“The trains are our friends. When you can hear them, you feel that everything is going on all right,” says Lewis Eliot’s mother in C.P. Snow’s unfashionable book Time of Hope. It is an autobiographical novel, set in an English Midland town before and during the First World War. Mrs. Eliot is trying to reassure her son after a night bombing raid by German zeppelins. I suspect that anyone who has lived in earshot of a railway line knows exactly what she meant. A railway train is a great achievement of civilization. Discipline, planning and order are needed to allow it to set off and to make it move. If the trains are running, then things are still under control somewhere, even if men are hurling explosives from the sky onto your street. This is why train crashes fill us with such dismay. They are far rarer than car accidents, and far less likely, and that is exactly the point. When things go wrong on the rails, you may reasonably suspect that something is wrong in general with your society.
The state of a country’s railways is a measure of its civilization. The tragic decay of US passenger railroads, once beautiful and magnificent, now a melancholy remnant (as I know from thousands of miles of direct experience) has always fuelled my doubts about the general direction of the great republic. My strong reluctance to visit Latin America stems directly from the collapse and decay of its trains. How miserable to be condemned to travel in nothing but cars and aircraft.
The same is true of Africa. In my childhood I loved to read obsolete encyclopedias in which fanciful illustrators depicted journeys on the projected but never achieved “Cape to Cairo” railway line. The pictures showed Edwardian ladies and gentlemen dining in luxury as they rolled smoothly past plains dotted with lions and elephants. I longed to do this. It might have happened, if the world had turned out differently. I still treasure an elaborate menu from the Mombasa to Nairobi railway, retained by my father after a 1938 journey along that line, during a naval shore leave. I believe the route still functions after a fashion but, if you take it, don't expect dinner in the diner, at least not as my father was able to have it (roast saddle of lamb, red currant jelly, cauliflower and roast potatoes, a properly imperial meal.) As Paul Theroux has heartbreakingly explained in his Dark Star Safari, the trains of Africa are fast fraying into a memory. It is not just an African problem. The compilers of what used to be Thomas Cook’s international timetable all too frequently report a lack of up-to-date information on what were once functioning tracks. Once again, we find the world unable to sustain something good, because the worse alternative is cheaper, easier, and politically more convenient.
Disorder, war, and general chaos have conspired to prevent what ought to have been the global triumph of the railway. Imagine if the great pre-1914 project for a Paris-to-New-York line, tunneling beneath the Bering Strait, had come to pass, instead of being irrevocably canceled by war and revolution. Who would prefer flying to such an adventure? My favorite imaginary railway, utterly impossible under any conceivable political settlement, would be the Moscow-to-Jerusalem Pullman, passing through the glories of the Caucasus before finding its way to Damascus (change here for Beirut!) and gliding to a stop in sight of the walls of the Holy City. How the Middle East would be improved by some decent trains. On a post-invasion visit to Baghdad, I found that unholy city’s rather splendid railway station, terminus of the forgotten Berlin-to-Baghdad line, but with connections onward to Basra. There were no trains to be seen or heard, and no passengers either. By night the Iraqi capital, reduced to ancient darkness by power failures, was full of the chatter of AK-47s, rather than the reassuring rumble of steel wheels on steel rails. Whoever said to her worried child “The guns are our friends”?
In my own country we have endured a long retreat by railways, not on a South American or an African scale, but distressing and alarming enough to fill me with foreboding about the country as a whole. From time to time the sheer logic of our intimate island landscape has compelled the saving or reopening of condemned lines. But the fury of the road and car lobbies against the train never abates. Gone is the line that used to run steamily past the bottom of our garden in the Portsmouth suburbs, linking the weird remoteness of Hayling Island to the modern world without destroying its unique atmosphere. Its tracks have been pulled up. Its bridge is a ruin. Instead, each summer sees traffic jams on the road crossing, bringing the invasive stink and scour of motor traffic to what was once a preserve of peace. Gone is the superb express line that used to carry me back to school, climbing through the lovely desolation of Dartmoor but, as railways do, without spoiling it. Sheep now roam and excrete where the beautifully-engineered tracks used to gleam. Gone is the rattling, homely slow line that once linked the two loveliest towns in England, Oxford and Cambridge, passing placidly through the quiet hills and woods that John Bunyan was thinking of when he wrote his Pilgrim’s Progress. (C.S.Lewis used often to take this train). Dozens of handsome market towns all over the country were simply deprived of the trains that linked them to the outside world, so forcing their inhabitants to take to the car.
No good argument was ever made for these closures, except that particular stretches of line didn't make money. Well, no. Nor do the minor (and major) roads which the state continues to build and subsidize without complaint. But it is not about money. Railways as a whole make a country more civilized, even if they don't actually bring in much, or any, cash. Whereas roads, which cost just as much in the end, and also bring in no money don't make a country more civilized. Rather the reverse.
