Britain Without Beeching
Sea Lion Press
Despite my natural aversion to Michael Portillo, I find myself strangely fascinated by the seemingly-endless series of train-related programmes that he is currently appearing in on BBC2. Great Continental Railway Journeys, Great British Railway Journeys, Great American Railroad Journeys – the list goes on, and seems that it will only end once the former Cabinet Minister has travelled every mile of railway track that spans the entire planet. Despite his vaguely-embarrassing appearance (odd fashion choices, gigantic cheesy smile etc.), it is obvious from the first moment of every episode of every series that he has an unapologetic love for trains, train journeys and their links to history, and his enthusiasm rapidly draws you in as a viewer.
Mr Portillo and his trains are therefore something of a guilty pleasure of mine, but certainly something that I never thought would become entwined with another one of my interests – that of alternate history. But what might it look like if alternate history did suddenly merge with the railway system that Mr Portillo is so enamoured with? Well, to find out, I’ve picked up a copy of Britain Without Beeching by Iain Bowen and published by Sea Lion Press, an intriguingly-titled alternate history title that explores what might have happened if the Beeching Report had never been implemented in Britain in the early 1960s.
Britain Without Beeching follows a self-professed train enthusiast on a two-week tour of the British rail network, and it is obvious from the very first page that this will be a story that goes into significant detail about the trains, far beyond the knowledge that an average commuter such as myself might be expected to possess. Before picking up Mr Bowen’s title, I’m not afraid to admit that I knew very little about Dr Richard Breeching and the Breeching Report (The Reshaping of British Railways), and even less about the railway system I make use of every week, or the rolling stock that actually operate on it. As such, despite my initial interest, I was deeply concerned that this title might turn into an impenetrable warren of technical terms and descriptions only recognisable to a train-spotter or similar enthusiast. Fortunately I was soon to be proven wrong. Mr Bowen obviously has an intimate and enthusiastic knowledge of his subject, but is also an excellent writer (see his other AH work, the novel Dislocated To Success) and is therefore able to effectively balance this knowledge with a slow-burning yet highly engaging narrative.
While it may take a few pages for the reader to become used to the railway and train-related terminology (an occasional Wikipedia search is always useful, as with any alternate history work), once you become acclimatised to the universe, you can focus on the country (slowly) rolling past the various trains the narrator uses. For here is a Britain where, as the introduction helpfully explains, the Beeching cuts never took place, British Rail lacked the funds from the closed railway lines it received in our reality, and where serious investment in railways has not taken place for decades. As the narrator climbs aboard more and more trains and travels further and further around the rail network, the author skilfully builds a picture of a Britain which has not seen many benefits from a lack of cuts and the ‘social railway’ concept.
From the bizarre mixture of rolling stock that is used throughout the country, including an interesting set of East-German carriages, to the moth-balled or partially-closed stations that trains pass by at painfully slow speeds, it becomes obvious that this Britain could actually be labelled a dystopia, despite the absence of the usual dystopic tropes such as irradiated land, gangs of marauding raiders, or the Swastika flying over Whitehall or Big Ben. It wasn’t until I finished Britain Without Beeching and started a second read-through (this is a title that rewards multiple readings with tiny details and Easter eggs) that I quite comprehended how a well-maintained and sufficiently funded rail network benefits a modern country, its economy and therefore its citizens.
This is, therefore, a title that I can heartily recommend as a deceptively deep and often surprisingly grim piece of alternate history, very well-written and constructed. Perhaps the greatest praise I can give this title is that it takes a great writer to portray a universe where rail networks are managed and maintained in a worse state than by Southern Rail!