Given the ridiculous amount of spare time I’ve had recently (yaaay, lockdown!), I’ve been browsing around on YouTube, and one thing I came across was an old BBC TV series that was shown when I was fourteen years old. It was called The Train Now Departing, with the subtitle “Twenty years since the end of steam”. This referred to British Rail ending steam services on the main line in August 1968, ending almost 150 years of this form of traction carrying people around the country, day in day out. Of course, steam locomotives are a fascinating and dramatic sight, and there’s plenty of people who think the railway is extremely boring without them. The sixties were a turbulent time on the UK rail network, with many lines closing, and many sights, sounds and ways of doing things vanishing forever. To mark the significant milestone of 20 years without steam, this series was commissioned. I remember watching it at the time, and the wonderful theme tune and opening sequence remained very fresh in my mind when I watched it again on YouTube.
The six half-hour episodes divided up into two neat blocks, the first three covering specific railway lines that were famous for various reasons, and the second three covering specific themes.
Episode one featured the Settle and Carlisle Line, a very scenic route through some of England’s wildest countryside, followed by the Fort William to Mallaig line in Episode 2, part of the West Highland Line, easily one of the most impressive railways in the world. Episode 3 covered the Southern Railway’s main line to Devon and Cornwall. Each of these episodes featured interviews, a steam special running in 1988, archive footage of the lines in the past, and everyday operations as they were in the late 80s. It adds up to a wonderful historical package, mainly because the railway has changed very dramatically since 1988 as well. Back then, there were still a lot of reminders of the steam-age railway, and all three of these routes retained locomotive-hauled trains with carriages similar to those used in the days of steam. All are now operated with much more modern rolling stock, and the Settle and Carlisle in particular was under threat when the series was filmed, so it’s a relief that it stayed open. Of these three episodes, I think the second is the best, because the driver they chose to interview appreciated the glories of the scenery he drove through every day, and there seemed to be a poetic and reflective aspect to his soul that really appealed to me. The guy in episode three just annoyed me for being whiny! Here are those episodes on YouTube – sadly they seem to be uploaded off VHS recordings, so the picture quality is terrible, but they’re still watchable.
The archive footage in all the episodes was shot by Ivo Peters, a well-known amateur railway photographer who was regularly published in all the major railway magazines for many years. He later turned to cinematography, shooting a great deal of 16mm movie film in locations regularly ignored by other enthusiasts. His work is therefore extremely valuable, partly because most other enthusiast cine film is 8mm, and so the quality is poorer, and also because in many cases he shot subject matter no-one else bothered with. The BBC did a great job in digging out some great film for these shows, and have also released a lot of his footage on VHS and DVD at various times. Peters died in 1989, at the age of 74, having fought a long battle with cancer.
The next three shows were more thematic in nature, although episode 4 still had a geographical focus – the remaining railways on the Isle of Man, where steam still operates regularly. There was once an extensive narrow gauge network, which has shrunk somewhat, but the remaining line from Douglas to Port Erin, along with the electric railways to Ramsey and Snaefell, are operated by the IoM government with paid staff. This makes them very different to the volunteer-run heritage railways in the UK. This episode shows many of the challenges involved in running a regular service with very old rolling stock. Episode 5 features industrial railways, which were once very common, and the efforts to preserve them, with some scenes shot at the Amberley Museum, a favourite location of mine. The last episode features heritage railways and how they keep steam alive, including the story of the famous Barry scrapyard, from which hundreds of locomotives were rescued. It features the Bluebell Railway, the first ever steam railway I visited, and the Scottish Railway Preservation Society, just up the road from where I now live, and where I’ve worked and volunteered.
If you’re interested in railway history, you’re sure to enjoy these, whether you’re seeing them for the first time, or had previously watched the series. It’s clearly fondly remembered, and I can see why – the commentary and content is well-researched and pitched very well to appeal to both enthusiasts and casual viewers, and the whole thing is beautiful to look at, and to listen to. The music in particular is something that has stayed with me, and if you’re interested, here it is in its full four and a half minute glory.
It seems to create a perfect mood for a show about bygone days, and a way of life that had disappeared. It would be very easy, in making a show like this, to rant about how the past was always better, and to attack that convenient bogeyman blamed for ruining the railways, Dr. Beeching, but thankfully that’s largely avoided, and the show very rarely editorialises (although gets a bit close in episode three). You’re left to watch, enjoy, and reflect, and I’m glad this show was made, to show that there’s life and soul in our history, even where it seems a bit mundane and vague. I can see why so many have been inspired to write poems and music inspired by our railways and their past, and I’m quite tempted to have a go myself.