Ah, those were the days! Hearing a steam train hoot on a heritage line, or visiting one of their lovingly recreated stations, it is easy to get romantic about the golden age of the railways. We imagine ourselves on comfortable trains chugging to rural stops where the smartly-uniformed and unfailingly polite staff would rush to carry our bags.
It was never really like that, of course. The Victorians did not particularly love their railways, and tended to give them mocking names, usually referring to their slow speed, lax safety standards or dirty carriages. The London, Chatham & Dover Railway, for example, was the “Undone, Smash’em and Turn’em Over”. The London and South Western Railway was “The Long and Slow Way Round”.
Further reading), Lawrence James quotes an eyewitness report of the “furious impatience” of railway users when delayed returning from day trips to Epsom and Crystal Palace in 1870.
“Nothing incensed the middle classes more than kicking their heels on platforms waiting for overdue trains, or being squeezed into carriages,” James notes. Two years later, he points to a long correspondence to The Times about signal mishaps, mechanical failures and drivers delaying departures by bantering with station staff on the Portsmouth line.
Not much had improved by 1883, when another critic stated that "the great blots on the South Eastern are its unpunctuality, its fares, its third class carriages and the way that local interests are sacrificed to continental traffic" - this last being a reference to the company's focus on running boat trains to Dover and Folkestone - while in 1894 the Investors Review wrote of the company that "none travel by it who can find another route".
In 1888 the SER was described as being "audaciously unpunctual", with only 67 percent of its trains arriving within three minutes of schedule, while its rival the London, Chatham & Dover Railway was even worse at 58 percent. Another writer described both companies as "bywords of poverty-stricken inefficiency and dirtiness".
The trains would have seemed very slow by our standards. Locomotives travelled at about 20-30 miles per hour at the start of the railway age, though to be fair in those days this seemed miraculously fast compared to the stagecoach. At the opening of the Liverpool & Manchester Railway in 1830, observers thought 30 mph was so fast it was like flying, while mid-Victorian writers such as Charles Dickens constantly stress the hideous speed - and noise - of trains, and the way they made it impossible to properly see the countryside one was passing through.
But speeds continued to average 30-35mph in the south east right into the twentieth century, not helped on branch lines by the fact that rural trains sometimes had to make extended stops to unload freight or detach goods wagons. A 26 mile journey from Brighton to Horsham on the Shoreham-by-Sea to Christ's Hospital branch (see Lines we lost) took an hour in 1910 (The route was popularly known as "the Linger and Die Line"). At around the same time, my grandmother could remember taking the branch line from Axminster to Lyme Regis in Dorset. “We used to joke that you could get out and walk faster,” she said.
Speeds of express trains were better – as early as 1852 the Great Western Railway had a train that went from London to Oxford in just over an hour, an average speed of 55 mph and about as fast as the best services on this route today. But this was very exceptional at that time, and it was not until the end of the century that this became a normal speed on major routes.
By then some companies had a prestige train that went even quicker. Between 1888 and 1895 there was a “race to the north”, as the three companies operating from London to Scotland competed to have the fastest train. But at the same time, notes Jack Simmons in his book The Victorian Railway (see Further reading), correspondents to The Times were debating “the crawl to the south”, wondering whether the South Eastern Railway or the London, Brighton & South Coast was the slower. One correspondent recounted a train from Hastings to Victoria arriving an hour late and another a 93 minute delay on a train from Sutton to London Bridge. The Times commented “It is difficult to say with certainty which of the two has the better right to call itself absolutely the worst line in the country.”
Horrible crashes were common. 1,100 people were killed and 3,000 injured in railway accidents in 1872, which was not a particularly unusual year, and in 1876 there were ten major crashes and derailments. In 1865 Charles Dickens, who had a livelong hatred of railways, was lucky to survive a crash near Staplehurst. He was on the way back from a trip to France to see his mistress (who he had installed in Boulogne) and had taken a South Eastern Railway train from Folkestone to London. Engineering work on a bridge overran, but someone forgot to warn the oncoming train, which plunged off the bridge into the river, killing ten people.
It took a lot of nagging from the government, and even more foot dragging and grumbling on the part of the railway companies, for basic safety measures to be introduced. For example, even though the technology had existed since the 1870s, vacuum brakes on all carriages – so that if they become detached, they simply stopped – were not made compulsory until 1889, after a terrible rail crash in Ireland. In the early days of the railways carriages had no brakes at all – they simply slammed into each other when the train slowed.
