Last Train to San Fernando: British Men, British Railways and Dr. Beeching
During the 1950’s in Britain the nationalised British Railways were losing huge amounts of money running passenger train services on railway lines that hardly anyone bought tickets for, such as the Waverley Line between Carlisle and Edinburgh. Even before the Labour Government nationalised the railways in 1948 the many failing private railway companies had amalgamated into four: Southern, GWR, LMS and LNER. When Labour included the railways as part of their post-war plans for State ownership there was no significant opposition from the railway companies or the Conservative Opposition. Financially, they were not a going concern.
In France, or Germany or Switzerland there was not an ideological divide between Right and Left over State Ownership of certain services, including railways. Largely, this still holds, although some local rail services in Germany have been privatised, and in Switzerland some local railway companies have been private since the day they were built in the nineteenth century. The argument of whether State or Private railways provide the best service for passengers is another story; as is whether it is right to expect passenger traffic to be subsidised. The Patron would suggest that another factor shaping the debate about Britain’s railways is ‘national characteristics’, and Gender.
In March of this year, 2013, the press and TV media in the UK used the 50th anniversary of the publication of the Beeching Report to highlight the report’s author – Dr Beeching, on very well paid secondment from ICI – as much as his proposals. In some quarters he is almost a hate figure – the man who destroyed Britain’s railways. And this is where ‘national characteristics’ comes into play. Or perhaps they are Gender characteristics? But first, two things have to be laid to rest.
1 Beeching did the job he was paid to do by the then Conservative Government: to look at modernising Britain’s railways, and to reduce as much of their financial losses as possible. His recommendations were by and large accepted by the Conservative Government, and opposed, by and large, by the Labour Opposition. But the Labour Party, once in Government, with Harold Wilson as Prime Minister, spectacularly tore up their opposition and pushed through the bulk of Beeching’s proposals. Harold Wilson thought so highly of Dr Beeching that in the honours list – the same list in June 1965 that the Beatles became Members of the British Empire – Wilson bumped him up to a Baron: Baron Beeching.
It is a strange and unusual historical twist that down the years it is the author of the report and not the politicians or their parties who implemented it, who is the figure of hate over the perceived ‘axing’ of Britain’s railways. The Patron can think of no other example of this phenomena in 20th Century British political history.
2 The Destruction of Britain’s railways? The Beeching Report recommended the electrification of the London – Glasgow West Coast railway route. It also recommend a far-seeing containerisation to move freight on Britain’s railways. In 2013 rusting container sidings with silver birch growing between the sleepers, and – almost eerily – electric signals still glowing amongst the rusting rails are signs of a bold initiative. This is perceived as a destruction of Britain’s railways?
So what is going on? In 1953 when French, Italian and American films were exploring, in a grown up way, social and emotional relationships in films, Britain gave the world The Titfield Thunderbolt. In an idyllic English countryside locals, partly led by the vicar, organise to run a threatened with closure branch line themselves, up against the Ministry of Transport and the Private Sector, represented by a local bus company. It is no surprise that the initiative does not come from the poorly paid agricultural workers in their council houses and tied farm cottages, but from a mix of the local gentry, a publican, a Church of England representative, and so on, who somehow are joined at the hip – more or less – with said agricultural workers, and allied craftsmen, blacksmiths, wheelwrights etc. The film is a nostalgia for a vision of England that never existed. A sort of aching for a pre-industrical Britain, which neatly overlooks the fact that the steam engine was one the foundations of Industrial Britain, whether on rails, or powering factories. And overlooking that the building of railways was, at the time, seen by many squires, country aristocracy and Church of England notables as an interesting specualtive investment that might boost their flagging financial fortunes.
It was precisely the building of an extensive railway network that shifted the working population from the countryside to the gerry-built slums of the manufacturing cities and towns. And it was the branch lines that supplied the coal – (the other essential ingredient of the British Industrial Revolution) – for industry, from such diverse places as the countryside glens of Lanarkshire and Ayrshire, to the Somerset foothills of the Mendips in the Radstock coal mining area. The milk and wheat and potatoes and fish and animals that the industrial workers and their families lived on, also travelled down these nationwide branch lines, feeding into the main rail networks.
