Review: The Train Now Departing

Posted: August 1, 2014 in Media, Rail, Television, Transport

When I was in my early years, I enjoyed watching trains on television, to the point where my mother taped just about anything that appeared that included a steam engine. At the time, it was just nice to see those fascinating machines over and over again, but more recently, it’s provided me with something to look at from a more grown-up perspective, because some of it was actually quite good.

One such programme that my mother taped was the final episode of the series The Train Now Departing, a documentary series produced by the BBC in 1988 and then shown again a few years later. Yes, back then even with only four channels programmes were screened again years later; one other programme that was taped as an episode of Wynford Vaughan-Thomas’ series Great Little Trains of Wales on the Vale of Rheidol Railway, which it turns out was actually originally produced in 1976.

TTND was produced to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the end of steam on British Railways, and the six episodes focused on various aspects of this, along with the Beeching Era of closures and cutbacks, and the resulting railway preservation movement. The sixth episode of the series focused exclusively on the latter, covering the restoration of Southern Railway Merchant Navy Class locomotive Port Line, the Woodham Brothers’ Barry scrapyard (which still retained some engines at the time), the early days of Peak Rail, and the current state of the Bo’ness and Kinneil Railway.

But a few years ago I came into a VHS copy of the entire series – up until that point I didn’t even know there had been a full series. It is also currently available on BBC iPlayer.

The most impressive thing about the series was the feel of it. Unlike many more recent railway documentaries, the contemporary footage was filmed in almost cinematic quality. There is also an abundance of archive footage used, most notably the opening sequence which showed the transition of Low Gill Viaduct on the Ingleton Branch from active railway to footpath. Anthony Smith’s witty narration was intelligent without being complex. The series had a grandeur that I’ve not seen from other railway TV series.

This is reflected in that last episode, which I’ve watched dozens of times. Beginning with archive footage of the final steam specials over parts of the Great Western Railway, it included atmospheric footage of the scrapping of steam engines, the rusting hulks of Woodham’s, the decline and demolition of Swindon works, the peace and tranquillity of the dales once served by the Buxton-Matlock line, and the ageing North British Railway engine Maude thundering through the forest beyond Bo’ness. It could work as a stand-alone 30-minute documentary, but it was also the appropriate end for the series, showing the progress made over the previous twenty years and the promise of the future – even if a full Buxton-Matlock restoration remains a dream.


Two rusting Southern Railway express locomotives at Woodham Brothers scrapyard

But watching the other episodes suggests it wasn’t even the high point. The first episode focused on the battle to save the Settle & Carlisle Railway in the 1980s, one of the greatest tales of British railway history. The episode was filmed shortly before Transport Minister Michael Portillo overturned the government’s decision to close the line, a decision since vindicated by the enormous success the line has seen in the years since. With more atmospheric footage of the windswept Pennine moors, quaint signalboxes and grand viaducts, it is more than a bit subtle in supporting the case for it to stay open, even if it was meant to be impartial. They even show minister David Mitchell warming to the railway.

It doesn’t take much to make a great Settle & Carlisle documentary, because the story of the line is uniquely remarkable itself. Similarly, it shouldn’t be too difficult to make a great documentary on the West Highland Line, another of Britain’s great railways. But TTND‘s approach makes it stand out all the more in arguably the best episode of the series.

It focuses on the enigmatic West Highland driver Callum MacRaild, who normally drove the regular diesel-hauled services on the line, except for in the summer when he was the lead driver for the West Highlander specials, later known as The Jacobite after privatisation. Callum is used as a lens for looking at the context of the line: its unique nature, beautiful scenery, and the then-new radio signalling system, all in the context of the history and culture of the area and its future (with shots of the new road to Mallaig under construction).

The closing shot of Callum venturing out onto one of the lochs in a small boat with his West Highland terriers (of course), stating in the voiceover that he was looking forward to retirement but would miss the railway, is made all the more poignant in the knowledge that he sadly died ten years later after suffering from motor neurone disease, just a year after driving a steam engine for the last time.


LNER K1 Class no. 2005 on one of the West Highlander specials between Fort William and Mallaig

The third episode has a very different feel without losing any of the series’ charm. The central figure is middle-aged train buff Barry Smith, who used to travel down to Exmouth for summer holidays on a Southern Railway express when he was a child and is eagerly anticipating following the same route again, including part of the journey behind Southern West Country Class express locomotive City of Wells.

However, in contrast to the upbeat nature of the other episodes, which all suggest hope for the future, the journey proves to be an enormous disappointment for Barry. It is clearly evident that the journey has lost its charm, summed up the vastly reduced Exmouth station, now just a platform in place of the former vast structure and layout. Adding insult to injury, City of Wells is unavailable for the steam special, which is instead pulled…*gasp*…by a LMS 8F freight engine – ‘an alien machine from quite another line’, as Anthony Smith says. You can feel ‘horrified’ Barry’s indignation from the other side of the screen 26 years on.

It may all seem a bit petty on the surface (and even the narrator seems to be having a slight dig), because it’s still steam, a novelty in itself. But you can tell it meant something to Barry, because he grew up with these engines and wanted to recreate this childhood journey, something that was doomed to failure with one disappointment after another the closer he gets to the Devon resort. It’s easy to sympathise, because it encapsulates the decline of Britain’s railways into relative soullessness in the aftermath of Beeching. This makes it one of the most memorable episodes of the series.

