Once upon a time it was synonymous with all that was great about the nation that invented the train. The mighty Victorian railway centre at Crewe was not only the most celebrated junction in the world, but the nerve centre of the “Premier Line” from Euston to Scotland and home to the engineering works where for generations, some of the fastest and most powerful express locomotives in history were built.
This week the “railway capital of the world” presented a different and much sadder picture, as the Transport Secretary Lord Adonis was forced to admit that Crewe is one of the ten worst stations in Britain. “Crewe station is in a terribly dilapidated state,” he wrote in his blog this week after a visit to the station, conceding that its “Victorian canopy is patched up, leaking and flaking.”
The shabby and rundown condition of Crewe, its famous works all but closed, is a measure of how far Britain’s once proud railway system has sunk into decline. Yet we should not forget that for more than a century British ingenuity and derring-do led the way in creating not just our own railways, but just about every other railway on the planet, transforming the lives of every one of us in the process.
From the historic moment in September 1830 when the first train chuffed between Liverpool and Manchester, observed by foreign dignitaries eager to replicate this miracle back home, Britain led a race to lay down tracks across the planet. Adventurers, visionaries, chancers, gamblers and rogues were attracted to grandiose projects linking distant corners of the globe in a quest for wealth, power and national unity. The speed of the revolution was truly astonishing, as the writer Christian Wolmar observes in Blood, Iron and Gold, a new history of the world’s railways. Within 15 years of Rocket’s first jolting journey across the bogs of Lancashire, most of the British railway network, as we know it today had taken shape. By the end of the 19th century an incredible 620,000 miles of track had been built across the globe.
“The railways transformed the world,” says Wolmar, “from one where most people barely travelled beyond their nearest village or market town to one where it became possible to cross continents in days rather than months. Their development created a vast manufacturing industry that ensured the Industrial Revolution would affect the lives of virtually everyone on the planet. Everything from holidays to suburban sprawl and fresh milk to mail order was made possible.” Even humble fish and chips were transformed into Britain’s national dish as fresh fish, once the preserve only of seaside towns, was brought into towns on overnight trains and became part of the city-dweller’s diet for the first time.
Perplexing though it may seem to today’s commuters delayed by leaves on the line or decanted into buses by seemingly endless engineering works, these achievements were a glorious triumph of British inventiveness and know-how. Until the 1870s there was hardly a line built in the world without British technology and equipment. India’s British-built railway network was the biggest public works project the world had ever seen. In 1850, the British Viceroy of India, Lord Dalhousie declared without exaggeration: “The complete permeation of these climes of the sun by a magnificent system of railway communication would present a series of public monuments vastly surpassing in grandeur the aqueducts of Rome, the pyramids of Egypt, the Great Wall of China, and the temples, palaces and mausoleums of the great Moghul monuments”.
The birth of the world’s railways wasn’t just a triumph for boffins and engineers. By the beginning of the First World War, British investors owned 113 railways in 29 countries, with assets valued at £80bn in today’s money. Speculators everywhere made (and lost) fortunes as the new iron roads marched across the planet. Nor was it simply about making money. Railways were built to subdue colonies or indigenous populations, to transport armies, to bypass unnavigable stretches of river to conquer territory and frequently to unite countries.
At their peak the railways represented luxury almost beyond belief. In America private “mansions on rails” were created for the super-rich who could not bear to mix with ordinary passengers. They were fitted with whatever their owners requested, regardless of cost or weight: marble baths, hidden safes, Venetian mirrors, and even, for the banker J.P. Morgan, an open fireplace burning balsam logs. The railroad baron Jay Gould had a set of four carriages, one of which was inhabited by a cow that provided fresh milk with exactly the right butterfat content not to upset the sickly magnate’s delicate stomach. The first lavatory on a train was provided for our own Queen Victoria by the Great Western Railway back in 1850, although the plumbing was primitive and the “royal wee” dropped onto the track in exactly the same way as it did when such facilities were introduced for her subjects 20 years later.
Diners on the Chicago to Omaha line in the 1870s were offered as many as 15 seafood and fish dishes along with 37 meat entrees, including a vast array of game – although presumably not in the type of buffet car that closes at Watford. The Twentieth Century Limited, from New York to Chicago, dubbed “the world’s greatest train”, had a dozen staff for just 42 passengers, with a club car, wine bar, barber’s shop and an observation car, with a travelling secretary to take down letters. It gave the world the phrase “red-carpet treatment” since the soles of its precious passengers’ feet never had to touch the platform, as a carpet, embossed with the company’s insignia, was rolled out before the train arrived. Even the original “air hostesses” first appeared on trains, where the proprietors of the Atchison, Topkepa and Santa Fe Railway chose the waitresses in their dining cars for their “youth, character and attractiveness.” They were named the Harvey girls, after Frederick J. Harvey who developed the concept.
