28th March 2008 Book Reviews
The story of Britain’s railways is one of chaotic genius in the Victorian era followed by a century of more or less uninterrupted decline. Christian Wolmar charts this history in admirable detail, but succumbs to unwarranted romanticism when it comes to the last days of British Rail
This magnificent book tells the tale of the railways from George Stephenson to privatisation in 300 pages. It has as much to say about politics as about the railways, and one question looms throughout: how can the nation that invented the railways and built the world’s first national network have fallen so far behind much of the rest of Europe today?
The achievement of the Victorians is mind-boggling. In 1843, only 13 years after the opening of the Liverpool & Manchester railway, there were already 1,800 miles of railway in operation in Britain. In the four years of so-called “railway mania” that followed, a further 9,500 miles were authorised by parliament, fully two thirds of which were soon built, forming the backbone of today’s network. Christian Wolmar calls the process “haphazard and chaotic,” with little attempt by parliament—dominated by railway interests with an almost obscene lack of scruple about self-enrichment—to plan or manage the process. But the vast majority of this early phase of railway construction survives, so it can’t have been too badly planned. Moreover, the one major instance of early central planning—the decision to keep overground railways out of central London—was a mixed blessing, making it impossible to run through trains across London (beyond the low capacity Snow Hill north-south route only now being upgraded as Thameslink) and thereby exacerbating to this day commuter misery and the inadequacy of efficient north-south and east-west travel within England.
If you’re a Prospect subscriber, click here to read more.