Monday, November 23, 2015

The Permanent Way (and the Truth and the Life?)

'The line to heaven by Christ was made,
With heavenly truth the Rails are laid,
From Earth to Heaven the line extends
To Life Eternal where it ends.'

On a tablet in the southern porch of Ely Cathedral is inscribed a poem called 'The Spiritual Railway', written in memory of William Pickering and Richard Edger, who lost their lives in a railway accident on Christmas Eve, 1845.  That year was only a decade and a half after the opening of the first modern railway for steam traction between Liverpool and Manchester, but England already had two and a half thousand miles of track, the 'Railway Mania' construction boom of the 1840s was gathering pace, and the Eastern Counties Railway had in July been able to open their through line from London to Norwich via Ely.  The elegist saw a homiletic opportunity in the transport revolution, and the fruit of his labour has survived, even if it seems strained by his determination to make both the analogy work and the verse scan:

'God's Word is the first Engineer
It points the way to Heaven so clear
Through tunnels dark and dreary here,
It does the way to Glory steer.'

This poem is admittedly ripe for a round of twenty-first century scoffing, and easy to dismiss as a rather contrived effort, but the idea of a bond between religion and the railway is more compelling than it might seem.  For two bodies with such apparently different purposes there seem to be a surprising number of similarities, of all kinds, between them.  I, too, find myself determined to make something of it!

For instance, to set off on one track, there is the disproportion of railway enthusiasts among the clergy.  A well-known example is the Revd. W. V. Awdry, author of the 'Thomas the Tank Engine' books.  Another is Eric TreacyBishop of Wakefield from 1968-1976 and a prolific railway photographer, who incidentally died at Appleby station on the famous Settle-Carlisle line, having gone to photograph a steam-hauled excursion.   Then there is the Revd. H. D. E. Rokeby's collection of photographs of British railway stations.  Others have noticed this phenomenon, especially with regard to model railways:  Paul Roberts, himself a 'Restless Rector' with a model railway in his garage, has written an interesting blog-post here, and there is an article by Christopher Howse here (in which he notes a ferroequinological reading of Isaiah by Canon Tony Chesterman: 'I saw the Lord… and His train filled the temple… and the temple was filled with smoke').  

Both these authors consider the idea that the appeal to clergymen lies in order, without which no railway could be run properly.  One of Howse's sources makes a suggestion (upon which he actually pours cold water) that they seek in the model railway an 'antidote to the often more nebulous realm of theology'.  The Restless Rector imagines that, for some clergy, the antidote would be rather to the 'stress of parish life and ... awkward people that one sometimes has to deal with'.  Railways appeal to him because of their 'order and communication', and he also wonders whether 'building and running a model railway [might reflect] something of the creativeness of God, and his fatherly care'.  A model railway is an ideal world built on a blank slate, cut off from the world and its disorder.  Even the real railway forms, to some extent, its own self-contained system.  It is run from signalling centres as if its signals, track-circuits and points are isolated from the elements.  Trees may fall onto the line and lorries may collide with bridges, but the impression is given that the railways, needing a higher level of order than other transport systems, give themselves a better chance of running as they ought by having little to do as possible with the outside world.

I agree with both writers that order is indeed the main link between railways and churches, but would go further.  My contention is that, far from being an antidote to parish life and still less to theology, the appeal of the railway comes from its structure's being a reflection, however pale, of the Church's structure.   The order of a railway is a mirror of the order of the Church.  Naturally I am not suggesting that we should all go on pilgrimage to Clapham Junction.  But it seems that a railway — precisely by being reasonably cut off from the world — can be seen as a kind of proto-Church, or model Church, or in which unappealing ideas such as of assenting to doctrine, or discipline, or self-sacrifice, can be given trial runs and shown to be necessary.  
'From Earth to Heaven the line extends...' 
This might sound fanciful enough, but I am not finished yet!  I think that this idea becomes especially interesting when compared with other forms of transport: for example, with the motorway, an entirely fitting means of transport for a secular, self-centred and ungentle culture.  In both construction and operation, motorways permit us to languish in chaos where railways impose a order on everyone who uses them.  So, for instance, Victorian engineers had to thread their railways through difficult terrain, bound to avoid too sharp a curvature in the track and steeper gradients than 1 in 100.  These rules made the work more difficult but the result more beautiful (I think), just as the rules of rhyme and metre, understood properly, make poetry ring with beauty.  Railways fit into the landscape and can even embellish it, exactly as churches do.  However, because motor-cars can deal more readily with gradients and curves than can trains, the builders of the motorways could be much freer.  They simply planted the motorway unrestrained across the countryside, or carved straight through the landscape, as at Stokenchurch in Buckinghamshire, and threw up concrete flyovers wherever they pleased.  My perhaps rather controversial theory is that, just as railways fitted in perfectly with the Victorian revival of church architecture and indeed church-going (hence triumphs like St. Pancras station in London), so do motorways with the profane self-indulgence of modern Britain.

This pattern works in several ways.  For instance, a railway journey requires and rewards discipline.  Between railway passengers there is an unspoken contract: without realising it, they all agree to turn up at a given place at a given time in order to travel together more efficiently.  There is the risk of missing the train, as painful experience has taught us, but those who catch it should enjoy rapid, comfortable, spacious, relaxing and (importantly) safe transport.  Motorists face no such obligation and no such discipline.  They have the freedom to set off whenever they like.  No arrangement exists between those making similar journeys, and so a thousand individual cars, most containing only one or two people each, burn countless gallons of fuel in order to achieve the same result.  Moreover, the freedom of the motorway is selective.  The flexibility it offers the motorist comes at the cost of swathes of countryside silence around it, the freedom of nearby residents to live in peace and quiet, the freedom to move across the land on foot, and so on.  Railways take up far less space and make far less noise in comparison.

