Sunday, June 01, 2014

Influential Railway TV 1: Locomotion

What TV shows did you watch growing up? I had the usual diet of Mr. Dressup, Sharon, Lois and Bram and Sesame Street but, even when I was very young, I was particularly drawn to the small collection of railway VHS tapes at my local library (Barney really didn't work for me, although Thomas the Tank Engine did!). What amazes me looking back is how influential those tapes were in the development of my interest in railways. At the time, I mainly saw pretty pictures of trains, but the underlying content was also seeping in. As I got older, more information and connections were made with each viewing as I kept being drawn back to the same ones. In this series of articles, I revisit and analyze the railway shows which have had the greatest influence on my study of railways. I was avidly watching many of them before I turned six.

Locomotion (1993) 

In my opinion, this A&E/BBC series is the most informative and best-produced series of railway documentaries ever made. The four episodes brought together archive footage, interviews and a coherent narrative of railway history from a socio-economic perspective. The episodes detailed the history of American railroads; the enormous impact of the railways on Britain; the railways' role in turning cavalry-based fighting into modern mechanised warfare (I admit, I couldn't watch this episode until my teenage years); and the future of railways around the world.

The American railroads, chronicled in Engines of Enterprise, is the most economic of the episodes. It charts the construction of railroads across the continent, the opulence of Pullman and the Robber Barons and the slow decline brought on by regulation, trucks and aircraft. One of the advantages of Locomotion was that many people who were adults in the first half of the 20th century were still alive when it was filmed. This allowed first-hand accounts from pre-WWII union organisers and railway employees, which added a fascinating personal layer to the story.

While the economic narrative of railroads is the standard for American railroad history, this episode wove it into the broader social changes in the United States, making for a very interesting account. My one criticism was the decision to end the episode with the decline of streamliners in the 1950s. This meant leaving out mergers, bankruptcies, Conrail, deregulation and the resurgence in freight traffic (which had begun when the episode was made).

The second episode, Taming the Iron Monster, has always been my favourite and has shaped much of my historical study. Even when I was very young, the account of the early days of railways in Britain appealed to me. While Engines of Enterprise focused on economics, the British story focused on engineering, architecture and people. By considering engineering, the documentary is able to demonstrate how the north of England (through coal, terrain and personalities) shaped the development of railways around the world through being the test-bed for tunnels, bridges and locomotive designs. Stations were the public face of the railways, and were designed to exude confidence. Anyone who has visited a major railway station in the UK (and even many of the smaller ones) will understand this point. I suppose what appealed to me most was the discussion of people and how they interacted with their landscape. Social reform and the trade union movement were inextricably linked with the railways, as was an increasingly mobile society.

However, I do think this episode was overly-whiggish when it came to the battle for the Lake District, in which the likes of John Ruskin managed to prevent railway construction from destroying the countryside (in hindsight, cars have caused far more damage than carefully-planned railways would have ever done). Similarly, Ruskin et al. were far more concerned about hoipaloi being able to access the Lakes than about the development of infrastructure. This look at British railways concludes with the striking parallels between early railway building (and its public reception) and the Channel Tunnel, which was under construction when the show was filmed. Just as early railways provoked a mania, the Channel Tunnel has provoked a mania for high-speed rail in the UK, with HS1 absorbing the London-Folkstone portion of the line and the controversial HS2 being debated today.

I am a rather peaceful person and the thought that my favourite mode of transportation could be a vehicle for the evils of war is not something I wish to dwell on. Yet The War Machine shows how railways took technological determinism to the extreme, fuelling larger, more mechanised, longer wars through an almost assembly-line-like movement of supplies, ammunition and people. By focusing on three wars, the American Civil War, and the two World Wars, the documentary shows how railway supply lines both expanded the scope of war and isolated it. One of these instances, the documentary argued, was the systematic extermination during the Shoah. Railways allowed for the movement of millions of people efficiently, but also in such a systematic way that few people even knew the whole picture. In this sense, the Shoah was Fordist (perhaps appropriate since Ford was anti-semitic) as each small part of the Nazi machine played its part in the tragedy with little need for an understanding of the end result. Although it is my least favourite episode, it discusses its subject well and even spoke to Soviet railways workers and used Soviet footage (even if the narration described it as "propaganda"). Railways in war is not pleasant, and as such has been largely ignored outside the academic sphere, but The War Machine is a good grounding for a general audience.

I always felt that the final episode, Magic Machines and Mobile People, was a little out of place, not just because A&E clearly re-cut it for an American audience (complete with several monologues from Jack Perkins), but also because the content didn't fit well together. The first portion, looking at the influence of railways on space and time, has come to mean more to me as my interest of railways has moved towards people's perception of railway technology and travel. Wolfgang Schivelbusch's The Railway Journey was still a new work at the time and a cultural interpretation of railway history was a nascent area of study.

However, the show suddenly jumps to Florida. Yes, Henry Flagler did essentially create the state as a sun destination thanks to extensive railway investment, but it doesn't fit neatly with space and time, even if Florida is arguably a railway-created space. After the citrus state, we jump to Japan, apparently the one place where rail is still in its golden age thanks to punctual (perhaps too punctual?) service and extremely fast trains.

The show ends with the warning that railways, even in Japan, are usually money-losers, yet in a more crowded and urban world they will remain critical to future transportation infrastructure. This prediction has come true. As oil prices continue to rise, almost every developed nation is investing in new trains, better rail infrastructure and resurrecting long-abandoned lines. Sadly, Canada remains an exception and its absence from the television series is probably warranted.

My confusion about the incoherence of Magic Machines and Mobile People is explained in the credits, which hint that there were in fact two final episodes made, one for the BBC and one for A&E. I only noticed this recently, and was delighted to find Track to the Future, the real ending to the show. Whereas the A&E version is like a bad school essay, trying to cram lots of facts together and hoping that it makes sense (note to self, don't do that), Track to the Future presents a coherent analysis of a very simple question: what is the future of rail? Rather than jumping around, the show used three case studies, all suitably glum and postmodern, to show how rail in the early '90s was dying.

While the case study on Japan is virtually identical to the A&E version, the other two are not. The show begins looking at the ruins of the Argentinian railway network, which was once one of the greatest in the world. Decimated by cuts under nationalization, the infrastructure collapsed, literally. Privatized in a last-ditch attempt to rescue some lines, the network shed over 90% of its employees and abandoned large swaths of the population who didn't live on arterial routes. Since the show was filmed, Argentina has suffered crippling economic crises and has now begun to re-nationalize some of its network in order to save it for the future. The other case study looked at Los Angeles' legendary gridlock, ironically the result of a highly popular interurban railway network. Streetcars made the city's suburbs possible, but then chained LA to cars when the tracks were ripped up. This is perhaps the most optimistic case, however, because the city has begun to rebuild its railway network (and continues to this day). Whereas Magic Machines and Mobile People was whimsical and nostalgic, Track to the Future was much more sober and demonstrated how railways will play a leading role in our future megacities.

Overall, Locomotion is now dated in its views of private business and lingering anti-Soviet feeling, but much of what it says remains incredibly relevant and sparked my interest in the social impact of railways nearly two decades ago. Locomotion was released as a 4-tape VHS set and has more recently been issued as a Region 1 2-disc DVD set. Nicholas Faith, the consultant for the series, wrote an accompanying book called Locomotion, which is definitely worth a read.