Friday, 12 June 2015

Eleven Minutes Late review

I felt distinctly misled by the blurb on the back of Eleven Minutes Late. I picked the book up from a pile occupying a whole table in a large bookseller, so it must be doing well (especially as I later discovered the book first came out in 2009, and this is only a lightly updated version) and thought it sounded ideal. The bumf made it sound like 'Bill Bryson does the railways' - as a lover of both, I thought it would be excellent. It was very good, but it didn't do what it said on the tin.

The author Matthew Engel, a journalist with the right kind of connections to be able to interview John Major for the book (probably because Engel had been editor of Wisden's, the cricket almanac) starts in the expected vein, taking us on a trip from Penzance to Thurso with a week's railrover ticket in hand. Just the idea of the ticket really brought back the memories - when I was 15, two friends and I bought these and spent almost all of a week on the railway network. However after a couple of shortish chapters, the book settles down to being an analytical history of the messy development of Britain's railways and it is only a good 200 pages later that he finishes of his journey.

Having said that, if you are interested in railways, the history part is very good. It takes a distinctly cynical dive into the politics of railways and is more about that aspect than the nuts and bolts of the permanent way - which is likely to make it interesting to a wider audience than those who just like trains. Engel gives the reader real (and painful) insights into who the railways are in the shape they are in today by tracing a rarely planned and often brainless set of decisions and ideas, from the original railway mania through to the harebrained privatisation that separated track and trains and constantly pushed train operators to apply higher fares.

In fact, when I read the final section where he returns to travelogue mode, I realised I was glad most of the book was the history, because Engel isn't actually great at the Brysonesque bit. He has a couple of tiny vignettes that are entertaining, one featuring what must be the rudest buffet car (sorry, The Shop) attendant ever, but that apart we just get rather dull descriptions of his journey. Provided, then, you come at this book not expecting what it says on the cover, it is great. I would highly recommend it for its history, although it does leave the regular train traveller so frustrated as it becomes pretty obvious that the British political system is never going to get trains right.

I don't know why, but books about rail disasters have always made great reading. (I'm thinking particularly of Rolt's classic Red for Danger.) This is a book about a different kind of rail disaster - the politics, planning and management of railways and is equally compelling. I realised as I typed that sentence why the blurb was made a bit misleading. Would you sell many books about 'the politics, planning and management of railways'? But in its entertaining, curmudgeonly way, this book does the topic justice while keeping the reader happy.

You can find Eleven Minutes Late at Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com - also on Kindle at Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com.

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