Stephen Karlson (shkarlson) wrote in 50bookchallenge,
Stephen Karlson

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I had a few books along for sleepless flights or rainy train rides on the Continent, and picked up a few more (including several with a European social-democrat perspective on political economy) for additional travel or quiet moments.  Those reviews will come.  I'll return to the Fifty Book Challenge with a rail-related Book Review No. 9, acquired from Ian Allan hard by Waterloo Station.  Andrew Martin grew up in a railway family, hard by the steam-powered North Eastern Region of British Railways, in York. Belles & Whistles: Five Journeys Through Time on Britain's Trains, is his comparison - and - contrast of today's British passenger trains with what used to be.  Let's say he's no fan of Lord Beeching, or of the unsuccessful Demsetz auctions by which passenger train franchises change hands today.  He expresses his preferences early on, see page 12.

A nation's railway ought to be too important to privatise.  Gladstone, Lloyd-George and Churchill were all sympathetic to state ownership.  It has been argued that we are only able to contemplate having a fragmented railway because we never had a standing army, and so lacked the sense of strategic imperative.

Anyone attempting to write a book about modern railways soon finds out about fragmentation.  You never know whether to speak to a train operator, the association of operators, Network Rail or perhaps something called the Office of Rail Regulation.  It is hard to warm to a railway that has no voice; and it has been said we no longer have a 'railway mind'.

If we had occasion to hoist a pint at the Railwayman's Arms, or a Hiawatha Tap, let's hope we could have a civilised disagreement about the virtues of the Atchison Topeka and Santa Fe or Yim Hill's Great Northern or the Canadian Pacific.  And in some ways, fragmentation and Demsetz auctions or not, these might be the Good Old Days of passenger travel.

Under privatisation, railway use has increased to the highest level since the 1920s, and the privatised companies claim credit for this.  But it's road congestion that has boosted railway use, with the expense of car insurance for young people (who no longer buy cars as a rite of passage) and the death of  'the company car' as contributory factors.  Also, we as a society seem to have been travelling more -- by whatever means -- ever since journey indices began to be collected.

The point of constructing indices is to keep track of prosperity or its lack, and that more people travelling means greater absolute prosperity.  That's another topic for hoisting a pint.  Or perhaps we go to one of the coffee houses along the Racetrack, where road congestion and high parking charges in Chicago have a salutary effect on Metra passenger loadings, even at weekends.  And that might be a good place to engage the substance of Mr Martin's book, which is about the replacement of famous engines and famous trains with souped-up diesel railcars and latter-day Electroliners.  That would make for a good conversation, if this passage from page 25 is any indication.

It could be argued that, in choosing named trains as my point of comparison, I am setting the bar too high.  The modern railway is bound to lose out when compared to the high points of the Golden Age.  I admit that part of my aim is to show up the modern railway for lacking romance and style, with its crammed-in 'airline' seats, vacuous and paranoid announcements, and ugly liveries and train interiors.  Let's face it: to travel in most of the carriages on British railways is to be trapped in a noisy hell of shuddering grey plastic.

But I will try and put some nuance into my nostalgia.  I do not want this to be 'chocolate box' so much as bitter-sweet.  Modern-day trains are faster and safer than ever; there are also more of them, albeit running over a smaller network.

And here the North American ferroequinologist has a different frame of reference.

Serendipity: here's that shuddering grey plastic, on a Virgin Pendolino.

I took that picture enroute from London to Manchester, before I found Belles on my shopping day in London and Oxford.  But I'm enough of a believer in internal combustion to use the Art Deco era, rather than the deluxe steam train, as my standard.

Reclining seats on the Nebraska Zephyr at track speed.  The regular Amtrak service isn't as fast as Britain's fastest, but it offers reclining seats.

In Britain, sometimes you get there faster, and with more choices: the Cornish Riviera.  Mr Martin explains that "first stop Plymouth" (with slip coaches for intermediate stations) made sense when there were few long-distance trains; these days the frequency is hourly.  Sometimes you get there faster at a less convenient hour: there is a Flying Scotsman, in the up direction only, off Waverley Station at 0540 as competition for the early morning jets that have also supplanted the company car.  Those jets have crowded out the sleeper trains, although there is still a Caledonian Sleeper to the Northern Highlands, and, for the present, the Night Riviera still goes to Land's End.

Before I continue with the substance: a mystery.  That's a North American upper-quadrant semaphore displaying "Diverging Approach" and a North American pole line alongside the tracks.  The cover art is properly British, and there's a colour section of promotional posters from the Grouping era private companies (a business model that might have made more sense than fragmentation once the failures of nationalisation became clear.)

There are two other journeys, where the E-T-T-S dimension of ferroequinology comes out.  Once there was a Brighton Belle, an all-Pullman (meaning only parlor car seating in North America) electric train on a memory schedule between London Victoria and Brighton.  There's now a fast electric multiple unit working at approximately the same time, but patrons have to bring their own booze.  And recapturing the Golden Arrow is like asking for directions in Vermont.  You can't retrace the Golden Arrow route from Victoria, although you can get to Dover, but to retrace the Golden Arrow outside London, you start at Charing Cross.  Fortunately, a foot passenger can still buy a ferry ticket on the Dover side.  On the French side, c'est impossible.  (And to replicate the arrival time of the Arrow at Paris, you have to start before dawn in London.  The Eurostar schedule, however, is jet-competitive.)

(Cross-posted to Cold Spring Shops.)

Tags: history, travel writing
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