The Sixties Railway by Greg Morse
For the public at large, ‘the Sixties’ were all about the pill, Profumo, the Beatles, the Summer of Love, student unrest, LSD and Vietnam. Though the railway was an inherent part of that society, its own list would probably include Beeching, line closures, electrification, modernisation, Inter-City and the end of steam.
These are the markers of history, and The Sixties Railway takes a look at them all. But what was it actually like to be a passenger back then? Maybe you’d be a commuter, squeezed into a fusty carriage, bumping over the points into Liverpool Street. Maybe you’d find yourself travelling from Paddington to Bristol on the beautiful Blue Pullman, enjoying bacon and eggs as Berks became Wilts. Imagine instead catching a train from London to Glasgow. It’s a crisp January morning in 1960 and you step out of a black cab onto the cold surface of Drummond Street. You walk beneath the Doric Arch, so beloved of John Betjeman, cross the courtyard and enter the cathedral-like Great Hall. The place is packed, but once you made your way to the platforms, a smoky gloominess falls like a pall.
On the platform, young boys note the numbers of the great locomotives – the ‘Coronations’, the ‘Scots’, the ‘Princess Royals’. You board your maroon Mark I, and make your way down the corridor, hoping for an empty compartment. Your luck’s in – at least for now – and you settle yourself, dropping the blind, turning up the heat, opening the toplight a touch. You feel warm and comfortable as you sit back in the soft, inviting upholstery.
Departure time comes and you hear the guard’s whistle blow. The engine breathes low and the climb up Camden Bank begins...
Within two years, the Doric Arch had been demolished; within ten steam had gone from Euston – from everywhere – and electrification meant you could travel in smooth, sleek silence from the capital to Manchester and the north-west.
To some – like John Betjeman – the new Euston that went with the New Railway was a cold place that seemed to ignore passengers. To others – like BR itself – it was the flagship station on a flagship modern main line.
Pulling up in a cab in 1969, you’d find yourself below ground, seeking the escalators to raise you from the exhaust fumes of the basement to the bright, airy concourse above. Your next stop is the shiny Travel Centre for a ticket, after which you glance up at the huge departures board, before heading for the Sprig Buffet. Sitting at a table, you sip at a coffee, light up another Embassy and meditate on the sculpture of Britannia that used to be in the old Great Hall. Does it make you sad? Or do you think she looks more at home here against the rich green felt?
On the platform, boys still survey the scene, though the older ones recall the majesty of steam and can’t feel impressed by the rhythmless electrics that now hold court.
You show your ticket and head down the concrete slope to the platform. Stepping into open-plan comfort, you find a window seat and settle down to your newspaper.
Departure time comes and you hear the guard’s whistle blow. The locomotive wails into life and the train sails up Camden Bank. It feels like flying...
Greg Morse's new book The Sixties Railway is available for purchase now.