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Railways For Ever! (1970)


Main image of Railways For Ever! (1970)
35mm, colour, 7 mins
DirectorNorman Prouting
Production CompanyBritish Transport Films
ProducerEdgar Anstey
Screenplay andJohn Betjeman
commentaryNorman Prouting
PhotographyTrevor Roe
 Ronald Craigen
MusicDe Wolfe

John Betjeman reflects on the passing of the steam train and the future of the railways.

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In 1962, the British Transport Films production John Betjeman Goes By Train (d. Malcolm Freegard) saw the future Poet Laureate celebrating the pleasures offered by the rural branch line. Eight years later, the rail landscape had changed beyond recognition, with vast chunks shut down as a result of the 1963 Beeching Report, and steam locomotives replaced by faster, more efficient but considerably less aesthetically appealing diesel and electric trains. While it would have been impossible to express this opinion outright in one of its films (given the outfit's function as a high-profile PR outlet for British Rail), BTF did nonetheless commission this short, reflective piece by the recently knighted Betjeman that characteristically combines cosy nostalgia with occasionally barbed polemic.

The last steam-powered passenger service on normal-gauge tracks (narrow-gauge railways would continue as popular tourist attractions) ran from Liverpool to Carlisle and back on 11 August 1968. Both Betjeman and a BTF crew were there to record it - as were many other people, lining the trackside banks with what Betjeman calls their "vest-pocket Kodaks", a phrase taken from one of three poems that are read on the soundtrack by their author. These are interspersed with personal reflections and bookended by two performances of William Hargreaves' once-popular song 'Watching The Trains Go Out'.

Betjeman then visits a travelling exhibition, 'New Trains For Old', in which photographs, drawings and paintings (including Abram Solomon's 1855 'The Return') celebrate both the history of the steam train and its pioneers: great engineers like George Stephenson, Richard Trevithick and especially Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the latter regarded by Betjeman as the 19th-century equivalent of Leonardo da Vinci. He also finds poetry in technology, rhapsodising about flanged wheels, blast pipes and the balance of revolving and reciprocating parts.

But the film doesn't just look backwards: many of the pleasures of train travel remain, especially the ability to admire the unspoiled countryside without distractions. Betjeman is firmly of the opinion that it's still by far the best way to travel, despite no longer being able to experience "the hiss of steam, the triumphant scream of the whistle, smuts and the grimy majesty of the whole thing." When a Motorail service passes, with cars neatly stacked on container wagons, he thinks that that's the best place for them. One senses that the men behind the camera, BTF veterans all, would have been nodding in wholehearted agreement.

Michael Brooke

*This film is included in the BFI British Transport Films DVD compilation 'Off the Beaten Track'.

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Video Clips
Complete film (6:37)
John Betjeman Goes By Train (1962)
Betjeman, Sir John (1906-1984)
British Transport Films