Time travel

Railways and the Victorian Imagination

Michael Freeman <em>Yale University Press, 272pp, £25</em>

One of the unhappinesses of rail privatisation is that several of the new rail companies have taken on names from their Victorian predecessors, such as Great Western and Great Eastern. The current crop of rail operators, however, are mere franchises, which run services on someone else's lines using someone else's carriages. To call them even a shadow of the great Victorian companies that carved the railways out of the land at great financial and, often, human cost, and thereby changed the world, is to give them too much importance.

The purpose of Michael Freeman's book is to explain how those rail companies were not just transport operators but were responsible for much of the industrial revolution's impact on the masses. Picture Britain before the advent of the railways in the late 1820s, when stagecoaches trundled across the countryside covering a mere 100 miles a day in great discomfort and contrast it to barely 30 years later, when much of the trunk network that still survives today had been built. Hardly any aspect of the lives of those who lived through the dawn of this era was unaffected, and Freeman's book documents this transformation.

The world is full of books for trainspotters, but this is not one of them. The trains themselves are almost incidental to the impact of the railways, and the choice of illustrations, many of which are breathtaking, makes this quite clear. These are not railway pornography, close-up photographs and paintings of chuffa trains, but images of the creation of modern Britain, the mastery of the nation by a technology whose power, exemplified by trains in full steam pounding across the countryside, is represented as an object of great beauty.

Freeman, however, is clearly a closet trainspotter, and that gives his narrative much of its charm. He loves the inconsequential detail, the little anecdote and the telling statistic; for example, he tells us that 621,000 people worked on the railways by the end of the 19th century, a staggering 5 per cent of the working population.

He also tells us that, as early as 1843, "the average speed on all lines was 21.5 miles per hour", and that top speeds of 60mph were already being recorded. The railways, as Karl Marx, himself a railway clerk, put it, resulted in "the annihilation of space by time".

But the railways did so much more than that. Freeman shows how the railways were not an adjunct to Victorian life in the way that they were in the late 20th century, with just 6 per cent of the transport market, but a feature so central that they dominated it. The railway companies were the equivalent of today's multinationals, with one, the London and North Western, being, as Dickens put it, "wealthier than any other corporation in the world".

There are so many other consequences of the development of the railways, both big and small; cheap excursion trains almost created the notion of holidays; the construction of suburban railways together with the requirement to provide penny-a-mile services underpinned urbanisation; the cheap movement of freight led to huge changes in working practices; a whole industry of toy trains grew up, as did a railway press; and family life was often transformed, with mealtimes being set by train schedules.

It is possible to quibble with Freeman's claim that his is the first book to present an "imaginative history" of the railway, because The World the Railways Made, written by my former Independent colleague Nicholas Faith, was just such an attempt, albeit more modest.

However, the meticulousness of Freeman's research, the erudition and the illustrations, which, despite their beauty, are never allowed to dominate, ensure that this excellent account will stimulate others of a similar genre. So, just as rail is enjoying a renaissance - in that the 19th-century invention is carving out a new role for itself in the 21st century as an escape route from congested roads - so is its literature.

Christian Wolmar is an award winning writer and broadcaster specialising in transport. He was shortlisted as a Labour mayoral candidate in the 2016 London election, and stood as Labour's candidate in the Richmond Park by-election in December 2016. 

This article first appeared in the 17 January 2000 issue of the New Statesman, The plot to keep us puffing