Thursday, 30 May 2013

Railway history - the big picture

A big thank-you to AdtheLad for sending me the link to the BBC documentary about the history of railways presented by Dan Snow. I watched all three parts over two days, and a Most interesting series it turned out to be. The railway age, for those with an ability to be amazed, began nearly two centuries ago. I may be bolder than the documentary in saying that nothing changed human history so dramatically in so short a space of time.

If you want to watch it - and I highly recommend giving over three hours of your life to do so (you'll have to find it on YouTube - the links I originally posted are dead).

I have minor issues with the staid and formulaic BBC documentary approach - presenter strides Purposefully Forward towards camera, saying things... like THIS. And then SUDDENLY ( - pause - ) Coming To A STOP. For emphasis. And then, (now in long shot, making gesture with hands) the presenter - moves away from camera - having MADE... his - POINT. But then Dan Snow is son of the BBC's Peter Snow* and nephew of Channel 4's John Snow. The music descends inevitably into yet another poor pastiche of Philip Glass's Koyanisquaatsi. In other words, the BBC's documentary-making technique has not moved on in a quarter of a century.

But never mind that - the content is compelling - even if you're not a train buff. If history's your attunement, then this series is extremely satisfying.

The central thesis is that the coming of the railways changed everything for ever. Of all the developments of human creation, this is the one that fomented social change faster and more thoroughly than any other - including the internet.

Like the internet, the railway was a convergence of two existing technologies. In the case of the internet - telephones (which had been around for the best part of a century) and computers (half a century). In the case of railways - it was the convergence of two 18th Century innovations: iron rails (which had been in use in horse-drawn colliery trackways), and steam engines (which had been used, again in collieries, for pumping out water).

The internet has made existing things (looking up information, watching film, listening to music, etc, immeasurably faster), railways brought things physically closer together.

But the history of the dawn of railways is incredibly fascinating. Those first steam engines, cobbled together with the technology of the blacksmith, were able to move trains at speeds far greater than those that animal muscle could accomplish, for far greater distances. In the beginning though, the motivation was to be able to move ever-greater volumes of coal faster and further. Moving people by railway was an afterthought. Freight was first. It was the reason the Liverpool and Manchester Railway opened in 1830 (183 years ago! Seven years before Victoria's coronation!) - to get goods from the manufacturing city of Manchester to the port of Liverpool.

The next two decades would see the United Kingdom criss-crossed by 7,000 miles (11,300km) of rail. The social change that rail would bring would be immense. Thomas Cook invented tourism. Time became coordinated (until the railways came, every town ran to its own, slightly different, time). But most of all, railways contributed to the spread of knowledge, literature, the novel as an art form - thanks to W.H.Smith and his 500 bookshops on railway stations across the UK. National daily newspapers could bind the nation. Labourers and their families could afford to visit the seaside for the first time. The speed and scale of the change were historically unprecedented.

Sadly, the series ends with the second world war; Britain has been overtaken by the USA and USSR as the global power, the car has taken over from the train. No space for nationalisation, Beeching and his cuts, privatisation and the current rail renaissance (more people use trains today than at any time in Britain's history). The BBC could have given Dan Snow a fourth part to the series to trace the decline and rebound of railways in the second half of the 20th Century and into the internet age.

* Peter Snow narrated a wonderful VHS video about Polish steam railways, made shortly after communism had collapsed.

This time two years ago:
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This time three years ago:
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DC said...

Looks interesting. I will file this under "things to do once we start having 35+ degree days." I just came across this. It explains some interesting technology supporting rail these days. I was kind of surprised to see North America mentioned at all, but of course it's for freight - passenger service is pathetic in most cases if it exists at all.

Michael Dembinski said...

@ DC - thanks for the Economist link; the concept of changing trains while both are moving is extremely innovative. If the engineering challenges can be met, this would prove a huge boon to inter-city travel in the future.