5 great railway documentaries from the archives

Posted: June 22, 2017 in Rail, Television, Transport


I’ve been watching and learning about trains and railways from television since I was a toddler. In past articles I’ve discussed the BBC series Making Tracks, which was a big influence, and The Train Now Departing, probably the classiest railway television series ever made. Many more documentaries like these were made, particularly during the 1980s, when railway enthusiasm was still bordering on the mainstream.

Today’s railway programmes don’t reach the major channels, but YouTube is your friend, both for contemporary videos and archive footage. The only problem is you have to cut through hours and hours of videos of people stood on the edge of a platform with a camcorder as Tornado flashes past to get to the real gems. I have a whole playlist of railway videos, ranging from classic British Transport Films from the 1950s and 1960s through to the bang-up-to-date All the Stations series. Here are five must-see documentary-length videos for any enthusiast:

Pennine Steam in the 1960s
If like me you live in the North and regularly travel by train, you will probably know the main trans-Pennine rail route quite well. The line runs between Leeds and Manchester via Huddersfield and Standedge Tunnel, one of the longest in the country. At the moment, TransPennine Express are in the process of turning this route into a premier inter-city line. But it wasn’t always so.

Pennine Steam in the 1960s, a three-part series, begins with an episode focusing on the Huddersfield-Standedge Tunnel section, contrasting the loco-hauled and Pacer services of the late 1980s/early 1990s (which was when it was made) with the steam-dominated 1960s, with the programme largely made up of archive footage shot along the line. In the final years of steam, the route mainly saw a mixture of Black Fives, 8Fs, 9Fs and Jubilees. Despite the overall lack of variety in this and other episodes, it is still fascinating to see the raw footage of a line soon to be totally changed forever by Beeching cuts and the diesel takeover.

Three episodes were made in total but only two made the VHS which I was bought when I was younger. The second episode on the video, “Volume 3”, focused on the line to Huddersfield from Bradford Exchange via Brighouse. This is another line I now know well from my travels in the area, and it adds extra significance for me. The episode not released with the others is on the Settle and Carlisle line and can also be seen on YouTube. Archive footage of steam can be quite hit and miss, and either is something you love or nonplussed by. This one is as good as you’re going to get for archive footage from Yorkshire.

Mallard: The Drake’s Progress
A4 Pacifics have been at the heart of several documentaries, mainly because they have played such a huge role in rail history, both before and after Beeching – Mallard‘s story was a central part of the Classic Trains episode on expresses, while Sir Nigel Gresley took a starring role in both the well-made documentary Steam on the Settle and Carlisle in 1982 and the first episode of The Train Now Departing on the same line six years later.

But the definitive A4 documentary is Mallard: The Drake’s Progress, made in 1988 by Channel Four during the 50th anniversary year of the flying duck’s record-breaking run down Stoke Bank. Presented by the late TV archivist John Huntley, it maps the history of the LNER’s publicity stunts, record attempts and engine experiments in the years before Gresley designed the A4. From the Silver Jubilee expresses to the world record and into BR days, it follows the story of Mallard and the A4s right up to 1988, when the garter blue Streak was returned to service by the National Railway Museum for a series of special runs, one of which – a run to Scarborough with the Travelling Post Office – is followed in the documentary. It’s not a complete history of the class, but it is a complete history of the engine, which only ran for two further years in preservation – and it makes you wonder what might be if the NRM found some cash to return to action once again…

The Great Western Experience
Railway documentaries were all the rage in the 1980s, and two in particular were produced focusing on the history and culture of Britain’s most famous railway company, the Great Western Railway. The 20th anniversary of the Great Western Society prompted an ITV documentary at the Didcot Railway Centre, which is very 1980s and is full of musical montages including one bizarre sequence celebrating GWR tat.

But the better of the two is The Great Western Experience. Two versions exist, one with basic narration, and one without, which is the one I’ve chosen as the official addition to this list – it is almost entirely ambience, giving the true atmosphere of the South West in the 1930s. As with the GWS documentary, it was partially filmed at Didcot, but the bulk of the filming is from the Severn Valley Railway, then running between Bridgnorth and Bewdley. The show includes Castles, Halls, tank engines and even a solitary glimpse of a King. An early example of slow TV, it’s not for those with short attention spans, but the closing sequence is well worth sticking around for.

Losing Track: Beeching
The Channel 4 series Losing Track provided the sort of alternative look at the history of transport policy that is sorely lacking today, even in these heady days of Corbynism. Three episodes are available on YouTube, and all are worth watching for those interested in the history of how the railways were run.

Episodes on nationalisation and contemporary 1980s policy are also available, but the best is clearly the fifth episode of the series on Dr Beeching’s cuts. As well as analysing the propaganda surrounding the report (which can be seen in full here), it focuses on specific examples (South Wales, the highlands of Scotland, the North London line) to illustrate a wider interrogation of the cuts, concluding that Beeching’s report was both fundamentally flawed in its reasoning and on morally dubious grounds. It’s a shame that latter day programmes on Beeching deal only with the legacy of his report, rather than actually critiquing the decision-making process – this, from a very different TV age, is a rare exception.

Classic Trains: Loaded
Channel 4’s Classic Trains series is now 20 years old. Narrated by the dulcet tones of the legendary DJ John Peel, the six episodes covered six aspects of railway history, particularly focusing on steam and rail heritage. Episodes on heavy industry, suburbia, narrow gauge and trams gave coverage to parts of Britain’s rail history previously neglected on TV, building to a fantastic crescendo with the last two episodes. The fifth episode covered expresses, by contrast the subject of many documentaries, but gives a more detailed history from Scotsman to Deltic and preservation.

But for me, the best episode is the last, focusing on rail freight. Starting in the wastelands of Toton, it charts the decline of freight from the heights of the huge marshalling yards down to one of the last quarries served by rail, Barrington near Cambridge. It includes a great interviews and songs with former freight drivers, and a brief mention for one of the unsung heroes of British Railways – the Class 08 shunter.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s