Ages of the Train

Christopher Driver

  • The Railway Station: A Social History by Jeffrey Richards and John MacKenzie
    Oxford, 440 pp, £15.00, April 1986, ISBN 0 19 215876 7
  • The Railways of Britain: A Journey through History by Jack Simmons
    Macmillan, 255 pp, £15.95, May 1986, ISBN 0 333 40766 0

It is better to arrive than to travel – these words are being written on a broken-down hovercraft, beached like a whale at Dover – and it was better still, before defiance of gravity and the euphemisms of airports suffused the glands with a cocktail of contempt and funk, to relish le départ. This is because the rituals of arrival and departure require the services and shelter of a station where the rites de passage can be worthily celebrated, with emotions taut and perceptions heightened. In Britain, during a period of stylistic evolution that lasted half a century, railway stations became, both in grandiloquent and in self-effacing modes, the characteristic public buildings of the age, expressing that mélange of optimism, fancy and thoroughness so dissimilar from our own climate of feeling. What better venue than the Gare d’Orsay for the museum of the 19th century which has just opened in Paris?

In Russia, where the coming of the railways mattered extremely, but where material and architectural resources for the construction of stations were, until Stalin’s time, less conspicuous than in Western Europe, the sense of occasion appropriate to arrival and departure was evoked by a genre of verse, the station poem. In 1969, after prolonged if, for want of a common language, virtually wordless conversation between us on the Trans-Siberian railway, a Soviet architect-poet scribbled down for me an example of his work which Robin Milner-Gulland later translated:

Why were you late
(a few years late)?
Or perhaps you were
a whole lifetime late?
Why is there no time-table for love?
And it comes
with no bell and no signal ...

For the trains
there are green signals waiting.
The trains set off
on long wanderings;
only you,
beloved, stay here,
and depart with me for
the commotion of stations ...

How different from the wistful inexperience confided to me the same year by a woman in Berkeley: ‘I have never been on a train.’

The first steel (as opposed to short-lived iron) rail in the world was laid at the entrance to Derby Station in 1857 – an immediate consequence of Bessemer’s cheap steel-making process launched the previous year. Already, a mere century later, wherever in advanced countries distance enjoined air travel or personal incomes invited motor-car ownership, planners were demonstrating the impermanence of the permanent way. The Beeching Report of 1963 invited us to look our last at hundreds of stations. I recall taking a ride up the valleys from Swansea on the day of publication and beginning my report to the Guardian: ‘O Llanpumpsaint, Maesycrugiau, Pont Llanio, Strata Florida.’ The news editor, a Welshwoman, who was also expert in the social services, was ecstatic. In our time, railway stations have joined churches and (even more so) chapels as buildings for which alternative arrangements have to be made, like elderly relatives whose grip on reality has weakened. Often, of course, the solution found is the demolition man’s steel ball, and it is only fair to concede its appropriateness to the havoc the railways themselves wrought in the landscape of Victorian England before they were domesticated and given the status of affectionately scuffed furniture that no one in the family can bear to throw out.

From time to time stations of the humbler sort can be seen nestling into unexpected functions, thanks to their vernacular and economical architecture. Converted stations do not usually exhibit less of the post-operative trauma visible after contractors have had their way with impractical sacred buildings of the same period. The chief constraint upon a station’s candidature for ‘refurbishment’, as developers now like to call the process, is not the structure itself, nor even the presence or penumbra of ancient railway lines, but the inconvenient location: so many halts and whole routes were initially sited wherever the least resistance was found, like nuclear dumps today. But among stations that made the best of this now desirable isolation from the buzz of the world I recall a country restaurant which survived for many years in the Good Food Guide in spite of a correspondent’s happy description: ‘Mr Johnson is in the bar, and by the end of the evening the bar is in Mr Johnson.’ Even more successful as a machine à habiter is the suburban station occupied by the music critic of the Irish Times, who enjoys a mile or two of linear garden and a wine cellar cooled by the contents of the water tower overhead.

It is no wonder that none of the particulars I have so far cited appear in Jeffrey Richards and John MacKenzie’s history, exceptionally rich though it is in station lore collected world-wide, and assiduous in its pursuit both of main-line socio-economic themes and of lightly trafficked sub-cultural branches. I claim no special knowledge of my own but for any well-travelled Briton of a certain age station vignettes and memories already crowd the consciousness and erect – if a rather Victorian pun be permitted – a stationary backdrop to the shunting trains of life itself. When Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca was forsaken by Ingrid Bergman and entrained at the Gare de Lyon, when Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard had their Brief Encounter in Carnforth refreshment room, their audiences were emotionally prepared for the settings. Boarding-school children learnt early to associate sorrows and joys with railway stations, whether they concealed or betrayed them there. My wife, daughter of a civil engineer on the Madras and Southern Mahratta Railway, has never recovered from the shock of discovering that elsewhere in the world, the time of a train’s departure lay outside her family’s personal control. More typically of mass experience in the 20th century, the movement of troops in two wars and of evacuees in the second clothed the physical discomfort of blacked-out waiting rooms and smutty, unheated trains with thoughts that lay too deep for tears – most memorably when Edward Thomas’s express paused at Adlestrop during the Battle of the Somme in 1915 long enough for him to take in the willow-herb, the blackbird’s song and, beyond, ‘all the birds of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire’.

