Great British Railways is just the latest example of using trains and tracks to forge together a pan-UK identity
Ifan Morgan Jones
It was announced this morning that Network Rail will soon become Great British Railways, as part of the UK Government’s mission to avoid the break-up of the UK by slapping a Union Jack of anything they can.
Given that both Wales and Scotland have argued that they want more devolution of rail, the move can also be interpreted as something of an attempt to, if not roll back devolution of transport, then at least ensure it hits the buffers.
As part of the plan, Wales will have to “work together in partnership with Great British Railways” and this “includes supporting a single national network, including one website and app and delivering consistent branding and passenger standards, such as on accessibility and compensation”.
The message is quite clear: One rail network. One nation. And that’s Britain.
There’s nothing new however about using the railways used as the tool of choice for attempting to forge a more united national identity within the UK.
The UK’s rail network has long been a vehicle for promoting British nationalism, not least in its branding.
Perhaps the most obvious symbol for this in Wales is the Britannia Bridge between Arfon and Anglesey, where 25-foot-long British limestone lions (above) guarded the entrance at both sides (they’re still there but now out of sight).
In fact, it has been suggested by D Tecwyn Lloyd that had the company not experienced financial difficulties, a huge statue of Britannia had been intended to tower over the center of the bridge too.
Less obvious but perhaps more effective would have been the Union Jack hanging above every temple-like train station – symbols of progress and the most impressively modern building in most towns the railway passed through.
But beyond British symbolism, the railways also had a huge practical impact which drew Wales and the rest of the UK closer together, and not just because it made it easier to get to one from the other.
One of the key reasons why Wales never developed as a fully-fledged nation in its own right is that the railways built stronger connections between the north and south of Wales with London but never with each other.
The trains that ran across the border were much faster than those traveling leisurely from north to south. This had the effect of emphasizing the geographical divide between north and south Wales as well as the accessibility of English cities and was used to argue that Wales was not a united nation.
Another impact was on time. It’s hard to believe today but in the past different parts of Wales literally had their own time zones.
The north of Wales for instance was 16 minutes and a half after London time, based on centuries of astronomical observation. But for the convenience of the railways, by the late 1840s, Railway Time was set in London. The result was to promote a sense of belonging to a collective nation, every part of it locked together like the wheels of a steam engine, moving together into the future. This was empasised further by the prominent clocks attached to most train stations.
The railways also led to a boom in printed material entering Wales – particularly cheap books and newspapers that were sold in train stations. Due to the economies of scale, the Welsh press could simply not compete on price.
The sudden visibility of the English language in the context of industrialisation and progress impressed on the Welsh themselves that it was the language of the future.
Michael D. Jones – he of Patagonia’s Y Wladfa fame – remarked with disdain that “John Jones, the shoemaker, in a narrow valley that no Englishman ever set foot in, has set an English sign ‘John Jones, Boot and Shoemaker’ above his door. Sian the washerwoman… writes all her bills in English, making a large number of mistakes… all following the foolish ways of Dic Sion Dafydd.”
As well as the English language and ideas the railways also brought rail workers and tourists on a scale never before seen in Wales, with seaside towns such as Rhyl and Aberystwyth quickly anglicised by the influx. Monolingual Welshmen were often denied jobs on the railway, even in some cases in menial labour jobs, leading to a perception that the language had lower status than the English. According to the 1891 census, only one stationmaster on the North Wales coast line was monoglot Welsh.
Another side effect of this was that it gave the impression to those travelling into Wales that everyone there spoke English anyway, because in travelling on the train they naturally only came across the most anglicised parts of the country.
The people writing at the time were well aware that this was happening. In fact, the ‘treacherous’ Blue Books themselves as early as the 1840s made it clear that due to the railways, the Welsh and English becoming one people was only a matter of time: “from every point of contact with modern activity the English tongue keeps spreading, in some places rapidly, but sensibly in all. Railroads are on the eve of multiplying these points of contact.”
The Welsh language newspaper Baner ac Amseroedd Cymru noted in 1863 that the railway was “the line” that “will be used to strangle the Welsh language”. The Welsh were on the whole, however, as noted overall very positive towards the railways and the economic opportunities they would bring.
Wales could be cited as an example of what happens when one nation is industrialized bit by bit by another nation. The Welsh experience suggests that the result was the splitting of the country into a host of smaller, separate communities, tied to England, but apart from each other.
If the process of industrializing Wales had been internal, with an emphasis on linking parts of Wales together, perhaps a unitary state could have developed on that basis. As it was, as Prys Morgan and David Thomas argued, if Wales had a Parliament in the 19th century it was the Great Paddington Hotel in London.
Wales was a nation that developed around railways that were going somewhere else, and the trend towards east-west transport is one that even the present Welsh Government has not been able to break away from.
It suggests that the greatest impact of the new centrally-directed Great British Railways might not so much be the Union Jack branding as its impact on devolution – that is, whether it stops the Welsh Government doing more to link together poorly connected different parts of Wales.
This isn’t just about identity – according to the Welsh Governance Centre in Cardiff University Wales has missed out on £500m of funding over the last decade because railway infrastructure isn’t devolved. That’s almost the complete cost of a new Carmarthen to Aberystwyth line.
There’s no question that the railway has had a huge and continuing impact on Welsh nationhood and Wales’ place within the wider UK.
As for Great British Railways, whether rail-based nationalism will be as effective as a means for forging a national identity in the age of the internet and home working remains to be seen.