Posted in Railways on Thursday 2nd October 2008 at 11:01pm
I wasn't sure if could face the evening of railway programmes on BBC4 tonight. For starters I wasn't going to get home until late, and it would mean delving into the middle of Ian Hislop's documentary on Beeching. I struggle with this era a great deal. As a public servant charged with delivering efficient services and reducing costs and as someone who has been the architect of cuts, I feel a mixture of shame at what went before mixed with righteous indignation - there was, sadly a job that needed doing. But, as a railway enthusiast and as a non-car owning public transport user, and even as a hopeless old-fashioned English romantic I know the job wasn't done right by any stretch of the imagination. Conspiracies abound, and Hislop touched lightly and carefully on these before striking at the fundamental issue, the lack of balance between the economic and social case for a dense, often duplicated network of lines. Some of the illogical, iniquitous and shamefully corrupt decision making was exposed. My fear that I'd feel cheated, deprived of a network I could have used was unfounded. I was furiously angry. The programme ended somewhere near Hawick with the promise of a partly reopened Waverley Route. With Alloa, Airdrie to Bathgate and numerous other Scottish schemes in the pipeline, it felt more comfortable. This was the railway I knew, passionately believed in the relevance of, and travelled each week...and now, albeit slowly, it was getting bigger again.
Great Railway Journeys was filmed and shown in 1995. I missed it at the time, but my burgeoning independence and widening desire to travel saw me begin to use the network in earnest around this time. So, it was oddly comforting to see Victoria Wood sitting on benches I knew all too well at Crewe and boarding trains which had only recently been replaced, but which even now I was nostalgic for! I'd wanted to see this documentary for years - partly because it was rooted in familiarity, and partly because it promised exotic scenes on lines I'd then not travelled. The pre-privatisation era journey which Wood took was a desperate dash around a network which sounded as close to death as it had in Beeching's day. The Cumbrian Coast line only existed to serve the workers of Sellafield, and Carnforth station was a mess. This was pretty bad, and I'm sure we'd all agree, but not necessarily only because it was once in a film and the Japanese might like to see it restored. So amid the gently mocking (but insidiously rather anti-rail) sentiment, she travelled north pausing for a swift and equally 'gentle' dig at trainspotters platform-ending at Carlisle. Some positive words about the excitement of Glasgow Central which I can't argue with, before heading for Fort William via the Jacobite steam service, and eventually to Thurso. The closure threats and scenes of middle-aged couples continued all the way back to Whitby. I think she thought her rambling comedic observations were quaint and endearing, that people would see her as some sort of modern-day Comedy Store Betjeman perhaps? The circle completed, and Wood suddenly decided she didn't want the trains to disappear, and remembered her left-leaning past! It's great being English, and having Crewe for the eternal butt of your jokes.
I'll admit I'm no fan of the 'gently mocking' comedy of Victoria Wood. It's too easy, it's observations too trite and quick to age. But despite the grating stereotyping this program failed to depress me totally. To see Carnforth station earlier this year in wonderful shape, or to see the suburban northern byways which flashed by grimly in the programme with a better service than for many years makes me realise that things aren't nearly as bad as they might have been. There was an odd moment back in 1996 on the day the last British Rail train ran when we passed over a solidly jammed M62 somewhere near York and a spontaneous mocking jeer started in the carriage. I brought a CD walkman in Scarborough that day which accompanied me on many thousands of miles of rail travel. Nowadays I pack an MP3 player, but I've never tired of seeing the network outside the window change, develop and now - begin to grow again. Our railways are far from perfect, but they are as relevant and useful as they've ever been and are a sustainable solution to many of our environmental challenges. The privatised railway is still a difficult consensus between government and enterprise of course, but maybe Beeching would approve? I don't think I'll ever really enjoy Victoria Wood's comedy though.
I've had a home on the web for more years than I care to remember, and a few kind souls persuade me it's worth persisting with keeping it updated. This current incarnation of the site is centred around the blog posts which began back in 1999 as 'the daylog' and continued through my travels and tribulations during the following years.
I don't get out and about nearly as much these days, but I do try to record significant events and trips for posterity. You may also have arrived here by following the trail to my former music blog Songs Heard On Fast Trains. That content is preserved here too.