Modern travellers used to the bleak fare in today’s British restaurant cars (where they exist at all) might weep to read this traveller’s account of an overnight journey by train in India: “Soda water is offered to you just as you are conceiving a wish for it. Tea comes punctually at 6am. No sooner have you passed your hand over your stubbly beard than a barber appears to shave you in the carriage. You get a little breakfast of eggs and bacon with bananas and orange at eight, a delightful tiffin in the heat of noon and a good dinner at sunset.”
The development of the early railways was both comic and tragic in equal measure. To celebrate the opening of the 45-mile long Geelong to Melbourne line in 1857, a vast repast was laid on consisting of “two-and-three quarter tons of poultry, two- and-three-quarter tons of meats, three quarters of a ton of fish, three quarters of a ton of pastries, half a ton of jellies and ices, a ton of bread and unlimited wines, spirits and ales”. Unfortunately, the distinguished guests never got to eat it, since the engine broke down along the way. More poignant still was the tale of the 230-mile Madeira to Mamore line in Brazil, probably the most isolated railway in the world. Navvies hacked through remote Amazonian jungle, succumbing to yellow fever, malaria, attacks by alligators and local tribes. But by the time the line was completed after thirty years it was redundant, because the rubber industry, which it was designed to serve, had moved across the world to Malaysia.
There were many other railways where the human costs of construction were huge. Six thousand workers died during the construction of the Panama railway, the world’s first transcontinental line in the 1850s – 120 for each mile of railway. More brutal still, the cadavers were pickled and sold to medical schools around the world to defray costs. The first stages of the Cape to Cairo line through Rhodesia claimed the lives of 60 per cent of the white workers and 30 per cent of Africans. There was a particular risk from the local crocodiles, hippopotamuses and lions, who realised that there were easy pickings since most of the workers slept in the open at night. “In one month, lions scoffed two of our employees,” reported the line’s engineer, George Pauling, conveniently ignoring the obviously larger toll of local workers. But the prizes for these transcontinental railways were huge. The hammering-in of the golden spike marking the completion in 1869 of the 1,774-mile long Transcontinental Railroad across America is celebrated to this day as the moment the United States truly became a nation. The building of the Trans-Siberian Railway across thousands of miles of the most inhospitable territory on earth was a triumph for the political interests of Tsar Nicholas II.
As well as heroic enterprise, the railways produced curiosities and marvels galore. Back in the 1950s, every self-respecting schoolboy had on his bookshelves titles such as The Thrilling Book of Trains, and it is easy to overlook, in this easyJet age, how wondrous the story of the railways once seemed to us all. Did you know that Norway is the only nation in the world never to have had different classes on its trains? Or that New Zealand once had more miles of railway per head than any other country? Or that the Argentine wine industry owes its origins to Italian immigrants brought in by the railway? Another quirky fact is that the first trains in Australia were pulled by convicts, labouring up steep gradients and sometimes covering 30 miles a day, and until recently elephants that were used to shunt freight wagons in India. Want to take the longest possible journey in the world without leaving the rails? It is an astonishing 10,600 miles between Algeciras in Spain and Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam. You would, however, have to travel on different widths of track, since Spain and Russia both rejected Robert Stephenson’s standard gauge of 4ft 81/2 because they thought it would help stop invasions. To this day, Australia has three different gauges because its states couldn’t help squabbling among themselves.
The railway passenger who had the greatest influence on history was probably Lenin, who travelled in a sealed train from Switzerland through Germany to St Petersburg in 1917, where on arrival he gave the speech that sparked off the Bolshevik revolution. The world’s most magnificent railway station is the Chhatrapati [correct spelling] Shivaji terminus in Bombay, which took ten years to build.
But the story of the railways isn’t just a collection of yarns from some vanished golden age. Today, new high-speed lines, once confined to France and Japan, are rapidly spreading their tentacles across the planet. Soon even Turkey, Argentina and Ukraine will have their equivalents of the bullet train. When the 800-mile Beijing to Shanghai line is completed in 2012, the Chinese network will be almost as large as the rest of the world’s put together. Even in the United States, where passenger railways have long teetered on the verge of extinction, there are plans for a high-speed line between Los Angeles and San Francisco. Before long it will be routine to travel by train at speeds of more than 250mph.
In the meantime the nation that invented the railway has managed to build a mere 67 miles of high-speed line – from London St Pancras to the Channel tunnel. Although plans for a new high-speed route to the north are due to be published by the government early next year , it won’t get built for another 15 years at the earliest.
The world is once again rejoicing at being in the midst of a railway boom. But unlike the glorious era of our rail-building forefathers, British genius will, sadly, play but a tiny part in it.
‘Blood Iron and Gold,’ by Christian Wolmar is published by Atlantic Books, price £25; Michael Williams is author of ‘On the Slow Train’, to be published by Preface, in April 2010.