Railways are formative.  Passengers looking out at the landscape gain a geographical understanding of the journey.  They see the Chilterns, then Cannock Chase, then undulating Cheshire.  They will see the Forest of Bowland to the east and Morecambe Bay to the west.  Their picture of the country will be built up by passing directly through its towns and cities: Peterborough, Grantham, Newark, Retford, Doncaster, York.  A journey undertaken by road, however, is not really experienced as movement through a cherishable landscape but as a mundane process.  The driver sits still while progress, seen not from the side but from the front, appears and enlarges in the windscreen.  Anonymous numbered junctions diverge and merge from somewhere off to the left.  Even the passengers can barely see the landscape beyond the rim of concrete and sheer breadth of the carriageway.  It is possible to make a road journey without any reference to the points of the compass or any sensation of having travelled anywhere.  Motorways do not even fit the landscape.  The road-signs and furniture have no human scale.  They are works not of art but of artifice.
A minor motorway sign is still perhaps eleven feet tall and wide: compare its scale to the footpath on the left!
Railways have dignity and majesty.  Whenever a train calls at a station, particularly on inter-city services, there is still ceremony and custom, even this long after the age of steam.  A familiar voice announces a platform, a litany of cities is read, the signal changes, the train draws solemnly in, passengers alight or board, the doors slam, the whistle is blown and the train heaves itself into motion again.  Roads have no time for ceremony; motorists are in no mood for custom.  Clutch in, accelerator down.

Railways leaven society.  Passengers on a railway journey fall into conversation, discover common interests and keep common courtesy alive.  They are encouraged to have consideration for others in order to share a common space.  They must stand clear, move aside, open doors, lift down luggage, move down inside the carriage and mind the gap.  Many people fail in these things, but they are more likely to learn from these social encounters, in which people meet face-to-face, than they are on the road, where everyone is shielded from each other's feelings by ever-thicker walls of metal which are a Darwinian replacement for manners.  A car offers two temptations: to intoxicate oneself with power and to blind oneself to others.  So many people give into these temptations to the point of callous selfishness that a road journey in modern Britain is now almost impossible without a near-accident.

I think my theory stands even in the realm of law and obedience.  Many motorists tend to react to the rules of the road by pushing them as far as they will go: speed-limits are regarded as a target; traffic pushes in without right of way; traffic lights are just squeezed past at amber.  The Highway Code becomes surprisingly elastic when met with the possibility of gaining a few extra seconds: I think I will go so far as to say that this is moral relativism in full operation.  Meanwhile, safety on the railway is quite a different affair.  The rules are absolute; nobody is above them.  Every action made by a modern train driver is recorded electronically and might be inspected at any point.  If the line speed (speed limit) is exceeded by even three miles an hour, a formal warning can be issued.  It must never be disobeyed.  A train must never enter a section of single track without a token.  A signal must never be passed at danger without permission.  Everything must be done to prevent any accident.  Many of these rules seem over-zealous and fussy, but they must still be observed.  All railway staff have to profess their obedience to an authority higher than themselves, and the result on British railways has been an excellent safety record.
Lincoln Central station and 11th-century church of St Mary le Wigford.
My view, often repeated to long-suffering friends, is that rail travel is the most civilised means of transport known to man.   Railways have an improving and uplifting effect upon those who run them and use them, even on daily commuters, whereas car culture seems to corrupt drivers by the tens of thousands.  What better evidence of the fundamental benevolence of this invention of the railways than the instinctive delight taken by children — who have a perceptive, if imperfect, grasp of good and evil  in railways and the trains they carry, even the nondescript electric trains of suburban south London?
Fundamentally benevolent?
 Just as the railways civilise and uplift us, so does the Church.  Just as motorways wear us down with false freedom, so do many aspects of secular society.  The Church, like the railway, has its illogical aspects, and the failures of both are used by their opponents as reasons for their abolition in their entireties.  Motorways, like secular society, make too much sense: that is because they are seen only from one perspective, that of the self.  Motorways and secularism promise freedom at a low price, but turn out to deaden the spirit.  Railways  and the Church ask for self-sacrifice, self-restraint and self-discipline, and give in return beauty, order, ceremony and majesty.  (The railway cannot quite manage the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body or the life everlasting, of course).

I don't know whether any of this enormous tract sounds at all convincing to any reader patient enough to have trawled through it...?  To me the comparison seems to work consistently enough for there to be something in it.  If nothing else, I can appeal to the story told by Michael Flanders about the lady who said, 'If God had intended us to fly, he would never have given us the railways'!  (If only she had made that remark in reaction to the development of motorways).  Incidentally, I do not really think that modern British car culture can easily be defeated, nor that the railways will again come to be seen as the country's principal means of transport, even though passenger numbers at the time of writing are at their highest for about fifty years.  Perhaps all that can be done is to persuade some poet to write a verse, entitled 'The Spiritual Motorway', describing souls hurtling around the M25 of secularism until they all end up snarled up in a traffic-jam?
Ely Cathedral, with station in the foreground, seen across the river Great Ouse. 


  1. Bravo, sir! What an excellent post. I agree with you about all of it, even if I'm not quite as much of a railway enthusiast as yourself. The observation about children's instinctive delight in the railways is especially inspired. The only thing I'm not convinced about is that so many vicars are railway-mad because of a love of order. It just seems to me you could make that explanation about almost anything-- order is a very broad term.

  2. Thank you for the kind comment! Yes, I suppose order is probably a broad term to use, not least since (now I think about it) so much of what we do on this earth is done for the sake of order. Perhaps, in fact, the appeal to clergymen is not dissimilar from the appeal to children?...


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