The early builders of railways thought of themselves as building individual railways, individual businesses, one at a time, which people might use, or not, as they chose. They didn’t understand at first that, despite the absence of any central planning, they were building a network, a single national network of railways. And not just any network, but one that was bound (because it was so popular and useful) eventually to reach the tipping point beyond which it became essential, rather than optional: a universal network.

Some of the railways’ slump in profitability came about because their founders hadn’t factored in the hefty costs they’d be liable for after ten or twenty years when their trains and track needed to be overhauled or replaced. But much came about as a result of the universal network effect. Once a network becomes essential to society as a whole, even when it is privately owned, political pressure builds to force the companies who run it to make it affordable for everyone, whether the private companies make money from the affordable services or not. As early as 1844, William Gladstone, then president of the Board of Trade, pushed through a law obliging all big new railway companies to run at least one affordable train each day to every station they served, in weatherproof carriages with seats. Up to that point third-class travel had been in open, low-sided wagons without seats, whatever the weather or time of day, sometimes mixing passengers and livestock. The companies prevaricated over the new rule, coming up with various permutations of the windowless box for transportation of the poor, but eventually they came round. ‘It is hard to think,’ Bradley writes, ‘of any greater single improvement in travelling conditions imposed on unenthusiastic private enterprise by the government of the United Kingdom.’

Another aspect of the universal network effect is political pressure to make services safe. A factor in the 1844 Act was the first railway disaster three years earlier, when an early morning train from London to Bristol ran into the debris from a landslip in a deep cutting near Reading. Among the train’s goods wagons were two third-class trucks whose passengers were huddled on plank seating, protected only by a two-foot rim around the edge. Some of the nine people who died were killed when they were thrown out on impact, others when the goods wagons rode up over them. Most were stoneworkers coming home for Christmas from work on the new Palace of Westminster.

In 1889, a train pulling a Sunday school outing in Armagh faltered on an incline and the crew split the train to give the engine a better chance of climbing the slope. But without the locomotive, the disconnected carriages had no power in their brakes. There was nothing to stop them rolling back except the hand brake in the guard’s van, and stones the crew jammed under the wheels. The jolt at the moment the engine pulled its half of the train away sent the detached carriages rolling downhill, where they smashed into a following train. Eighty people died, most of them children. After that, companies were compelled by the government to install failsafe automatic brakes.

Safety was closely tied to working conditions for railwaymen. In the 1870s, seven hundred railway employees were killed on the job each year. More than a hundred shunters, whose job was to scamper around goods yards, hand-braking wagons and darting between them to couple and uncouple them, day and night, equipped with nothing more than lamps and poles and sticks, continued to die every year well into the 20th century. Part of the reason was the insanely long hours they worked. The Burton-on-Trent brewing tycoon Michael Bass, who moved half a million barrels of beer by rail each year (the ‘undercroft’ of St Pancras Station, now the departure area for Eurostar passengers, was originally built as a depot for some of this beer), became a patron of the first rail union, the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants. In 1871 he went public with the information that Midland Trains drivers were regularly pulling shifts nearly twenty hours long. An article in the Daily Telegraph told of a train guard who had worked a shift of more than 43 hours over Christmas. The guard was found asleep standing at his post; instead of replacing him with a fresh employee, the company set a porter to travel with him and nudge him when he looked as if he was nodding off.

The drawn-out struggle by rail unions for better conditions and decent pay against unsympathetic employers – and against the ‘railway interest’ in Parliament, where by 1873 every fifth MP was a railway company director – shouldn’t be minimised. The prevailing 19th-century attitude was that if a worker was killed or injured on the job, it was their fault, not their employer’s. ‘Within the industry,’ Bradley writes, ‘the idea of direct external regulation was no more welcome than it would have been in Her Majesty’s army – an analogy that was often made. As for workers daring to go on strike, this was considered tantamount to mutiny … it worked out cheaper for the companies to regard a proportion of their workers as expendable through injury or death than to spend extra money on keeping them alive and in one piece.’ It took time for unions to win legal recognition; it wasn’t until 1900 that the government gave itself powers to enforce any kind of safety measure on the railways. Not until 1907, six years after the Taff Vale dispute saw the courts award damages against a striking rail union, was the right to strike enshrined in law. It took the two-day rail strike of 1911 and the Llanelli riots, when British troops shot civilians dead, to strengthen the unions’ position, create a National Union of Railwaymen and secure an eight-hour day for rail workers. By now the universal aspect of the railway network, its being an essential service for everyone, had given the unions more power, and strengthened their claim to be acting in the interests of the wider public as well as their own members.

