Nobody lives at Charing Cross Station; it belongs to everyone. From its founding in 1864 it’s grown to become the fifth busiest rail terminal in London, but without its foot traffic, it would merely be yet another of London’s beautiful Victorian-origins buildings, all wrought iron and brick arches. What matters here is the people.
The British rail network was founded in practicality. The first lines started operating in 1825 (making Britain’s the oldest railway in the world), 21 years after Richard Trevithick successfully adapted James Watt’s steam engine design to
create a train-hauling locomotive in Merthyr Tydfil. Private companies financed and ran the first lines, despite early calls for nationalisation. Railways underpinned the Industrial Revolution, serving as a test-bed for innovation as well as the means to mass-transport raw & finished materials, the blood in the veins of British industry.
By 1850 private railways had joined the dots and formed a network – over 7,000 miles of it. Now the ‘railway mania’ began, a period of frantic entrepreneurship and aggressive takeovers. Along came the First World War and the government took control to aid the war effort, but by war’s end the railways remained private, grouped into the “Big Four” (London & Eastern; London, Midland & Scottish; Southern; Great Western). They’d stay that way until 1948 and the formation of British Rail.
If you’re a British railway buff, the 1960s are a painful time to reflect on. Dr Richard Beeching was given the unenviable job of making the railway network – by now an enormous drain on government resources – into a profitable business. He took the most direct and least far-sighted way forward, by closing down all the lines failing to make money. This proved so unpopular with the public that Beeching would come to be regarded as, in the words of the BBC, “Britain’s most hated civil servant“.
Between 1950 and 1970 hefty cutbacks, the loss of around 7,000 miles of track and the ascendancy of the automobile drove passengers off the railways. It was only with the arrival of the Intercity-125 in 1976, the characteristics “head-&-tail” rail engine format that typifies the current high-speed network, that the railways started to recover. Since being privatised (1994-1997) they’ve grown back to levels of use not seen since the 1920s, and overall passenger numbers are rising every year,
In an age when personal transport is the norm and passenger flights connect every major city in Britain, why are trains so enduringly popular with both the public and with a government keen to invest in a new high-speed network?
Jobs, undoubtedly – but the reasons go beyond the purely economic. This is the island where trains first captured the imagination of travellers.
Today the British rail network still houses some of the world’s most spectacular routes, like the one from Settle to Carlisle, and Brit train enthusiasts number so many that sites like Mark Smith’s exhaustively comprehensive site The Man in Seat 61 attract substantial amounts of visitors and critical acclaim. Around the world, travellers of all kinds still take to the rails in colossal numbers, and when travel bloggers follow suit, they’re reflecting a popular reality…
And at every connecting point on the network you’ll find one of the fascinating modern social spaces we know as “train stations”. They’re liminal, hugging the periphery of urban life, used only when necessary – but they’re also central, because they often have striking architecture and an attractive energy, the thrill of departure towards adventure. They’re amongst our most popular “no-places”
(as Alain de Botton coined in his stay at Heathrow airport), and they’re often tourist attractions in themselves. Even at their most cramped and raucous, they’re reassuringly British, grounding us in our industrial past while enabling our international present, as the recent Eurostar services so clearly demonstrate. And they’re here to stay.
The people have spoken.
Photos shot by Kirsten Alana for Travelllll.com