During the course of the 1950s, England lost confidence in its rulers and convinced itself to modernise. The bankrupt steam-powered railway, run by a retired general, symbolised everything that was wrong with the country; the future lay in motorways and high speed electric – or even atomic – express trains.
But plans for a gleaming new railway system ended in failure, and on the roads traffic ground to a halt. Along came Dr Beeching, forensically analysing the railways’ problems and delivering an expert’s diagnosis that a third of the nation’s railways must go. This was the point at which the reality of modernisation dawned and rural England fell victim to the road and car – at least that is how Dr Beeching is remembered today.
Last Trains examines why and how the railway system contracted, exposing the political failures that bankrupted the railways and examining officials’ attempts to understand a transport revolution beyond their control. It is a story of the increasing alienation of bureaucrats from the public they thought they were serving, but also of a nation that thinks it lives in the countryside trying to come to terms with modernity.