Signalling was not regulated until 1871, and even then the regulation was voluntary. Block signalling, which means that it is impossible for two trains to be on the same section of track, was not mandated until 1888. Before that companies had all sorts of different systems, many of which were prone to human error. There was a famous crash in 1861 where one train ploughed into another in the Clayton Tunnel – the one that carries the Brighton main line under the South Downs and whose portal can be seen on the Hassocks to Lewes walk.
If you despair of toilets being out of action on trains today, you would not have liked the Victorian railway either. Early carriages had no corridors – they were just single compartments with no doorway to the rest of the train. So there were no toilets, because there was no way to access them. (Some carriages of this sort remained in service on London commuter routes well into the 1990s.)
Long distance trains made what we might now call comfort stops, but when Great Western trains stopped for this purpose at Swindon you only had ten minutes and everyone on the train would be rushing to the same place. Women could get round the problem with portable bedpans concealed under their voluminous skirts, while men used a bottle fed by a funnel and a rubber tube. But you could only use such devices if there were no members of the opposite sex in the compartment.
The carriages were not heated either. If you were lucky you got a footwarmer - a metal container full of hot water that soon went cold. Not till 1893 did train companies start to use steam from the locomotives to heat their carriages. By that time some trains had corridors, and with them came toilets and – on longer distance routes – dining cars. The Midland Railway into St Pancras pioneered all this in the 1870s (copying the Americans, who had had them for a decade or more), but it was the flashy upstart – the Virgin Atlantic of its day that tried to win customers from more established rivals by offering better service. Many other companies didn’t copy it until the 1880s.
And this was on prestige expresses, not branch line trains – and not all prestige expresses even then. Christian Wolmar in Blood, Iron & Gold (see Further reading) cites a lady travelling from Calais to Nice in 1886 on a train with no toilets, no dining car and no corridors – and she was travelling in first class. At the time both the South Eastern Railway and the London, Chatham & Dover Railway were notorious for the poor quality of their carriages, so try and imagine what it might have been like travelling on them in third class.
That is if your train carried third class carriages at all. In the early days of the railways many trains - and all prestige expresses - were first and second class only. Gladstone passed an act of parliament in 1843 mandating at least one third class train a day on each line, stopping at all stations and with a penny a mile fare, and the London, Brighton & South Coast Railway was considered generous for offering three a day to Brighton.
To be fair to the railway companies they probably reasoned that the working classes had neither the money or leisure for travel, though that was to change as the century wore on. The Midland Railway was revolutionary in 1872 in carrying third class passengers on all trains. In 1874 it even abolished second class, upgrading its third class instead.
Other rail companies were slow to copy this, however: second class lasted until 1912 on the London, Brighton & South Coast, till 1918 on the London and South Western, and until they were absorbed into Southern Railways (see below) in 1923 on the South Eastern and London, Chatham and Dover. The latter two companies kept their third class deliberately cold and dark to encourage passengers to upgrade.
Though the railways were accused of encouraging trash fiction by selling cheap novels on station bookstalls, you would have struggled to read a book at night on a Victorian train too. In the early days of the railways a first class carriage might have one smelly oil lamp giving out a feeble light, but other classes would be dark.
From 1880 onwards gas lighting was introduced throughout trains, which to be fair in those pre-electric light days that might have been all the passengers were used to, but gas lighting continued well into the twentieth century. Though electric lighting was pioneered in the 1881 by the London, Brighton & South Coast Railway, other companies did not start to copy it until the 1890s. In 1914 three quarters of carriages still had gas lighting. In 1948 it was still ten percent.
Reading a book was anyway difficult because the ride would have been very bumpy. Right into the 1980s there was an art to holding a coffee cup or reading a book on trains in the south east because the train lurched so much. The problem was the joins between the rails, which have now been eliminated by a technique called continuous welding (invented in 1968, but not universally applied till much later, I am assuming).
The ride on early Victorian trains would have been even worse. Carriages initially had four fixed wheels, and only later were enhanced to six, and then eight, with four each on two swivelling bogies, which gave a smoother ride. The hapless London, Chatham & Dover was notorious for its old rolling stock – it used four wheeled carriages until the end of the 1880s.
