KT Long Read: Reviving the romance of railways in Britain

A railway line in a picturesque part of England was restored on November 20, nearly 50 years after it was mothballed, bringing cheer to many and marking the first of multi-million pound plans to reconnect cultures and communities

By Prasun Sonwalkar

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Published: Thu 25 Nov 2021, 9:28 PM

The atmosphere was akin to a rock concert, but it was early morning and the air was crisp. A brass band and jazz singers joined hundreds of families, railway enthusiasts, campaigners and hikers at the Okehampton station last Saturday in Devon, south-west England. Many fist-pumped the air amidst the noise and music as the train to Exeter rolled off the tracks at 6.32am, the first time since the service was withdrawn in 1972 as part of swinging cuts to make Britain’s railways profitable. Some elderly local residents were emotional, long unsure if railways would return in their lifetime. The route connects Exeter St Davids, Exeter Central, Crediton and Okehampton, providing a launchpad for visitors to explore the Dartmoor National Park and regional links for local commuters. The reopening of the route is expected to boost businesses, tourism, and provide greater access to education and work for thousands of people who live locally. Called the Dartmoor Line, it was the first track reopened as part of the  £500 million Restoring Your Railways programme launched in January 2020.


Says Transport Secretary Grant Shapps, who travelled on one of its first services: “By restoring the Dartmoor Line, we are undoing 50 years of damage, reconnecting a community, and creating new opportunities for jobs, tourism, education and recreation. The passion, nostalgia and enthusiasm for that ambition is clear right across the country. People love their railways and rightly miss them when they’re gone. Today — ahead of time and under budget — we’ve made a decisive step in fixing that, cutting the ribbon on a line and making a real difference to people’s lives.” Work on the 24-mile stretch of mothballed track included laying 11 miles of new lines, installing 24,000 concrete sleepers and 29,000 tonnes of ballast in a record-breaking 20-day period. Repairs were made to 21 structures along the route, including four bridges, while overgrown vegetation on the tracks was cleared throughout. The nearly derelict Okehampton station was also given another life with new information screens, ticket vending machines and a waiting room. The line is a boon for hikers, walkers, cyclists and others, since Dartmoor is the only area in England that currently explicitly permits wild camping.

The fate of the Dartmoor Line is closely connected with the history of railways in Britain (the Okehampton station first opened in 1871). Using rail tracks as modes of transport originated in Greece and Germany, but it was the development of steam locomotive in Britain in 1802 that marked the beginning and development of modern rail transport. The first rail line connecting British cities, running between Liverpool and Manchester, opened in 1830; others soon followed: London-Birmingham opened in 1838, London-Bristol in 1841, and London-Glasgow in 1848. By 1850, over 6,000 miles of track were laid. By the 1840s, a railway network had evolved, run by several private companies. The 1860s saw a second boom, and by 1880 there were about 18,000 miles of track and a web of connections across the country. The network run by the companies was brought under government control during World War I, and, in 1923, some of the companies were merged and all were grouped under the ‘Big Four’ joint-stock companies: the London and North Eastern Railway, the London Midland and Scottish Railway, the Southern Railway and the Great Western Railway.

The railway network

The four companies ran the network until December 1947, but were nationalised to form British Railways during the tenure of Clement Attlee’s Labour government in 1948. For about a decade, the nationalised network made profits due to increasing usage, but passenger numbers dwindled from the late 1950s, prompting a landmark review in the early 1960s that had a major impact on its future, including on the Dartmoor Line. The review was led by physicist and engineer Richard Beeching, who was briefly chairman of British Railways. He produced his seminal report in 1963, The Reshaping of British Railways, recommending the closure of nearly 2,500 stations and cutting passenger services from nearly 5,000 miles of track to ensure the network’s profitability. Many branch and main lines, and small stations, were shut down in the 1960s under what came to be known as the Beeching Axe. Many communities still remain isolated from the rail network following the closure of their local railway line or station more than five decades ago.

Says Prime Minister Boris Johnson: “Improving transport links is essential to levelling up and spreading opportunity across the country, which is why we are driving forward our pledge to reverse the Beeching cuts in Devon. As we reopen the Dartmoor Line, we are rightly reconnecting communities, giving passengers the chance to choose rail over the road and travel from Exeter to Okehampton on greener, cleaner modes of transport.” Adds Shapps: “We have made it our mission to reverse cuts made in the Beeching era of the 1960s. Many communities still live with the scars that came from the closure of their local railway. Investing in transport links ensures our regions are better connected, local economies flourish and more than half a century of isolation is undone.”

Today, the thousands of miles of railways axed under the Beeching cuts are in various stages of disuse and repair. Some still maintain freight services, some sit unused and overgrown whilst others have been built over or converted to cycle routes or pathways. Besides the Restoring Your Railway programme, a New Stations Fund helps to develop new stations (so far 10 brand new stations have been opened in England and Wales) because not all growing towns can re-open previously existing stations and some areas may never have been served by rail. Besides the Darmoor Line, 38 proposals to reopen similar lines and stations have received funding and are in various stages of restoration.

