Magazine article The Spectator

'The Railways: Nation, Network and People', by Simon Bradley - Review

Magazine article The Spectator

'The Railways: Nation, Network and People', by Simon Bradley - Review

Article excerpt

The Railways: Nation, Network and People Simon Bradley

Profile, pp.645, £25, ISBN: 9781846682094

Simon Bradley dates the demise of the on-board meal service to 1962, when Pullman services no longer offered croutons with the soup course. That may be a touch fanciful-- there were other reasons for the decline, such as faster trains, cost cutting and the growth of fast food. Nevertheless, it is the type of anecdote that illustrates the thoroughness and depth of Bradley's research.

It is indisputable that the railways were the most important invention of the early 19th century. Before their creation, travel between towns and cities was a desperately slow and difficult enterprise and moving goods around was even harder, given the terrible state of the roads. Railways were transformational in every sense and their rapid growth -- Britain had more than 5,000 miles of railway just 20 years after the opening of the seminal Liverpool & Manchester Railway in 1830 -- was testimony to their importance.

Rather than telling this oft-repeated tale chronologically, as most railway histories do, Bradley has taken the brave step of choosing a thematic approach. And it works, thanks to the diligence of his research and the crispness of the writing.

He uses the conceit of a rail journey in 1862 as the basis for his account in an effort to get across what it was like to actually travel on a train in those early days. He details everything, from the development of the system of tickets that prevented fraud by booking office clerks (he explains, too, why they were called 'booking offices') and how railways were accessed (stations were something of an afterthought) to how to avoid getting cold (with difficulty, especially in third class) and how to behave in compartments (he muses on whether the English, as opposed to the garrulous Americans, were really as taciturn as suggested in much of the literature).

The etiquette of travelling by train had to be devised partly through company diktat -- rules and regulations spread almost as quickly as the iron road itself --and partly through habit. He details, for example, the Old Bailey trial of a railway cleaner accused of stealing the silk handkerchief of a passenger who had used it as a place-marker to reserve his seat, only to find it had disappeared ten minutes later when the train was ready to depart.

More serious crimes occurred on the railways. Sexual assault was a risk, given that carriages consisting of unconnected compartments were the norm until the end of the 19th century. But the railways were a liberating force for women as well as men, enabling them to travel long distances relatively cheaply.

Occasionally even 'respectable' men were prosecuted -- men such as Colonel Valentine Baker, who indecently assaulted a young lady on a London & South Western train out of Waterloo and was given a year's imprisonment, which he spent rather comfortably, being allowed to entertain friends between 9 a.m. and 6 p.m. in his rooms at Horsemonger Road gaol. Given the recent debate over women-only carriages, Bradley helpfully informs us that ladies' compartments, 'indicated by a green sticker on the window, easily distinguished from the red stickers for smokers and the blue ones for first class' lingered until 1977 but were 'casualties of the Sex Discrimination Act' passed two years previously. …

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