Along with pressure from the public, from regulators, from the press and from their own workers, private railway companies came under attack from other private companies: those that depended on them to distribute their wares. Very early on in the railways’ history it was understood that giving a company the sole rights to build, own and operate lines between cities was giving them monopoly powers, with all the potential for abuse this implied. Accordingly the railway companies were obliged to haul the goods wagons of non-railway companies, even when those wagons were clapped-out and slowed down the whole system; in the first, Victorian-Edwardian era of globalisation, railway companies were routinely accused of offering big importers preferential rates.

The growing burden of regulation on the universal network that the first railway entrepreneurs had inadvertently built – to carry the poor, to be safe, to treat their workforce decently, to support other private businesses whether it suited them or not – spelled doom for easy profits. As the railways came into the 20th century it made less and less sense to see them as their founders had wanted them to be seen (as brilliantly opportunistic deployments of new technology that would make monopolies, take custom from carts, coaches and canal boats, arouse the envy of rivals and the admiration of all, create new business opportunities and make tons of money) or to see their owners as pro-market storytellers did (risk-takers, wealth-creators, noble warriors of greed who embraced competition as the samurai embraces bushido). Even before nationalisation in 1948, even before the advent of competition from motor transport, even before the government made the companies merge into four in 1923 – the London, Midland & Scottish, the London & North Eastern, the Southern and the Great Western railways – state and railways were in a state of symbiosis, where nominally private and nominally public bureaucrats were constantly obliged to mingle and find common ground.

The economic historian Robert Millward points out that the popular notion of nationalisation in Europe as a 1940s phenomenon, driven by the perceived failures of capitalism in the 1930s and the successes of the planned economy in wartime, ignores the earlier history of state direction of the universal networks. Gladstone wanted to nationalise the railways in 1844. Even earlier, at their genesis, the railways were dependent on the state to force private landowners to yield right of way to the iron road. The problem of the publicly owned British railways after 1948 wasn’t that they were publicly owned, but that they were expected to do so many things for so many people, often for less than they actually cost, that it was no longer possible to be sure exactly what they were doing with their share of the nation’s resources, or why. What was clear was that they kept failing to meet one of their key targets, which was to break even.

Proof​ that the solution to the problem of British Rail (as it was called by then) didn’t have to be privatisation comes from a surprising source: the Thatcher years. In 1982, the network was reorganised, its subsidies were cut, and more attention began to be paid to the wants of passengers and freight users. British Rail was still a state-owned, non-profit organisation, but began to combine the public service approach with some of the more rational attributes of a commercial company. From the point of view of the traditional left, this period, which lasted until privatisation under John Major’s government between 1994 and 1997, was simply a precursor to privatisation (as it was, though it needn’t have been), part of the cuts narrative and the war on unions, a nauseating attempt to subject the working man to corporate flim-flam and the gods of profit and loss. From the point of view of the Thatcherite right, it was appeasement, a pathetic effort to let the rust and grease-stained troglodytes of Britain’s neo-Soviet past pretend they knew how to run a business. What gets lost in this trench warfare between positions is that in terms of running a railway, this wasn’t a bad time. Under the reign of its boss from 1983 to 1990, Bob Reid (who was succeeded, confusingly, by a completely different Bob Reid), parts of British Rail broke even; subsidies fell to levels far lower than in comparable European countries; new trains were brought in; lines were modernised; passenger numbers increased. The publicly owned BR was still a slower, older railway than France’s, Germany’s or Japan’s, with higher ticket prices, but that wasn’t because it was publicly owned – they all were. As Terry Gourvish shows in his history of BR, in the 25 years before privatisation, starved of resources by the Thatcher government as it was, and dependent on property sales to placate the Treasury, the organisation was reforming from within. It was even doing what state organisations are supposed to find so difficult – making people redundant as technology changed. Between 1973 and 1994, British Rail shed 75,000 jobs, 39 per cent of its workforce. John Major privatised it anyway. Now fares and subsidies are higher than ever, and investment is still low.

