Going Off The Rails

If you live in the UK, you were probably taken on a walk as a kid that follows the trackbed of an old railway line. You might have been taken on the Santa special on an old steam train, something that looked like a massive and mystical contraption to you as a young person. Consider a time when they were commonplace, and the UK actually had a decent transport infrastructure. The trains were made here in Britain, the collieries, shipyards and quarries in full swing. There were little branch lines between villages, and if you needed to get somewhere, you could generally get there by train – let’s investigate where they all went, why they went, and where you can go to see these impressive old machines and the picturesque routes they ran on.

At the height of the industrial revolution, Britain was the ‘workshop of the world.’ Imperial connotations aside, one thing the country can be proud of is the amount of technological advances it made in transport terms. The steam locomotive (the term for the engine that pulls a train) has an interesting history in and of itself, but the first of the type we are familiar with (think Thomas the Tank Engine) was built for the Rainhill Trials in Manchester in 1829. These were intended to test a range of ideas (such as stationary steam engines pulling trains via cables, a train ‘pedalled’ by a stationary horse) for the best way to run trains, and George and Robert Stephenson’s ‘Rocket’ won out. The original system had been to pull railway carriages with horses, which is ineffective for both the horse and passengers. These new types of trains run by compressing steam created by water and fire (that’s about as simple as I can make it!) to power the wheels, with the water and coal for the fire kept either in tanks or tenders on top of or behind the engine. It wasn’t the first of its kind, but it did receive sufficient press attention to take advantage of the existing infrastructure effectively. This subsequently became the template for railway engines for the next 150 years or so, and it was so effective that railways began springing up almost everywhere.

The imaginatively titled Liverpool and Manchester Railway, opened 1830, operated between (you guessed it) Liverpool and Manchester. It was the first railway to have a concrete timetable, the first to carry mail, the first to be completely double tracked. Others followed the example and by 1840 most towns had a railway network, sometimes two or three. This is what facilitated the Victorian boom of visiting seaside towns like Blackpool, Southport, Skegness, Scarborough and allowed for the growth of mill towns into industrial powerhouses (such as Burnley and Preston for their textile mills.) My father growing up as late as the 1960s fondly recalled train services to get to school in a neighbouring village, and at the peak of ‘Railway Mania’ in the 1870s there were almost 300 Acts of Parliament passed that authorised the construction of new railways.

Towns and cities were built around these railways – Preston, where I am from, was the administrative and industrial centre of Lancashire and as such has a giant Victorian railway station, wearing a lot of its original frontage and giving you a real sense of grandeur when you look at the architecture. You can tell it was a place where a lot happened, people and goods came through every day for the local mills, factories and ran right through to the nearby busy docklands. Trains were built in a factory just next to this railway line, some of which have miraculously survived to this day. Industrial cities like Glasgow, too had a host of railway architecture (you can still get guided tours to the abandoned Victorian platforms beneath Glasgow Central) and trains were built right on the Clyde. The Glasgow Subway is another unlikely survivor from the era of Victorian rail. Dock towns like Liverpool sometimes had their own overhead light railways, villages had narrow gauge (aka little) trains that ran up mountains and out of quarries and took passengers for jollies, and government mandated that a quota of affordable journeys (aka parliamentary trains) had to be run for a railway to legally operate.

So why, now, do we have to pay £8000 to get a train which will almost certainly be delayed or cancelled and will terminate 25 miles away from our destination? Well, his name was Dr Richard Beeching. Appointed Chairman of the British Railways Board (railways had been nationalised in 1948) by the Conservative Party, he contended that the best way to offset the damage increased uptake in road transport was doing to railways… was to get rid of them entirely. If that seems counter intuitive, the Labour Party and rail unions at the time shared your view. It is true that earlier efforts to modernise the ageing railways stalled due to an unwillingness to adopt electricity and diesel over steam power, and poor economic foresight meant that the wrong types of engines were ordered when diesel was accepted. However, with hindsight, we can see that Beeching’s idea to deny decent railway infrastructure to passengers because of a decline in freight traffic has been highly ineffective and a travesty to those interested in local, social and railway history.

Beeching was a businessman, not a railwayman. One of the things that had hindered British Railways’ economic position was the regard paid by the government and union leaders to the interests of workers. For example, newer trains weren’t wanted as ministers worried about the potential cost of importing fuel for them when coal for steam trains could be made in Britain, and would still have to be burned to power the national grid. The way to rectify these problems was not to give up people’s livelihoods just to reduce the deficit. Beeching’s plan to cut almost 2,500 stations and 5000 miles of railway line left many towns without any form of public transport and his neglect to do anything with these stations apart from earmark their land for potential developments has also left these towns with a generous amount of derelict railway stations. Most of the railway paraphernalia of interest to enthusiasts has been demolished, with just a few parts of the old stonework and occasional platforms visible in their original locations. Many of their sites are now occupied by housing estates that could have been built on various other sites in order to protect railway heritage. An old justification for getting rid of the trains would be that buses would serve the communities better – an industry which has also since been largely privatised, put profits before passengers, and allowed non-profitable routes (particularly those that operated in rural areas, like the old train lines) to close with little fanfare. Beeching did all this whilst collecting a salary equating to £420,000 a year in 2016.

Of course, closing half the country’s railways threw up more of its own problems. Steam locomotives had continued to be built to order up until about the 1950s, and now, the old stations were littered with examples that had no reason to be there. Many of them would stand, decaying, for the next 25 – 40 years, with the vast majority being sold for scrap metal. Preservation of these machines, significant parts of the country’s industrial history and places around which communities had been formed, was left to the rare volunteers with the resources to do so. A quick google will give you a glance into the enduring scenes of dereliction at virtually every railway station in the country post-Beeching review. Popular lines were closed, their passengers left to look at the empty tracks gradually become overgrown. Today there are privately run railways which maintain the survivors of the Beeching Cuts, but what’s important to consider is that his conscious decisions are one of the primary reasons why rail travel is so poor today.

Some great places to see these machines and associated memorabilia being properly looked after and cared for, and even sometimes go for a ride on them are littered up and down the UK. Here is a list of such places you might enjoy visiting once the lockdown is over. Have a look at http://www.disused-stations.org.uk to see if there is a railway walk in your area, too – you may discover a picturesque pathway right on your doorstep.

Published by Jonathan Tonge

22 year old history student, classic car enthusiast, musician, professional buzz lightyear impersonator

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