Railways and Fiction

Christopher Daley


Railways are news. On the one hand, they are the source of consternation as above inflation fare rises couple with the perceived drudgery of commuting to characterise the railways as a site of soaring ticket prices and overcrowded, invariably late trains. But this sentiment lives alongside whimsy and romanticism, be it through preservation lines or the restoration of ageing steam engines. This paradoxical image of the railway system is, however, nothing new within the British popular imagination and as Ian Carter (2000) points out, this may have something to do with the railways’ historical link to contested areas of modern everyday life:

So much that we take for granted today was invented or perfected in the nineteenth century to facilitate railways’ development, or to limit their potential for political, fiscal or physical mayhem: standardised time, a disciplined and uniform labour force, large-scale bureaucratic organisation, joint-stock industrial corporations, close State regulation of private capitalists’ activities. (118)

Similarly, British fiction has maintained an ambivalent relationship with railways. Confronted with a new revolutionary transport system, Victorian novelists offered the most sustained exploration of the potentialities of trains, yet by being, as Nicholas Daly (1999) puts it, ‘the agent and icon of the acceleration of the pace of everyday life’ (463) in the mid-nineteenth century, the railways were also a source for the countless anxieties of industrialisation. Contemporary fiction, in Britain at least, is curiously quiet on the railways, with their appearance often limited to neo-Victorian narratives that attempt to reignite the energy of the steam age. However, to mark the 150 year anniversary of the London Underground, Penguin will release, in March, a series of railway writings [1] that could, perhaps, ignite an imaginative investigation of a transport system that is often seen as mundane, yet is simultaneously a potent symbol of transformation. It is therefore apt to briefly map the terrain of railways in fiction and popular culture in order to anticipate where any future speculation may venture.


Murphy Creek Railway Bridge

Whimsy and romanticism: our contemporary relationship with trains is informed in complex ways by nineteenth-century industrialisation [Image by urbanworkbench under a CC BY-NC-ND license]


Of the canonical Victorian novelists, Charles Dickens is probably a pertinent starting point for such a historical overview, especially as Dombey and Son (1846-48) is often cited as the first railway novel. While the experience of train travel is not interrogated majorly in Dickens’ work – Carter (2000) notes that the railway occupies ‘no more than eight, of 833, pages’ (119) – what Dickens successfully achieves is an evocation of the immense change facilitated by this new technology. Indeed, following the completion of the London and Birmingham Railway the narrator notes that the ‘crowds of people and mountains of goods, departing and arriving scores upon scores of times in every four-and-twenty hours, produced a fermentation in the place that was always in action’ (245). In analysing Dickens’ representation of London in the novel Raymond Williams (1973) explains that the city and the railway exist in symbiosis, with the speed and efficiency of the railway in turn feeding the restless city:

In seeing the city, as he here sees the railway, as at once the exciting and the threatening consequence of a new mobility, as not only an alien and indifferent system but as the unknown, perhaps unknowable, sum of so many lives, jostling, colliding, disrupting, adjusting, recognising, settling, moving again to new spaces, Dickens went to the centre, the dynamic centre, of this transforming social experience. (164)

Of course, this broad recording of the railways’ role in social and cultural change features alongside more macabre representations such as the death of Mr Carker later in the novel or in Dickens’ subsequent stories, notably ‘The Signal-Man’ (1866), which was published a year after Dickens’ own experience of a railway disaster at Staplehurst in Kent. With this in mind it’s worth noting Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina (1873-77) and Émile Zola’s La Bête Humaine (1890) as canonical works that represent the railway as not merely a revolutionary mechanical tool of industrialisation, but as a mode of transport that also contributes to profound psychological change. [2]

Interestingly, since these Victorian explorations, British fiction in particularly has been caught in a bind when attempting to represent the railways. While this is not aimed as a wholly representative statement, it is fair to note that British railway writing has struggled to go beyond the energies of the steam age. The success of crime fiction set in the enclosed carriages of steam locomotives – notably Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express (1934) and 4.50 from Paddington (1957) or contemporaneous neo-Edwardian murder mysteries such as Andrew Martin’s Jim Stringer series –  has helped feed the popular notion that the era of railway’s being central to life and death passed with the eradication of steam engines from the national railway in 1968.


Édouard Manet's The Railway

19th-century writers like Charles Dickens, Leo Tolstoy and Émile Zola and painters such as Édouard Manet explore the profound psychological change inaugurated by railways [Image by Steven Zucker under a CC BY-NC-SA license]


Even so, at the beginning of the twentieth century, H.G. Wells in Anticipations ([1901] 1902) looked to go beyond the steam engine, describing the Victorian network as ‘really only a vast system of trains of horse-waggons and coaches drawn along rails by pumping-engines upon wheels’ (12) and gazed upon the emergence of the motorcar along with a fascinating system of escalators underground as more efficient forms of mobility. Furthermore, in mid-twentieth century Europe Herman Sörgel’s gigantic Atlantropa project envisioned a complimentary road and railway connection traversing a huge bridge between southern Europe and Africa, while Kraftwerk’s 1977 album Trans-Europe Express contained a single of the same name, which imagined a European high speed service capable of travelling between Paris and Vienna in a matter of hours.