Now I fear that worse is to come. For many decades Britain has had a Ministry of Roads, Cars and Trucks, though it calls itself the Department of Transport. It regards a preference for railways as a laughable eccentricity. It is embarrassed by its railway inheritance. 60 years ago, when it decided to rip up much of the world’s first and best rail networks and replace it with roads, it was headed by a man called Ernest Marples, who was, at the same time, the boss and owner of a company that built highways. Somehow this arrangement (at one point he transferred his shares to his wife as a sop to public opinion) wasn't seen as in any way improper. This unlovely man, in a forgotten scandal, ended his political career by fleeing the country to avoid a tax bill, shortly after having been given a peerage. Amusingly, the newly-elevated Baron Marples did his moonlight flit aboard the Night Ferry to Paris—that glorious, now abolished rail ferry that took one directly from London Victoria to Gare du Nord, all without leaving one’s sleeping berth—because its capacious luggage car enabled him to take many of his most treasured possessions with him into exile in a French chateau. He could never have done that in one of the cars he loved so much. I don't think this episode could have taken place in a country whose rulers valued their trains.
How odd it is that roads are seen as conservative while railways are regarded as left-wing. Roads and cars rip up treasured landscapes, encourage dependence on grisly oil states and require the incredibly inefficient use of machines which spend most of their lives depreciating in parking lots. Yet political conservatives love to build roads, which are wholly state-owned, requiring gigantic taxpayer subsidy. The best (or worst) example of this was Dwight Eisenhower’s improper use of tax money to build the nationalized Interstate highways on the pretext that they were needed to evacuate the cities of the United States in a nuclear war. The US taxpayer continues to pay for them. Every time one of these new nationalized superhighways opened, it more or less destroyed passenger service on the equivalent privately-run railroad.
Since the first frenzy of road building 60 years ago, several plagues have been visited on the railways of Britain, the latest being “privatization.” In this arrangement, private companies are invited to run trains on state-owned tracks and given money by the government for doing so. This pretense at capitalism has proved far more expensive to the taxpayer than the fully nationalized system we had before. And it has repeatedly failed, as many of the companies involved have somehow not managed to make enough money, and have walked away, leaving the state to carry the can. This system reached its ludicrous zenith during the Covid panic, during which the state paid giant subsidies to keep the railways going, while simultaneously portraying rail travel as deadly dangerous (“wear a mask”) and so driving away passengers by the tens of thousands. Now, like so much of the economic fools’ paradise created in response to the panic, this arrangement has to end. Inflation, like a roaring lion, is going about the UK economy, devouring wealth.
Railway unions, among the last well-organized industrial unions in the country, are reasonably concerned that their members will lose their jobs or suffer severe real wage reductions in the coming years. Inflation, as I well remember from the 1970s, means you have to do all the running you can just to stay in the same place. And so the unions have begun to strike, most recently shutting down about a quarter of the rail network on Saturday. It seems to this conservative that the unions are entitled to try to defend their members. They didn't make these conditions. A society in which we are not entitled to withdraw our labor is not a free society, and I dislike the current rage from teenage Tory politicians threatening strike bans. Yes, some jobs are so essential that those who do them should not strike. But there is another aspect to this. Those who propose strike bans don't seem to grasp that, in return for them, they will have to offer special conditions, such as those rightly granted to the police, which often lead to higher pay than they would ever have been able to get through withdrawing their labor.
I hate railway strikes and am personally inconvenienced by them. But I am equally (if not more) inconvenienced by the bad management of those railways, and I have been stranded far more often by excessive safety panics and general bungling and cheeseparing than by strikes, which at least have a recognisable purpose. Above all, I am worried that these events—which I suspect the government could have avoided if it wanted to—may be the precursor to a new political attack on railways as a whole.
For decades there has been a lobby in Britain which thinks that Britain cannot afford a proper comprehensive national passenger train service. At least twice since the Marples vandalism of the 1960s, serious plans have emerged to devastate the railroads we have left. The authors of these schemes are prepared to retain a few express lines, and commuter networks around some of the bigger cities, much like the arrangement in the United States, but that would be that. Perhaps this skeleton will be supplemented by the amazingly futile HS2 scheme for a superfast train that nobody wants between London and the Midlands. This multi-billion-pound project, in contrast to normal railways that people actually wish to use, is driven so completely by vanity and politics that it looks as if it will actually have to be built before anyone admits that it is all but useless and widely unwanted. If you had treasured any hope that politics was rational or that it was pursued by intelligent and thoughtful people, the history of railways in Britain—and the rest of the world—would surely destroy it.