So what is it about trains and railways that we love so much? Some of the most beautiful parts of the world have no trains and have never had any trains. Yet other parts are unimaginable without them. Switzerland’s poster image is one of mountains, lakes, and trains. France and Japan define themselves by their high-speed trains. Russia is held together by the Trans-Siberian, and in England – here we invented trains. For many of us the very best places are those with trains, and the railway always adds more to the landscapes and cities we love.
Trains can feel like a natural phenomenon. On the plains of the mid-West the whistle of the locomotive at the grade crossing is as much a part of the soundscape as the calls of animals. Here in England and Wales, and in Scotland, towns still mourn the silence of dead railway routes lost to Dr Beeching’s cuts way back in the axe-swinging ‘sixties.
Until a few years ago I lived in a place where all kinds of trains were visible from our house. They would slide into the scene from one side of the stage, kinetic for a fleeting moment, and depart having performed their short piece of drama. They did it under the moon. They performed at sunrise, in heat, in snow, both freight and passenger, and very occasionally at night, delivering a brilliant slo-mo theatre of floodlit, orange-clad workers, complete with pyrotechnics like Thor’s own angle-grinder.
Where I am now, I can only hear trains, not see them. But they’re no less present. It used to be said that when a person loses their sight their senses may become more attuned to sounds. So it is with the trains that are now for me a little more distant – where the sound is often not much more than a vibration.
But what sounds trains make! When the railroads of America moved from steam to diesel the rail companies had to replicate something like the musical chords of the steam train whistle – -so the complaining and sleepless residents of small towns were again able to rest in their beds. As if the sound had always been a natural part of the night.
Today, in our unexpected Covid-19 world of 2020, trains almost everywhere have kept on rolling whilst most of us have remained in our homes. And, as in some kind of luxurious Folsom Prison, we have stayed locked-down and restrained, whilst out there, as Johnny Cash sang, the train ‘keeps on rollin’ on down to San Antone.’
In Britain, freight kept on rolling. Tesco container trains fed us – each one packed with hundreds of tonnes of supermarket goods – they kept on moving. Commuter trains shuttled in and out of the great cities of the world with a few handfuls of keyworkers – they kept on moving. And just one train travelled each way each day between Paris and London, that link that is part of a continuous strip of steel connecting Great Britain with countries all the way to China.
Soon we can start to travel the rails again. Maybe the absence of trains has made our hearts grow even fonder. It seems like the lockdown loss really got to some people. Like this in this lost tweet: I miss trains. I miss hearing trains. I miss being on trains. Longing for these comforts again.
Love? It certainly is romance. But roll back to almost two centuries ago when the railway threatened to reach into the England’s Lake District. That greatest romantic of all, William Wordsworth was one of the most vocal objectors. From his home, Rydal Mount, between Ambleside and Grasmere he wrote:
And is no nook of English ground secure
From rash assault?
… and he sent an angry letter to prime minister William Gladstone:
“We are in this neighbourhood all in consternation, that is, every man of taste and feeling, at the stir which is made for carrying a branch Railway from Kendal to the head of Windermere…
The railway never did reach the little hill town of Ambleside and nearby Windermere is still the railhead. Wordsworth soon swallowed his objections, bought shares in the company, and today the railway line is seen as part of the greenest of green contributions to the health of the National Park. Indeed, Wordsworth’s worry seems to have been more about the crowds that the railway might deliver into his precious Lakeland landscape than the technology itself. If only today more people did come on the branch line – most arrive by car.
By the time poet Edward Thomas’ train drew up ‘unwontedly’ at Adlestrop a few weeks before the outbreak of the First World War, the railway had become an undivided, moulded part of the landscape of ‘all of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire’. Read his poem ‘Adlestrop’ – a last few moments of peace before the terrible war about to begin. He died in battle in France in 1917.
After one more world war John Betjeman’s poetry wove together his fantasy love affairs and the suburban freedom of ‘Metroland’. Today he stands, life-size in bronze, holding on to his hat and looking up at William Barlow’s amazing train shed roof and the glory of St Pancras that he saved for us all. That great London station is twinned with Grand Central Terminus. The demolition of its gigantic Manhattan partner, the original Penn Station, was painful for the city. A great building based on the Baths of Caracalla in third century Rome it proved to be almost too tough to demolish. And it kind of showed New York just what a treasure it had in Grand Central, just as, in London, the demolition of poor Euston and its famous lost arch helped to save St Pancras. Little offerings are left at the feet of Sir John, birthday cards, thank you notes, and posies of flowers.
