Dodging the question

Saturday, October 3 2009

Was this the face that launch’d a thousand ships,
And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?
Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss.
Her lips suck forth my soul:  see, where it flies!

Dr. Faustus, Christopher Marlowe


The Rt. Hon. Ernest Marples. From a photo on http://www.ernestmarples.com.

As Dr Faustus discovers, there is something inherently unsatisfying about conjuring up people who have passed away. Without spoiling the plot, it is fair to say that Dr Faustus does not get value for money from his deal with Mephistopheles.

I have similar ambivalent feelings about my own experience. First of all, as this was a ‘free sample’ I didn’t get to choose the two people that I could question. ‘Doctor’ Beeching and Ernest Marples would not have been my first choices. Perhaps, having entered into their own compacts with the ‘Dark Side of the Force’, they were more easily available than any of the historic personages that I would have chosen for myself.

Given a choice, I would have loved to have met with George Stephenson and to have asked him how he came up with 4ft 8 1/2 in. I can understand the 4ft 8 in part, derived from the 5ft between wheel centres of the horse drawn wagons on the original “L” plate laid wagonways but where did the extra 1/2 inch come from? Or Brunel – please Sir, why did you have an odd 1/4 inch in your broad gauge? Or George Jackson Churchward, Why did you build only one pacific for the GWR? Or even, Bulleid, How on earth did you come up with the three-dimensional oscillation of the Leader’s valve gear?

Neither was I given any say about the choice of venue – Bewdley Station – which cast a shadow over the proceedings. Now I’m a great admirer of the Severn Valley Railway, which has a strong claim to be considered Britain’s premier preserved railway, and Bewdley is kept exactly how I imagine a Great Western Railway station should be. It’s just that the SVR also represents a massive missed opportunity. Just imagine if the preserved railway line continued northwards to Ironbridge – the home of one of Britain’s most important industrial heritage museums – or even extended all the way to Shrewsbury!

Severn Valley Railway

Map of Severn Valley Railway showing the missing northern section. Taken from the New Adlestrop Railway Atlas by Richard Fairhurst.

I hasten to point out that acquiring the trackbed of the southern section of line was a magnificent achievement of the early SVR preservationists. It was not their fault that when the opportunity was there there just were not the funds available to acquire the whole line.

Anyway back to my tale. I stood at the North end of the up platform at Bewdley holding both Beeching and Marples under their arms in what I hoped would be perceived as a friendly and non-threatening manner. Marples shook himself free and looking decidedly uneasy began to sidle off towards the exit. Hold on, I commanded. You must answer one question. Then you may return to where you came from.

Be quick, be quick, pleaded Marples, coming to a halt. 1

I was lost for words. I only had one question and time was running out. What should it be? Then suddenly I had a flash of inspiration! The half-preserved Severn Valley Railway helped to frame my question. If British Railways had been obliged to offer closed railway lines to local authorities on a free of charge basis, could most of the UK’s closed branch lines have been saved?

Only the Midland main line was ever profitable, snapped Marples, now half-way down the platform.

Lord Beeching? I prompted.

You must understand that the branch lines really did make a loss, started Beeching.

This time I was prepared, and I cut in, But if  lines could have been taken over by local authorities on a free of charge basis – just as some lines have been transferred in Poland – they would have been freed from the capital costs and the share of the central overhead, which were charged to them when they were part of BR. Then there was the possibility of using volunteers for certain tasks which would have further reduced costs.


‘Doctor’ later Lord Beeching. Photo Urban Outlaw via flickr.

(Click to see original and details of licensing.)

An interesting question, replied Beeching with a smile.2 I got the distinct impression that he was trying to tell me that he had only carried out the job that he had been hired to do by his political masters and that the decision to decimate Britain’s branch lines and break up the rights of way had been taken elsewhere.

By this time Marples was nearing the exit. I had one last chance. You’ve not answered the question, I yelled after him.

What’s he shouting? asked Marples of some people near the barrier.

You didn’t answer him, someone replied.

I’ve forgotten the question, said Marples.



1. While Googling for photographs of Marples and Beeching. I came across this information on Wikipedia which would explain why Marples would have felt extremely uneasy on returning to Britain.

2. While researching background information for this post I came across this article on Tony Gossling’s site. Tony postulates that railway closures were the ultimate result of high level social engineering to advance the interests of those who profited from the expansion of the oil and road industries.

3. Is Dyspozytor loosing his marbles? Shortly after shouting after Marples I woke up. The whole episode had been an all-too-realistic dream. Apparently I really had been shouting!


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