Dawlish delight: trains running again

Before the storm: Dawlish station, June 2011

Before the storm: Dawlish station, June 2011

It was nice to hear universal praise for Britain’s railways yesterday as trains started running through Dawlish just two months after devastating storms severed the line there.

Brunel’s decision to opt for a coastal route through Devon gave Britain one of its most gloriously scenic rail rides. But the South Devon main line has always been at the mercy of the sea. Network Rail’s engineers have worked wonders getting trains running again, but it’s hard to imagine this is the last time the sea will halt the trains.

On the sea wall, Teignmouth

On the sea wall, Teignmouth

One of my first holiday memories is visiting Teignmouth aged six in 1970. We watched the trains as they headed onto the sea wall. Owen, nearly three, was less impressed by noisy InterCity 125 high speed trains on the sea wall in June 2011. A few days later we took a local train from Teignmouth to Dawlish to savour the view, which proved a mistake. The train was so packed we barely had room to stand, never mind look at the view. A local told us this was par for the course with First Great Western. The old Great Western Railway would have been disgusted.

Brunel was a pioneer. He built the line through Devon using atmospheric trains, propelled by air. But the system proved unreliable and was replaced by steam trains after a year. It cost shareholders a fortune. But Brunel, like his contemporaries, built railways amazingly quickly. He would have been amazed at the snail like progress of 21st century railway building.

On Dawlish station June 2011

On Dawlish station June 2011

The Great Western main line, Dawlish

The Great Western main line, Dawlish

PS: you can see a surviving section of 1840s atmospheric railway at Didcot Railway Centre – below.

The surviving 1840s atmospheric railway pipe and broad gauge track, at Didcot Railway Centre

The surviving 1840s atmospheric railway pipe and broad gauge track, at Didcot Railway Centre

Review: Andrew Roden’s Great Western Railway

Andrew Roden's Great Western Railway

Andrew Roden’s Great Western Railway

Andrew Roden is a brave man. The Great Western Railway is the most chronicled railway in Britain, if not the world. So any additional book about it has to be very good to justify its existence. The good news is that Roden has risen to the challenge, although a series of irritating factual errors spoil what would otherwise be an outstanding history.

My Nan gave me Frank Booker’s one volume history of the GWR as a Christmas present in 1979. Booker’s account was a much easier read than McDermott’s legendary account, published by the GWR over 80 years ago. Roden takes a different approach, giving a vivid insight into the lives of ordinary passengers and railwaymen, as well as the social impact of the railway. This alone makes his book a worthy addition to GWR literature.

Roden is particularly strong on the GWR’s troubled years in the 1860s. He explains how the broad gauge had become a millstone at a time when financial crisis brought the company almost to its knees. Yet the GWR bounced back, with the extraordinary achievement of the Severn Tunnel and the 1892 gauge conversion: an engineering and organisational triumph.

It’s a shame that this fine book is riddled by factual errors. Wootton Bassett is misspelled repeatedly (odd, given that town’s current high profile). Roden claims the Severn Tunnel to be eight miles long (it’s actually half that). He describes 20th century GWR chairman Viscount Churchill as Winston’s father – bizarre, as WSC was just 10 years younger, and was in fact the son of 19th century politician Lord Randolph Churchill. ASLEF is the Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Fireman, not Enginemen and Footplatemen as Roden suggests. (Where did he get that howler from?) There are others…