In the times when St Pancras station was still a leaky working wreck, watching trains was for boys in short trousers. Or gentlemen with time on their hands at the platform end. In this age of social media, the audience for trains is becoming more diverse, and more so all the time. Railways have a new relationship with the LGBTQ community – and now in 2020 almost every operator in Great Britain runs a train liveried with that celebratory rainbow created by Gilbert Baker.
So where does all this love came from? Is it a kind of love for the works of the men and women who built all this? Or could it be a love of a giant disciplined machine in a chaotic world? Perhaps it all starts in the child’s world of the toy train and the nursery story – a love that we grow up with and never leave behind.
There have been plenty of candidates to be anthropomorphised in children’s literature. But animals and trains are the guys that really work as characters. Trains had voices as early as 1902 – The Little Engine That Could was published in the United States in 1930, but it had been a story in Swedish long before then and the writers acknowledged their debt to its folk-tale roots. When Thomas the Tank Engine made his debut in 1945, he was the by-product of a home-made toy and stories created by an English vicar for his son Christopher. That writer, Wilbert Vere Awdry died in 1997. Ten years later the Thomas brand was to turn over merchandise worth more than a billion dollars in a single year.
Kids seem to love stuff that runs on rails, often developing an intense interest in trains. Maybe there’s a regularity in railways that appeals to even the most anarchically minded, perhaps it’s the sense of order in a crazy world.
But can trains also appeal to those who have to ride the subway every day? Maybe not so much amongst passengers who have to compress themselves onto the Northern Line twice a day. But the London Underground has a huge fan base. And whilst the Central Line may be hot as hell, the London Underground brand is cool. Railways have always created some of the very finest design and typographical work and the tube has given us some of the best of the best. Check out the lovely merchandising in the gift shop at the London Transport Museum.
But are these millions who love trains balanced out by those who hate railways? The most powerful train-hate seems to be reserved for trains yet to come – and especially for HS2 – the high-speed line being built through the rural landscapes of England. There’s just as great a battle going on between pro and anti-railway forces as there was in Wordsworth’s day, with both sides saying ‘we benefit the environment’. When the 1960’s Euston is long gone and the third generation has risen, when and if High Speed 2 becomes part of the scenery of England, will it too accepted and loved? Judging by previous form, probably.
Often it seems we want to see trains as much as ride them. Whilst great steam engines still heft their way around our national network, operators of enthusiast trips moan about fans who only stand and watch rather than pay and ride. It is not easy to make the money needed to maintain and operate machines that can be nearly a century old. But when these old beasts are too old to run, or when types of engine become extinct without examples being saved, lost locomotive classes are recreated from new with builders’ dates that show completions in the 21st century.
The great A1 Pacific locomotives of the LNER were all lost to scrap in the 1960s. Building the new locomotive – 60163 Tornado – and then running it up to a hundred miles an hour would have been a pretty crazy fantasy not that long ago. But that’s what dedicated people did. And perhaps that venture would have remained a fantasy but for the internet age. Now, that same resurrection trip has hit America, with their plans to build giant lost steam engines – and all just for fun.
Most of us don’t ever get to build our own locomotive, or to drive one. We drive cars. Trains carry us. But don’t trains just seem to be a more serious proposition than motor cars? Railways work their way into our affections in a way that the motorway never could.
Perhaps for all those individuals who love trains the answer as to why they do so, is unique and special. Trains are moving architecture. They are engineering poetry. They are objects of brutal beauty. Trains are both everyday and extraordinary. They connect us with loved ones. They help us escape from small towns. They bring us back home. And, now that the lockdown is ending, now that the Coronavirus emergency seems to be receding, we will soon be able to step back on to the platform and on to – a train. Magic!
So here at All About Trains we will salute the millions of pages that have been written about trains over the last two centuries. We will be about engines and designs, stations and lines. But we will also be celebrating passengers and journeys, builders and workers – the railway family across the world. We will be all about literature and culture, engines and engineering, people and places. We are setting out on a new journey of missing trains that have gone, of catching trains that have yet to come, of meeting people, travelling, or just watching. Whatever the reason for your love of trains, welcome.
Welcome to All Things Trains.
Title picture: (cc) Into the light at Harringworth by kitmasterbloke [crop]. Original: https://www.flickr.com/photos/kitmasterbloke/47981458482/in/album-72157648698196184/