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Light Railway Viewpoints

What is a Light Railway? Today we think of it as the Docklands Light Railway, a sort of super passenger tram. In the 19th. century however our ancestors thought of it as a method of bringing cheap transport to rural areas. This is the problem Colonel Stephens and others sought to solve with their engineering and management skills.

In the 1870s and 1880s, there was a period of deep agricultural depression. In those horse-and-cart days the only way for farmers to get their produce on to the national market was by railway. These were, however, very expensive creations. The national tide of railway building had long passed its high-water mark and was ebbing away from rural areas. These remained desperately in need of cheaper transport if their economy was to survive. Their salvation in this respect was of course to be found in the internal combustion engine and improved road surfaces, but this was a distant 40-50 years away. The ever-enterprising Victorians therefore came up with a concept fitted to their steam age. Cut the frills, stay away from the hills, have sharp curves and steep gradients, lighten the rails and the locomotives and use that wonderful new corrugated iron for buildings.

viewpoint1Advocates of this approach had been around since the earliest days of railways in the 1840s. The Festiniog Railway in North Wales had caused a sensation in the 1860s with its ability to carry loads cheaply through difficult country and pay dividends of up to 30% a year. This example caused an explosion of development in the colonies and elsewhere in the late 19th century but at home little headway was made. Short narrow-gauge railways caused delays, damage and extra cost when goods were trans-shipped to the main line.

The engineers and politicians had not yet come up with new methods of reducing the cost of standard-gauge rural railways. They tried of course. Two railway Acts of the 1860s mention light railways and in 1870 the Tramways Act was passed. The tramway concept of railways built along the dusty public highways of the time was in vogue for a while. They only really took root however in specialised form, for passenger travel in urban areas. During these years, practical engineering expertise evolved and the concept of the light railway hardened. It became a railway "built to be suited to the traffic it could expect initially and for the first few years" . If successful the railway would be upgraded, if unsuccessful risk capital would be minimised.

Rural pressure on the government to "do something" and positively encourage light railways by sweeping away Board of Trade (predecessor of the Department of Transport) restrictions and supplement local finance with central government funds led to the Light Railways Act of 1896. Holman Fred Stephens, with his newly established consultancy, was well placed to take advantage of this demand and used the Act in many projects in the following optimistic years.

In true Victorian fashion, optimism spilled over into verse and in the newly arrived popular press a poem, "That Tight Little, Light Little Railway" appeared in a London evening newspaper. The rural railway became deeply rooted in English culture. Railways represented stability. In the modern terms, they became " part of the infrastructure" . Their presence represented wellbeing and comfort. Siegfried Sassoon, at the height of the First World War, expressed this profound feeling in his poem "A Local Train of Thought".

The enthusiasm did not last. Light railways had arrived too late. Costs could not be kept low enough to service cheap transport rates. Local funds were not available, grants were not enough, the mainline railways turned their backs - they had enough traffic anyway. Even worse, lightly built equipment often did not stand up to the rough and tumble of service and no funds were available to reinvest in better. All that could be hoped for was modest profitability with more robust second-hand equipment. Stephens adapted, the railways he managed to build survived, but many projects died stillborn. Applications for light railways fell from 88 in 1898 to 2 in 1914. During the Edwardian years the 1896 Act was held to have failed. It was however serviceable enough to survive for 100 years, finally to be most useful in keeping down the costs of the railway preservation movement.

The rise of the motor lorry in the 1920s brought nemesis. Goods traffic departed wholesale. Passenger traffic had never been great, for country people did not travel much and when they did it was by the cheaper motor bus. The railways run by the mainline railways survived by drawing on their funds and engineering assistance. Despite innovative use of limited capital for projects like the famous Stephens' rail buses, independent railways fell into decline and bankruptcy.

viewpoint2They still helped many farmers though. Coal, lime and manure of all types - horse from the city streets to exotic shoddy - came in and away went wheat, hay, potatoes, hops and sugar beet. The government to keep it open under the duress of war in 1941 requisitioned the Wissington Railway in deepest East Anglia. A beaming Minister of Agriculture, in his braces, drove the inaugural train with the headboard "The Bread-and-Butter Express" . There was still some fun to be had even in the dark days of war. The farmers shipped off their beet and potatoes from this productive, but largely roadless, tract of country at subsidised rates. However, the war ended and they soon deserted as they built their subsidised farm roads.

Lovers of the picturesque now discovered these decayed railways. At first by lone railway enthusiasts but later the wider public. They however became something of a local, if not national, joke with old locomotives and carriages compared to kettles and hencoops. Punch magazine enjoyed itself commissioning some fine cartoons from Rowland Emmett on his mythical " Far Twittering and Oyster Creek Railway" theme. The Kent and East Sussex line even managed its own illustrated poem "Farmers' Train".

From this mood of gentle nostalgia there arose a great voluntary movement, the railway preservationists. People laughed at the "Titfield Thunderbolt" but as that film said clearly what was fading must not be lost; it must be saved if humanly possible. And so it was. Much was saved from the fire and furnace. Around the country much has survived to be enjoyed today. At our museum and railway, we can view the achievements of a man and a movement. They are not forgotten.

Further Reading:

Light Railways in England and Wales. P Boseley. Manchester University Press. 1990
Light Railways. W J K Davies. Ian Allan. 1964
The Country Railway. David St John Thomas. David and Charles. 1976