Rediscovering the railways

If you consult the article on rail transport in the online encyclopaedia, Wikipedia, you will find a link to a map published in 1896 showing the density of the railway networks in Europe at that time. Interestingly, Ireland (together with Britain and Belgium) had the densest railway system, with more kilometres of track per 100 than any other country.

So now to more recent times. The other day I was standing in Mullingar station in Co Westmeath, Ireland, and could not help reflecting on the evidence this provided me of the changing fortunes of Ireland’s railways. The original station dates from the 1840s and was built during the period of intensive investment in the network. It was developed by the Midland and Great Western Railway, who at the time were in a race with the Great Southern and Western Railway to build a track to the West of Ireland. The direction out of Mullingar for the purposes of this competition was to Athlone; today, that particular track, though still physically there, is disused. In fact, when it was closed to passenger trains half of Mullingar station became redundant, while the other half was eventually renovated and brought to modern standards. So now, if you come to Mullingar station you can see a modern, clean and efficient station; until you walk round the end of the building and find a disused track and decaying buildings and equipment. It is somehow deeply symbolic of the ambivalence of Irish public policy from the mid-20th century towards the railways.

It is not that long ago that policy makers were openly musing about the possibility of shutting down the railways altogether, with the sole exception of the commuter line running just North and South of Dublin. Well, no longer. Over the past couple of years the first new bits of railway line have been opened, and plans are afoot to re-open disused lines. Often the immediate impetus has been the need to clear at least some commuter traffic off the roads, but more generally there is now a recognition of the benefits of diversity of transport and the potential of the railways as a fast and relatively clean way of getting people and goods to their destinations.

Of course, the railways are also shot through with nostalgia. In Ireland and elsewhere, every so often people put back on the tracks an old steam engine or two and travel back in time. Steam trains, of course, would provide a very poor environmental solution to transport problem, using coal and belching all sorts of things into the atmosphere. But they look romantic, and so they help to sustain the image of rail travel as something more aesthetic and genteel.

So what we have in the railways is an old form of transport that has been reinvented to fit the age of scientific innovation; steam replaced by electricity, and the clickety-clack of the wheels on the rails by the smooth gliding feeling of the carriages on the newly welded steel track. Inside the carriages, over-brewed tea, crisps and inedible sandwiches are being replaced by paninis and gourmet lunches. And so the railways may now provide us with a sound and pleasing form of transport for the era ahead. The time has come to build those tracks.

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6 Comments on “Rediscovering the railways”

  1. The decay of railways in Ireland is a sad, sad story, all the sadder for the fact that it was brought about by policy makers who, as we now know, simply made strategically bad decisions. Nowadays, the rail network here is thinner than thin gruel and pales in comparison to other countries, especially in continental Europe, where they have been wiser and did continue to maintain and develop their rail networks.

    The light at the end of the tunnel is that people are beginning to realize this now. Still, it’ll take *generations* to build up the network to anything near its former glory.

  2. universitydiary Says:

    Thank you, John – your photos demonstrate the point perfectly!

  3. Ultan Says:

    I recently took a steam train to Wexford, from Dublin. Wonderful experience, and I’d encourage anyone to do the same and bring along their camera.

    There’s even one coming up from Dublin to Mullingar shortly:

  4. John Keyes Says:

    @Ultan, wow my daughter would love that (I’m just looking for an excuse!).

  5. Ultan Says:

    @John. Oh yes, any excuse. The Santa specials are sold out in the summertime. So somehow I doubt kids are making demands that early. Even if you don’t take the train you could catch it along the line making water stops, on arrival etc. I think this one was at Gorey:

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