The golden age of the railways

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 & South Western Railway was “The Long and Slow Way Round”.

Don’t think that complaints about delays, overcrowding or unhelpful staff are anything new, either. In The Middle Class: A History (see 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 30-35 mph 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. On 8 June 1865 Charles Dickens, who had a livelong hatred of railways, was very lucky to survive a crash near Staplehurst in Kent. He was on the way back from a trip to France to see his mistress (who he had installed in Boulogne to hide her from prying newspaper reporters) 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. For the rest of his life Dickens had what we would now call post-traumatic stress disorder, which may have contributed to his death almost exactly five years later at the age of 58.

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. (Goods wagons continued to do this until the 1950s and such clanking of railway rolling stock was once a common sound.)

The way it should have been: railway nostalgia
on the Spa Valley Railway
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. In first class you might get a footwarmer - a metal container full of hot water - but these soon went cold. From 1881 sealed containers with a solution of sodium acetate lasted longer and you could shake them to get more heat. But most Victorians simply carried a "railway rug", sometimes in a special carrying case. You could rent these from WH Smith bookstalls on station platforms. A hat with ear flaps was also recommended.

Not till 1870 did train companies start to offer footwarmers to third class, and only in 1893 did they 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. Prior to this date (and afterwards on many companies and routes) if you wanted to eat you had to buy a picnic basket from a platform vendor - you could even telegraph your order ahead. Typically these might contain cold chicken, ham or beef sandwiches, cakes, biscuits and brandy. Thermos flasks were not widely available until 1904, so if you had tea it was cold.

An alternative on some routes were scheduled refreshment stops. These were combined with the comfort stops mentioned above, so you might have just ten minutes to perform both tasks. Not surprisingly service was a desperate free-for-all. It it is from these railway refreshment rooms that we get the British pub habit of ordering at the bar - previously unknown. Well-bred gentlemen were disconcerted - and perhaps somewhat titillated - to have to compete for the attention of the none-too-polite young women who made up the serving staff.

The food quality was notorious. The Great Western's Swindon refreshment room was said to serve soup scalding hot to make it impossible to eat, then pour the slops back into the tureen to be sold again. The Sheffield Daily Telegraph in 1865 described railway tea as "liquid nausea" and its coffee as "made with a slight suspicion of coffee, as if a coffee berry had bathed in it earlier in the day". Trollope lambasted railway sandwiches - starting a long tradition that lasted into the 1980s - and Dickens complained of the "unknown animals" within pies.

This started to change in 1879 when the Great Northern Railway offered the first British dining car on a train from London to Leeds (copying the Americans, who had had them for a decade or more), but this was only for first class passengers actually sitting in the car (a Pullman). Its rival, the Midland Railway out of St Pancras, took up the idea with enthusiasm, but it was the flashy newcomer – 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 or 1890s, by which time dining cars were widely extended to third class as well.

Once you were in the dining car, prices were very reasonable: they were treated as something of a loss-leader by the rail companies to attract well-to-do customers. On the Midland a chop or steak, fried potatoes, bread, butter, and tea or coffee cost half a crown - around ten pounds in today's money. The idea of a buffet car - where you went to a bar to have a drink or snack - did not come in until the 1930s: Victorians expected to be served a meal in a seat.

But all 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 expresses - were first and second class only. Where carried at all, third class passengers might be confined to an open wagon, with a bar to hold onto if they were lucky.

This changed with the Railway Regulation Act of 1844, passed by William Gladstone as president of the Board of Trade. This mandated at least one third class train a day on each line, stopping at all stations and with a penny a mile fare. Passengers also had to be "protected from the weather in a manner approved by the Board". This at least meant a roof and walls, and as the century went on also included such luxuries as windows: by 1860 even the amount of glass in them was being specified. Seats were wooden, but this was actually fairly common for domestic seating at the time, upholstery being only for the rich.

All of these rules only applied to the "parliamentary train", however, and its timing was left to the railway companies. The London to Brighton put them between 6pm and 10pm, and was later considered generous for offering three of them a day.

Third class carriages were fairly basic
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, when an increasingly large percentage of passengers were third class. Eventually the railway companies started to notice this growing market. 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 & South Western, and until they were absorbed into Southern Railways (see below) in 1923 on the South Eastern and London, Chatham & Dover. The latter two companies kept their third class deliberately cold and dark to encourage passengers to upgrade. Eventually only third and first class remained, and in 1956 British Railways re-designated third class as second class (now known as standard class). Briefly after the Second World War a single undifferentiated class was even discussed but never implemented: American railways never had different classes.

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 compartment might have one smelly oil lamp giving out a feeble light, while second class shared one between two compartments. Third class was dark.

The light from the oil lamps was just about good enough to find one's seat and get a vague idea of who one's fellow passengers were. Reading was a big challenge. There were pocket reading lights consisting of a candle and a reflector, with suction pads to stick them to windows. These were still being sold in Edwardian times.

Gas lighting, which was first used on the North London Railway in 1862 and the Metropolitan Railway (today the Metropolitan Line on the Underground) in 1863, seemed like a radical improvement. The Daily Telegraph noted that on the Metropolitan "newspapers may be read with ease" (remembering that they had tiny print in those days). But gas lighting was not adopted widely until the 1880s and the light would have still seemed pretty feeble to our eyes, accustomed as we are to electric light.

A brighter gas light came in from 1905 onwards but was used as an excuse by some companies to delay the introduction of electric light, pioneered in the 1881 by the London, Brighton & South Coast Railway but not widely adopted by other companies 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. This was first used by London Transport in 1937 but was slow to catch on across the main network, with only a third of track continuously welded by 1974. Once introduced it removed the "diddly-dum" rhythm of trains, but on the other hand makes rails "sing" when a train is coming. This is because the rail is stretched taut when laid down to allow for expansion on hotter days.

Other factors would have made the ride on Victorian trains 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. Far from giving out a jaunty rhythm, these would have thumped and banged and screeched, a bit like the four-wheeled Pacer trains used until relatively recently in the north and west of England.

You could also forget about a regular hourly service on a branch line. Trains on rural routes were timed as much for the convenience of milk churns as for passengers. 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.

This actually got more prevalent rather than less as the 19th century went on, with a quarter of the network having no Sunday service at all by 1914. The Metropolitan Railway kept its church interval until 1909. Some lines in rural Wales still had one into the 2000s.

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.

Rural trains might be timed for milk churns
as much as for passengers
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 & 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.

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. From the 1990s onwards passenger numbers saw a steady recovery and, before the coronavirus pandemic, were at record levels. True, the fall in commuting after the pandemic has caused something of a downward blip, but leisure travel is already back at or exceeding former highs, boding well for the medium term. Rail has an unarguable role in transitioning to a low carbon future, and there are active plans to reopen closed branch lines.

So yes, there is such a thing as the golden age of the railways. You are living in it.

© Peter Conway 2010-24 • All Rights Reserved

1 comment:

Elizabeth Varadan, Author said...

I found this quite informative. Thank you for such detailed history.

I wonder if you could help me with some questions I have about rail travel in 1890 for a mystery I am writing: information about tickets prices from London to Staines, time the trip would take, time tables for travel on Saturday and Monday. If so, please visit my blog where you can find my contact information. Any information would be deeply appreciated.