Sunday, 3 February 2013

The politics of railway enthusiasm

Over at Liberal England lately there has been an interesting take omn the politics or other wise of railway preservation, by Joseph Boughey.  His take on it is certainly interesting, although I can't help feeling that there is a certain element of wish fulfilment about it - particularly in trying to equate the early railway preservation movement to modern green politics. 

What I don't think is up for debate is the "small is beautiful" element of the movement, in as much as the preserved railways are often most successful when they can present as the underdog.  An interesting observation of the preserved railway scene is that the more successful a particular railway gets, the more divergence there is between the aims of the company and that of its volunteer workforce.  You can see this with the way people leave the premier lines after decades as a volunteer, because it no longer feels like they're all in it together.  There's now a "commercial manager" where once there was the vicar's wife, and money is spent on websites and e-commerce, when they spent half of 1984 restoring an Edmondson ticket press....

In some ways this has been highlighted by the growth in "secondary" preserved lines over the past 2 decades.  The success of the original pioneer lines has become so total that they are now operating at the level of doing up lineside houses to show what a railwayman's cottage was like, or building mutimillion pound interpretation centres for visiting schoolchildren.  The role of the enthusiastic amateur, who got involved simply because he'd seen the Titfield Thunderbolt and didn't want his local station to close, is less clear here.  If we take preserved railways as being about nostalgia, then it should come as little surprise that they contain within them individuals who are nostalgic about the nostalgia, and who believe that their own particular line hasn't been quite the same since it stopped being about an ex-industrial tank engine and a couple of Mark 1 coaches.  Such people withdraw their labour and shift their focus 10 miles down the road to another branchline.  The problem here. of course, is that these newer lines were often passed over by the original preservationists because they weren't as scenic, or there were problems with the trackbed - essentially, there was a reason why they weren't top of the list for preservation.  What you get, then is a glut of lines being preserved for the sake of being preserved, just because the post-Beeching generation are now at a lifestage where they have the time and the money to be able to do it.  It is genuinely questionable how many of these smaller lines will still be with us in say 20 years time.

The Titfield Thunderbolt is in any case an interesting film to mention, because whilst viewed now it is a bit of a curio, in context it's actually deeply subversive.  What we're being asked to buy into is the idea of the local village buying its railway and running it itself when British Railways withdraw their support.  In the 21st century this is a distinctly period piece, but what people tend to miss is that the villagers are not running it as a tourist attraction - their whole plan is to continue providing a service.  This isn't about nostalgia so much as the much derided big society.  Of course it helps that the vicar is a steam engine nut, but the whole point is that they are using steam traction because that's what everyone else is using.  The 14xx tank they have might look antiquated, but it's actually all of about 20 years old at the time of the film - indeed, the opening scene shows the Titfield-Mallingford service crossing over a passing express, itself hauled by a steam locomotive.  The film has been adopted by the preservation movement as a totem of the need to keep hold of the past, whereas seen in context it's actually the equivalent of someone saving their local line today and buying a Class 150 Sprinter to run it  -for the Titfield Thunderbolt, steam is incidental, it's the service that they're trying to support. Quite apart from anything else, the buy-in from the local squire, vicar, and millionaire rather gives the lie to this being anything to do with "green politics" - this is near luddite preservation of the old way of doing things, by the pillars of society.  That particular strain of railway preservation is actually One Nation Conservatism if it's anything.

I mention the Titfield Thunderbolt because it's based on the experiences of Tom Rolt and the other pioneers who rescued the Talyllyn Railway at the beginning of the 1950s (indeed, their initial hope was that the film could have been made on their line).  Rolt is an interesting character, not least because he so quickly took charge - but that level of autocracy is common in the preservation movement, simply beacause high calibre people are spread so thinly.  I don't mean that to be a pejorative judgment necessarily, it's just that when it comes down to it even the most voluntary of the preservation schemes are businesses, and they need business brains to keep them afloat - even if it's just to keep the line there for the the enthusiasts to give up their time to.  Given that people who focus on commercial success have a tendency to be doing so in slightly more lucrative fields, there is consequently a need for the preserved lines to have to take what they can get.  You could say the same about  a local zoo, or a League 2 football club, but it remains the case that the movement provides a stage for the wannabe demagogue to strut upon.

I think ultimately the truth is that the politics of the railway preservation movement is as varied as the people involved in it.  You'd struggle to get away from the nostalgia angle of course, but there is a definite appeal to the sort of person from any walk of life who wants to try and hold back the tide, or maintain a bit of the old way, just for the sake of doing it.  Mr Culpepper in "A Canterbury Tale" would doubtless be  campaigning for the preservation of the line from Chillingbourne to Canterbury in the post war years, just as assiduously as he worked to preserve the pilgrims' bend above his village in pre-war England.  It can be claimed for the supporters of any political movement or none, but it does seem to be much more prevalent in Britain than anywhere else - possibly because we have the luxury of worrying about things we really don't need to worry about in the great scheme of things - but then that's another angle entirely....

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