Wimbledon Bookfest 2016: Simon Bradley, The Railways

Review by Roger Smith

The Wimbledon Bookfest continues to delight with curiosities such as a talk by Simon Bradley about his book, The Railways – Nation, Network & People.

The festival draws some big names such as explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes, former deputy prime minister Nick Clegg and broadcaster Jeremy Paxman – but sometimes it is the quirkier, smaller events that are not to be missed.

A book about the railways could be regarded as very niche and when Mr Bradley started his talk with a look back to his days as a teenage train-spotter in the 1970s you could be forgiven for hearing the rustling sound of anoraks being donned.

But it is to his credit that he went on to produce something much more engaging and entertaining, weaving gems of stories into his tale of the railways from incarnation through to more recent times.

Some of it might have been fairly well known – such as the standardisation of time in response to the problem of differing local times for railway timetables – but other elements certainly were new to the uninitiated including myself, such as the development of ticketing and the creation of travel insurance.

All of this was accompanied by illuminating and sometimes humorous illustrations, such as the Punch cartoon of a nervous lady would-be passenger confronted by a station poster listing the insurance charges for covering broken legs, arms, necks, etc.

The perils of travelling in Victorian trains with closed compartments were wonderfully explored – not only the risk of sexual predators (of both sexes) but also confidence tricksters, card sharps, thieves and even murderers. Mr Bradley only added to the horrors when he noted that, while sharing a closed compartment with strangers, you would be plunged into darkness when the train went into a tunnel.

Mr Bradley praised the great Victorian engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel but dared to criticise him over the failed attempt to use pioneering “atmospheric power” on the South Devon line.

The author went on to sound a warning over the future of steam preservation railways, noting that the pool of volunteer workers needed to keep them going was ageing. His message about such railways was: “Enjoy them while you can.”

In questions from the floor, Mr Bradley’s views were sought on shiny new projects such as HS2 and, closer to home, Crossrail2, which is of major concern to Wimbledon residents. Both have been hugely controversial over questions of value for money and environmental impact.

Mr Bradley gave a balanced response, acknowledging the depth of the criticisms but making a comparison with some of the similar controversies in the earlier development of the railways. He said it was clear that some people who would be expected to make sacrifices for the projects to go ahead would not see any benefit from them.

The exchange added a lively current dimension to his fascinating story of people, machinery and systems on the railways for generations past.

October 7, 2016

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Wimbledon Bookfest 2016