"Degrees of Indifference"
or Why Historians Should Care About Railways
Prof Colin Divall
18 November 1996
Our meeting rooms were nearly full on 18 November to
hear Prof Colin Divall give his views of the historian's role in
interpreting the railways' impact on our social and economic
development. He started by quoting from some reference books by well
respected historians. The inaccuracies were obvious to anyone with a
knowledge of railways. Yet these works have a significant influence on
current policies, for example being used to provide lessons for the
current round of railway privatisations. It is therefore essential that
historians take great care to research and interpret the historical
Colin pointed to the significance of the
pre-nationised railways. They were the largest companies of their time,
not just as service and transport providers, but as manufacturers.
They were ground-breakers in management practices, their representatives
toured the world to ensure that they used the best possible techniques.
However, they were not omnipotent and were as prone to make mistakes
as we are today. Researching board and committee records provides
insights into the decision making process. Colin finished by describing
some of the recent "finds" in the Public Records Office, including
reports on the possibility of introducing diesel multiple units during
During questioning, Colin said the Institute of
Railway Studies aims to develop a large cadre of people who can do this
research. He is developing courses leading up to formal certificates.
and is currently working on a distance learning version which will be
supplemented by summer schools - watch this space for details.