Record of a fairly adventurous political railway life
“After all, what is a crank? It is a tool that is cheap, small, efficient and economical and – it makes revolutions”
– Franz Schumacher, quoted by Leopold Kohr
I’ve been a ‘railway crank’ since about the age of five – I was brought up next to Bolton loco sheds and my mum used to take me to Walkden to see the NCB steam locos (including some handsome ex-North Staffs’ tank engines) when I was still in a pram. I’ve been a socialist since about the age of nine when I first encountered class snobbery at Crewe station on a train-spotting trip.
A solidly respectable working class Bolton childhood?
My dad worked in Walker’s Tannery, a dirty, dangerous and badly-paid job. It should have made him a Maoist at least – but he was actually moderate in all things. I suppose my mum – and me – made up for his moderation, with our manic enthusiasms and slightly crazy notions. Dad died in 1978, mum in 2010. She did all sorts of things, from working as a machinist in Burton’s (Farnworth), ring-spinning at The Bee Hive, and running her own fruit and veg stall. She was never short of summat to do. I went to St Williams (Catholic) school and then Thornleigh College. I was never a very good Catholic but it did give me a way of looking at the world I suppose.
From the age of about six I spent most of my spare time hanging around Bolton Loco Shed. By about 1965 I was sufficiently accepted to be given pretty much free rein of the place, and a group of us got together and decided to clean up some of the locos. 42626 was our first, specially ‘bulled up’ to work the last train from Horwich on September 25th 1965. My Friday evenings were usually spent doing all-night footplate trips with some of the more tolerant drivers, like Wilf Faulkner, Jack Hartley, Tommy Sammon and Bert Welsby. Usually did some firing and occasionally had a go on the regulator, supervised. Great guys, happy times. When I think back on those days it seems a bizarre but beautiful dream. Am I the youngest person to have driven a steam locomotive on an ordinary BR passenger service? (42252 on the Bolton – Liverpool stopper, April 1966).
My first political activity was campaigning against local rail closures – Horwich in 1965, Lostock Junction (see picture) the year after. I knew it was crazy then – and Lostock Junction eventually re-opened. Horwich got a ‘parkway’ station. Vindication, or what?
After the end of steam
My life has been spent bringing some sort of social and political context to my obsession/enthusiasm for trains.
I left Thornleigh at the age of 15 and did a year studying press photography in Wednesbury. I then speant a year doing A Levels at Bolton Tech. where I managed to organise a strike. I went on to do Sociology at Lancaster (1971-74). I lived in Lancaster after my first year, with Linda (whom I met in Bolton). Note: I’m not going to give an account of my relationships, would take too long and it’s not really public business anyway. However: I’ve got two fantastic daughters, Natasha and Alice, and five amazing wee grandchildren. My partner for 12 years, Jo, died of breast cancer in February 2009; the Jo Barnes Fund was set up in her memory and there’s more information on the relevant page. Please support it, we’re running low on money!
Railway work at the sharp end – and left-wing politics
So – back to work. My first job after leaving Lancaster University was in the spring smithy at Horwich Loco Works This was very hard and dangerous work and I quickly moved on to become a guard at Blackburn, having a great time working freights over the Settle-Carlisle Line. After a couple of years as a signalman in Bolton I ended up as Senior Technical Officer with the BR Property Board. I was very involved with the union (NUR – now RMT) and did a stint as secretary of the Manchester District Council; the 30 branches had a total membership of 30,000! I left BR to work for the Communist Party in Manchester. No, I wasn’t a ‘Stalinist’ – this was during the brave but ultimately unsuccessful ‘Eurocommunist’ period of CP politics.
I worked in adult education for many years, teaching trade union studies and local history courses and generally plotting the downfall of capitalism and the inauguration of the socialist commonwealth. I also dabbled in journalism and worked for a while as news editor on International Railway Journal down in Falmouth.
I did my PhD on Lancashire Dialect Literature. I’ve always been fascinated by it, and its links with the socialist movement in the 1890s and early 1900s. Allen Clarke (Teddy Ashton – see picture) was brought up in Bolton and I was struck by lots of similarities between his life and mine (though thankfully I didn’t have to work half-time in the mill at the age of 11! I escaped that fate by about 60 years.) He had a great sense of humour which is so important in any sort of political activity. Maybe I have some of his weaknesses too (but I’m not saying what they are).
I’ve been in the railway industry, one way and another, for over 35 years, with experience in a wide (some would say bewildering) range of sectors and disciplines. I originated and developed ‘community rail’ and was directly involved in the establishment of over twenty community-rail partnerships which have led to increased use of local and regional railways and additional investment. One of the achievements of which I’m most proud is the ‘music train’ on the Penistone Line; the first one ran in September 1993 and it started a revolution. It’s something that has given thousands of people so much pleasure and fun; and it introduced lots of people to using their local train.
I established the Association of Community Rail Partnerships (ACORP) in the mid-1990s and went on to be Head of Government and Community Strategies at Northern Rail, followed by a spell at Grand Central as External Relations Manager. I was appointed to the board of Passenger Focus (now Transport Focus) in April 2013. I’m a trustee of the Foundation for Integrated Transport.
What I do these days
A big change in my recent life came in May 2012 when I was elected onto Kirklees Council to represent Golcar ward. I loved much of it! So why did I stand down in November 2013? It’s a long story, and in large part down to a realisation that I can only do so much, or at least only do so much well. One day I’ll tell you the full story, but this is an honest if partial explanation to be going on with. I’ve plenty to keep me busy with Bolton station and our CRP for the widr Bolton and S Lancs area.
I also work as a consultant, writer and lecturer on railways, Northern social history and other odds and sods. It’s mostly writing – for Today’s Railways, Local Transport Today, Big Issue in the North, Chartist and sometimes The Guardian and Yorkshire Post. And I occasionally get paid for doing it which is nice.
Over the years I’ve pioneered new approaches to rail development in the UK including the ‘eco station’, ‘music trains’ and ‘cyclepoint’; and brought a distinctive approach to stakeholder involvement, including setting up and chairing the Northern Rail Cycle Users’ Forum and ‘taking hundreds of cranks to the seaside’ as one Northern Rail manager described the special trains he organised for user and community groups. I’ve lots of experience as a writer and public speaker; I enjoy doing both. I’m a published historian and have a small publishing business, Little Northern Books (see page). I was involved with the The Red and Green Club in Milnsbridge before I moved back to Lancashire in 2016.
I still do consultancy work on projects which I like – recently that has involved work for some Northern local authorities on rail policy as well as the Co-operative Party. I was a member of the Labour Party until September 2014. I finally decided to leave because of its continued fixation with neo-liberlalism, endorsement of Trident replacement, its inability to do anything radical about rail and its failure to support regional democracy for England (instead opting for unelected ‘combined authorities’). Supporting a new bombing war on Iraq didn’t help either. Before I left Yorkshire I supported The Yorkshire Party – a network of centre-left independents committed to regional government who support the admirable Bell Principles of political conduct. I’m now militantly non-aligned.
I’m honorary patron of REPTA – the Railway Employees and Public Transport Association, a venerable body set up in 1893. I’ve a page on the website for that too. Most recently, I’ve become secretary of Bolton Station Community Development Partnership (see page on this site ‘Bolton Station’) and chair of Bolton and South Lancs Community Rail Partnership.
I’m a visiting professor at the Universities of Huddersfield and Bolton.
Je ne regrette rien……..! (or very little anyway)