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Railways Conserve the Environment (1970)


Main image of Railways Conserve the Environment (1970)
35mm, colour, 17 mins
DirectorDavid Lochner
Production CompaniesBritish Transport Films, British Railways Board Film Services
ProducerJohn Legard
ScriptEdgar Anstey, David Lochner,
 John Legard
PhotographyRonald Craigen, Trevor Roe, Jack West

To mark European Conservation Year, examples of what railways in Britain are doing to help conserve and improve the environment.

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This was the eleventh in British Transport Films' occasional series of Rail Reports (originally Modernisation Reports), intended to highlight the benefits of the rail network's larger-scale longer-term plans. They were intended for screening to the public as information films and internally to British Rail staff as supposed morale boosters. As the title suggests, this report examines the positive contributions the rail network (by definition a large-scale industrial operation) can make to both the physical and social environment.

It begins by examining one of the legacies of the notorious cuts instituted by former British Railways chairman Dr. Richard Beeching in 1963. By 1970, thousands of miles of disused lines crisscrossed the country, and the film highlights how they can be converted into nature trails, greenways for rambling, field study centres, recreational areas and even a training ground for racehorses. The latter in particular produces a memorably bizarre image.

Buildings are also repurposed. A former railway shed has become the Round House arts venue at Chalk Farm in North London. Norfolk's Wolferton Station, eulogised in John Betjeman Goes By Train (1962), has since become a private house following the closure of the branch line it served, though it retains the original features. A montage demonstrates how modern railway architecture is designed to complement its surroundings, and a later sequence self-consciously tends towards abstraction, as the commentary argues that the form and colour of British Rail equipment "could be said to take functional design beyond its industrial usage into an artist's world of coloured shapes".

The film also tackles the social environment, stressing how new management ideas and new technologies such as computers are helping people overcome the drudgery of their jobs. However, there is no mention made of the downside: tens of thousands of British Rail staff had been made redundant since the Beeching cuts, and many thousands more would follow suit throughout the 1970s. Less contentiously, the film highlights far-sighted environmental initiatives such as the one between British Rail and the Central Electricity Generating Board to transform former industrial eyesores into viable agricultural land, where pulverised fuel ash is transported to disused clay pits to become soil.

The film concludes by claiming that rail transport conserves the countryside by reducing the necessity for creeping urban development. However, the inexorable rise in popularity of the car meant that this argument would rapidly become irrelevant: the urban development was happening regardless.

Michael Brooke

*This film is included in the BFI British Transport Films DVD compilation 'The Age of the Train'.

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Video Clips
Complete film (16:39)
British Transport Films