Bradley is a marvellously even-handed writer, liberal to a fault, ready to see the other side of almost any issue. Discussing, with seeming disapproval, the practice of some 19th-century railways of deliberately making their third-class carriages nasty to encourage people to pay for second class, he quotes one railway boss complaining of a rival’s abolition of second class as ‘a great public injustice … driving together classes who do not naturally wish to associate’. But noting the provision in some third-class carriages of spit drains, he takes the point on board: ‘The clerk whose employers required him to turn up looking spick and span, and whose income stretched to a second-class season ticket, did well to keep away from the reeking and spitting workman travelling third, whose labours required him to get dirty.’ Having laid out in all its brutality the harsh, military-style discipline of the early railways, he writes:

In truth, railway work was always a mixture of the enviable and the deplorable, the paternalistic and the callous … Even in the earliest days, the casual acceptance of preventable deaths and injuries, and the companies’ steadfast refusal to accept liability, were also tempered here and there by some basic welfare measures.

The exception to Bradley’s ecumenical stance is the privatisation of British Rail, a change he abominates without reservation. It sounds too absurd to be true, but BR really was privatised into fragments set up not so much to compete as to make each part’s work more difficult. The track and stations went to one shareholder-owned company, Railtrack; the rolling stock went to three others; and the operation of the trains was franchised out to a set of bidders, the Train Operating Companies, or TOCs. Railtrack was the most obvious disaster of the privatisation era: an engineering company that started out by sacking most of its engineers, a maintenance company that killed passengers through bad maintenance, a private company dependent on government subsidies, a firm reliant on flawless signalling that committed itself to non-existent signalling technology, a privatised firm that had to be renationalised (as Network Rail) only eight years after privatisation. ‘Privatisation,’ Bradley writes, ‘made no serious attempt to engage with the special character of railway operation and engineering; instead, it drew on the one-size-fits-all ideology of the free marketeer, by which every exchange must be monetised, and competition within an agreed legal and financial framework is the universal ideal. Co-operative relationships were thus replaced – deliberately and knowingly – by adversarial ones.’

Since the state-owned Network Rail took over, costs have fallen, and the railways have become safer. No rail passenger has died in an accident since 2007, and no track worker since 2009. Yet successive governments, Labour and Conservative, have failed to reform the rest of the rotten, still partly privatised system, which, although it functions as a railway and carries many more passengers than it used to, acts as a device to siphon off the resources of state and passengers into the pockets of senior managers and shareholders.3

By its end, in the mid-1990s, British Rail was being subsidised to the tune of £1-1.5 billion a year. The figure for 2014-15 was £3.5 billion. A process that, as Bradley writes, ‘was meant to address the supposed scandal of a publicly owned system which required high subsidies in order to operate … has proved an extremely expensive way of saving money’.

Fantasy pervades the current government’s representation of the railway system. There are supposed to be 23 rail franchises operated by 23 railway companies. In fact, only nine companies run Britain’s trains, across multiple franchises. Apart from Virgin and Serco, the outsourcing company, all are either former bus companies (FirstGroup, Stagecoach, National Express and Go-Ahead) or state-owned European railways (Abellio is owned by Nederlandse Spoorwegen and Arriva by Deutsche Bahn, while Keolis is majority owned by SNCF). In order to preserve the fiction that privatised railways work better than publicly owned ones, the fact that the Dutch, German and French state have part-nationalised a significant chunk of the British railways has to be ignored. When National Express’s attempt to run the InterCity East Coast franchise failed in 2009 and the route was nationalised, the state company formed to do the job did so very well. That too has to be ignored. More reality denial: in order to maintain the fiction that private railways are the best, the TOCs have to be made to seem profitable. The only way this can happen without politically unacceptable ticket price increases is by allowing them to pay Network Rail artificially low prices for maintenance and renewal. And the only way that can be done is by allowing Network Rail to borrow money to cover its losses, and the only way that can be sustained is for it to use part of its government subsidy to pay its creditors. In 2014-15, Network Rail, now £34 billion in debt, spent £2.4 billion on doing its job and £2.6 billion on financing its loans. Such is the price of making sure Richard Branson and Deutsche Bahn make a profit by repainting Britain’s trains a different colour every few years. As Bradley says, ‘Mr Gladstone would have seen through this rigmarole very quickly.’

It is easy​ , writing about the railways in Britain today, to shift into a denunciation of the privatisation scam. It is a scam, and the anger is justified. Restoration of public ownership and reunification of the network under a single hand would be beneficial. But to talk about the railways in terms of whether they are privately or publicly owned is to diminish other powerful dichotomies. When the railways burst into the world in northern England the dominant tension was not between public and private but between old and new. The opposite of privatisation could be called ‘nationalisation’. But what might nationalisation of the railways mean in the 21st century? It’s easier to remove the profit motive, easier to stop the siphoning off of money from the railways to absentee landlords whose stake in them is exclusively financial, than to come up with a new set of guiding principles for a network in which utilitarian technological change both conflicts with the historical culture of the railways, and supplies the material for the historical railway culture of the future.

