The Victorian Railway

Robert Thorne | Published in History Today

The Victorian Railway

By Jack Simmons - Thames and Hudson - 416 pp. - £28

It seems to many travellers that trains are run primarily for the benefit of railwaymen, plus a few noisy initiates crowded in the front coaches who understand the mysteries of the system. In much the same way much railway history occupies a world of its own. It is obsessively interested in the construction of railway lines, the dates when they were opened, and the trains that used them. As for who went on those trains, what goods they carried, or what effect they had on the communities they served, such matters are given hardly a passing glance. It looks as if historians, like those who run the railways, would prefer the trains to be empty.

Jack Simmons is one of the great exceptions to this general rule. No-one knows more than he does about the mechanics of the Victorian railway – track, engines and signalling – but for him it is what they created that is most important, above all their effect in providing 'speed, ease, and cheapness of movement'. His constant starting-point is not the railway itself but people's need or desire to travel, to exchange mail or news, or to send goods more efficiently. Having gauged that demand he is well placed to understand why the railway made such a momentous impact. Far more than most technically-blinkered historians he appreciates why Thackeray, writing thirty years after the opening of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway, could say; 'We who lived before the railways, and survived out the ancient world, are like Father Noah and his family out of the Ark'.

The Victorian Railway is the third part of a multi-volume project, but the links to its predecessors (each of which had a different publisher) are only faintly emphasised. This volume can stand alone as an amazingly rich and virtually comprehensive introduction to the subject. What it does not seek to do is to tell the story of how the railway system developed: that has been done often enough before. Nor is it a business history. How projects were financed, and why some were more successful than others, are treated as aspects of the reputation of the railways rather than as topics in themselves. So George Hudson is glimpsed through the eyes of satirists rather than through law reports. What Dickens thought of him – 'so illustrative of the breeches pocket side of the English character, that I can't hear it' – counts for more than the opinion of those he swindled. And on the economics of railway operation there is not much said in the present volume about the handling of freight as the mainstay of companies' profits.

Taking for granted that the railways got built by fair means or foul, and that some at least were good investments, Jack Simmons concentrates his attention on the liberating effect they created for ordinary travellers. People could go faster – at first about three times faster than stage coaches – at less expense, and with more certainty when they would arrive (the first Bradshaw was published in 1839). Above all they could travel in great numbers. A stage coach could only carry about sixteen people, whereas a train could carry hundreds: the train that Thomas Cook chartered for his first excursion had 570 passengers on board.

All in all the British took to their trains more than any other nation. In 1882-83 they made twenty-three journeys per head of the population, compared with nine in Belgium (the most railway-minded country in Europe) and just over five in the United States.

One other unappealing aspect of most railway history is its neutral tone. Schemes of every kind are described as if they were all equally justified and conferred a uniform set of benefits. Not so for Jack Simmons. He is not afraid to identify an extravagant project or to condemn the obstinate complacency of many companies, for instance in their reluctance to introduce continuous brakes on trains and their shameful treatment of their labour force. He can distinguish the merits of a first-rate station such as Glasgow Central in a way that any designer could learn from. But when it comes to assessing the railway system as a whole he seems reluctant to ask whether it could have been better organised, either through greater state control or through more resolute management. The statistics of Victorian train travel suggest a high measure of success, but could the railways have done better if they had tried?

Robert Thorne is the co-editor of Change at King’s Cross (Historical Publications, 1990).

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