Gary Boyd-Hope introduces the Steam Railways Collection

Gary Boyd-Hope is the editor of Steam Railway magazine.

Gary Boyd-Hope

A life-long enthusiast of all things steam-powered, Gary spent years working as a volunteer on the Talyllyn Railway in Wales, before graduating with an MA in Industrial Heritage from the University of Birmingham.

He worked in the museum and heritage sector for several years before turning his attention to journalism, publishing his first railway book in 2007.

Born in Nuneaton and a resident of Leicestershire, Gary also owns his own steam locomotive.

When it comes to invention, Britain has led the field in coming up with new ways to improve and enhance the way we move and communicate.

From John Logie Baird's television and Alexander Graham Bell's telephone, to Frank Whittle's jet engine and Tim Berners-Lee's internet, this tiny nation has - quite literally - changed the way we see the world.

Yet the one invention that stands out above all others, the one that brought about the biggest global changes, is the railway and in particular the steam locomotive.

From humble beginnings in the early 19th Century, the railways not only grew to become the principal method of mass transportation for over a century, but also became a source of allure and fascination for generations of enthusiasts.

Thanks to the publication of Ian Allan's first 'ABC Combined Volume' in 1943, our steam railways became part of popular culture as crowds of school children (and the occasional adult) lined station platforms to collect engine numbers.

The Rainhill Story

In many cases this hobby became a passion, which remains today and is passed down from father to son, generation to generation.

Condensing the history of Britain's railways into a few hundred words is no easy task, which is why the BBC Four archive is such a valuable resource to tap into.

Yet this is not simply a string of programmes that tell the story of a mode of transport, it is a study of social change that reflects the deep, engrained love that this country holds for its railways.

Perhaps the best know advocate of the steam locomotive was George Stephenson, and The Rainhill Story (1979) provides an insight into the challenges faced by George and Robert Stephenson in building the first 'iron horses'.

Having proven steam locomotives (and his own) capabilities at Killingworth Colliery, George Stephenson was given the task of surveying the route of Britain's first publicly subscribed passenger line - the Stockton & Darlington Railway.

Opened in 1825, the railway pioneered the use of locomotives for the movement of goods and people, and paved the way for Stephenson to complete his crowning achievement - the world's first inter-city railway.

Railway Mania

The new Liverpool & Manchester Railway really was the forbear of the modern railway system. It opened in 1829 to great fanfare, and propelled Stephenson onto the pedestal he retains in the history books today.

His 'Rocket' locomotive (built in fact by his son, Robert) pioneered the use of the multi-tubular boiler, which became standard on all steam locomotives built from then until British Railways built its last in 1960.

The success of the Liverpool & Manchester Railway opened the floodgates for a tidal wave of new railway proposals from companies trying to get in on the act.

This resulted in the 'Railway Mania' period of the 1840s, which reached its peak in 1846 when no fewer than 272 Acts of Parliament were passed, giving authorisation to construct over 9,500 route miles of railway - on top of those which had already been built.

The Past at Work: Railway Mania (1980) documents this railway boom and reveals the social and economic effects that the new railways had on the nation.

By 1851 around 6,800 miles of new railway criss-crossed the country, and it was possible to travel between Britain's major population centres at the then unthinkable speed of a mile a minute.

A Branch Line Railway

From a travelling point of view, Britain had suddenly become a whole lot smaller, and by 1961, prior to the famous Dr Beeching cuts, our national railway network covered an impressive 17,830 route miles.

There can be no denying the impact that the railways had on Britain.

They took us to work, took us on holiday, fed our power stations, delivered our food, carried our mail, took troops to war, brought them home again, unified out time-keeping and kept Great Britain moving to such a degree that the country became an industrial and manufacturing power house.

None of this would have been possible without the railways.

John Betjeman's A Branch Line Railway (1963) illustrates the day-to-day work of a rural backwater perfectly, while Steam Days: Workhorses (1986) and The Train Now Departing: Lines of Industry (1988) highlight the less glamorous side of rail travel, turning the spotlight on the industrial steam locomotives that really did keep Britain moving during the Golden Age of railways.

Of course there is a certain romance to the idea of rail travel, born partly out of the writings of Agatha Christie and also from nostalgia; from the days when a steam-hauled train took us to the seaside for a holiday.

Crawling along a motorway with a boot-full of luggage and two squabbling children in the back was yet to become the norm, and for decades a holiday actually began when the guard's whistle blew and the train wheezed away from the station.

Steam Days: Going Great Western

The journey was just part of the excitement, as exemplified in Steam Days: Going Great Western (1986) and The Train Now Departing: The Holiday Line (1988).

What Britain pioneered on rails soon spread to the rest of the world.

Yet our locomotive builders were some of the most respected across the globe, fulfilling orders for rolling stock to all points of the compass.

The World About Us: The Romance of Indian Railways (1975) captures this UK dominance of the railway world to a tee, but even then Britain fought to outdo the world when it came to glamour, luxury and speed.

On July 3 1938, a British steam locomotive, 'Mallard', hauled a special test train at the breakneck speed of 126mph, a world record that still stands to this day.

Yes, when it came to railways, Britain was a driving force.

The Romance of Indian Railways

But all good things must come to an end, and as The Train Now Departing - The Survivors (1988) explains, time was eventually called on the dominance of the railways.

The advent of the affordable private car, and the success of the motor lorry after the Second World War, removed our reliance on the trains.

Goods began to be carried by road, commuters took to their cars, and the railways ceased to be profitable.

After the railways were nationalised in 1948, British Railways began a programme of modernisation that would ultimately lead to the closure of all non-profitable or duplicate lines, and the replacement of steam with diesel and electric traction.

British Railways' last steam locomotive, 'Evening Star', rolled out of Swindon works in 1960, and by August 1968 all steam had been withdrawn from active service. The last train, the famous 'Fifteen Guinea Special' ran on August 11 that year.

It could have been the end for steam, but the enthusiast fraternity had other ideas and the railway preservation movement was born.

The railway history book pages are still being filled with each passing day

Out of the ashes of the steam age grew a multi-million pound leisure and tourism business that not only keeps steam alive, but in many cases provides valuable revenue for towns and resorts where the railways are based.

The story of how some of these preserved lines came into being is also told in this archive.

Today, at the end of 2012, our railways are still hard at work.

The national network is a shadow of its former self in terms of route miles (10,072 instead of 17,830), but in many respects it is still growing; you can catch a train from London to Paris after all.

The railway history book pages are still being filled with each passing day, and the BBC Four Steam Railways Collection is therefore an invaluable record of Britain's industrial past, which acknowledges the dedicated enthusiasts who have saved this important part of British heritage for the enjoyment of generations to come.

Gary Boyd-Hope, December 2012

BBC Four Collections

Steam Railways

A collection of programmes from the BBC archives celebrating the beauty of steam locomotives and the deep, engrained love Britain holds for its steam railways.