Bradley’s book is filled with tantalising records of redundant trades that no heritage railway, and no railway exclusively concerned with the safe, speedy, economical delivery of goods and passengers, will re-create: postal workers sorting mail in the windowless carriages of travelling post offices, railwaymen running along the roof of a train inserting oil lamps into recesses, meal boys delivering baskets of hot food to passengers who had telegraphed ahead with their order, photographers roaming the country to shoot subjects for pictures to be hung in railway compartments, creosoters treating wooden sleepers in giant pressure cylinders, the ganger and his platelayers with their six miles of track to maintain using only hand tools and muscle, the lamp-men walking along the line with fuel and lamps for the signals, the navvy in his velveteens, the number-takers haunting the borders between railway company territories, scribbling down the details of wagons moving outside their home areas. Referring to the headquarters of the vanished Railway Clearing House, Bradley writes:

The lost routines of the thousands of anonymous clerks at Eversholt Street – the endless, patient exactions of mental arithmetic in fractions and non-decimal units, even the neat copperplate writing – seem almost beyond the powers of the modern desk-worker. The same goes for the endurance and vigilance of the overworked engine drivers, firemen, shunters, signalmen and others who kept the Victorian network running. Part of the fascination of the railways is their permeation with memories and traces of obsolete working routines, and the human lives and destinies they shaped.

It turns out that the very diesel locomotive which hauls passengers from Aberdeen to London via Dundee – the fastest diesel in the world, apparently – is a survivor of a rare, relatively recent moment when it all came together: public ownership, elegant design, high technology, modernity that in the moment of its first appearance subscribed itself into the ambit of future heritage:

All in all, it is difficult to think of a more admirable product of 1970s Britain than the High Speed Trains. Here was everything that the mixed economy was supposed to represent, but failed all too often to deliver: innovative world-class design, successful both technically and aesthetically, developed by a state-owned body as part of a strategic national plan; private consultants and manufacturers working fruitfully together; a financial success in operation, without pricing out the ordinary Briton; excellence achieved in the spirit of public service, rather than the delivery of private profit.

To enter the railways as a passenger is to hope for a fast, comfortable journey, helped by staff who aren’t oppressed or haughty, leaving and arriving when promised, and not feeling ripped off, either through your ticket or your tax bill. But to enter the railways is more: it is to surrender to the care and governance of a realm within a realm, and to take part in a performance, a series of rituals and dramas, in which you are both participant and spectator. At its shallowest, what I sense on the platform at Dundee as the London train draws in is the anticipation of the journey, informed by all the times of day and seasons and weathers and ages in which I’ve made it before, with its tableaux of bridges and rivers: the spread of the Tay from the bridge, opening out to the sea in the distance, the stumps of the old bridge that collapsed in 1879 still poking out of the waves; the Firth of Forth from the Fife coast, then from between the red girders of the Forth Bridge; the crossing of the Tweed at Berwick; Newcastle from the precipitous height of the through arch bridge over the Tyne; after York, the sun setting over the eastern English flatlands.

But this falls short of expressing the passenger’s transcendental sense of the railways. In his book The Railway Journey, the German critical theorist Wolfgang Schivelbusch fastens on a passage from A la recherche du temps perdu in which Proust compares a trip made by train to the same journey made by car:

The special attraction of the journey lies not in our being able to alight at places on the way and to stop altogether as soon as we grow tired, but in its making the difference between departure and arrival not as imperceptible but as intense as possible, so that we are conscious of it in its totality, intact, as it existed in our mind when imagination bore us from the place in which we were living right to the very heart of a place we longed to see, in a single sweep which seemed miraculous to us not so much because it covered a certain distance as because it united two distinct individualities of the world, took us from one name to another name; and this difference is accentuated … by the mysterious operation that is performed in those peculiar places, railway stations, which do not constitute, so to speak, a part of the surrounding town but contain the essence of its personality just as upon their signboards they bear its painted name.

