The Railways: Nation, Network and People

67b01e82-676c-11e5-_984991kJames Meek at The London Review of Books:

The peculiarity of the railways in the country that invented them is that everyone involved can claim to be playing a heritage role, whatever they do. Modernity at its most destructive and ruthless was as essential a characteristic of the railways in the 1830s as engineering flair and craftsmanship, and capitalism at its most exploitative and greedy was a greater driver of the initial rapid growth of the network than abstract concern for progress or the good of society. I simplified the story of the Ordsall Chord. A nuance: the leader of the campaign to stop it being built as planned, Mark Whitby, former president of the Institution of Civil Engineers, proposes an alternative route that would retain the historic station’s access to the rail network and keep intact more of the structures designed by George Stephenson, the engineer who built the Liverpool & Manchester. But Whitby’s route, apart from costing £20 million more, would run through, and interfere with, a project on a long-derelict piece of land, Middlewood Locks, where the state-owned Beijing Construction and Engineering Group is about to begin building a dense block-scape of shops and offices on behalf of a larger group of investors from Britain, China and Singapore. (If railways are the thread that will sew the disparate limbs together, Chinese investment is the electricity with which George Osborne – the chancellor who promised a Northern Powerhouse – hopes the assembled body might be jolted into life.)

Those whose priority in 2016 is the preservation of George Stephenson’s walls and bridges no doubt love railways. But paradoxically they are re-enacting the role of Victorian opponents of the intrusion of railways into spaces where they had previously been completely absent, preservationists like John Ruskin and William Wordsworth (‘Is then no nook of English ground secure/From rash assault?’). The agents of Network Rail, who are building the Ordsall Chord, can and do portray themselves playing the Stephenson role.

more here.