You could also forget about a regular hourly service on a branch line. The line from Horsham to Guildford was quite typical in having six trains a day on weekdays, with the last one at about 7pm. On Sundays a line might only have a couple of services. Many companies observed a “church interval” – that is, there were no trains on Sunday mornings, so that the working classes wouldn’t be tempted to skip church and go for a day out. The Metropolitan Railway (today the Metropolitan Line on the Underground) kept its church interval until 1909. Some lines in rural Wales (eg the one to Tenby and Pembroke) have one to this day.
So if there was a golden age of the railways, it was probably not the Victorian era, and the 1920s and 1930s were not much better. In World War I the government had effectively taken over the railways, and as a result it was realised that the myriad independent Victorian railway companies were not very practical.
So “grouping” was forced through in 1923, whereby the companies were merged into four large players. Southern Railways was one, incorporating the London, Chatham & Dover; the South Eastern; the London, Brighton & South Coast; and the London and South Western. The other three companies to emerge from grouping were the Great Western Railway (the Victorian company plus a few smaller ones); the London & North Eastern Railway (the east coast main line); and London, Midland & Scottish (the west coast main line).
By this time the companies were starting to notice the threat from road transport (see The controversial Dr Beeching) and so for the first time they developed publicity departments. This is something the Victorian railway companies never bothered with – indeed, the whole idea would have been alien to them. As Jack Simmons says in The Victorian Railway: “Most Victorian railway managers continued to think it was their function to provide whatever service they deemed best, which their passengers must take or leave as they choose.”
The Big Four, as the grouped companies were known, threw themselves into publicity with gusto, however, and none more so than Southern. A stream of glorious posters and brochures were produced portraying resorts such as Bexhill, Seaford or Folkestone as the ultimate in chic, or proclaiming “South for Sunshine” or “Sunshine Holidays in the South”. Southern even offered “Winter Sunshine Holidays”, which was stretching it a bit.
(It had other motives for all this promotion, hoping to persuade Londoners to go and live on the coast or in the countryside, so becoming commuters: "Live in Kent and be content", "Southern Homes on the Conqueror's Coast". Posters and booklets insisted that places such as Bexhill, Seaford or Eastbourne were "recommended by doctors": "As far as expectation of life is concerned, it is better to live in the country than in the town, and the south than the north").
In a similar vein (and with similar ulterior motives) Southern encouraged walkers, rambling being a popular new pastime in the 1920s and 1930s. You could get rambling tickets, which allowed you to return from a different station to the one you set off from (bring these back, please!) and group tickets allowing eight to travel for the price of four. Posters exhorted “Don’t miss autumn in the country”.
To back this up, there were five editions of Southern Rambles for Londoners between 1933 and 1938, with walks of up to 15 miles and suggestions of what to wear and see. One, quoted in South for Sunshine (see Further reading), had advice that is still pertinent to this day: “The official weather forecast is seldom correct. The unofficial weather forecast of the postman or farmer is equally unreliable. The English weather defies all prophecy.”
So was this the golden age of the railways? All of the rural branch lines were still intact in those days, but as Matthew Engel puts it in his book Eleven Minutes Late, this was really the golden age of the railway poster, not the golden age of the railway. The new electric trains (see The sparks effect) were doubtless state of the art, but on steam-operated branch lines services were slow, carriages tatty, and aged tank engines often broke down.
But fast forward to today and look around you. Whatever the political or economic rights and wrongs of privatisation, we have modern, comfortable carriages (particularly the wonderful Electrostar trains on Southern and Southeastern, with their variable seating layouts, spacious interiors and air conditioning) which – on the whole – run exactly to schedule and take us almost everywhere we need to go with an hourly service that runs from early morning to late at night.
True, we can no longer take the train to West Hoathly or Mayfield or Goudhurst, but we still have Edenbridge, Balcombe, Hassocks, Amberley, Saunderton, Rye, Southease and dozens of other lovely stops from which to explore the countryside.
We also know that the dark days of the 1960s and 1970s are behind us, and governments no longer see railways as an anachronism that will fade away before the all-conquering car. Indeed, with global warming climbing up the agenda, railways are virtuous once more. Passenger numbers have recovered from their 1970 lows and are now at record levels. There is even talk of reviving closed branch lines.
So yes, there is such a thing as the golden age of the railways. You are living in it.
© Peter Conway 2010-17 • All Rights Reserved