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Monday essay: is nostalgia out of date?

The railway industry faces a struggle to emerge from the restrictions of the pandemic. Sim Harris asks if it will have the time to simultaneously celebrate its own history as well, at least in the immediate future.

THE history of the railway is rich with details, which go back for two centuries at least. There have been many achievements since the 1820s, including the successful development of an existing technology, the steam engine, which once adapted as a ‘locomotive’ became the greatest force for reform that the nineteenth century would experience.

The role of the industry has changed since then, of course, and the railway is no longer the dominant provider of mechanised transport. But in spite of ups and downs over the past 100 years, plus the challenges of the present pandemic, the railway is still there, ready to meet tomorrow.

But as we look forward to the future, there are still many people who look backwards to the past.

Indeed, some of them would perhaps prefer to be there, in an age when the A4-hauled ‘Flying Scotsman’ left King’s Cross promptly at 10.00 every morning (or 10 a.m., as it was then known) while down the road at Paddington they would have been preparing for the 10.30 departure of the ‘Cornish Riviera’ from the ‘royal’ Platform 1, hauled by one of the GWR’s majestic ‘King’ class locomotives as far as Plymouth. Here some of the rear coaches, including the restaurant and kitchen cars, would be detached and a lighter locomotive substituted, such as a ‘Castle’ or ‘Hall’, because the Kings were too heavy for the Royal Albert Bridge and the train could have ended up in the River Tamar rather than steaming onwards through the verdant Cornish landscape en route for Penzance (‘change at Par for Newquay, Truro for Falmouth and Perranporth, Gwinear Road for Helston and at St Erth for St Ives’). 

Brings a tear to your eye? Well, before you get too emotional you must add in the rest of the picture: miners toiling underground in primitive and dangerous conditions to retrieve the countless tons of best ‘steam coal’ that the railways demanded, 14-year old boys just out of school turning up in the bleak small hours of winter nights at hundreds of engine sheds to clean boiler tubes, wretched booking office clerks trying to balance their ledgers at dingy country stations, armed only with a ‘ready reckoner’ and official crossed-nibbed pens and ink while they wrestled with the appalling paper-based labyrinth of forms, rules and threats (‘the details of any deficit exceeding five shillings must be notified to the Chief Auditor using Form 2055, who will forward the particulars of any amount over one pound sterling to the Superintendent of the Line’), and the goods yard workers who carried out ‘fly’ shunting every day, at appalling risks to themselves. In 1931 alone 187 railway ‘servants’ were killed and another 16,034 injured. Those casualties formed almost 2.8 per cent of the workforce, which implied that every member of the railways’ staff had a 1 in 36 chance, on average, of being hurt or possibly dying on the job, although shunters would have been at appreciably greater risk than clerks.

We may take it that visions of the ‘Royal Scot’ steaming through the Lake District bound for Glasgow with ‘12 on’ are more attractive than those of cleaning the locomotive’s boiler tubes at half past three in the morning, and it is from this romantic perspective that nostalgia is born.

There is nothing to be said for or against it, except that giving practical expression to aspects of the past makes a lot of people very happy, which cannot be a bad thing.

The ‘real’ railway, as opposed to the amusement park/working museum that is a ‘heritage’ line, often dabbles in nostalgia itself. When East Midlands Trains was promoting its Class 222 Meridians, it staged an event at Sheffield in 2009, where a Class 222 and the ‘Tornado’ steam engine shared adjacent platforms. This was pushing at the boundaries, perhaps, because the steam engine was even newer than the Meridian, having been lovingly built from scratch, although based on authentic engineering drawings. In other words, this was freshly written nostalgia, straight out of the box.

Until now, today’s railway has had the time and resources to look back from time to time. So it was that Birmingham Moor Street, having been rescued by Chiltern Railways, was given commendably authentic GWR-style station signage, while a similar exercise at King’s Lynn during the tenure of First Capital Connect resulted in a shameful mock up which was allegedly signage from the era of British Railways in the 1950s, but was actually a complete invention. Nostalgia may concentrate (understandably) on the bright side, but there is simply no excuse for inventing history. If we are not careful, one of the nonsenses from King’s Lynn could even end up in a museum.

A much more effective form of respect for the past was demonstrated at stations like London King’s Cross and St Pancras International, when each was painstakingly modernised and improved almost beyond recognition while the architects and engineers responsible had to tip-toe, with great success, around the ‘listed’ features of both stations.

Times have changed, as they tend to, and one of the victims of coronavirus could be railway nostalgia, at least in any practical form. ‘Heritage’ railways (which have to make so many compromises with historical details to comply with modern regulations that few can really be called ‘preserved’) are struggling with the cruel blows of a pandemic which deprived them of much-needed customers just at the start of what should have been a buoyant 2020 season.

Whether the modern railway will have the time or ability to indulge in nostalgic gestures, at least for the time being, is a question which we cannot yet answer, But the omens do not look good.

Copies of the new June print edition of Railnews can be obtained by calling 01438 281200 from UK numbers or +44 1438 281200 internationally, and selecting Option 2.

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