A “finely researched” account of the transformation in the UK’s approach to our railways [Book review]

Lord Grocott reviews Chris Austin and Richard Faulkner’s Disconnected! Broken Links in Britain’s Rail Policy

By Lord Grocott

28 Jan 2016

This book will be of interest not just to readers who care about our railways, but also to students of politics and government. It tells us how crucial decisions about the size and purpose of our rail network were made, how serious errors were committed and how others were averted. It makes anyone who values our railways in turn nostalgic, angry and finally optimistic.

In their finely researched and fluent account of events surrounding the Beeching era, Austin and Faulkner not only remind us of the way in which national assets were destroyed but also in the almost casual manner in which it was done. It is good to be reminded of the powerful anti-rail culture that existed amongst politicians and civil servants during the 50s, 60s and 70s.

It was particularly astonishing that this mood should have developed so soon after a war during which our railways had played such a pivotal role and when railwaymen somehow kept the wheels turning on a system near exhaustion, underinvested and so often the target of enemy bombs.

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But the railways, so vital in wartime, were in the eyes of critics an outdated form of transport, the car and the coach were the future and maybe the best plan for the rail network was tarmac and conversion to roads.

Disconnected includes chapters on the way in which huge swathes of our rail network were lost. Major mainlines like the Great Central, freight lines across the Pennines, commuter lines into Edinburgh, Bristol and Leeds, all gone and all vividly described. The whole rail system seemed to be in inexorable decline.

But how times have changed! Disconnected also tells the tale of how some of the worst proposed closures were averted, often through the determination of individuals, including whistleblowers at a national level, and also through the determination of communities at a local level. The environmental and safety advantages of rail transport became more and more apparent. At the same time, the jams, the fumes and the accidents, not to mention the land take of motorways in comparison with new railway lines, made politicians and the public reflect more carefully on the merits of different forms of transport.

And so, as the book describes so well, the sense that the railways were past their sell by date has been transformed quite remarkably. The railways today are a rapidly growing part of the transport system for the future. Closed lines are being re-opened, closed stations brought back into use, and even brand new railways are being built. At last we are recognising that we can no longer rely entirely on a West Coast mainline built by picks and shovels in the 1830s (in the face of massive opposition) to meet the needs of the 21st century, and a brand new railway is to be built.

The book ends appropriately and optimistically with a look at lines long closed which would be valuable if reinstated today, as well as a list of branch lines capable of restoration. We could all add to the list or modify it, but the pleasure is knowing that we are at last in an age when we are talking about opening railways, not closing them.

Disconnected is a fine book with a clear thesis, well researched and illustrated, both a good read as well as being useful for reference and research. Perhaps we can look forward to another volume from Austin and Faulkner telling the tale of how the lines they identified were re-opened and began serving their communities once again.

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