After that, there are two relatively specialist episodes. The first covers the various heritage railways of the Isle of Man, charting the rise and fall of the Isle of Man Railway in particular, which, like its counterpart on the mainland, also experienced losses and closures in the 1960s. It is perhaps the oddity of the series, not really fitting within the context of the other five episodes and the theme of twenty years since the end of BR steam given that it was never part of BR. Nonetheless, it works on its own, though perhaps it would have been better as a stand-alone documentary; it feels like it could go on for at least another 15 minutes.

The fifth episode of the series focused on industrial lines. Beginning with a look at the surviving steam locomotives at Castle Donington Power Station, probably the last to be in regular service for this purpose, Amberley Museum and Rutland Railway Museum, it also uses extensive archive footage, and highlights the attempts at trying to learn about and document former industrial sites now long demolished and covered up. It is an interesting idea to cover this, but it is perhaps for the rail aficionado than the other episodes of the series.


The Southern Railway had four branch lines in East Devon, serving several towns and coastal resorts. Only the line from Exeter to Exmouth survives, and, as Barry Smith finds out, even that is a shadow of its former self

If there are overarching themes, they are largely celebratory of a golden age of rail travel, suggesting that there is an inherent magic in steam engines that diesels and electrics don’t have. It raises questions about the idea of ‘progress’ – one Settle & Carlisle signalman says that it is getting towards the time for him to retire as new staff were coming in and they had different ideas, reluctantly intimating that this is progress, while it is clear that Anthony Smith isn’t a great fan of contemporary trains.

The series seems ambivalent towards Beeching and the changes he oversaw, with a couple of people including Barry Smith suggesting that some closures had to happen, despite the romance associated with branch lines and steam engines. Certainly Anthony Smith implies Beeching was an almost comical villain, drawing attention to ‘that familiar moustache’, seemingly an allusion to another much-hated figure and maybe implying that his overall image counted against him. It is at least a diplomatic stance, which fits with more recent approaches to the Beeching Era in railway history.

The heroes are those who set out to film steam engines and lines while they were still in service, particularly Ivo Peters whose collection provided most of the archive material, and the preservationists. If there are true villains, it is subtly implied that it is the contemporary government(s) for not investing enough in BR at the time – the post-steam era is now generally considered to be a disappointing period for Britain’s railways due to the lack of care of lines and facilities, and the missteps taken in producing new trains.

But the greatest theme is the question of why: why are we so fascinated by our railway history, and in particular, why do we love steam engines and why do we want to preserve them? As Anthony Smith asks during the final episode, ‘have we become a nation of museum-keepers hating to throw anything away?’


The iconic station site at Bo’ness and NBR 0-6-0 Maude

Unlike the similar but subtly different Classic Trains series on Channel 4 which aired in 1997 and was a general thematic history of Britain’s railways, there are continuing returns to the idea of the romance for steam and the aesthetic quality of it, now largely lost but still being maintained by preservationists.

While Classic Trains, with its John Peel narration and more modern format, was slicker, broader and more consistent, TTND would perhaps be more enjoyable for a general audience purely for its slightly superior atmospheric quality and human appeal; it reached a higher peak with the episodes that focused on individual case studies: the Settle & Carlisle, West Highland, London to Exmouth and Survivors episodes.

Despite the production of TTND being more distant than the end of steam was to TTND, it is still a fascinating series, because we can all relate to the human stories being told. This essentially makes it a timeless classic.

———-

So why don’t we see this sort of series being made any more? Yes, the BBC have done series on railway history – Dan Snow’s Locomotion aired last year and Michael Portillo’s Great British Railway Journeys has lasted for five seasons. But these cater more for a mass audience in that generic BBC documentary style, and Portillo’s series in particular is less about the railways themselves than features surrounding them. As much as anything TTND was also a social history, but in the sense of how the railway directly affected people’s lives, be it in living in rural or marginal areas or just going on holiday.

It is telling that TTND is available on iPlayer under the heading of BBC Four when the original series was broadcast on BBC Two at 8 pm, before later being repeated on BBC One in the middle of the day (1990), in the morning (1991) and late at night (1993). Today a series of this quality would be considered high brow enough for BBC Four, or rather too high brow for BBC One and Two, which perhaps suggests the problem – in the digital era, BBC One and Two are considered mainstream, and trains aren’t.

There’s no opportunity for a series like this to be broadcast to a wide audience because of this pigeonholing; even in this era of audience fragmentation, BBC One and Two still get a lot more viewers than BBC Four, as force of habit means a lot of people tend not to deviate away from the traditional channels. The creation of BBC Four hasn’t made the BBC produce more quality programming; it’s just made them shove the quality programming they did make onto a separate channel to fill their main channels with more cheap, derivative tat.

I’d like to think that TTND is about more than the trains, which is what makes it so appealing – not in the same way as the Portillo series as the railways are still central to the episodes, but in terms of our relationship with them. It’s something that anyone of a certain age can relate to, and something that we should be educating not anyone of that age about – the BBC’s mantra is to educate, entertain and inform, after all.

Maybe I’m naive but I do think another quality documentary series on Britain’s railways would be popular – providing there’s good material. The question, of course, is whether that old way of life from the steam era has now gone for good, lost due to progress, privatisation and the passage of time. There’s a great difference between 20 years after the end of steam and nearly 50, but maybe that upcoming anniversary will spur them into something. Maybe if I get writing…


This picture at Low Fell Viaduct was taken at the same time as the archive footage in the intro

Images used in the spirit of fair use

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