Michael Williams

Why we British love the railways – and how railway enthusiasm became respectable again

June 2, 2015 Steam Tube

AS an author of books about railways, I’m often asked what makes us British so obsessed with nostalgia about railways. The mood seems to be everywhere. Here is Michael Portillo, ubiquitous on our living room TVs, brandishing his Bradshaw and seemingly endlessly roaming the rails and catching the zeitgeist with his Great Train Journeys. Pete Waterman is there, too, rejoicing in in the greasy world of the steam engine, while Dan Snow adds the gloss of the celebrity historian.

Likewise, present-day “railwayacs” and “locoists” wax sentimental about the colourful liveries and polished brasswork of the steam engines of yore. We may enthuse about the “Blackberry Black” of the London & North Western at Euston or the “Improved Engine Green” of the London Brighton & South Coast Railway (which was actually yellow) – much as a design guru might fuss over a Farrow & Ball paintcard.

But why should nostalgia be on anyone’s mind in this age of fast, state-of-the-art trains, that routinely whisk us efficiently all over the developed world at speeds of up to 200 mph. Is it merely fanciful and indulgent to summon up some “lost age” of the railways, when more of us are choosing to use the modern rail network than at any time in history. Trains today, the mantra goes, are faster, more frequent and better than ever. Why bother about the past?

Is it that, as the nation that invented the railway, we are pining in a post-modern world for our lost industrial heritage? A cocktail of loss stirred with the recall of vanished pleasure is ever present in the literature of rail travel – moments fleetingly experienced and then lost forever. Here is Auden’s Night Mail ever hurrying on with “letters of thanks, letters from banks, letters of joy from girl and boy”. For Edward Thomas it was the sublime moment when his express train paused at Adlestrop and “for that minute a blackbird sang”. Philip Larkin peeks from a train momentarily into the romantic lives of strangers in Whitsun Weddings. For Thomas Hardy life is never the same after a snatched kiss at the barrier in On the Departure Platform. “Each a glimpse and gone forever!” as Robert Louis Stevenson puts it in his famous From a Railway Carriage.

 Much more than merely agents of commerce and industry, we love the railways because they encapsulate the whole gamut of human life and experience. They are the focus of emotions and the stuff of memories. The railway station, observe the social historians Jeffrey Richards and John M. Mackenzie, is a gateway through which people pass “in profusion on a variety of missions – a place of motion and emotion, arrival and sorrow, parting and reunion”. It is a place of “countless stories” – of drama, mystery and adventure.

Yet many of these stories belong to a world long gone – lyrically described by Gilbert and David St John Thomas in their charming book Double-Headed: “Railways are in a world of their own; they are segregated from the rest of the nation, and yet they serve it. They are self-contained, definable, understandable even by attentive amateurs and therefore welcoming to escapists; yet they are ubiquitous, infinitely diverse, complex within their own limits and wrapped in their own mystique. They have their own language, their own telephone network, their eating houses, factories and estates; they have their own slums, palaces, mausoleums and rustic beauty; they offer majesty and meanness, laughter, wonder and tears.”

Not much of this could be said of the railways of today, with their characterless trains and homogenised services.

It is hardly surprising, then, that we should invest so much emotion in romantic nostalgia. Who could disagree with that most poetic of railway historians Cuthbert Hamilton Ellis when he wrote (in 1947): “Surely it was always summer when we made our first railway journeys. Only from later boyhood do we remember what fog was like at Liverpool Street… or how the Thames Valley looked between Didcot and Oxford when there was naught but steel-grey water upon the drowned meadows. No, it was always summer! Sun shone on the first blue engine to be seen, a Somerset & Dorset near Poole; there was sunshine most dazzling on a Great Western brass dome; the sun shone on an extraordinary mustard-coloured engine of the London, Brighton & South Coast.” “Nostalgic?” asks Hamilton Ellis. “If so, why not?”

And why not, indeed? This sense of what the railways of the past signify to us has been heightened recently by the renaissance of railway enthusiasm. Gone are the days when those with an interest in railways were derided as trainspotters, anoraks or rivet counters, and mocked in the routine of almost every second-rate comedian on the stand-up circuit. The mark of respectability came in autumn 2014 when the National Railway Museum staged an exhibition called Trainspotting, in which various celebrities “came out” to declare their interest in what 20 years ago might have been an unspeakable taboo.

Actually, railway enthusiasm never really went away and – despite the mockers – has a long and noble history. The first railway enthusiast can be reckoned to be the 21-year-old actress Fanny Kemble who in 1830, just before the opening of the Liverpool & Manchester Railway, charmed George Stephenson into letting her ride with him on the locomotive. The engine, she gasped, was “a magical machine, with its flying white breath and rhythmical, unvarying pace. Recognition of what was to become a national pursuit initially came when Stephenson’s 1825 engine Locomotion was put on public display on a plinth at Darlington station in 1857. Soon, upright professional men indulged their hobby in a manner not dissimilar to butterfly collecting or philately. By the turn of century they had their own magazine and their own club in London, the Railway Club – as smart a place to be in its own way as the Garrick or the Oxford & Cambridge.