The excitement and passion in Okehampton on the day was a reflection of the fact that railways have always been much more than just connecting and transporting people and goods from A to B. Trains, tracks and railway platforms have long inspired iconic literature. They are symbols or themes in many great novels; as places where people accidentally meet, only to later go their separate ways, where people find the time to ruminate, relax or write. Novelist Andrew Martin, son of a railwayman, writes in The Guardian: “I spent a lot of time daydreaming on trains, and hence my series of historical thrillers featuring the Edwardian railwayman, Jim Stringer…I think my love of reading about trains comes from Sherlock Holmes stories, which often begin with a dash to the station (Holmes and Watson leave from every London terminus except Marylebone). The appeal of railway literature lies in what Proust once identified as the compelling melancholia of trains, each journey being a leap into the unknown.”

Along with the expansion of the network in Britain in the 19th century, railways were introduced in colonies of the British Empire, replicating the model of private companies running them. One of the first such initiatives was in colonial India, then ruled by the East India Company, which was unable (and unwilling) to finance the construction and running costs on its own. The first passenger train ran (under the auspices of the Great Indian Peninsula Railway Company) from Mumbai (Bombay) to Thane in April 1853, followed in August 1854 by the inaugural run of the East Indian Railway Company between Howrah and Hooghly. English companies were invited to bear the construction costs of the new rail network, and to own the relevant operational undertakings. In return, the East India Company (the quasi-public partner in the enterprise) would guarantee the railway shareholders a 5 per cent return on their capital investment, make available land without cost and offer 99-year operating contracts. The early successes encouraged British private investment, which continued until 1868.

In 1858, the British Crown assumed direct governance of British India, and from 1868 onwards, the colonial government of India embarked upon development of the railway network as a form of state enterprise. A new railway board was formed in 1905 under Thomas Robertson. By then, the railway companies were simply operating companies, running the network on behalf of the government of British India. By 1920, the government owned almost three-quarters of the total railway mileage in India. Nationalisation proper started in 1925 (following publication of the Acworth Report in 1921), when the state took over management of the East Indian and Great Indian Peninsula Railways. From 1929 to 1944 the bulk of the Indian railway network had been nationalised.

The colonial connection

An interesting aspect of the introduction of railways in India is that long after independence in 1947, 44 colonial laws relating to railways remained on statute books in modern Britain. The 44 acts are related to the construction and maintenance of the railways network — the first dated 1849 and the latest 1942 — reflecting the challenge of constructing and maintaining one of the largest railway networks in the world across vast distances in British India. It was only in 2015 that a repeal bill was introduced in the House of Commons to scrap them. Some of the acts now culled were: the East Indian Railway Act 1849, Great Indian Peninsula Railway Company Act, 1849; Assam Railways and Trading Company’s Act, 1897; Oude Railway Act, 1858; Scinde Railway Act, 1857; Great Southern of India Railway Act, 1858; and the Bombay Baroda, Central India Railway Act 1942, Indian Railways Annuities (Sinking Funds) Act, 1909, the East Indian Railway Company 1879, the Eastern Bengal Railway Company 188, the Scinde, Punjaub and Delhi Railway Company 1886, the Great Indian Peninsula Railway Company 1900, the Madras Railway Company 1908.

But some railway links have endured long after de-colonisation. There are many British families whose parents and ancestors were involved in developing and running the railway network in colonial India. A UK-based group of lovers of the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway (DHR) have been campaigning to raise awareness of the iconic line in West Bengal, holding events, tours to Darjeeling and raising funds for the benefit of people living along the line that runs between New Jalpaiguri and Darjeeling. Built between 1879 and 1881, the line, better known as the Toy Train and driven by steam engines, has enthused a large number of rail enthusiasts and others over the decades.

The group, organised under the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway Society (DHRS), some time ago recreated the Darjeeling station in Launceston in Cornwall, when the train’s oldest surviving locomotive — No 19 — was pressed into service, as visitors enjoyed the sights and sounds of Darjeeling with stalls selling Indian crafts to the accompaniment of shehnai music on the public address system. The ambience at Launceston included ‘Darjeeling’ station signs in blue, red and white, information in English and Hindi, station staff dressed in Indian attire, bookstall selling Indian books and a stall selling only vegetarian food. Money raised during the two-day event organised was destined to support communities in India through education and medical facilities. Darjeeling Mail, the quarterly magazine of DHRS, publishes a wide variety of subject matter regarding the line, including latest news from Darjeeling. Its articles cover everything from the line’s history to tips on travel, both to it and on it; from construction histories to present workings, complemented by drawings and photographs.

Locomotive No 19 was built by Sharp Stewart & Co, Glasgow in 1889. It was withdrawn from DHR service in 1960 and after an overhaul at the Tindharia Workshop, it was sold by the Indian government to Elliott Donelley to run on his private railway in Illinois, US. After his death in 1975, the locomotive was acquired by the Hesston Steam Museum in Northern Indiana. After damage in a major fire at the museum, the locomotive was rebuilt in 1985 and continued in service for a further three years before being displayed as a static exhibit. In 2002, No 19 was purchased by Adrian Shooter, a DHRS member and Managing Director of Chiltern Railways. It returned to the UK in a shipping container in early 2003 and was fully restored at Tyseley Locomotive Works, Birmingham.

(Prasun is a journalist based in London. He tweets @PrasunSonwalkar.)

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