Rail History

26 March 2011
From transport to sport
Brian Micklethwait

Yeah, just take the “tran” off the front.

I’m watching the Boat Race on the telly, and Gryff Rhys Jones has just said something rather interesting about what began it all.  The railways, he said.  The reason the railways made the Boat Race possible is not that they transported people to it, or anything like that.  No, what the railways did was empty the River Thames of commercial traffic, passenger and freight.  That left the river free for sport.

Is that true?  That wikipedia piece has the first Boat Race happening in 1829, at Henley.  It moved down river to west London for the second race in 1836.  Then there was apparently some disagreement about whether to hold it at Henley or in west London.  That seems a few years early to have been kicked off by the railways.  I can certainly see how the railways might have accelerated such a trend.

The horse definitely went from being mostly transport to being mostly sport.  The automobile now looks to be deep into the same transition.  Certainly as regular cars become ever more slow and boring, the attraction of sporty cars gets ever greater.  Sporty cars have long taken on a life of their own, in terms of how they look, how fast they go, and so forth.  It’s the difference between a carthorse and, well a race horse.

Another speculation: Will the rise of remotely controlled airplanes cause personally driven airplanes also to become merely sporty?  Certainly planes are already a bit sporty, but, like cars, they always have been, a bit.

21 November 2008

In case you watched Ian Hislop’s Off The Rails which was repeated on BBC2 last night here is my take from its original BBC4 broadcast.

Patrick Crozier • PermalinkFeedback (0)Rail History
06 October 2008
Review: Ian Hislop’s “Off The Rails”
Patrick Crozier

This was on BBC4 the other night.  I thought it was garbage.  In fact it was such utter garbage that there was no chance of me ever getting round to writing it all down.  So, I recorded a podcast instead.

09 February 2008
Ill-Used Traveller
Rob Fisher
Entrance to the London Transport Museum in Covent Garden

I visited the London Transport Museum in January.  On display was this letter from “Ill-Used Traveller” to the editor of the Times.

Your excellent suggestion in a leading article this morning to have more frequent trains into the country, in order to develop residential traffic, will, I much fear, have little or no effect with the traffic managers to whose care our travelling convenience and comfort on the Mid Kent line are unfortunately entrusted, unless you can so agitate this matter, so important to so many of us now who live out of town, that Parliament will step in and free the national highway, as the railway now is, from the selfish obstructions thrown in our way by the quarrels of rival companies and other causes.

The letter was written in 1864.  Demands for the government to solve problems go back further than I thought.

Also at the museum I learnt about compensation to watermen on the opening of Westminster Bridge in 1750, Parliamentary trains, and Metro-Land.

10 November 2007
The age of railway flatness
Brian Micklethwait

At my personal blog, I have a clutch of British railway viaduct photos, many with trains that you can just about spot!


The usual commentary about such viaducts is all about how much better they were at doing viaducts then, not like it is now, blah blah.  But engineers now do good stuff too, I think.  Better, arguably.  Just not for railways.

I mean, you might just as well say that they were very bad at making vehicles go up steeper gradients in those days.  The only reason they had to build all these viaducts is because railways had to be so very flat.  And that’s now changed, hasn’t it?