Bring Back the Rails!

Everett Collection
Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard in Brief Encounter, 1945

The Way We Live Now

Railways have been declining since the 1950s. There had always been competition for the traveler (and, though less marked, for freight). From the 1890s horse-drawn trams and buses, followed a generation later by the electric or diesel or petrol variant, were cheaper to make and run than trains. Lorries (trucks)—the successor to the horse and cart—were always competitive over the short haul. With diesel engines they could now cover long distances. And there were now airplanes and, above all, there were cars: the latter becoming cheaper, faster, safer, more reliable every year.

Even over the longer distances for which it was originally conceived, the railway was at a disadvantage: its start-up and maintenance costs—in surveying, tunneling, laying track, building stations and rolling stock, switching to diesel, installing electrification—were greater than those of its competitors and it never succeeded in paying them off. Mass-produced cars, in contrast, were cheap to build and the roads on which they ran were subsidized by taxpayers. To be sure, they carried a high social overhead cost, notably to the environment; but that would only be paid at a future date. Above all, cars represented the possibility of private travel once again. Rail travel, in what were increasingly open-plan trains whose managers had to fill them in order to break even, was decidedly public transport.

Facing such hurdles, the railway was met after World War II by another challenge. The modern city was born of rail travel. The very possibility of placing millions of people in close proximity with one another, or else transporting them considerable distances from home to work and back, was the achievement of the railways. But in sucking up people from the country into the town and draining the countryside of communities and villages and workers, the train had begun to destroy its own raison d’être: the movement of people between towns and from remote country districts to urban centers. The major facilitator of urbanization, it fell victim to it. Now that the overwhelming majority of nonelective journeys were either very long or very short, it made more sense for people to undertake them in planes or cars. There was still a place for the short-haul, frequently stopping suburban train and, in Europe at least, for middle-distance expresses. But that was all. Even freight transportation was threatened by cheap trucking services, underwritten by the state in the form of publicly funded freeways. Everything else was a losing proposition.

And so railways declined. Private companies, where they still existed, went bankrupt. In many cases they were taken over by newly formed public corporations at public expense. Governments treated railways as a regrettable if unavoidable burden upon the exchequer, restricting their capital investment and closing “uneconomic” lines.

Just how “inexorable” this process had to be varied…

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