Image: Brijesh Patel
February 15 2011
Even though there have been huge advances in terms of medicine, plumbing and many home comforts, there are, it appears, still aspects of Victorian England that have not been improved upon. So while I am jolly grateful that we no longer have to endure such frightful episodes as the Great Stink of 1858, I am oddly reassured that on certain railway lines Victorian technology continues to operate, with some signals using 19th-century-style oil lamps.
Amazement has been expressed that there is still a demand for these lamps, which have to be lit by men on ladders, but I am delighted. I chuckle at the conceit that while I may be able to book my railway tickets online and enjoy wi-fi internet in my carriage, in between irritating my fellow travellers by periodically shouting into my mobile phone that I am on the train, the signals that guide the train may belong to the era of Brunel. And why not? After all, whenever I take the train to Paris, I board it at one of the great jewels of Gothic architecture, Gilbert Scott’s marvellous monster of St Pancras. According to Liza Picard’s Victorian London (I never leave home without a copy), Scott used the majority of a design that he had planned for the Foreign Office but that had been vetoed by one of my favourite Victorian politicians, Lord Palmerston.
Rather like the “What have the Romans ever done for us?” moment in Life of Brian, I miss no opportunity to ram my views on the brilliance of our top-hatted and frock-coated forefathers down the throats of others: and rail travel is just one of the fabulous gifts they bequeathed us. For thousands of years man had travelled no faster than a horse could carry him and then, suddenly, we were hurtling to our destinations at speeds sometimes as great as 70mph. There were grave concerns about whether the human body was equipped to withstand such immense speed and certainly Queen Victoria was not amused (sorry, but I could not resist it) at the alarming clip of 44 miles an hour that the train conveying her from Slough to London had averaged in 1842; maybe this spirited dash from Windsor Castle to London occasioned a form of jet lag.
However, we got used to it and trains changed our lives: for a start, we all started to operate in the same time zone, as the nation’s clocks were synchronised to meet the needs of railway timetables (before then, Bristol time, for example, had been 20 minutes ahead of London time). Thomas Cook began as a promoter of temperance tours on the new railways. WH Smith started as a station retailer and renter of reading matter to those early rail passengers. And of course the railway boom of the 1840s created another British favourite, the investment bubble, which, rather like the derivatives of more recent years, lost a lot of people a lot of money. So, given that St Pancras, Thomas Cook, WH Smith and reckless investment are still very much with us, why shouldn’t trackside oil lamps illuminate the railways of our island home?