The picture above, as most will know, is "The Hay Wain", painted by John Constable in 1821. He died in 1837, not long after the first steam train clattered along between Liverpool and Manchester in 1830, which drew on earlier attempts at rail transport.
The alternatives were water and road but steam was going to be much faster and with other potential, especially for freight. The majority of histories etc. concern themselves with passengers. We know about the great express trains, but almost nothing about the parcels, coal and other freights that used the same lines and had such economic importance.
If you look at the hay wain, it is not a large cart, but it needs two horses and there are two men. How many miles it might travel in an hour will be perhaps around walking speed at best. When a long large log was moved from the Sussex Downs to Chatham to become a main mast on a ship of the line, it took two teams of sixteen horses a month with around a dozen men.
Try working out the cost of that. It is easy to see why when railways become a real option why the map of the Atlantic Isles was filled with lines going to the most unlikely places. Some of it was related to tourism, some strategic requirements, but the bottom line was very often the goods and freight, post and parcels.
There is far less of that these days, it almost all passenger. The trouble with passengers is that the adult ones, notably commuters, have votes. As their railways are important to much of their basic movement from place to place, travel by rail is a serious issue. The upshot of this is state subsidy of not just running costs, but capital costs and their debt liabilities.
After the depredations of two world wars there was a kind of sense in nationalising the railways in the late 40's. The trouble was that the existing bosses became the new bosses and the engineers got off the financial leash. Think several thousand words about the organisational, financial and policy chaos that resulted.
Mrs. Thatcher, opposed in principle to state control and seeing what a gruesome shambles the whole operation had become came to the view that privatisation was better and so the money should follow the performance and this was to be financial. But a major problem then was that the old rail trade unions were still in being. The last of the dinosaurs perhaps, but still with a nasty bite and a hefty kick.
The last generation has seen therefore a muddle of state, private companies, now not so private but more related to financial corporatism, passengers with more advanced ideas about service and reliability, an ageing track and buildings etc. network badly in need of repair, and voters now more alive to their personal needs.
A marriage made in hell, you might say. In the meantime our politicians and for that matter uncivil service have ducked and dived and given out vast fortunes in order to be able to avoid decisions or action before the next election. Shout railway at one them produces the auto response of promising a new high speed non stop line from Southend to Stranraer.
There have been a number of improvements and new additions in all this time. One feature has been progressive new more advanced rolling stock, work on the signalling systems and track and other work, largely almost on an ad hoc basis, but some progress. But the trade unions are still with us and do not like change.
Back in the 1970's I bumped into the buffers of Ray Buckton (1922-1995 see Wikipedia) a time or two. I liked him and had some railway work in my CV for him to chat. But he was a man not of his time, but a past one and another never to be.
The union he represented may be a shadow in terms of numbers. The trouble is that they are still capable of bringing more to a halt than just a few trains at the moment.
And everybody pays whether they ride the trains or not.