“Have a bacon roll, you c…” said a buffet car attendant irritated at his customer’s dithering over the “pile of cack” offered for sale. The customer was Matthew Engel – at the time researching stories for his book, Eleven Minutes Late, a laugh-out loud history of our railway system. If you are a regular rail traveller, you will recognize the misery and woe belying this exchange. Rarely do our trains feature in the news without an accompanying tale of disruption, congestion, delays, over-crowding, extortionate ticket prices, and of course, “leaves on the line”. Recently one commuter train from Brighton was reported for being late every single day – for an entire year. Now the pain for Southern railway passengers has been compounded by an increasingly bitter war between Southern Trains and ASLEF, the transport union. Watch out, the train-workers recent strike action could be coming your way.
A cod-history of our, uniquely British, rail network is probably the best clue to the chaos we face now. Like the car and the telephone, we had the good idea (and engineering flair) to pioneer trains, but lacked the the funds and management to implement and run them successfully. The Victorian era may have been the golden age of the steam train, but there were plenty of problems – we had two track gauge systems: the 4ft 8½in of George Stephenson and the 7ft of Brunel. Engel observes: “The point about the gauge – and this is hardly an abstruse technicality – is that it does not matter much which you choose as long as the whole network has the same one.” There were also frequent crashes (or “smashes”, as they were enthusiastically known), and the lack of corridors in carriages trapped passengers in their compartments. In 1948 the big new idea of “nationalisation” was introduced but “the government didn’t have the faintest idea how it would play with its new train set”. The monolith was a huge drain on the country’s finances, leading to a series of inept and contradictory interventions and then the appointment of Dr Beeching. As chairman of British Rail in the early 1960s, he pruned thousands of miles from the network. Railway enthusiasts have been sticking pins into his image ever since.
John Major might have been responsible for the next brainwave – privatisation in 1994 – but he’s more remembered for the creation of at least 148 acronyms: “Welcome to the world of ORR, OPRAF, ORCAT, ROSCOs, RIDDOR, TOCs and dozens more.” The 21st century has bought the next headache; an expanding population and clogged roads, an increase in commuters (due to rocketing city house prices), and big pockets of resistance to change – from a unionised workforce to technological advancement, like HS2.
So that’s the rail network we’ve got today; impenetrable, ugly, expensive and rather small-minded. But we all love a good train story. Ask those around you and I’m sure they will have one to tell you (planes or cars aren’t the same, are they?)
And the rail stories we prefer on screen, or page, are rather different to the grim reality. We are in love with the dramatic version; plots that play out at high speed, hurtling through the countryside. And not always nostalgic, see last year’s big bookseller, now film, The Girl on A Train by Paula Hawkins.
Maybe it’s the confined space or the rhythmic motion, or the notion of a chance encounter. But trains provide a great setting for a story that promises;
Dramatic tension: How many James Bond films feature a train scene? Answer here. Yes trains surely provide a place for movie he-men to show off their derring-do. For fight or flight, movie-fied train sequences give viewers a rollercoaster ride without the sickly popcorn.
Or Intrigue: “My first impression was that the stranger’s eyes were of an unusually light blue. They met mine for several blank seconds, vacant, unmistakably scared.” So begins Mr Norris Changes Trains by Christopher Isherwood. The eyes belong to the odd, almost sinister Arthur Norris, wearing a badly fitting wig and clearly nervous. The narrator is William Bradshaw, an English teacher, who strikes up a conversation with his fellow passenger. The two become friends in the Berlin of the early 1930s, and then involved in the Communist Party as the Nazis rise to power. These characters live long in the memory.
For screen-style intrigue Hitchcock is the probably the greatest train auteur. Try The Lady Vanishes (1938) a delightful thriller set on a pre-war train, travelling through the Balkans until it’s an avalanche forces everyone off, and into a hotel. Or, Murder on the Orient Express (1974). Agatha Christie’s famed whodunit, with the detective Hercule Poirot (Albert Finney) and all 13 murder suspects present and correct aboard the luxury snowbound train. (And what a cast! Bacall, Bisset, Ingrid Bergman, Connery, Gielgud and Vanessa Redgrave for starters)
Or Romance: It may have been set in a station rather than on a train but Noel Coward’s Brief Encounter has been hailed as the most romantic film ever. Loved, probably, for it’s nostalgic representation of Britain, a time when trains ran on time, station buffets were tidy and inviting and we dressed in our best (and thought of others before ourselves). Our idealized notion of train travel as epic drama with a dash of romance has probably come from the TV re-runs of Dr Zhivago. Two big-screen image usually come to mind: the exquisite face of Julie Christie as its heroine, Lara, and the sight of smoke billowing from a train as it cuts through miles of snowbound Russian countryside between Moscow and the Urals.
And always adventure: “I sought trains; I found passengers,” wrote Paul Theroux in his 1975 classic, The Great Railway Bazaar, as he travelled from London’s Victoria Station to Tokyo Central, returning on the Trans-Siberian. His train ride is filled with pungent scenes and “strangers’ monologues framed like Russian short stories.”
Childhood adventures probably don’t get more exciting than having a railway at the bottom of the garden – including a potentially lethal landslide on the track. The Railway Children by E. Nesbit, is another classic and has probably immortalised Jenny Agutter (“Oh, my Daddy, my Daddy!”). She played the eldest of three Edwardian children, exiled with their mother to a house in the Yorkshire Dales, when their father is wrongly accused of spying.
A rich heritage of train stories then, coupled with our own nostalgic memories. This is why we all feel so passionate about our railways in Britain. It’s really nothing to do with cost or convenience. Perhaps this is why political and management strategies have failed, now and historically. Now we need train leaders who love us back, who can tap into our cultural heritage and bring an artistic vision to the networks. This is how to make a 21st century rail system we are all really proud of.
And some more:
Television loves a good train series; you can find several programmes on the BBC iplayer.
New series, Full Steam Ahead – explores the expansion of railways in the Victorian era. In The Trains That Time Forgot, Andrew Martin takes three railway journeys following the routes of three of the most famous named trains – the Flying Scotsman, the Cornish Riviera Express and the Brighton Belle. Whilst Michael Portillo’s second career as journeyman has produced numerous programmes for his series’ Great Continental Railway Journeys and Great British Railway Journeys – is there a train this man hasn’t been on?
And from the archive:
“This is the Night Mail crossing the border/Bringing the cheque and the postal order” A masterpiece! This 25-minute film tracks the journey of an overnight LMS mail train from London to Scotland (and movingly suggests how letters bring people separated by distance closer together.) Produced by the GPO Film Unit, it boasts a remarkable array of talent: narrated by John Grierson and music by Benjamin Britten and poetry from W H Auden, whose verse chimes with the steam train clattering along the tracks.
Featured image: SWNS (The Sun)