Growing up in London in the 1940s, before joining the Royal Navy as a fifteen year old in 1952, my father made countless journeys by train. In boyhood, travel was usually local, with occasional visits to family members who lived beyond the smoky atmosphere of the metropolis. Once enlisted, and being assigned to the Fleet Air Arm, journeys were further afield, to Portsmouth or Plymouth, or to wherever he might join the aircraft carrier on which he would be serving. In those times, servicemen regularly travelled in uniform. It was a certain way of being offered a lift at the roadside and of finding a seat in a railway compartment.
At the first opportunity in the 1950s, my father learned to ride a motorcycle and then to drive a car. He disliked rail travel intensely, “slow and dirty,” he complained, “you pulled into a station and opened the window to reach the door handle and open the door and the slightest touch against the carriage left you covered in soot.”
Being based at the Royal Naval Air Station at Yeovilton in the late-1950s meant travelling lines that had formed the Somerset and Dorset Railway, an area of the rail network that, although part of British Railways, had retained the nickname applied to it in former times, “Slow and Dirty.” My father’s memories of travel from those times are on the 500 cc motorcycle in which he took a great pride, or in a car that he might have borrowed – train travel seems to have been infrequent.
It is more than five decades since the Beeching Review led to the closure of a large proportion of the railway network. Undoubtedly, there was bias in the reporting and the implementation of the review. Perhaps as many as one-third of the lines that were closed were viable, the census of travel often took place at times of the day when there were few passengers, had different times been chosen, the lines would still be in operation. Yet the fact remains that most of those who had the opportunity and means to travel independently switched to travelling by car – my father among them.
Railways may seem romantic; they may have elegant locomotives; they may have stations that are artworks in iron and brick; they may offer travel at speed that is unimaginable in a car. However, railways do not offer the freedom to travel when you choose; they do not offer space uninhabited by other people; and they do not offer prices that compete with the cost of travelling by road. Driving a car means never having to listen to an announcement that “the departure is delayed by approximately thirty minutes due to the non-appearance of a staff member.”