In an era where a light leaf-fall can bring Britain’s rail network to a standstill, this book tells the story of an era when 40 tons of TNT turned a stream train into a large hole in the landscape but triggered only a small delay and when Kings Cross station after being partly flattened by the Luftwaffe only closed for three days.
Michael Williams' hugely readable tale of the part played by the British railway system in the Second World War begins at the end of the First World War when the railways were amalgamated from a host of small companies into the Big Four: the LNER, LMS, GWR and Southern Railways.
This was the start of what steam train enthusiasts regard as the golden era for train travel when engines like the Princess Elizabeth, the Mallard, luxury Pullman trains, the Cornish Riviera Express, the Golden Arrow and Flying Scotsman thundered along the nation's lines.
Then came the World War 2 and the workforce and rolling stock went to war. Although employees were forbidden from joining the armed forces many did with women filled the gaps. A startling illustration of the national effort that was undertaken by the railways from September 1939 is that within days 30 complete trains were turned into hospital trains in railway workshops all over Britain.
It is the human tales of evacuees, locomotive cleaners, crews, porters and ticket collectors that make this such an enthralling read. One story tells of the biggest single explosion in Britain during the war when a train bound for an air base in East Anglia carrying several hundred tons of explosives caught fire on June 2, 1944.
A gigantic catastrophe was averted by the quick-thinking of the driver and fireman who decoupled the burning wagon and hauled it away from the rest of the train. That wagon blew up, killing the driver and hurling the fireman 200 yards. But the other 50 wagons were undamaged.
The railways played a massive part throughout the war, from the evacuation of Dunkirk to feeding the nation, keeping industry and the war effort supplied and helping to prepare for D-Day. By the end of the war the railways were exhausted, workshops had been largely redeployed to make arms and only basic maintenance and emergency work was being carried out.
Three years sfter the German surrender the railways were nationalised in an attempt to redress the damage done by six long years of war that left Britain close to bankrupt and its rail network close to collapse. Founded in 1948 British Railways began to rebuild but as we know the glory of the inter-war years was never to be recaptured.
Verdict: Williams has written this book that is both informative and scholarly but also easy read and that brings to life the heroics and anecdotes of the many railways workers he interviewed in the writing of this book. His style makes this a compelling read and my only criticism is the rather limited selection of photographs. All in all it's a important book that fills a gap in the story not just of Britain's railways but also of the Second World War on the home front.