Bradley calls the railway network ‘an inexhaustible panorama of connectedness, extending together through time and space’. It is tempting to detect in his book the occasional trace of a comparison between the British railways and the English Church – his observation, not explored, that railways ‘exercised a disproportionate pull’ over clergymen, his comparison of the antebella rural stationmaster as the closest commercial equivalent to the country parson, his detailed evocation of Paddington Station echoing spatially ‘the nave and aisles of a great church’. A case could be made that part of the comfort of a train journey is that it replaces, for its duration, the uncertainty of the greater, untimetabled journey through time that everyone is making; you might be delayed, but the steel rails and concrete sleepers your train travels on will not alter their position relative to your destination. In life there is no permanent way. But Bradley’s case is not a metaphysical case. His is not a case at all, rather an explication of his avowal that he sees the railways ‘with a lover’s eye’.

Still, there is that bold and mysterious subtitle, ‘Nation, Network and People’. Bradley is a writer and editor of the Pevsner Architectural Guides and perhaps the nods to the Church point to a third dichotomy of the railways: after public and private, after modernity and preservation, there is use and disuse. The Church, on the whole, still uses its best-looking churches; the railways, on the whole, still use their best-looking lines. There is an approach to the human-made world that rejoices in the beautiful and the well-made more when it is still used as it was meant to be, more still if the rejoicer needs it in his or her daily life, than if it is frozen in ruins or museums, however well kept.

No builder in brick has ever built a flatter arch than Isambard Kingdom Brunel when he built the Great Western’s double-arched bridge over the Thames at Maidenhead, portrayed in Turner’s Rain, Steam and Speed. It opened in 1839; nearly two centuries later it is about to be electrified for Crossrail trains. It sometimes seems as if the modern British dream is to live in a spacious, high-ceilinged Georgian or early Victorian house, abounding in perfectly preserved period detail, but wired, WiFi-ed, insulated and kitchen-applianced up to the rafters, and with a big car and maybe an electric runabout parked outside. Few will get to live that dream; but for a few hours at a time, for the price of a ticket, you can live in the railways.

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Vol. 38 No. 11 · 2 June 2016

James Meek describes Britain’s railways as a ‘rotten, still partly privatised system’ which ‘acts as a device to siphon off the resources of state and passengers’ (LRB, 5 May). His proposed solution is ‘restoration of public ownership and reunification … under a single hand’. I am sure that what I say will not dent his indignation, but as the former head of the Association of Train Operating Companies, I would remind him that Britain’s railways have the best safety record of any in Europe, have handled more passenger growth than any other, and require less government subsidy as a proportion of their total cost (29 per cent) than most others.

There is no right way to organise a railway. Public ownership and unification under a single hand doesn’t address the issue. The railway is too big, too much of a monopoly, and too complicated, with too many difficult decisions to make every day. You have to break it down somehow, and however you do that is a compromise. Separation of track and train is a perfectly sensible arrangement. It has huge advantages – for most of the time, it allows managers to focus on a coherent set of tasks – and some disadvantages, mainly that track managers making decisions about large sums of money do so without the knowledge of passengers they would have if they also ran the trains. Collaboration goes some way to remedy this, but not as far as one would like. The separation of track and train does not prevent proper government oversight: all the big decisions are made by government or in close consultation with it.

The involvement of foreign or private companies is not a scam. You must try to get competition into the system. This is difficult for the track but possible for train operation. It isn’t for their private capital that we have the state rail companies of Germany, France or the Netherlands, or Richard Branson, it is for their participation in the competition for train operating franchises. Yes, the profit they make takes money out of the system, but we gain more from the competitive pressure they introduce than we lose in profit.

George Muir
London SW6

James Meek asks: ‘what might nationalisation of the railways mean in the 21st century?’ I can give you a fairly concrete idea: Deutsche Bahn is Germany’s publicly owned railway, operating on a network of 41,000 km of track and employing more than a quarter of a million people. In 2013 it generated €1.4 billion in revenue. Its Intercity-Express connects major German cities, operating at speeds of up to 300 km an hour. Deutsche Bahn has done well enough to be able to acquire Britain’s largest freight operator, now called DB Cargo UK.

Frank Beck
New York

Vol. 38 No. 13 · 30 June 2016

George Muir argues that the key benefit in allowing the state rail companies of Germany, France and the Netherlands to run rail services in the UK is the ‘competitive pressure’ they bring to the bidding process for train operating franchises (Letters, 2 June). The question follows: why are these European countries perfectly able to run fine rail services at home without the help of such ‘pressure’ from abroad?

Guido de Graaff
London SE16

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