It’s not often that I get a chance to talk about one of my greatest passions in a Catholic context, but railways just seem to have become the hot topic of the week. Yesterday Rail firms have announced plans to shut down almost all of England’s remaining ticket offices in an attempt to ‘modernise’ the railway, with an unknown number of job losses likely as a result. There have been reassurances that booking office staff will be redeployed on to platforms as customer service personnel but the announcement has caused deep worry and concern amongst rail staff, and has infuriated unions and disability and passenger groups.
Ironically this latest radical attempt to solve the looming catastrophe of our failing railway system comes exactly 60 years after Richard Beeching published his first controversial and cataclysmic report on remodelling and rationalising Britain’s labyrinthine train network. The Reshaping of British Railways was published on 27 March 1963 and Beeching – who was far more a physical and chemical engineer than transport visionary – propped his arguments up with a quote from the then Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan.
“First, the industry must be of a size and pattern suited to modern conditions and prospects,” said Macmillan.
“In particular, the railway system must be modelled to meet current needs, and the modernisation plan must be adapted to this new shape and with the premise that the railways should be run as a profitable business”.
Given the spiralling cost of running the UK rail network, which was struggling fatally in the face of competition from the new motorways, personal car ownership and commercial vehicles, maybe we should forgive those who placed profit before service. In the emerging financial and expansionist world of the 1960s it came to be taken for granted that every venture had to deliver a return, as the concept of public duty and societal solidarity gave way to self improvement and meritocracies. In many ways the railways were a victim not of the interference of accountants and speculators, but of a sea change in public attitudes. It wasn’t some much the men in grey suits who carved up our transport networks, but the public who took so much for granted.
History has tended to paint Dr Beeching as Britain’s most hated civil servant, but the monika is a little unfair. As Beeching himself said: “I suppose I’ll always be looked upon as the axe man, but it was surgery, not mad chopping”.
It’s also worth mentioning that the bus network that was so critical to Beechings plan, and would have mitigated greatly the consequences of rail branch line closures, was never implemented by successive governments. Some 60 years on we’re all still waiting for a meaningful, integrated national transport network.
Railways may not seem that connected to Catholic theology but I’d like to rectify that. Alongside our National Health Service, the National Grid and our water supply network, a properly functioning transport network is a vital contribution to the common good of our nation. It is the means by which goods get delivered, people travel and meet and communities get interconnected. If properly managed and run, it can also be the biggest single contributor to a nation’s environmental health. At the theological level it is a vital contributor to the common good, and needs to be treated primarily as such, and not solely a business enterprise.
A few weeks back I was in northern Spain, and had occasion to make a number of train journeys, mainly between Barcelona and Girona, and to Santa Susanna on the Catalonian coast line. The luxurious Spanish Renfe AVE service from Barcelona Sans whisks you the 100km to Girona in just thirty minutes at 300km an hour for just 7 euros. From Girona this luxury, low cost service but high speed service spreads out to more than 200 cities across Europe. Here in the UK the best you can hope for is a shabby, unreliable, overcrowded service running at less than half that speed and for more than five times the price. Even Spain’s local Renfe metro rail stopping service up the coast is modern, comfortable, punctual and has heavily government subsidised ticketing prices.
It certainly makes our bungled efforts at getting a few hundred miles of HS2 sorted a lamentable disaster, and highlights the weaknesses of Britain’s economic model for growth and civic wellbeing. Every UK government seems to have made numerous promises to improve the functioning and profitability of our railways, but there has been little appreciation of the bigger picture. Railways are a particularly climate-smart and efficient way to move people and freight and promote economic growth whilst at the same time cutting greenhouse gas emissions from all manner of sources. Planned and properly subsidised, they also have considerable potential to lift people out of poverty, as low transport costs can help to drive down the price of essential goods and foodstuffs.
Put simply, investing in railways for the common good is a no-brainer and coincidentally embraces all of the key pillars of Catholic social teaching – life and dignity of the human person; call to family, community and participation; rights and responsibilities; option for the poor and vulnerable; dignity of work and the rights of work, solidarity and care for God’s creation.
Whilst a few modern pontiffs have known to empathise with rail travel – Benedict XVI famously travelled from Rome to Assisi by train for an interfaith peace meeting in 2011, and when St Pope John Paul II came to the UK in 19** he took the train from Gatwick to London Victoria. Earlier popes were somewhat less enlightened –Gregory XVI (1765-1846) prevented the construction of railways in the Papal States, and was reputed to have said “chemin de fer, chemin d’enfer” (“road of iron, road of hell”). His successor, Pope Pius IX, began the construction of a rail line from Bologna to Ancona but the territory was seized by the armies of the Kingdom of Sardinia in 1860 before it was completed. It wasn’t until the 19th century, when the Catholic Church began to connect the idea rail travel with mass pilgrimages that the social and spiritual benefits of rail travel were acknowledged. By 1933 the Vatican had even sanctioned a small branch line from the main Rome network to the Vatican itself and today, Pope Francis’s desire to open the Church’s treasures to the public has resulted in a weekly special train from Vatican City Station that is open to the public and is provided by the Vatican Museums and the Italian railway.
Looking to the bigger picture, it’s never going to be likely that legislators here in the UK are going to view our railway network as anything more than a complex problem to be managed, rather than an opportunity to serve the public good. That said, governments have a responsibility to ‘render what is due’:
“Political power . . . must have as its aim the achievement of the common good.” (Octogesima Adveniens, 1971, Apostolic Letter of Pope Paul VI)
So, from the Catholic perpective at least, governments have a moral obligation have to act in ways which benefit society, and to create infrastructures that establish the preconditions for the common good. Transitioning Britain’s ageing railways system from its present state to a utility that substantially serves the betterment of society is going to be no easy task, but the start point has to be seeing it as a public good, rather than a business proposition.
Joseph Kelly is a Catholic writer and theologian.