There have been railways in East Anglia for 170 years. It is hard to overestimate the importance of this form of transport, not only when it was new, but still today. Imaging the great metropolis of London functioning without railways. Railways have changed greatly over the years. The welded rails have removed the diddly-dum, diddly-dee sound which used to be inseparable from train travel; electric trains now take us to London, smoothly, swiftly and quietly too. These are minor changes however, compared to the major change, the shift from goods traffic to passenger travel. The railway used to be a service to the industrial sector, moving fish from Yarmouth, coal from Newcastle, tins of mustard from Norwich and agricultural produce from the countryside to the towns. Passenger trains were tacked on, almost as an afterthought. At first there were just a handful of passenger trains to London each day. Even so it was a burden for the timetable, as passenger trains must run on time, whereas freight trains leave only when they are ready. Today large tracts of the rail system see no freight traffic at all, especially in East Anglia; only an oil tanker service from North Walsham and a sand train from Middleton near Kings Lynn intrude on the daily passenger trains.
A word about the ‘Beeching Axe’; although there were cuts before Dr Beeching came on the scene, these were just about supportable. I will grudgingly admit that the network was a bit too large, but don’t try to get me to say which lines were expendable. Maybe we have not seen a great reduction in service in losing the Wymondham to Forncett line. This was a useful way to avoid reversing direction at Norwich Thorpe in the days when freight traffic was important. Now that goods traffic has gone, only the small village of Ashwellthorpe has lost its railway station as a result. The Heacham to Wells branch passed through a very sparsely populated corner of Norfolk, and that too might not be seen a major loss. As I intimated, these were pre-Beeching cuts. Those that were lost in the Beeching and post-Beeching era were almost all damaging to lines and stations up and down the country.
The reductions proposed in ‘Beeching Two’ were even worse, but luckily they never happened. Under these draconian proposals the services in Norfolk would have been reduced to just two; London to Norwich and London to Kings Lynn. Even the ‘Hi-Tec corridor’ from Norwich to Cambridge would never have come to pass, as weeds would have taken over the trackbed where frequent trains now run. As things turned out the lines in East Anglia escaped largely untouched. The exception is North West Norfolk; that is a desert in railway terms. Swaffham, Watton, Dereham, Fakenham, Aylsham, Burnham Market and and many smaller market towns lost their railway stations. So did the seaside resorts of Snettisham, Hunstanton, Holkham and Wells-next-the-Sea. The south and east of the county have fared much better; Diss, Thetford, Attleborough, Wymondham, Downham Market, Acle and North Walsham are still railway towns, as are the holiday destinations of Sheringham, Cromer and Yarmouth, all receiving a regular service.
Slowly – but oh how slowly – some of these unnecessary cuts are being reversed. Two line working through Beccles has recently been restored, but what a small thing this is. It still took years to plan and execute, and cost a small fortune. If they had merely left things as they were in 1970 all this could have been avoided. Nevertheless, the improvement to services all along the East Suffolk line has been impressive following this upgrade. Train numbers have doubled and passenger traffic has soared. The late Jim Prior, who lived near the line, fought hard when he was a minister to keep it open. It was just as well he succeeded.
There is even a brand new station being opened in May of this year, to serve the Cambridge Science Park, but with other hoped-for improvements we have not been so fortunate. The reopening of Soham station has again stalled. The realignment to Ely Junction that is desperately needed to enlarge capacity has been kicked into the long grass. The restoration of a railway service to Wisbech seems as far away as ever. Even the proposed provision of a direct rail service from Yarmouth to Lowestoft, which has not existed since the closure of Yarmouth South Town station in 1970, got a very lukewarm reception. This would have seen a short stretch of track in Reedham restored, a line which was removed over a century ago.
It has been a bumpy ride for railways since the Second World War. They had made possible the transport of munitions, foodstuffs and armed forces that was essential for a successful war effort. Immediately the conflict ended the people’s love affair with road transport put the whole system in danger. The railways had done sterling work with only minimal investment throughout the war, and now the run-down network was an unloved burden on the taxpayer. Nationalised British Railways was the butt of everybody’s jokes. Even in London there were closures. Broad Street Station, adjacent to Liverpool Street, at one time a busy commuter terminus, was demolished as the numbers of passengers using it plummeted. The same fate was mooted for both St Pancras and Marylebone. Only traffic on the London Transport Underground continued to grow and the network to expand.
In terms of rolling stock it was a different world when I was a boy. Steam engines still ruled; in the coaches leather straps still let down the windows; every seat had a regularly changed anti-macassar. Pictures of railway scenes or landmarks along the line decorated the compartments. Elegant dining cars were provided on all mainline express trains. White jacket stewards served coffee from silver plated coffee pots while the cutlery gently jingled as the train raced down the tracks. Mixed freight trains waited in the sidings as you rushed past. Stopping trains loaded milk churns and unloaded post and newspapers at sleepy village stations as the passengers made their leisurely progress to the next town. As diesels replaced steam engines there were still lots of coal trucks to be moved, although the mixed goods trains had gone. Buffet cars replaced dining cars, and there you jostled other passengers at the bar while waiting to be served; things were changing. Now you must sit in your seat while a trolley is pushed past, with a plastic cup of instant coffee for those who can afford it; o tempora o mores.
On the track-side semaphore signals have largely disappeared to be replaced by colour-light ones. Semaphore signals never failed, which cannot be said for their electric replacements. Signal boxes too have gone from most locations, substituted by huge centralised control boxes. Hand worked level crossing gates have made way for automatic barriers. Telegraph poles, which once marched alongside every railway line, have gone and telephone wires have disappeared underground; with the growth of mobile phones all messages will no doubt soon be entrusted to the airwaves, as phone contact with the train driver already is. Down on the ground wooden sleepers are being discarded in favour of concrete ones. At least we still use George Stephenson’s standard gauge of 4 feet 8 1⁄2 inches, although we now call it 1,435 millimetres. The railway age began nearly 200 years ago, and after a rocky period it is still on track.