Britain is at an impending crossroads.
Some go home to families and careers, others take up work in fields ranging from science to business. But whatever their choices, there can only be one constant: the railways.
Across the country, Britain’s 54,000 kilometers (35,000 miles) of railway network have been a source of strength and pride for generations of travelers for more than a century.
“For the people of Britain, railway travel is really, really important,” Anna Curtis-Pink, an expert on British national heritage and transport history at King’s College London, said in an interview. “If Britain’s railways go, it’s going to be like saying this is a kind of a betrayal of the nation.”
But the railways are currently facing a crisis that has many fearing the country’s century-old tradition of public transportation could be in jeopardy.
Experts fear the recent squeeze on rail infrastructure could leave thousands of commuters without enough space to sit down, causing delays and even cancellations. There are also serious concerns that transport projects to upgrade roads and water supplies will conflict with Britain’s commitment to leaving the European Union.
And the number of people in Britain who own cars continues to grow. A government report says if no improvements are made to Britain’s railways, demand will nearly double to 800 million daily journeys in 25 years.
While the British government tries to fend off major infrastructure setbacks, experts see signs that Britain is becoming less of a railway nation — a country, in Curtis-Pink’s words, in “racing against the pace of the 21st century to maintain a rail infrastructure that wasn’t built for that, and frankly isn’t really working well to meet that.”
The railroads started to take hold in Britain in the late 19th century. To make the trains more efficient, steam was used to propel them along narrow underground passages.
The Royal Docks railway in London opened in 1879, becoming one of the world’s first large passenger lines and serving as the inspiration for American travelers.
More recently, the network that brings people from London to Manchester, and then onto the Channel Tunnel, stretches 170 kilometers (109 miles) over the Thames Estuary.
A third of the British railway network is used by just 6 percent of the public, and experts say the public simply doesn’t have the deep pockets for the massive repairs required.
Britain’s most recent rail upgrade came in the early 1990s, when lines were redesigned to make up for decades of neglect.
Now there is talk of overhauling another 4,500 kilometers (2,800 miles) of track over the next decade. And that’s at a time when, according to the Highways Agency, Britain’s road network has almost doubled in size to 54,000 kilometers (33,500 miles) and already the government has plans to build 6,400 kilometers (4,700 miles) more roads in the next decade.
For Curtis-Pink, the ultimate aim is to make British railways in the vein of American railroads.
“And America, of course, has the ultimate legacy — a continuous railroad, so they are able to do anything,” she said. “And that means you have to pay a lot of attention to the safety systems, you’ve got to have people on board the train and on the platform, and you can’t mess around.”