In this era of leaves on the line, protests over High Speed 2 and malfunctioning franchises, it is hardly surprising that rail passengers hark back to a golden age. With Michael Portillo, Bradshaw guide in hand, taking to the European rails, railway nostalgia – once the province of spotty boys with notebooks on windy platforms at Clapham Junction – has become all the rage. Indeed, earlier this year the reissued 1863 Bradshaw guide, used by the former Tory rail minister on the domestic excursions that formed his first TV series, became a surprise bestseller.
The fact that Portillo has chosen the 1913 Bradshaw Continental Guide for his new series is no coincidence. The year before the outbreak of the First World War was the apogee – but also the finale – of the golden era of European railways. The industry had come of age. No longer were the railways on the mad path of expansion that had characterised the late 19th century: by now, everywhere that needed a line had one, so instead railway companies began investing in their moving stock and reducing journey times through better track and signalling.
There had been much consolidation, too, resulting in large companies, some state-owned, better able to withstand the ebb and flow of the business cycle – although Britain rather bucked the trend with more than 200 companies still in existence at the outset of the war.
So by 1913 trains mostly had the facilities that they had previously lacked: lavatories, comfortable seats, sleeper accommodation on longer journeys and restaurant cars that at times really did serve hearty food and fine wines. Even fares were coming down as passenger numbers rose.
Frontiers within Europe were no longer the barrier they had once been. The most famous train of all, the Orient Express, began operating from Paris to Constantinople in 1883, through half a dozen countries, including mysterious eastern European states such as Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria, with plenty of intrigue and midnight assignations, though, pace Agatha Christie, no murders.
Portillo’s Bradshaw was an essential travel companion, although probably only if one had a servant to carry it and strong spectacles, as it was a tome of 1,424 pages of very small print. It was, though, a trainspotter’s bible, listing all services in Europe and North Africa, from the expresses on the main lines to remote branch lines, detailing every single train service.
The Bradshaw guides, originally published in the UK in 1839, were the first to bring together the timetables of various railway companies; although the founder, George Bradshaw, died of cholera in 1853, his name lived on and the Continental edition was started in 1847. In the days before telephones, these meticulously detailed guides were indispensable for train travellers. They tell us, for instance, that the 6:02 from Vorhalle on German Railways reached its destination at Vohwinkel at 9:25 but omit to explain why it stopped at Steele for more than an hour in between.
There are, to be fair, also a couple of hundred pages of description of the places that could be reached by rail, and another long section advertising hotels, many of which went by English names such as the Bristol, Windsor and Byron. Some offered unusual treatments that today would probably fall foul of health and safety rules. Kreuznach in Rhineland, for example, was “the only German spa where Radium is obtained from the springs”, and could be used to treat everything from gout to “women’s complaints”.
By the early 20th century, international train travel had become almost as commonplace as boarding a plane to Frankfurt or Madrid is today. It had become a mass industry, catering to blue-collar workers on day trips as well as the middle classes, who could afford longer journeys.
It was, though, a major enterprise because of the huge amounts of luggage that travellers routinely carried. Philip Unwin, in Travelling by Train in the Edwardian Age, describes getting on a train at a suburban station: “The ENGAGED compartment was ceremoniously unlocked by the station master and the family piled in, each child clutching a small piece of hand luggage while their father took a careful look down along the platform to make sure that the pre-tipped porter was stowing all the luggage in the guard’s van. A wave of the green flag and the train moved gently off…”
The journey invariably began with a train ride to a Channel port and then a boat to Ostend, Boulogne or Zeebrugge. In the years leading up to the First World War, two million people crossed the Channel annually. The experience was rarely pleasant, as many passengers travelled in small boats buffeted by the choppy waters. The fastest service between London and Paris, using bigger ships, could be achieved in as little as seven and a half hours, provided the tides were kind, but The Golden Arrow, which I went on in my childhood and which served afternoon tea all through the day, was not inaugurated until 1926 (and ran for the last time in 1972).
Portillo somewhat cheats in his first episode by taking the Eurostar, a service inaugurated in 1994, rather than the ferry across the Channel, which it is still possible to do, although the dedicated Boat Train service no longer exists.
In 1913, onward journeys could reach anywhere in Europe within a few days, but ever so slowly. The fastest trains would occasionally reach speeds of 60mph but the average was far less and hardly any could be classified as an express.
While the more famous of these, which often took only first-class passengers, may have been fast and reliable, the regional and branch line services were frequently slow and uncomfortable. A couple of contemporary timetable analysts of the late 19th century, E Foxwell and TC Farrer, found few trains that averaged more than 30mph. The best was in France, where some managed 43mph, while in Germany the fastest went at just 35mph. The Orient Express could only average a paltry 32mph.
The rail companies were brilliant propagandists, and today’s nostalgia is partly inspired by their posters, emblems of an age that did not always match its promise.
Indeed, even the route followed by Portillo in his first programme – down to the Côte d’Azur – lacked basic comforts. Travelling in the late 19th century, a Baroness de Stoeckl, a regular on the line, had a nightmarish experience. She described how there were no lavatories or corridors on her train and explained that “most people took with them a most useful domestic utensil, the emptying of which necessitated the frequent lowering of the window”.
At night, she was offered no blankets or sheets, only pillows that could be hired for a franc; meanwhile, the sole heating was from paltry footwarmers that were exchanged at various stations during the night. And this was in first class.
Nevertheless, there were many fantastic journeys – and even today, a trip on the line when it reaches the Mediterranean coast through the red rocks of the Esterel on a warm summer’s evening is an experience that stays in the memory.
Nostalgia notwithstanding, there remains something unbeatable about rail travel. Even without the smell of coal-generated steam and the unmistakable sound of a locomotive’s whistle, travelling by train is the best way to get around.
Ironically, however, the threat today comes from the industry’s success. Now that trains have become fashionable again and investment is pouring into the railways, the new models, such as the Pendolinos and the Eurostars, seem more like jet planes on wheels, with their sealed environments and absence of the familiar tagadada-tagadada sound of the old trundlers of the past, thanks to welded track. The countryside whizzes by in a blur of image – a pop video compilation rather than a series of Constables.
The rot set in straight after the First World War. The 200 railway companies in the UK were consolidated into just four and they struggled financially as first the lorry, then the bus and eventually the private motor car ate away at their business.
And another casualty was Bradshaw’s Continental Guide itself, which did not appear regularly after 1913 and finally ceased publication altogether in 1939. The Golden Age of the railways was over.
Nostalgia, however, is still available across Britain. These days, there are nearly 100 preserved railways, many of which operate steam trains, that have sprung up since the Talyllyn was reopened by a bunch of enthusiasts in 1950, creating a flourishing industry.
Christian Wolmar is the author of several railway books, including ‘Blood, Iron & Gold’, and most recently, ‘The Great Railway Revolution’, both published by Atlantic Books