Most days I have a long commute: 2 hours, door to door. Fortunately, this is on our oft-derided railways so I get the chance to work, read, watch a movie or simply think – a real luxury in life. It’s true that our railways are expensive, particularly during the peak time window of 6am to 5.59am, yet despite this I still find travelling on trains retains the element of grandeur, of romance that you don’t get behind the wheel. There’s no logic to this: you are separated from the outside just as much, both are, if you stop and consider it, engineering wonders and both do a reasonable job of whisking you from A to B.
I mulled on this conundrum on my way home one Friday. My journey is from London’s Euston station up the west coast main line to Lichfield. I have got myself into a pleasant but costly routine of a post work latte and as I lifted up the lid, gently blowing on the froth to cool it whilst absent-mindedly shoo’ing pigeons out of the way with my leg, I glanced up to witness the answer – or at least the root of the answer.
‘Robert Stephenson, Civil Engineer. 1803 – 1859’
I remember being fascinated by railways when I was young boy, not as spotter, but rather in the engineering. The fact that motion could be produced from wood, iron, coal, water. The noise and the speed. Brought up near Crewe, my Dad an engineer himself, I learnt about that area’s engineering heritage and through a process of temporal osmosis, about the huge LMS engines that sped down the line at the end of Oak Street on the way to the north or the capital in a blaze of claret. Yet it wasn’t just the engines, it was the routes themselves – huge cuttings, lofty embankments, soaring bridges and the fascination that the rail I was looking at stretched without stopping 300 miles in one direction and 200 miles in the other. Evenly spaced and level all the way, someone had put it there. In fact, Robert was one of the people who put it there. And now he had snow on his head.
Robert had cropped up in my life before. He had built the Rocket for the Rainhill trials on the Liverpool to Manchester railway essentially through a bog. He built incredible bridges over the Menai Strait and the river in Conwy where we used to go for weekends away when I was growing up. And he was a Geordie so I was pleased that a northerner had done all this even though, at that point in my life I had never really crossed the Pennines. Later, I read LTC Rolt’s biography and realised that Stephenson was one of the greatest Victorian civil engineers – which if you consider the competition, was no mean feat. He had worked on gold mines in Columbia, surveyed for the Suez Canal and contributed towards the development of railways on continental Europe. And all this before his early death at 56.
Few realise the first engineering challenge as trains leave Euston today. It’s actually quite a climb – take the Northern Line to Chalk Farm, and then walk back and you’ll see what I mean. This meant two things – first of all an incline, and then a tunnel. Virgin’s Pendolino trains today are already approaching 125mph and beginning to tilt at this point but Robert had to design a separate pumping house and chains to give the under-powered engines a gentle hand. I understand the pumping house is still there and houses an arts centre which seems a pretty good analogy for industry in Britain today. Then the tunnel under Primrose Hill – this task was apparently so difficult that Robert must have considered dynamiting the whole lot and having done with it. Instead he painstakingly dropped vertical shafts to allow him to connect the various pilot tunnels and overcome the obstacle without impacting on house prices for London’s hipster creative set.
This task out of the way, the route speeds northwest through the Home Counties: Berkhamsted, Tring, Leighton Buzzard, Wolverton, MK… all in quick succession. Even on the slow trains you are Rugby in an hour. On a line first built in the 1830s. If all runs to plan, I’m climbing off the train 116 miles from Euston in 1 hour and 9 minutes. I’m not sure Robert would have imagined that travel of such speed and frequency would make commuting into London to work from the north Midlands something possible, and goodness knows what he would have made of the idea of trains travelling at 225mph but it does seem to me worthwhile contemplating the marvel of our railways today. This I think is what accounts for the difference of feeling when you travel this way. You leave from a station – often a grand one, you get an elevated view of the countryside around you and most days, in most weathers, you make it in quick time. For me it’s more than this. It’s the sense that your journey is so much more than this train on this day. It’s using the tracks, the vision, the sweat of those from generations before us.
That’s why, every morning I doff my metaphorical hat and say, “Good Morning, Robert”. We shouldn’t forget the contribution to our lives today of men such as him.
© Morning Mister Magpie, 2012