The Rail­ways: Na­tion, Net­work and Peo­ple

By Si­mon Bradley

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(Pro­file Books, 640 pages, £25) At more than 600 pages, this is a huge book in ev­ery sense of the word: a com­pre­hen­sive his­tory of Bri­tain’s rail­ways char­ac­terised by ex­haus­tive re­search yield­ing a plethora of de­light­ful anec­dotes and ar­cane facts. Si­mon Bradley has a fine eye for the telling de­tails and has mined di­aries, let­ters, nov­els, po­ems, films and ar­chives to find them.

The ex­pe­ri­ence of rail­ways is brought alive through tales such as Gladstone be­ing spot­ted trav­el­ling with his feet on the up­hol­stered seat op­po­site, to­bac­conists sell­ing ‘rail­way pipes’ adapted for con­ceal­ment in non-smok­ing car­riages, and Brunel re­mov­ing his ring to present to the fore­man at the break­through in Box Tun­nel.

Bradley is also will­ing to chal­lenge his­tor­i­cal or­tho­dox­ies as well as political de­ci­sions that have af­fected the rail­ways, es­pe­cially in re­cent times.

Un­for­tu­nately, there are a num­ber of ar­eas where rad­i­cal edit­ing would have ben­e­fited the fo­cus of the book, not to men­tion its porta­bil­ity. Dis­pens­ing with re­search ma­te­rial is painful, but there was a need here for some ruth­less­ness and fewer di­ver­sions from the main­line.

Bradley of­fers a rich his­tory of pas­sen­ger ex­pe­ri­ences, en­gi­neer­ing and ar­chi­tec­ture, changes to so­cial and eco­nomic life, cul­tural ap­proaches to the rail­way, trainspot­ters – one of the best ex­plo­rations of the phe­nom­e­non that I have seen – and her­itage rail­ways.

The one sur­pris­ing omis­sion is rail­way work­ers. They take cen­tre-stage oc­ca­sion­ally with ref­er­ence, for ex­am­ple, to the harsh, early con­di­tions for navvies and driv­ers, along with wel­come nods to the rise of tradee union­ism, How­ever, in this mas­sive book, surely rail­way work­ers war­ranted a ded­i­cated chap­ter. That aside, the book con­verts im­pres­sive re­search into an en­ter­tain­ing read for rail­way spe­cial­ists, if per­haps less so for non-rail­way buffs. But as a ref­er­ence work on rail­ways and so­cial life in the last two cen­turies it is a trea­sure trove.

Jill Mur­doch has a doc­tor­ate in

Rail­way Stud­ies and teaches at

the Univer­sity of York.

Load­ing lug­gage onto the car­riage roof – a de­tail from Wil­liam Pow­ell Frith’s

1862

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