It is always quite refreshing to read an author whose enthusiasm for his subject knows no bounds. Christian Wolmar is one of the few writers about traIt is always quite refreshing to read an author whose enthusiasm for his subject knows no bounds. Christian Wolmar is one of the few writers about transport who can make the subject accessible and interesting while maintaining the attention too of the connoisseur in the field.
This book tracks this long history of the railways in Britain, from the first attempts at a coal powered track between Stockton and Darlington and the more robust Liverpool-Manchester line to the high speed Channel Tunnel connection. It is a tale of entrepreneurs, industrial geniuses, obstructive aristocrats, incompetent politicians and managers and visionary heroes. Great names such as Stephenson and Brunel are key in the formation of the early railways and the advances Britain made and exported around the world.
There is also much welcome mention of the workers, specifically the navvies whose lives were unenviable and tough but rewarding if short. Wolmar covers unionisation with a fair hand and the industrial unrest that came with it, not unexpectedly given the poor conditions the men were expected to work in. The author takes us through both world wars showing how important the trains were to victory in those global conflicts.
There is plenty of information on financing and mergers during which authors manage to lose the casual reader fairly easily but Wolmar manages to keep us interested by peppering the factual details with stories of personal triumph and tragedy that lay behind. The London Underground, the first subterranean network is briefly mentioned only, since this is the subject of a whole other book by the author which is indeed titled The Subterranean Railway The various lines and companies eventually become four big players before the inevitable dawn of nationalisation.
It is in nationalisation that Wolmar believes the railways found their rightful place – taken from the hands of money-grubbing capitalists who, despite being necessary and indeed fundamental in getting the railways up and running, had proved incapable of maintaining them and providing the level of service the public were demanding. The author goes on to tell us of the tragedy that was re-privatisation in the 1990s, just at a time when British Rail was turning a corner, so to speak, in terms of financial management, efficiency and comfort – empirical data is used to back up this suggestion.
Clearly, and unsurprisingly, most vitriol in the book is reserved for Dr Beeching, the man responsible for a 1/3 cull in the rail length and half of all stations. A ill-suited and short sighted man whose remit covered only a financial immediacy without taking in to account social and cultural benefits the railways brought along with long-term financial gains to whole towns and cities extraneous to the rail network itself.
Christian Wolmar’s book is a fantastic and entertaining look at the history of rail in Britain combining wit, great storytelling, accuracy and myth-busting of the highest level, it should be given high praise indeed and read widely (as it already has been)...more