Regular readers will know that we have on this website something of an obsession with several issues. Some are vitally important matters like Global Warming (not) and the secret machinations of the evil Family Courts. Others, like safety scameras and the lies that are told about them, are less important but affect thousands of people in their daily lives. Others are just plain trivial but get up our noses all the same.
One of the third group is the detestable modern habit, mostly in the media, of using the American expression “train station” instead of the traditional British “railway station”. We've complained about it many times, both here and in newspaper forums. When I last raised it on the Daily Mail website readers told me to “get a life”.
Those of us who have an affection for the English language and its traditional usage in this country do seem to be losing the battle. It's almost unheard of these days for any television or radio reporter to say “railway station”. Nevertheless the annoyance remains (well actually, it gets worse) and I have found myself giving the matter a good deal of thought recently. So here are my conclusions, which I offer in case they might be useful to other grumpy old traditionalists like myself ...
When one raises the use of the phrase “train station”, thoughtless people will frequently reply that as one goes to a bus station to get on a bus, plainly one ought to go to a train station to catch a train. This is simplistic and doesn't stand up to logic. Do you go to a petrol station to catch some petrol? No, you don't. You put some petrol in your car and it's the car that carries you away. You might as well talk about “car stations”.
Do you go to a radio station to ride a radio, or even to buy one? No, you don't. In fact, very few of us ever go to a radio station at all – they are the places from which radio waves are transmitted, and we sit at home and wait for them to reach us through the ether.
Do you go to a space station to catch some space? No, not if you've any sense. A space station is unique because it's located in space, not because it supplies space to the general public. A research station is a place where people do research, but you can't pop in and buy some.
And what about the Stations of the Cross? I imagine not all of us will be familiar with the term, but those who are might like to consider what it means. Not, presumably, the place where you go to catch the Route 69 late-evening Jesus to Walthamstow after a Saturday night out in Canning Town?
And what do we mean by our “station in life”? Doesn't it indicate our social status, and/or our wealth, education etc.?
Overall the word “station” indicates a place, whether real or imaginary; usually a place with unique qualities as determined by the qualifying words attached. To dumb down such a useful and significant word by equating all stations with a bus garage is a piece of mentally impoverished thinking, if indeed any thought is involved at all.
I have to admit to being something of a railway nerd, so I can say a thing or two about why the American expression “train station” is inappropriate in Britain. Outside of the main conurbations, the big cities that have uptowns and downtowns and 'burbs and so on, a great deal of the American railway system consisted of immensely long single-track lines carrying fairly infrequent trains, many of which were (and still are) colossal freight trains requiring four and five diesel engines to pull them. If you wanted to go somewhere, naturally enough you went to a station and waited for a train: hence train station.
In Britain the situation was rather different. The British railway system of the 19th and 20th Centuries was immensely complex and dense, intricate networks of intertwining main lines, secondary lines, branch lines, spurs, connecting links, avoiding lines, goods depots, coal yards, industrial sidings, coal mines, mineral lines and so on, all laid to the very highest standards and carrying a dense traffic throughout the day and night. At any one time, some 30,000 steam locomotives were polluting the atmosphere of this tiny island. Unless you lived in the Scottish Highlands or somewhere equally remote, for the first half of the 20th Century you'd be very unlucky to find yourself more than walking distance from a railway line.
The railway stations were far more than just a place to wait for a train. They formed a network of nexus points providing access to a tremendous range of services and industries – they were the place where you, so to speak, plugged in to the system by which Great Britain operated. The average country station often had a staff of twenty or thirty clerks, porters, signallers, shunters, track workers etc. and was probably the biggest employer in a village or a major employer in a town. Stations in cities had staff numbering in hundreds, and one of the great London termini probably several thousand. The railways trained and employed many thousands of skilled men at the great railway works like Derby or Stratford or Swindon, providing street after street of tied housing for their workers and even building whole new towns for them. In the late 19th Century the industry was so large that each year there were grand jamborees at the Crystal Palace which included, to quote one poster I've seen, “all the finest railway choirs of the nation”. Let it not be forgotten that the third largest employer in the world is still a railway, albeit in India (the largest is the Chinese Army, and the second is Walmart. How scary is that?).
The services you could access at your local station were numerous. You could send a parcel or a truck load of manure. On one of the sleepiest, most rural, most short-lived and least successful lines in the country, the Mid-Suffolk Light Railway, the tiny station at Laxfield loaded sugar-beet trains measured in hundreds of thousands of tons. Ever been to Laxfield? Don't blink or you'll miss it.
You could take a basket of homing pigeons to the station, secure in the knowledge that the next morning some reliable porter would release them into the skies of Cumberland or Yorkshire for you. Farmers would take their stock there, and the station staff were often expert at handling them and herding them into or out of trains of waiting lime-washed wagons adapted for the purpose. The Great Western Railway even had special dog shit wagons, used for carrying that essential ingredient for the tanning industry. Not strictly relevant, but rather curious, is the fact that in India there were night-soil trains that wound their narrow-gauge way round the town's streets so you could empty your chamber pots into them. Something similar existed on the Talyllyn Railway in Wales, I believe.
In the summer the railways would provide whole fleets of trains and carry thousands and thousands of workers from the Midland industrial cities to the coast for a day out. When I was a child, the day before we went on our summer holidays my father would walk up to the station and come back with one of their sack-barrows. He'd load a big wooden trunk on it and take it back to the station. The next day, after a hot and sticky journey on the Atlantic Coast Express, we'd arrive at our rented house on the South Devon coast to find the trunk with all our clothes and possessions standing proudly in the hall. Where can you get that kind of service these days?
Even before the “grouping” in 1923, when hundreds of smaller railway companies were lumped together to make the London and North Eastern Railway, the London Midland and Scottish Railway, the Great Western Railway and the Southern Railway, you could go to your local station and buy a ticket for anywhere in the country. Yes, long before computers, the clerk would write you out a ticket for a journey that might involve travelling in the carriages and on the metals of half a dozen separate railways. Some years ago I tried to book a group ticket from East Anglia to Scotland. Anglia Railways (as they were called then) were very sorry, but they couldn't do it because they said the company that ran the trains on the East Coast Line to Edinburgh “won't speak to us”!
One side of the railway station that still exists in many places is the commercial aspect; then as now you could go to a large city station and get not a train, but a haircut, a decent meal, a drink, a newspaper, a book, even clothes and luggage and shoes. Major railway stations were the shopping malls of their day, and stations like Liverpool Street and Waterloo still are.
Well, you get my drift. I should stop before I get carried away (not by train, probably). The point is that a railway station was far more than just a place to get on a train. It was, and to some extent still is, an important access point to a major and formative part of British culture and industry. Let's continue to dignify it by its proper name, and thereby dignify the way of life it represented, a way of life that briefly made Britain the most powerful nation on Earth, one that saw us through two World Wars with not a mobile phone or iPod or skinny latté in sight. Long live the railway station.
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