Meanwhile, cut to to hedgerows shining in May Blossom, skylarks trilling overhead, occasional mooing of cows in buttercup meadows, whilst clip-clop, clip clop the sound of a horse and trap draws closer as with a crane shot we rise skywards over the fields and hedgerows to see a local gentry figure descend from the trap, outside the sleepy village station. The trusty porter-come-station master (wearing BBC issue period railway uniform) doffs his head as he rolls the four full and very heavy milk churns onto the 8.05. Everything is as it should be. The porter isn’t sweating with the effort and the summer heat, he isn’t muttering “Bastard milk churns” as he manoeuvres it onto the goods wagon, remembering the one that slipped last month and nearly crushed his foot. Oh no. He smiles dutifully, almost familiarly, as the local Lord of the Manor – who’s basically a Good Cove (even though he is one of the new country gentry who is making his money from people sleeping in city slums, when they’re not working for him, and is on his way into the City) – gets into the lone passenger carriage with his business case. Mr Porter-come-Station-master checks his gleaming watch, and satisfied the time is right, blows on his gleaming silver whistle – (low angle shot this) – with the blue sky and summer clouds behind. Thomas the Tank Engine works up a good head of steam and with a whistle, chuff-a-puffs off into the English countryside with the passenger carriage and the lone goods wagon, where everything is as it always was, and always will be….. Until that nasty Mr Beeching came along, in another century, and spoilt the lot. What would you expect? He didn’t even look like a countryman – not with that bank manager’s mustache and suburban umbrella.
Brutal Diesel Locomotive Sound at Full Throttle
And then there is this Gender thing. Bloke gender. It’s British blokes who get steamed up about trains and the railways. They didn’t like the death of British steam. It was killed off by a virus they call ‘dieselisation’ (as reported in the Modern Railways, January 1964 edition). But they’ve mostly come ’round to Diesel Traction. In fact, a stereo recording of a Class 37 thundering through their bedroom will likely bring them to the edge of sexual fulfilment. (There’s a variation, involving steam power in the Coen Bros Intolerable Cruelty).
Rare DRS20301 and 20305 thrash their arses off through Kensington Olympia
There is an interesting mixture of sado-masochism in the British male approach to trains. A fairly common phrase used in the monthly train fan magazines is that when a train breaks down, or is under-powered it is “recalcitrant”. Presumably it gets shoved into a siding and it’s tender gets a good spanking.
“Brutal Diesel Locomotive Sound at Full Throttle” is a You Tube clip, that as of 24 April, 2013 has had 275, 448 views. “Arses getting thrashed at Kensington is Olympia” is also a popular You Tube clip. It would be no good asking that seer into the psyche, Sigmund Freud, what he makes of these sublimated instincts. He had a well documented fear of train travel. Taking a cue from his own pyscho-sexual belief in what drives human kind, in this case male, and his own fear, one would assume it was the classic Freudian phallic fear of getting swallowed up in a dark, moist tunnel from which he may never emerge as the person he was before he entered it. Or, keeping things more down to earth, maybe he was just afraid of going off the rails.
Of course, if Freud had been French, his fear would have been more existential.
And along came that brute Beeching and took away the boys toys….
And yes, travelling by train in Britain in 2013 is a hit and miss affair. Often crowded, often delayed, often late, and sometimes cancelled. Toilets that aren’t clean and refreshment trolleys that either haven’t been put on the train, or have run out of hot water. It seems to be another aspect of a British national characteristic, and it was the same when the trains were owned by the British State. Plus la change.
During December, 2012 the only railway connection between Devon and Cornwall to the rest of Britain was blocked, due to landslips in the Dawlish and Teignmouth area, and by line flooding just to the north of Exeter St David’s station. In the week leading up to Christmas, 2012 train travel to and and from the rest of Britain was at a complete halt. The BBC sent a camera crew early Christmas Eve morning to Exeter St Davids, where First Great Western staff were handing out cups of tea as compensation. Note train units in background. These have the feel of bus bodies bolted on to rail bogies. Compare with the state of the art German regional units below, on a small rail line in Weimar, in the former DDR, which serves a population about two thirds less than that served on the Exeter – Paignton line.
The lack of carriages on the Exeter – Paignton railway line and the disruptive flooding at Cowley Bridge, just north of Exeter St David’s station, are symptomatic of Britain and British Railways. As the Germans would, and do say: “This would not happen in my country!” In their country they would provide enough trains; elevate the section of track that is constantly at risk of flood; and shore up the landslip prone sections between Dawlish Warren and Teignmouth. Not sure what they would make of the elevation of Dr Beeching to a national figure of hatred, rather than the politicians who implemented the proposals, but that is another story. Oh well, never mind, the train still stops at San Fernando.
Photos (except San Fernando railway station): Pete Grafton.