This week, another obscure item of transport beauty, from the days when even the most mundane bits of transport industry equipment had a hefty, tactile charm all of their own. Here it is:
It’s a London and South Western Railway boundary marker. I all but stumbled over it in some undergrowth a few miles to the east of Guildford in Surrey. It’s made of cast iron and is in remarkably good condition for something which must over 100 years old. The line it sits alongside was opened in 1885. Like an iceberg, there is more of it under the ground than there is above. A long fish-tail extension below the surface keeps the marker where it is and prevents its easy removal (see this picture).
Cast metal signage was a speciality of the railways (think of those ‘No Trespassing‘ signs) especially for signs in exposed locations where regular repainting wasn’t an easy option. Such signs lasted right up until the middle of the 20th Century, when first enamelled signage and later, long-lasting print finishes, took their place. What’s so lovely about the boundary marker above is that boundary marking is such a mundane task, yet the marker still embodies a sense of the pride the LSWR felt in its business. It has lovely attention to detail in its letter shapes, and has a graceful curved top. The general consensus seems to be that originally this boundary marker would have been painted red with white lettering (see this discussion), which explains the traces of red still on the marker.
Such markers evoke a much older British tradition of the marking out of boundaries, which has been going on for centuries at the limits of parishes.
Railway boundary markers were used by railway companies to mark out the limits of their land ownership in places where fences weren’t practical for some reason, or where the land boundaries extended some way beyond the fenced railway line. For instance, this LSWR boundary marker is at the bottom of a railway embankment in Haslemere:
It has had a concrete retaining wall cast around it at some point and although worn, it’s still doing its job of indicating that the embankment above it belongs to the railway (Network Rail today) even though the railway fence line itself is right at the top of the embankment. Such areas of land can be contentious when they become littered. Network Rail hasn’t always been particularly quick to clear them (it’s an infrastructure company first and foremost, and litter picking isn’t at the top of its to-do list) and local council litter pickers might not be able to work on land which isn’t publicly owned, so these somewhat forgotten areas can easily become eyesores. Happily, Network Rail is now taking the issue more seriously (see here), although the British public’s apparent inability to dispose of litter properly means it’s a continuing battle.
The LSWR wasn’t alone in using cast iron railway boundary markers, though they’re my favourite of the various designs (I’ve always been a sucker for LSWR and Southern architecture and design). Here are some from the London and North Western Railway, relocated to the edge of a cycle trail along a disused railway line:
Other railways preferred to use stone boundary markers. Because these needed to be individually engraved, lettering was kept to a minimum. Cast iron versions tended to carry more detail because the moulds only had to be made once in order to produce hundreds of identical markers.
The topic of railway boundaries can exercise people to a surprising extent. Get a bunch of British public transport professionals into a room, set them to talking about mainland European railways, and before too long (once they’ve exhausted high speed travel, low ticket prices, and Switzerland in its entirety) you’ll find that the topic of railway boundary fencing comes up. I’ve been in a few such discussions myself. British railway tracks are fenced throughout their length, but in many mainland European countries that is not the case. The same applies to much of the railroad network in North America.
Such discussions will generally conclude that in Britain we feel the need to fence off the railway to protect it from potential trespassers who might get themselves run over by trains or, on the railways south of the Thames, electrocuted on the third rail. In contrast, in mainland European countries which don’t fence off their railways, or at least perhaps fence off only their high speed main lines, there seems to be an acceptance that if their citizens want to cross railway tracks, that’s their own look out, and they can choose whether to take the risk or not. In Britain, we complain, the ‘nanny state’ takes away our ability to make an assessment of whether nipping across a quiet country railway line is something we’re prepared to hazard.
Despairing of Britain’s inability to let its citizens manage their own risk (pedestrian guard railing along town-centre roads is another symptom) doesn’t tell the full story, not least because of the mental trauma caused to train drivers by hitting a person on the tracks. It’s all very well saying that if someone chooses to cross the railway and accepts that they might get hit by a train, they should be free to do it, but it overlooks the fact that it’s not only the track-crosser who suffers when it all goes wrong.
It also fails to recognise that another key reason why Britain’s railways are fully fenced is nothing to do with people at all. It’s to do with animals.
Before the industrial revolution, Britain was primarily a coastal country. All its major centres of population were on the coast, or on tidal rivers just inland, because the best way to get from place to place was on a ship. In the interior, population density was much lower, and the economy was primarily agricultural. The building of the canal network opened up the country during the first phase of the industrial revolution, allowing the growth of new industrial cities like Birmingham and Sheffield, and then the railways came along and took everything to a whole new level. But the country that the railways passed through between the new towns and cities was still very oriented towards agriculture, was full of farm animals, and was the home of people little used to this new form of high technology transport. The railways were looked upon with fear and suspicion. It’s why much early railway architecture was designed to placate fear of travel, through calming Classical detail and larger than necessary tunnel portals which reassured passengers they wouldn’t be asphyxiated as the train passed through.
Amongst other worries, people thought that the arrival of a new railway would lead to cows producing sour milk, and hens ceasing to lay eggs. More prosaically, passing through so much agricultural land with its herds of cattle, or animal-powered farming equipment, meant that there was a considerable risk of trains meeting cattle in an unfortunate and high speed (by the standards of the day) collision that would definitely kill the animal involved and quite possibly lead to injury or death for the train passengers, given that trains then were rather more lightweight than they are now. The risk was increased by the fact that the new railways often bisected farms completely. Fencing off the railway, and instead directing farmers and their animals to innumerable crossing points, was an attempt to mitigate that risk. It has also left a legacy of picturesque ‘cattle arches’ (dinky tunnels through embankments which look charming but are an additional maintenance headache Network Rail doesn’t really need) and farm crossings (which Network Rail has been trying to reduce in number) on railways all around Britain.
The need for British railways to be entirely fenced in is enshrined in the Railway Clauses Consolidation Act (1845) which is still in force. Despite this, trains still strike animals on a regular basis when they make it through the fences. According to this Railway Technology article, there were 346 such incidents in 2012-13 which had a financial cost estimated by Network Rail at some £4.9m. Meanwhile in Sweden, where many railway lines are unfenced, some 2,000 moose are killed each year. I’m not sure that hitting an animal is much less traumatic for the train drivers than hitting a person, so perhaps we should ease up on the “nanny state” criticism of railway fencing in Britain.
There are still many railway boundary markers to be found around Britain, holdovers of early railway history that still play an important role today in delineating the limits of railway land. There are fewer than there were, of course. Some have been lost as embankments have been re-made or boundaries have shifted. Boundary markers are also attractive pieces of railwayana, and as such are threatened by people with spades who can see an opportunity to resell them, like the pub landlord who was convicted in 2013 of stealing a Great Western Railway boundary marker and selling it on eBay (see a news report here). While I can see their appeal as ornaments, I’d far rather find such a marker in its natural habitat, continuing to do the job it has done since Victorian times.