5 reasons to be proud of Britain’s trains

“So this is Christmas… and what have you done?” This isn’t just a famous John Lennon lyric – it’s also a question that will be asked by hordes of angry travellers over the festive period, as the rail network faces the grim inevitability of paralysis and chaos. Over-running engineering works, cancelled trains and the four most depressing words in the English language: rail replacement bus service. It isn’t going to be pretty, and it’s enough to make you despair at the state of our railways.

5 reasons to be proud of Britain's trains

It’s why I want to argue that, contrary to all of this misery, we should be proud of Britain’s railways – because we British are pioneers. Here are five reasons why:

1. We invented rail travel, and much of it still works


Railways were first invented in Britain in the 19th century, emerging from the fires of the Industrial Revolution. The Liverpool-Manchester railway was the first service in the world to operate entirely on steam and a timetable. And if this isn’t something to be proud of, I’m not sure what is. Trains began to snake across Britain and, in a matter of years, journeys that had previously taken days took hours.

But this wasn’t without challenges. Being first is great for the ego, but less positive engineering-wise, as there is no-one to learn from. For example, London was where Brunel took a risk and attempted to build the world’s first tunnel under a navigable river, and the place where he pioneered the “tunnel shield” construction method that enabled deep-level tunnelling. If the Thames Tunnel hadn’t been first, he might have looked at the design and realised that the tunnel, which later became the East London Line, really needed to be much wider in diameter. To this day, trains on that line are restricted in size by the need to squeeze into the historic tunnel.


So what is impressive is just how long the old stuff lasts. Until 2012, when trains were replaced with “S” stock (perhaps so-called because the interconnect carriages make them snakelike), the Metropolitan line ran on “A” stock trains, which first came into service in 1961. Today, the Bakerloo line still runs on trains that first came into service in 1972. Those are good innings.

The story is similar for National Rail, with one of the most common engines still InterCity 125 “High Speed Trains”, which were first developed in the early 80s for what was then British Rail. Thirty years on and we still rely on them to shift us around the country. And you thought that your iPhone 4s was getting old.

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