Two years ago, Mick Lynch, a red-in-tooth-and-crankshaft trade unionist, might have seemed the last of a dying breed. With Britain stuck in a seemingly inexorable loop of lockdowns, there was a notion that trains and all who live by them were for the breaker’s yard. Now, after masterminding a series of national rail strikes, Lynch is king of the tracks. He has vaulted the railways back onto the political agenda, and with his soundbite-ready denunciations of Tory rule has also won the freedom of the airwaves.
Lynch is one of the faces of the modern British railway. Another is Michael Portillo, who offers, in suitably pastel-coloured attire, a gentler vision. In his Great British Railway Journeys, now thirteen series old, he travels across the country in airy, noiseless carriages, with no hint of points failures, leaves on the line or cable theft, let alone industrial action. Past and present are welded together as smoothly as steel track; conflict belongs firmly in the past. Rather less well dressed (or perhaps better) is Francis Bourgeois, the TikTok trainspotter. With his nasal tones and maniacal bellows of excitement on station platforms, Bourgeois is either the apex of the breed or a strangely committed satirist of it. Whichever one, his videos of passing locomotives (or more often of himself, with the odd snort of a diesel engine in the background) have garnered tens of millions of views. Then there is Mark Smith, aka the Man in Seat Sixty-One, whose reassuringly 2000s-style website is the go-to for anyone wanting to understand the difference between an off-peak and a super off-peak return, and what the enigmatic words ‘any permitted route’ printed on a train ticket really allow.
The thing that should worry those who use Britain’s trains is that none of these figures actually represent the railways. Could any travelling passenger name the chief executive of Govia Thameslink, Avanti West Coast or any of the other twenty or so train operating companies in the UK?