Richards and MacKenzie miss few references of this kind in any medium, and their book will be heavily quarried by quizmasters until the BBC itself goes the way of Snow Hill and (nearly) Marylebone. (‘What is the connection between Lordship Lane, Dulwich and Railway Cuttings, Acton?’ ‘Camille Pissarro painted the first, Lucien Pissarro the second.’) They cite no fewer than 99 films, from Jean Renoir’s version of Zola’s railway novel La Bête Humaine to Jiri Menzel’s Closely Observed Trains.

Zola, like Dickens, was an inveterate train traveller. But where Dickens used the railway system as the lesser evil and grumbled about it, much as modern journalists and lecturers use aeroplanes, Zola viewed it with an Impressionist’s, even a Futurist’s eye. He rebuked the poet Paul Bourget: ‘You, modern poet, you detest modern life ... Why do you find a railway station ugly? A station is beautiful.’ He perceived in St Lazare not merely the atmospheric commotion of people and gases perpetually in motion across structures of metal and glass, but the symbolic patterning imposed by time (the clock, the whistle for le départ) and discipline (the railway regulations, attempting to foresee every eventuality). Until the train supplanted the coach, different regions of Britain often told different times: hence perhaps the phrase, still more or less current: ‘what time do you have?’ Proust, though surely more of a stay-at-home than Zola, concurred with him about ‘those marvellous places, railway stations’: indeed, the title of his masterpiece echoes the most evocative phrase in any language for a booking-hall, la salle des pas perdus.

Often enough, the vicissitudes of railway travel will suggest plot and character and observe the dramatic unities of place and time without further creative adaptation. Thus, a few years ago, on a day of heavy blizzards covering most of southern England, I spent three hours en famille (cats fortunately excepted) in the salle des pas tout à fait perdus of Gillingham in Dorset. The rest of the company – in the theatrical sense – was awaiting the last, and I fancy it was also the first, train of the day to leave Exeter for London. The set was furnished with an entire county’s Sunday newspapers. Local lawyers were carousing in the ladies’ room. A mother and child who had come from London to visit an elder son in a country borstal had been unable to proceed further than the station. Punctually every hour, the curtain was rung down by the ticket collector reporting that the promised train would be another hour yet.

Today, the system which for over a century and a half absorbed so much cash, craftsmanship, anger and affection has slipped with the trade unions, the Health Service and other public institutions into a peculiarly British slough of despond, where poverty of development and poverty of expectations stumble after each other, sinking deeper at every step. Enemies of the railways and other public services, and even some of their friends, might well see Richards and MacKenzie and their wistful readers as part of the problem. Not all admirers of rail and its monuments actually want them to work for the purpose intended. Canon Roger Lloyd (inevitably also a historian of the Church of England) is aptly quoted on the topic of that London terminus which is poised for demolition and perpetually reprieved: ‘it is essentially peaceful and when some rather fussy penitent told his father confessor that he could find nowhere else in London where he could meditate in quiet and peace, he was astonished to hear the caustic answer: “Have you tried Marylebone, my son?” ’ Richards and MacKenzie themselves waste an opportunity to win over hostile Heathrovians and monetarists by steaming away in their introduction about ‘the crass motif of economic viability’ and the ‘bewilderment and alienation’ of communities robbed of their ‘nodal points’. Jack Simmons’s history – a much revised and now copiously illustrated version of a book first published in 1968 – shows a fairer sense of proportion, alluding to the ‘scandalous personal vilification’ to which Lord Beeching was subjected and recognising that ‘in part, the difficulties of the British railways reflect the difficulties of the nation.’ Simmons also pertinently quotes Ernest Foxwell’s penetrating analysis, a century ago, of the social and democratic benefits attributable to the accelerating speed and diminishing expense of travel.

But neither of the present books addresses itself to the central question of what is to be done with the transport infrastructure we have inherited. In our own generation, the ‘difficulties of the railways’ have been political and managerial rather than economic. A nation that claims to be able to afford Concorde and the Channel Tunnel could afford Marylebone if it seemed worthwhile. In transport decisions large and small, the few with the imagination have lacked the will, and the few with the will have lacked the imagination. The single-track privatiser in Downing Street herself appointed the ludicrous Nicholas Ridley (now let loose on an even wider stage) to reproduce in the national bus network an unregulated free-for-all: at least bus operators do not lay lines or make much of their stations, but the hopelessly uneconomic railway network which the 20th century inherited from the 19th was the direct result of just such a free-for-all during the high tide of economic liberalism.

Most of our immediate European neighbours are now richer than Britain, but politics and railway history rather than economics explain what any traveller can perceive – that the smooth ride from Paris to Boulogne gives way between Dover and London to a nauseous jolting which makes paperwork and even reading impossible, and derives from track and rolling stock incapable of supporting the speed contemporary passengers can reasonably expect. When the detailed planning and design of the Channel Tunnel are revealed, we shall see what we shall see and most probably what we have every reason to fear. But it can do no harm to remind ourselves that if Brunel and other Victorians were in charge of the operation, not only would the line from London to the coast be re-laid, but a modern station as splendid as Helsinki’s or Rome’s would be conceived in an architectural competition, and built to serve the new route. Nor would the planners have far to look on the South Bank for a site to clear, a white elephant to demolish, and a station name to trip off the lips. County Hall has just fallen vacant. In twenty years, Frenchmen could be booking tickets to London Livingstone, and paying through the nose in the dining-car for a taste of spatchcocked newts.