31 October 2011
Some readers may find it difficult to believe that for a brief time during my early, spotty teenage years, like thousands of others of my kind, I hung out out on railway stations collecting engine numbers and ticking them off in my Ian Allen train spotters guide. When I look back on those days, I can’t for the life of me figure out why I did it. What was the attraction?
Perhaps it was the smell of steam and coal, which when mixed in the right combination, is a heady brew, something akin to the best sensemilla to a twelve-year old and by some miracle my Observer’s Book of Railway Locomotives of Britain has somehow survived the years, minus the dust cover unfortunately. A birthday present from my mum in 1957.
Victorian industrial capitalism is now viewed through steam-fogged glasses and it’s been transported to the fictional land of Heritage where the past is embalmed in nostalgia. All those amazing machines, with their pistons, cogs, gears and levers, all whirring away in perfect harmony and best illustrated by the steam engine, the engine of industrial capitalism.
The invention of the railway network is probably the British Empire’s greatest, and only contribution to world culture but in an irony only possible for capitalism to produce, the railway– that made industrial capitalism possible–was jettisoned in the 1960s as surplus to requirement by those self-same ‘captains of industry’ the railway created in the first place.
Jettisoning the past is a central theme of capitalism, a necessary component if the nature of production is to be continually revolutionized and along with the workers who make it all possible.
When I was a kid apparently lots of boys my age wanted to be engine drivers (I wasn’t one of them), though it was a dirty, dangerous and grossly underpaid profession. But such is the nature of working class camaraderie, a ‘band of brothers’ but it also had its pecking order, with each function clearly delineated by union membership, grade and so forth. And an entirely male preserve.
A few years ago I wrote a piece about the Indian state-owned rail network, the largest in the world, carrying tens of millions of passengers a day and now an integral component of Indian culture in every sense of the word. Not without its problems and contradictions of course, especially as the neoliberal agenda asserts itself.
In the same essay I also wrote the following:
A couple of facts: The Indian Railway is the single biggest civil employer of people on the planet and the then newly-appointed minister of Transport’s first act was to rescind a decision to replace the locally made pottery cups that everyone traveling on the railway uses with plastic ones, because the switch resulted in 100,000 potters being made redundant.
Now I contend that this is a good example of socialist culture in action. It may not be the most ‘efficient’ enterprise on the planet, it’s bureaucratic beyond belief, the entire network–the biggest in Asia–runs on paper, lots of paper, vast tomes get exchanged between guards when they switch shifts but so what?
The issue here is that the Indian Railway is not only intrinsic to Indian culture but also indispensable, socially as well as economically. It’s not merely an enterprise, for grouped around it are literally millions of people who are not directly employed by the Railway but who service the passengers as well as the railway’s needs. — ‘All Aboard!’
The contrast with the country that invented the railway could not be more stark once the UK decided that the automobile was the new generator of profit. The railway a relic of the 19th century but above all ‘unprofitable’, in money terms that is.
The double-whammy of the Beeching cuts and the privatization of the railways has left the the UK with the most expensive rail fares in Europe and the worst service. This from the country that invented it!
In retrospect however, I wonder if the ‘captains of industry’ are ruing the day they let the former boss of ICI, Beeching lose on the most comprehensive rail network in the world and smashed it to pieces? Literally. Capital infrastructure built over two centuries is not now easily or cheaply replaced but indicates just how short-sighted capitalism is.