In the spring of 2007 Matthew Engel finally flipped. After years of getting cross at the vagaries of Britain’s railways he decided he had enough. He wanted to know WHY.
How did the British invent railways, and then go on to run them so badly?
How come the nation was so obsessed with trains – weaned on Thomas the Tank Engine, dotty about preserved steam engines – and yet the system was a national joke?
So he set out to explore. He travelled the country from Penzance to Thurso. And he explored the history of Britain’s bizarre relationship with its trains. He found he was half John Betjeman, revelling in the hidden charms and the eccentricities of the network, and half Victor Meldrew, in a perpetual grump about its wretchedness.
The railways, he concluded, were the ultimate expression of Britishness, representing all the nation’s ingenuity, incompetence, nostalgia, corruption, humour and capacity for suffering.
Engel-Betjeman found a train still serving afternoon tea with Individual Pots of Strawberry Jam. Engel-Meldrew found it was about to be abolished.
Engel-Betjeman found gorgeous branch lines on perfect summer evenings. Engel-Meldrew was surrounded by mobile phone-shouters, feral teenagers, demoralised staff and mutinous commuters. And he met, beyond question, the rudest man on the railways.
Engel the historian found a pattern of disaster dating back to Day One in 1830, when the politician William Huskisson was killed by a train. From then on, he found it tempting to conclude, the political class has been taking its revenge.
Almost every decision – or more often indecision – taken by British governments since then has turned out to be wrong, he says, except one: the Victorian cock-up that miraculously helped save Britain in two world wars.
He talks to politicians like Sir John Major and John Prescott, railwaymen and experts. Nationalization was a disaster, he concludes. Privatization was a bigger disaster. Labour’s refusal to reverse that decision was worse still. And the demon-figure of Dr Beeching was a disaster too – but not for the reason generally supposed.
He searches literature, art and psycho-sexual textbooks to try to explain why the British are different from other nations, who somehow think the railways are simply a means of transport. Whereas the British managed to transform “trainspotting” from a national craze to an all-purpose insult.
Eleven Minutes Late is a paean of love and a polemic of despair. A eulogy and an elegy. And wonderfully funny. It is published in paperback by Pan.