Before its decline into unfashionability in the 1980s, trainspotting had become a national cult in which men and boys turned out in all weathers on platforms all over the land, accompanied by their “Bible” – a well-thumbed copy of the Ian Allan Locospotters’ Guide. I recall having to fight my way to the end of the platform at King’s Cross and Paddington through throngs of boys with notebooks and lapels plastered with enamel badges of their favourite engines. Then we discovered Pink Floyd and girls – and all grew up.

These days things have come full circle, with wealthy hedge fund managers in the City indulging their baby-boomer passions by spending millions buying and restoring vintage express steam locomotives to run on the main line – motivated not by profit, but by the sheer joy of the thing. This is probably not surprising, since railway enthusiasm is the ultimate nostalgia in the imagination of what Orwell called a “nation of collectors.” And why should such pleasures have to be defended? As the historian Roger Lloyd wrote in his book The Fascination of Railways: “I have never met a lover of railways who felt the slightest need to produce any justification for his pleasure. Why should he?” The NRM even had the confidence to commission some verse from the poet Ian McMillan giving trainspotting a modern family feel:

It’s a life filled with moments that ring like a bell,

With elation the thrill of the chase;

It’s a smile from your dad that says ‘Yes, all is well

As he matches the grin on your face.

This is a hobby that never will pall.

Tomorrow’s a spotting day. Well, aren’t they all?

 I have just published a new book The Trains Now Departed: Sixteen Excursions into the Lost Delights of Britian’s Railways, in which I unashamedly celebrate the lost delights of Britain’s railways on an odyssey, which took me from Preston to Paris, and Baker Street to Bangkok to celebrate the best of what has gone from our railways. I’m entirely with the spirit of the railway historian Bryan Morgan, when he writes in his evocative book The End of the Line that “the words on an Ordnance Map ‘Track of Old Railway’ have the power deeply to move me, and when I discover the scar itself I have to discover where it is going and what is left of its furniture.”

And so I walked over the crumbling viaducts of what was once the highest railway in England, I uncovered the farthest outpost of the London Tube buried in the undergrowth of the Buckinghamshire countryside. I rode today’s fastest train from Scotland to London to summon up the great days of the Anglo-Scottish expresses. I trudged through the back streets of provincial towns to stand on the sites of old stations, where the hopes and dreams of Victorian visionaries were raised and dashed. I relived the world of Rowland Emmet and William Heath Robinson on the tracks of some of the most eccentric railways ever built. I sat in a car park by the sea where the laughter once echoed from happy excursionists piling off trains from Lancashire and Yorkshire factories and mills. In all these journeys I’ve tried to re-inhabit the essential character of the railways as they once were and to distil the romance that has been irretrievably lost.

For me, the essential flavour of the railways of the past is often best divined standing on some overgrown embankment, or beneath the ruins of an ivy covered viaduct or amid the last fragments of some grand city terminus such as the old Euston or the demolished Birmingham Snow Hill or Nottingham Victoria, gently reconstructing the humanity and the grandeur that was once there. If you wait long enough between somewhere and nowhere, the past can often return with surprising clarity. Even a high-speed journey to Paris on the Eurostar helped resurrect for me the ghosts of the glamorous days of the old boat trains. Likewise a delicious lunch on one of today’s weekday trains to the West Country was a journey back, too, to the great days of the splendid restaurant cars of the Golden Age.

Meanwhile, we must be cautious about over-egging the nostalgia. Compared with the “good old days” there is so much that is better about the modern railway. As I write this, sitting in front of me is the ABC Railway Guide from February 1953, with its well-worn buff cover and adverts for Lemon Hart Rum and Punch magazine – as familiar in the homes of our parents, as an old bible or prayer book. We may regret its passing, yet it paints a dismal picture of the train services of even the recent past. Back then, a railway journey from London to Manchester, for example, took around four hours with gaps of up to two hours between trains. Today there are three trains every hour taking half the time. Name almost any journey on the main lines of Britain and the story is mostly the same.

As well as being faster, today’s trains are infinitely safer and cleaner, too – air conditioning rather than smuts in the eye. Even the remotest branch lines have it better, with regular timetables, and no more wondering when the train will come on a windswept platform in the middle of nowhere. Electronic information is ubiquitous – and if you fancy it, all today’s train companies have real-time train information on their websites and apps, as well as twitter feeds. The world defined by the ABC Railway Guide is already in the trash.

For all this, though, we may wonder if in 50 years time, we would ever be able to speak lovingly of today’s railways with the warmth of Hamilton Ellis in the concluding words of The Trains We Loved: “These were the trains we loved; grand, elegant and full of grace. We knew them and they belonged to the days when we first gazed on the magic of cloud shadows sweeping over the Downs, when we first became fully aware of the smell of a Wiltshire village after rain, or when we first saw a Scottish mountain framed in a double rainbow so vivid that no painter dared to try to record it…They were the days when the steam locomotive, unchallenged, bestrode the world like a friendly giant.”

June 2, 2015 Steam Tube

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