In Britain, Wells’ prediction was half-realised as after the Second World War the shift from railways to automobiles was emphasised by the opening of the first section of the M1 in 1959. As investment and belief in the railways subsided, popular representation also charted their demise. Released a year after Kraftwerk’s celebration of high-speed train travel, The Jam’s single ‘Down in a Tube Station at Midnight’ (1978) characterises a train station as analogous with urban decay. Beaten and robbed by a gang of thugs the narrator looks up at the walls of the station to see British Rail advertising mingled with graffiti:

The last thing that I saw
As I lay there on the floor
Was “Jesus Saves” painted by an atheist nutter
And a British Rail poster read “Have an Awayday – a cheap holiday –
Do it today!”

As British Rail was prepared for privatisation in the 1980s the concept of train travel as a source of social and personal transformation appeared, naturally, antiquated. However, as Carter (2001) argues, trains are key to understanding modernity: ‘transport by rail might have been largely superseded by cars, trucks and aircraft today, but the railway age laid tracks along which our world still runs’ (4).


Lake Palmer Railway

Contemporary climate change necessitates a re-engagement with thinking about the railways in bold, utopian terms [Image by Pravesvuth Uparanukraw under a CC BY-NC-SA license]


Indeed, while contemporary debates about the railways often centre on ticket prices, industrial action and engineering work, the future may well require a reengagement with thinking about the railways in bold, utopian terms, particularly as climate change becomes a potentially restrictive factor in the expansion of airports and roads. A recent article by John Armstrong and John Preston (2011) used government research to assess how Britain’s transport infrastructure may look in the coming years. They touch on a number of near-future scenarios, with one being especially striking:

It is envisaged that, by 2055, the UK has changed enormously since the early 21st century, with cities, especially, benefitting from mixed-use development and improved, sustainable transport links. In addition to walking and cycling facilities, intra-urban light rail schemes are widespread, complemented by high-speed intercity services. Longer-distance travel is more difficult than previously, and expensive, with emphasis on energy conservation rather than on speed. (1573)

They conclude by stating that the pressures of climate change coupled with the rising cost of road and air travel make investment in railways essential, explaining that while ‘the past 50 years have seen a nadir in rail’s fortunes’ (1579) they speculate that ‘the continued expansion of high-speed rail services is likely’ (1579) in the future.

With this in mind, contemporary creative writers may therefore set their sights on the growth of high-speed rail as the facilitator of social change. A useful inspiration for this may reside in the current controversies over the new proposed line between London and the West Midlands. The route of High Speed 2 (HS2) through the Chilterns has provoked noisy protests from local residents and the Stop HS2 campaign, who object to the environmental impact of the route and question the wisdom of government research. Yet, there is a wider social aspect to this debate which can be found in the language used by some protestors. The actor, Geoffrey Palmer, recently added his support to the campaign against the new line by appearing on a video for the BBC’s Daily Politics programme where he strolled through picturesque countryside and rural villages whilst calling for the Prime Minister to ‘leave our countryside alone’.


Sevilla Railway Station

Will the growth of high-speed rail inspire writers in the 21st Century? [Image by Monika under a CC BY-SA license]


Similarly, the Campaign to Protect Rural England released a report in 2011 entitled Getting Back on Track: Why New Thinking is Needed about High Speed Rail, which makes a revealing comment about the design of any new line: ‘Although design is at the bottom of this hierarchy for landscape impacts, world class design should be a hallmark of HS2 to make the line an asset wherever possible and follow the example of the great Victorian engineers such as Brunel’ (20). The organisation’s mention of a prominent nineteenth century engineer touches upon earlier railway development to reflect on contemporary expansion, whereas Palmer’s polemic evokes what George Orwell ([1941] 2000) calls ‘the privateness of English life’ (141) away from the clutches of centralised social organisation. HS2 has therefore seen the clashing of traditional concepts of Englishness with large-scale state planning centred around speculative research into demographic, environmental and mobility needs in the twenty-first century. Railways are accordingly becoming, once again, the catalysts for change. In the long term, high speed rail may shift temporal and spatial relationships a step further than it did in the nineteenth century, yet this also produces anxieties about the cultures that may be eradicated in this ceaseless march. The task of the contemporary creative railway writer is to tap into these new conditions and speculate on their technological, cultural and political implications.                                  


CITATION: Christopher Daley, "Railways and Fiction," Alluvium, Vol. 2, No. 1 (2013): n. pag. Web. 12 January 2013, http://dx.doi.org/10.7766/alluvium.v2.1.04


[author] [author_image timthumb=’on’] http://www.alluvium-journal.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/12/Screen-Shot-2012-04-19-at-15.54.53.png[/author_image] [author_info] Christopher Daley is a final year PhD student and Visiting Lecturer at the University of Westminster. His PhD thesis examinines the influence of the Cold War on British science fiction between 1945 and 1969. Christopher co-organised the international conference "The Apocalypse and Its Discontents" at the University of Westminster in December 2010, and is currently joint organiser of the research seminar series held at Westminster. [/author_info] [/author]



[1] Some of these works, notably John Lanchester’s What We Talk About When We Talk About The Tube will be reviewed in my follow up chapter later this year.

