During the entire 26 years I worked on the railways, I puzzled over the fact that the tracks themselves – and also the department that looked after them – went under the curious title of “the Permanent Way” (usually shortened to P-way). Why not just “tracks” or “track maintenance”? Or why not use the correct quasi-legal term, “the Operational Railway”?
(I thought for a time that this might be an example of Naming by Subsidiary Attribute (NSA), which is a subject I’m going to have to blog about before long. It’s one of my little obsessions. To give you a clue, one example of this genre is the “floppy disc”. But that is for another day.)
Although I left the railways in 2000, I still travel on trains quite a lot; I also cycle quite a lot, often on Sustrans routes that have been made out of closed down railway lines. And I have become interested in a little project involving my local station, using spare land at the station to grow plants, and also the protection of another nearby plot of former railway land which is a valuable open space and wildlife reserve but which is under threat from the concrete mixer.
All of this has made me look at railways in a slightly different way. When cycling along the Cuckoo Trail (the former railway line from Polegate to Redgate Mill Junction near Crowborough), the Worth Way (Three Bridges to East Grinstead), the Forest Way (East Grinstead to Eridge) and other Sustrans routes I sometimes see railway relics that have simply been left lying around, and I am reminded that, in the 40-odd years that many of these “Beeching” lines have been closed, very little has changed. And our argument for preservation of our little patch of land by the station rests on the fact that it is one of the last virtually undisturbed pieces of land from pre-housing and pre-railway days, having been used only as an allotment, and is consequently very valuable for wildlife.
Of course it was never very likely that anyone would want to do anything with the land, other than use it as a way of getting from A to B, and that is why Sustrans have been able to take over so many old lines. In fact if the railway people had not unleashed such an orgy of organised vandalism following the closures, the rails would still be there, and some of the lines could even be reopened. Ah, but where the land had any other shape than long and thin, that’s where the property developers moved in, and so station sites and goods yards were sold and built on, and any trace of the railway eradicated. Still, most of these routes still exist outside the stations; indeed, many of the stations themselves are still there. Some parts that have been developed have been appropriately named to remind us of who to blame; a housing estate in Henfield is called Beechings, and the A22 is carried through East Grinstead along a bit of the old railway now known as Beeching Way. Even where there is little left to see, a glance at an Ordnance Survey map shows a tell-tale line indicating where the railway once was.
But if time runs slowly on old track-beds, it almost stops altogether on tracks that are still in use. And the reason is now clear: it is because the railway is out of bounds to anyone but specially trained railway workers wearing high visibility clothing, and for 364 days out of every year you wouldn’t want to go near it even if you had the training, on account of the huge lethal lumps of metal that are whooshing around. (And on the 365th day you would not want to go there either, because you’d be drunk and anyway the “juice” is still on). The way is, to all intents and purposes, permanent.
And so the railway is a no-go area for all but the initiated, and even they don’t stay long. Foxes run alongside the rails, but show them due respect, and leave no trace. And so it doesn’t change – or at least not in the way inhabited areas do. Yes, modernisation takes its toll – telegraph poles give way to concrete troughing, semaphore signals to colour-light; conductor rails appear, lineside apparatus cases get renewed every so often. But not much really changes.
I grew up in the 1960s, a period defined to some extent by Harold Wilson’s “White Heat of Technology” speech and its implications. Progress was linear; you couldn’t go back, and wouldn’t want to. Cars, and motorways, were the Way Forward; railways had had their day. I lived through the Beeching era, but cannot really remember much about it; I didn’t travel by train in those days, and my family did not have a car, so I was agnostic in the debate. Probably most of the time I was simply unaware of it, having more pressing things on my mind. (I remember once turning up at the station to travel to a cricket match in Alresford, Hampshire, only to find that Alresford station and the line serving it were now closed!)
When people started to realise that natural resources are not infinite and that human activity can and does damage our environment, it was too late to bring many of those railways back – but because of the staying power of the permanent way, some of them could be rebuilt, and indeed were. Others had, of course, been kept going by the amazing resourcefulness and energy of steam enthusiasts; and I was pleased to see that a few years ago the North Yorkshire Moors Railway made it into the national railway timetable alongside the “national rail” services – possibly the only good thing that has come out of rail privatisation has been the blurring of the distinction between the “official” and “heritage” railways.
Railways, then, have been their own saviour – and, to some extent, ours too – by virtue of the special place they occupy in the landscape. When I see a closed and unused railway line I always think of the sweat and toil of those who built the railways, and the loss of life, not only in building them but in running them. Those lives were lost – for what? For 100 years of being the nation’s transport network. Was that worth the sacrifice? Well, when I am cycling on the Worth Way, the Forest Way or the Cuckoo Trail, or on any of the other old railway lines that criss-cross Sussex, still there all those years after being deemed redundant, I think that maybe those guys had the last laugh, and would be pleased to see the straight, level pathways they created being used for something good again, thanks to the permanent way. I think the foxes, squirrels and birds are probably quite pleased about it too.