Tuesday, July 03, 2018
The Branch Line by RPA Edwards
A book aimed at schools as part of Environmental Studies (who was doing this in 1970?), The Branch Line tells the entire history of a fictional line running to the town of Rockton in Rileshire.
The story opens in the 1840s when it is found that the old methods of transport, sailing barges on the River Rill, couldn't keep pace with the demand for the local stone. Along comes the railway and gradually barge trade dies out. On the other hand, farmers find they can transport their animals to market quicker. Passenger services were introduced and this allowed locals to travel, even as far as London!
After WW1, motor vehicles appear but they aren't as good as trains. WW2 though sees more improvements and the quarry company buys a fleet of lorries. Demand for stone changes too, crushed material being more use than large blocks.
The line started to lose money and was threatened with the Beeching axe. This would affect many people especially small market-gardners who sent good via train to the stall holders of Rilchester market rather than wholesalers. This extra profit was essential and would be lost if the railway closed.
Public meetings are held and petitions signed. A public inquiry takes place, but the outcome was still closure on the basis that the local bus company would run services for everyone and not just commuters. They don't of course, because of competition between two companies in one area.
The council investigates buying and running the line, but people aren't willing to pay higher rates to make this happen, so the railway closes.
With the line gone, the trackbed reverts to nature to the delight of foxes and schoolchildren doing nature studies. A local mushroom grower takes over the tunnel.
Lack of transport forces some of the characters from the story to move from houses in the country to flats on an estate. Rockton's town centre starts to die off as people with cars now decide to travel to larger nearby towns.
All this is illustrated with attractive paintings by Gareth Floyd.
The Branch Line is, to my mind, a brilliant book. It succinctly tells the story of a local railway from birth to death and uses a few character along the way to explain how the changes matter to people. Many of the events are recognisable, such as the comment that if all the people who had come to see the last train had travelled regularly on the railway, it wouldn't have closed.
As an overview of the social history of railways, there's very little better, at least as an introduction to the subject. It's also well written and genuinely enjoyable read.