[2] Daly’s (1999) article ‘Railway Novels: Sensation and the Modernization of the Senses’, ELH, 66 (2) (Summer 1999): 461 – 487 furthers this discussion by analysing the work of Walter Benjamin and Georg Simmel and the idea that ‘hyperstimulation of the nerves is itself a component of historical modernization’ (465)


Works Cited:

Armstrong, J. and Preston, J. ‘Alternative Railway Futures: Growth and/or Specialisation?’ Journal of Transport Geography. 19 (6) (November 2011): 1570 – 1579, http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jtrangeo.2011.03.012.

BBC. ‘HS2: Actor Geoffrey Palmer Against High Speed Rail Plan’ (9th January 2013) [online video]. Available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-20958307 [accessed 10th January 2013].

Campaign to Protect Rural England. Getting Back on Track: Why New Thinking is Needed about High Speed Rail. (London, February 2011). Available online at: http://www.cpre.org.uk/resources/transport/rail/item/1868-getting-back-on-track [accessed 10th January 2013].

Carter, Ian. ‘“The lost idea of a train”: Looking for Britain’s Railway Novel’, The Journal of Transport History, 21 (2) (September 2000): 117 – 139.

Carter, Ian. Railways and Culture in Britain: the Epitome of Modernity (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2001).

Daly, Nicholas. ‘Railway Novels: Sensation Fiction and the Modernization of the Senses’, ELH, 66 (2) (Summer 1999): 461 – 487, http://dx.doi.org/10.1353/elh.1999.0013.

Dickens, Charles. Dombey and Son (London and New York: Penguin, 2002).

Orwell, George. ‘The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius,’ in George Orwell: Essays (London and New York: Penguin, 2000): 138 – 188.

Weller, Paul. ‘Down in a Tube Station at Midnight’ from The Jam, All Mod Cons (UK: Polydor, 1978).  

Wells, H.G. Anticipations: of the Reaction of Mechanical and Scientific upon Human Life and Thought (London: Chapman and Hall, 1902).

Williams, Raymond. The Country and the City (Oxford and London: Oxford University Press, 1973).



Please feel free to comment on this article.

6 Replies to “Railways and Fiction”

  1. There's a Gothic-Horror angle that springs to mind, a contrast between the 1890s and 1990s:  Railways appear as symbols of enlightenment and modernity in Marsh's The Beetle and Stoker's Dracula (both 1897) which help conquer the (Orientalised) foreign and mystical threat, and thereby preserve British identities.  Contrastingly, Stephen Laws 1994 novel Ghost Train makes the Kings Cross line unify ley lines and pre-historic burial grounds to power an ancient evil attempting to escape from its temporary containment in the rail line and spread out into the world — all of which seems to nicely figure the privatisation of British Rail under the Conservative government.  


    1. Many thanks for your comments, Mark. You make a very interesting point about the role of railways in Gothic/Horror fiction and thank you for mentioning Stephen Laws's novel, which I was previously unaware of. It sounds fascinating and I will pick up a copy. Something I didn't have enough space to write about in the article was the recurring presence of railways in horror and SF. The London Underground seems to be particularly appealling in this regard, with the early Dr. Who serial The Web of Fear (1968) springing to mind as well as Quatermass and the Pit (1958-9 (TV serial)) and contemporary horror films such as Creep (2004). This is something I will hopefully touch on in my forthcoming article, but it seems that the tube functions here as both a marvel of modernity whilst simulatenously, its construction requires modern machinery to rub up against the archaeological and the mythical. It might therefore be interesting (this is something for a broader project) to compare the representations of underground railway with overground train travel to see what convergences and divergences there may be.  

      1. I thought about Quatermass and the Pit but wondered if it was outside the scope of what you had in mind (not seen Creep, although I think I caught the opening scenes on TV once).
        Treating London Underground fictions as a distinct subset makes me think of Conrad Williams' psychogeography-inflected Horror London Revenant (2004) — which has a similar opening to Tobias Hill's Underground but is closer in tone to M. John Harrison — and earlier Horror visions of the underground such as the film Death Line (1972, I think), because both concern the concept of subcultures of people living beneath the Underground system and periodically returning for symbolic reasons.  Clive Barker's Midnight Meat Train is a New York-based variation — the original story was written while he was still UK-based.  

        1. Yes, I forgot about Death Line! If I remember correctly, the cannibals are very reminiscent of Wells's Morlocks. There was also a collection of short films made about the tube back in the late nineties, with Armando Iannucci's Mouth (1999) standing out as a particularly interesting evocation of late night train anxiety. You can see it online here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lAUcL60Opm0

  2. I remember a novel about a train crash involving an express hauled by a class 47 and a freight train out of Beccles Yard, which occurred at East Bergholt…I can remember the driver of the class 47 name even – George Denning!! Im sure the book was called Crash! butI have searched the web high and low for it, cant remember the authors name, I can see in my minds eye the cover with the 47 in blue livery, and I really want to find this book again!! Anybody help please?

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