South Tynedale Railway

“There is a steam train-line not far from here,” my husband says, his eyes alight with anticipation, and I refrain from telling him that there is a steam train-line not far from any where in Britain.

Because he already knows. He knows so much more about trains than I will ever want to learn, so I swallow my smart ass reply and give him my most indulgent smile instead. I take a deep breath and prepare myself to enjoy reliving the harrowing moments that many people start their days with to get to the office–riding an expensive train that arrives late and is packed with unruly kids and bad-tempered adults. Only this time, because I am so loved, I shall have the privilege of going through this magical experience in slow-freaking-motion.

As a  bonus, we'll also be in the same place we were when we alight.

As a bonus,  instead of arriving somewhere else after the journey, we’ll also alight in the same place we started.

This is what it means to be married to a railway man, and not just to another guy who happens to work in the railway industry. My husband sees the whole experience in a different light. His excitement isn’t that of a yo-yo dieter, unable to suppress a spurt of wary optimism that says this time will be different. He knows it won’t be. But that is the “fun” of it.



If I were married to anyone else, I wouldn’t be able to appreciate the important role that transport plays in all kinds of civilization, or be as appalled at the utter, utter mess that we have made of a system that was invented to make things more convenient for the ones who are supposed to use it. It all starts here, with the trains. Oh, and this:

The Beeching Report, published in 1963.

The Beeching Report, published in 1963.

Like most other steam train-lines, The South Tynedale Railway in Alston exists as it does today because, at some point, the ones in charge decided that the train industry wouldn’t be efficient enough against the road transport industry unless some of the least-used railway lines were shut down.  Jack the Ripper might have agreed to that, and then he’ll add, “The fight against the sex industry won’t be efficient unless we butcher a few prostitutes.”

Let me be clear here: I am not saying Dr. Beeching is like Jack the Ripper.  The railway closures may have been nicknamed The Beeching Axe, but he didn’t butcher anyone. He only destroyed some livelihoods that the bus replacement services were unable to restore. That’s what happens when things that are supposed to be available for all in a society that promotes equality, like the mobility transport provides or even medical services that keep us alive, are run for financial gain.  When the chosen 4,000 route miles were closed (around a third of the whole network), the commerce for the communities those lines served suffered, and no less than 70,000 railway jobs were cut.

"...It was surgery, not mad chopping." - Dr. Richard Beeting (1913-1985)

“…It was surgery, not mad chopping.”
– Dr. Richard Beeching (1913-1985)

Maybe Dr. Beeching saw that the railways would be privatized in a few decades, and no one would be able to afford train tickets then, so we might as well start to learn to do without them. Those in charge were just preparing us for the future, as any good government should. It has nothing to do with the fact that the government that commissioned his report had strong ties to the road construction lobby and the administrations that implemented privatization received funds from people with ties to road construction associations.

The closures were, and still are, controversial. But this is a country where instead of staging a military coup, people simply opted to vote for a different government to establish a welfare state after World War II, and then carried on drinking tea with milk. Where events like railway closures would prompt bloody protests in some countries, in Britain it gives people the urge to volunteer dressing up as Victorian railwaymen and running the lines themselves.

It took years of marriage for me to understand that places like The South Tynedale Railway are not merely some tribute to Britain’s golden age of steam; some wistful determination to hold on to the glory days. For one thing, in here passengers sit in the same class carriages. Members of staff actually mean it when they say they’re sorry if a service is delayed, and I’d bet you won’t find such cheerful ticket issuing officers from any century. 

These places represent a very British form of defiance, run and staffed entirely by enthusiastic volunteers who spend their free time driving trains they’ve rescued from some shed. In here, trains are more than just vehicles for the goals of profit-driven CEOs. It’s a demonstration to equally enthusiastic families how Britons would like railways to be run.

I will probably never enjoy these places like my husband does, but I see where he’s coming from. And as long as he keeps buying me ice cream after the journey, I’ll do my best to keep the smart assery to a minimum.

south tynedale railway ivory