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Future on Rail, A (1957)


Main image of Future on Rail, A (1957)
35mm, 9 mins, black & white
Production CompanyBritish Transport Films
Executive ProducerEdgar Anstey
EditorJohn Legard
Commentary WriterPaul Le Saux

Narrator: Frank Duncan

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The modernisation of British Rail, and some of the opportunities that will be provided as a result of the introduction of new technology in signalling, marshalling yards, goods depots, etc.

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"When I was about 8, I wanted to be an engine driver..."; a camera perches atop a steam train speeding through the station, as a friendly voice invokes a little boy's familiar dream.

So opens A Future on Rail, a breezily effective promotional film from 1957 introducing the recent innovations of the Modernisation Plan announced two years earlier. It was still several years before the draconian measures announced in the Beeching Report, and thus plenty of goodwill remained to win over the British public to the merits of electric and diesel. While the folksy voice-over seems condescending today ("When I was at school our history master was always on about something he called 'the Renaissance' - well, there's a rebirth going on in the railways right now!"), it was nonetheless necessary to establish a shared past epitomised by steam before promoting a different way forward.

Under producer Edgar Anstey, though, British Transport Films had no truck with nostalgia; progress was paramount. The reality of the old way, A Future on Rail's narrator quickly assures us, amounts to little more than "steam, smoke, dirt and grime." The romantic dream of the steam age is dispelled with the image of a choking cloud of smoke from a passing engine. The screen darkens, the music shifts, and we are introduced to cleaner, more efficient new technology and similarly enhanced new roles for rail workers.

The film finally settles upon the two jobs most deeply lodged in the collective imagination: fireman and engine driver. Of the punishing fireman, the wry, sad comment "it can almost break a man's heart to leave it" (as opposed to his back) again ushers us into the present day. A sceptical veteran driver climbs into a new diesel locomotive. The narration adopts his voice, registering disgust at the new ("Adjustable seats?!"), while at the same time infantilising him: he looks at the various dials "the way I used to look at cabbage when Dad made me eat it." But slowly the driver discovers a "different kind of excitement" in a sleek machine that responds to the slightest touch and brings him closer to his passengers. In this way, the film humanises this apparent relic and integrates him into modern life. The camera then holds on the expectant face of a new little boy in the passenger seat, suggesting that the dream is not dispelled, but transformed.

Dominic Leppla

*This film is included on the BFI British Transport Films DVD compilation 'Running a Railway'.

Click titles to see or read more

Video Clips
Complete film (8:21)
Monthly Film Bulletin review
British Transport Films
The Romance of Steam