Eleven Minutes Late, By Matthew Engel

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The Independent Culture

The obsessive nature of railway nuts is exemplified by a footnote in the Annotated Sherlock Holmes quoted by Engel. It concerns the exact train Watson caught to Baskerville Hall in 1870: "Although there was a slower train at 11.45, only by taking the 10.30 or 10.35 could they have obtained lunch at Exeter..."

Though Engel's splendid account of Britain's railways past and present is rich in detail (there were three classes of ticket for coffins from Waterloo) and terrific jokes, it is propelled by wholly justified ire at the disastrous privatisation of British Rail. John Major admits he was "the slim controller" of the sell-off, but the job was rushed to completion by New Labour. The book is a triumph and deserves an audience far beyond those infatuated with the clickety-clack of steel wheels.