Between the lines: railways get back on track with poetry

In the last few weeks, the railways haven't exactly been poetry in motion.

Commuters have been left stranded overnight in freezing compartments, whole sections of the network have ground to a depressing halt and even on the good days, hundreds of services have been subject to delays and cancellations.

Things were different in the 1930s. Back then, the country's railways represented Britain's forward looking economy and the possibility of escape for millions as they looked forward to seaside holidays during the annual factory fortnight.

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It was then that WH Auden to penned Night Mail. With Benjamin Britten providing the music, the result was a tribute to the trains which crossed the border to bring the mail and the postal order. Now railways are more likely to be the subject of angry letters to newspapers, but in the hope perhaps of reigniting the kind of rhythm and romance which inspired Auden, the National Railway Museum in York is on the hunt for a contemporary trackside poet.

"The railway has been inspiring writers for over two centuries and when you look back through history verse has also been used by the companies themselves to connect with passengers," says Karen Baker, librarian at the NRM's Search Engine centre, which is already home to an extensive collection of railway poetry.

During the Second World War, British Railways used poetry to advise passengers that for reasons of national security they were unable to inform them in advance of delays. That information was censored lest it be used by the Germans, who might take advantage of it to launch an attack and poetry offered a gentle way of getting a very serious message across to the public."

Modern day excuses for delays, which range from the wrong kind of snow to drivers just not turning up to work, don't quite lend themselves to poetry as easily as questions of national security, but poetry been no less important to the railways in peacetime. In the 1920s poetry inspired by the Scottish author and diarist James Boswell was used in an attempt to lure English tourists north of the border . Four decades later exactly the same tricks were being used in marketing material.

"A British Railways poster from the 1960s used the bicentenary of the birth of Scotland's national poet Robert Burns as a way of promoting 'The Land of Burns' and its railway services," says Karen. "But there is more to the collection we have here than just the poems used by the railway companies to court potential travellers.

"Poetry is a medium by which all kinds of people both inside and outside the railways have expressed their attitudes and opinions of the sights, sounds and smells of this unique form of travel and many of the works give a fascinating insight into what it was like to work on the railways in a bygone era.

"For example in 1975 the National Union of Railways published anthologies of poems by railway employees as a way of encouraging their members to express themselves in the Arts. The thinking was it would benefit their wellbeing."

Should a similar scheme be launched today it would no doubt be ridiculed as a waste of both time and money. However, although the past of railway poetry is well represented in the Search Engine centre archives, Karen is keen that the National Collection runs right up to the present day.

They are now looking for people to send in poems inspired by the modern day rail network.

"Poetry and the railways have a strong link, but here at Search Engine we want to look to the future of railway poetry as well as the past," says Karen. "One of the most recent poetic masterpieces we have is a presentation scroll of The High Speed Train by Yorkshire Post columnist Ian McMillan.

"The poem was commissioned by GNER on their services to mark the launch of their new-look high speed trains and it would be great to add to our collection with some more exciting new works."

The poetry competition has three categories (5-10 years, 11-16 years and adults 17+ years) with the overall winner winning an Amazon Kindle e-reader and their work will become part of the National Collection. Enter online at or by post to Poetry competition, Search Engine, National Railway Museum, Leeman Road York, YO26 4XJ. Closing date is January 31.