"When railways were being laid down nearly two centuries ago, Parliament required that their land be closed off to the public, and thus a divide was created wherever the lines were constructed; a divide which had to be crossed by special means, unlike a highway which could be freely crossed at any point. Parliament, in granting this imposition, rightly held the power to regulate the privately-owned railways so that their special privileges would work for the good of the nation and their nuisance at Common Law could be justified."
"Once people had come to terms with the upheaval that the era of massive railway construction caused, and accepted the gross imposition of lines bisecting land and property, Great Britain had an asset that was the envy of the developed world: the most complete railway system of all, leaving nowhere in England and Wales remote from it by more than 18 miles. Once this mighty work became established, the reward and benefit of setting aside forever all the necessary land, and granting the railways their special status, was reaped in full measure. Between the railway’s boundary fences lay a reservation over which trains could operate in gifted isolation: seen but somehow unseen; close-by but somehow remote; dangerous yet at the same time perfectly safe."
These two extracts from A Journey in Time (see Publications) form part of the E. & T.V.R. admission that railways have had a huge impact. No railwayman or railway advocate can deny that the earthworks and structures were thrust unsubtly into the British landscape; or that the new mode of transport was revolutionary, destroying and creating markets, communities, ideas and practices indiscriminately; or that the long era of steam traction made its own filthy mark.
But railways came upon the scene in a manner very different from the later motorized road transport, being controlled and regulated from the beginning in ways which the conversion of the road system escaped, and still escapes to a large extent.
Parliamentary trains, common carrier status, the demand for standards, amalgamation; the ruination of the effort of two world wars that profited other industries; state control and, worse, semi state control; that is how the railways have had to honour, and suffer under, the covenant.
Mass motor transport, by contrast, still rides on the crest of a wave of public euphoria with the new, which will have to crash upon the shore before people wake up to what sort of ride it has really been, with its environmental abandonment and collective irresponsibility.
If it is owning up time for all the ills that railways have caused, could there be any worse than the mechanized mobilization that brought Europe so rapidly to the brink in 1914? But then road vehicles have killed and maimed more than all the wars of the last century.
In maturity, that is the best time to view a human creation. Railways long ago settled into the landscape and became part of human rhythms, which the upstart can never do, with its 12-mile swathes of intrusion and its millions of silly little boxes.
Like the Quaker firms, the railways began to recognize that they had civic and social duties. In Swindon—the old heart, not Anytown on the M4 as it has become—there is much evidence of a railway’s benevolence, which was not done as a P.R. stunt or because of tax breaks. And this was the merest part of a powerful business providing almost cradle-to-grave care for its staff and fulfilling its responsibilities.
In the best Great Western tradition, this railway aims to benefit its community beyond the normal scope. Even at this early stage, the E. & T.V.R. has been able to make a start in this vein and other opportunities will arise as expansion occurs. Just think what the railways will be able to do when the universal electrified system, which the future must hold, begins to take shape.
Three cheers for Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and his "landshare" initiative, whereby landowners with unused plots give them up for allotments or communal smallholdings.
But his idea is not entirely new: anyone who travelled by train before the end of the 1970s will remember seeing many gardens beside the line, usually on land originally bought by the railways in anticipation of extra lines or works. The Estate Department charged £1 a year for them.
Now the linesides are a continuous thicket and the railway is fortified with palisade fencing; and the modern regime would be horrified at the thought of a retired member of staff, with dodgy eyesight or hearing, and a gammy leg, carrying his trug along a path only feet from fast trains. Just the occasional corrugated roof poking up above the brambles gives away the site of an old tool shed.
There were allotments at Christow beside the river, between New Bridge and the water tower. And there is a piece of land near Christow Bridge which is available today.
With some provisos, like the need not to interfere with equipment and clamber over vehicles, visitors and friends are given the freedom of the railway’s land at Christow, which would otherwise be closed off. In future, access to as much non-operational property as possible will be considered.
The railway is not prosperous enough to contribute much to charity but donations have been made to the Centre for Alternative Technology, Railway Mission, Smile Train and Railway Benefit Fund, and prizes were provided for a raffle in aid of Railway Children.
Colin Burges, the owner of the E. & T.V.R., is a member of Railfuture and pays the subscription also for Ashburton Rail Users' Group. He has a small shareholding in Crediton Community Bookshop and WingTek, PLC, the owner of intellectual property which may help in the development of wind propulsion for ocean-going vessels.