Monday, 15 February 2010

lessons from the tracks

Shortly before you arrive in Oxford, the train from the capital passes by the Didcot Railway Museum. Rolling stock bearing the colours of decades past sit in silent sidings alongside stationary steam engines, a short step from the electrified lines of the modern network. They preserve the last, rare examples of a system that once dominated the length and breadth of the country. In the forty years before 1870, an extraordinary period of active creativity saw the construction of over 20,000km of railway lines. Journey times between the town and the country, between the mill and the market, were reduced on an almost unimaginable scale. In the space of a single generation, the countryside became interconnected. The social and economic impacts of the railway revolution are still being felt today, almost two centuries later.

What lessons can a conservationist learn from looking at the railways? The obvious analogy is between the few remaining examples of once ubiquitous wagons and engines that roamed the rails across the nation, and the now threatened species of wildlife similarly reduced in both number and extent. Like the steam leviathans, there is little room for them in the modernised world; they are assigned the same fate as the inefficient.

Two important reasons, however, make this simple analogy unhelpful. Firstly, we might want to reject the suggestion that, in order to be conserved, plants and animals must be efficient and useful to human society. Surely there are wider reasons to conserve wildlife than simply the use we can make of it? The second reason is more powerful. It concerns the positive ability of a generation to change the world in which they live.

What strikes me about the railway revolution is the time in which it was achieved. Without modern construction equipment. Without JCBs and diesel-driven diggers and four-ton trucks. Without these aids, a generation built a network of corridors that linked the entire country, across fields and pastures, through cities and towns, around and under the chalk sea-swept cliffs and across the mountains, mire and moor. Twenty thousand kilometres of track, in less than forty years.

Alongside many of my generation, I think that the future of conservation must look beyond the old approach of isolated reserves, somehow meant to survive surrounded by a hostile industrial landscape where there is no quarter made for anything ‘natural’. Instead, whilst reserves are still essential, to succeed we must also address the landscape mosaic in which they exist. The future of conservation lies in connecting these vestiges of the natural world in a matrix in which human and non-human society can co-exist in a mutually beneficial way.

The lesson that we should take from the railway builders of the nineteenth century is this: it is possible to re-connect the countryside with itself in the space of a single generation. If we have the will, it can be done. It is a reminder of the incredible creative potential of human societies. It is a message of hope.



  1. Nice peace of work! My first reaction was a geographical one... railways connect spaces with each other, just as the current trend toward globalization connects people across the globe. And since our beans can come from Kenya, what happens in Kenya affects, or will get to affect us in the long run. The time that we could pretend not to care about developing countries and the ruins Western companies tend to leave there will maybe come to an end soon as we all tend to drive on the same railwork, and as a train stops somewhere we cant drive through...(maybe not a well thought out reaction...but still)

  2. Interesting idea Tim, enjoyed the article.

    It sometimes seems to me that the networks of disused railway lines (certainly around my Lancashire home) already provide pretty suitable little corridors of "wildness" through heavily grazed landscapes. The few miles of disused railway line behind my house has peregrine falcons nesting, adders, badgers and numerous orchids, as it slices through the sheep-stacked fields. I've read about holloways ( of the south coast providing the same kind of sunken retreat from development.

    However, there seems a push to convert many of these former railway lines into tarmaced paths and cycle tracks. You can frame it as an ecosystem service arguement, I suppose. What biodiversity (and ability to allow for adaptive management in the future) are we comprimising through the (entirely laudable) action of widening access to recreation in the countryside?