History feature: Scotland's Railways

Updated: Jun 24


I thought I would try something different for Kapeesh as a change from our usual film studies. This article is not so much a book review (how exactly do you review your own books?), but more a general discussion on Scotland's railways. I would recommend that anyone with a passion for history delves into this side of transport, which was so hugely significant in Britain's economic and industrial transformation from the Victorian age. And with the ScotRail train service now solely functioning as a lifeline for Britain's key workers, the rail network is perhaps another small piece of minute everyday detail that we can all add to our 'Stop taking things for granted' list.


I am very much the sort of person who takes beauty from the small and workaday things in life, hence my work as an author, writing four books about rail history. I often laugh when railways are mentioned in the media (tabloid newspapers especially), as a kind of lazy stupor seems to envelope most journalists, causing them to fail to get right even the most simple facts. In a way that is never seen with any other subject in the world. Hilarious still is the continuation of naive stereotypes to describe anyone with even the mildest interest in trains, labelling them an "anorak" or "trainspotter". I can't actually recount a single moment in my life where I stood at the end of a station platform with a notebook, scribbling down locomotive numbers. Nor that of my father, whose old-school camera skills are shown to good effect in the pages of my books.


Railways of Glasgow


BBC Scotland's documentary series Inside Central Station brought a refreshing change for TV, being well-researched from both a historical and operational point of view. And I don't just say that because I was on the show. I was interviewed at the start of the second series, shown on both BBC Scotland and BBC Two north of the border. On this, I spoke of the impact the Beeching Report had on Glasgow; the government dossier which resulted in the closure of ONE THIRD of all railways in Great Britain within the 1960s. Such a devastating cut of transport links would be unthinkable in today's world.


In my book Railways of Glasgow Post-Beeching I gave a chronological account of how Glasgow's rail network was shrunk, only to be expanded from the 1970s onwards, with several dismantled lines expensively rebuilt. Other interesting tidbits include that at one stage, around a quarter of the world's locomotives being built were here in the city. Whilst no longer an industrial powerhouse, visitors to Glasgow can still marvel at the Victorian architecture of Central Station, which has the largest glass roof anywhere in the world.



The West Highland Lines


Okay, Shameless Plug Part Two. The West Highland Lines Post-Beeching follows a similar theme, but with a focus on the railway to Fort William and Mallaig, awarded the coveted title of Greatest Railway Journey in the World. Barely an hour from Glasgow, the West Highland Line is one of the scenic jewels in Scotland's crown, but had a couple of close shaves itself when the government announced rural line closures in the second half of the 20th century. It is a real blessing in the modern era to be able to take the train along here for several hours and just soak up the stunning landscape. Particularly nice is the journey across Rannoch Moor - Britain's last true wilderness - as red deer watch on from the side of the line. Particularly nice on a warm train with a drink in hand!


Leisure journeys are sadly not possible at the moment due to Covid-19 but hopefully it won't be long until the WHL properly re-opens for tourists. Amazingly, steam trains have still been running to Mallaig (above) in the summer months for a number of years as part of the national timetable in the West Highlands, thanks to the wonderful world of railway preservation.


The line to Oban is equally stunning from a scenic perspective but my research for this book threw up some fascinating tales for other reasons. Such as public trains from the town sometimes being used to transport dead bodies to the mortuary in Glasgow as late as the 1970s. And train drivers making unofficial stops at lineside cottages to drop off groceries for the locals!


Final thoughts


My duo of titles released by Amberley Publishing cater for those more interested in seeing photographs and I was particularly pleased with the way my latest one turned out: Renewing Britain's Railways: Scotland, which is hopefully the first in a series covering most of Great Britain. I tried to give a summary of the big investment in new trains by ScotRail and gave my best shot of getting my first snap of the world-famous Forth Bridge, which is soon going to have its own visitor centre taking people hundreds of feet in the air to see the view from its towering girders.


Last but not least, I wrote Signal Boxes and Semaphores: The Decline as a tribute to mechanical railway signalling, and this saw me visit and take photographs at locations all over Britain from Cornwall to the Highlands. Signalling trains requires complex organisation and it is truly incredible in this day and age that Victorian era technology is still used in certain places, with semaphore signals controlled by levers, in some signal boxes that were constructed back in the 19th Century. Network Rail are responsible for maintaining our country's vast array of railway lines and with the expected recession following Covid-19, it is inevitable that some of the old-school signalling will live on longer than expected, due to the cost required of replacing it.


In general, there will be many plans for new lines, new trains and other major upgrades that will need to be put on hold, as the train operators simply try to get back to normal, and hopefully get back to the sort of passenger levels they had pre-lockdown. On the positive side, the freight operators such as Colas Rail and DB Schenker seem to be doing okay. Their trains transport goods such as containers and cement, playing a vital role in keeping down carbon emissions and road congestion as an alternative to lorries.


I hope you enjoyed reading about this subject. For more info, head to my publishers' sites thehistorypress.co.uk and amberley-books.com


For all things West Highland Line, please go to westhighlandline.org.uk , where I have also contributed many articles.


COMING SOON: Part Two of my railway features takes us back to the world of Bond, with The Trains of 007.

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