For 180 years the railway has been on the wrong end of "I-was-here-first" thinking. Highways (though carrying nothing moving faster than a galloping horse) demanded that any railway crossing them did so by means of a bridge, or by a level crossing girt about with restrictions. Farmers demanded that their livestock be protected by the erection of fences (maintained in perpetuity by the railway, even though flocks might be absent from the neighbouring fields). Landowners demanded that lengthy detours took the noxious vapours far from their demesne. The railway has learned to live with these irritations, though the cost has often been immense.
Now, however, the Fates have dealt the "I-was-here-first" card into the railway's hand. Will the railway play it well, or will the "it's-different-this-time" card trump it?
With the demise of steam - and the consequent routine burning of lineside vegetation - trees have grown all along the railway. Photographs of the site of the recent collision of two trains in Salisbury show that, while the area is thickly wooded now, it was entirely grassed 40 years ago. Thus it is clear that all those trees - trees whose leaves caused the collision - have taken root and grown within 40 years. The railway, we should remember, was there first. Grass grew. There were occasional fires. Leaf-fall was non-existent.
The two recent storms caused trees to fall, blocking lines all over the country. Some brought down the overhead wiring. The railway was there first, and so was most of the knitting. Some of the trees were on railway land, and there is no excuse for their presence. But at least the railway can deal with its own nuisance, cut down the offenders and arrange for more trees to be planted somewhere else, well away from the railway. Should not the railway play the "I-was-here-first" card and require - just as it was required to do 180 years ago - the owners of these dangerous new trees to fell them - all of them, all of them on whomever's land which lie within say 150 feet of the fence? And if not, why not? Should not the railway seek full compensation from the owner of a tree which falls onto railway land? And if not, why not? After all, we were here first.
The pictures above of the Salisbury Tunnel Junction cutting taken in 1970 and 2021 respectively show just how great a task Network Rail faces, even to remove the danger from trees on railway land. The fact that there are so many instances of trees on neighbouring land, within leaf-dropping distance of the track, makes the job infinitely harder.
An article in a recent magazine contained interviews with drivers about their experiences of losing adhesion. The seriousness of this probably hasn't reached public conscience - how many people would realise that a train can slide for half a mile with no possible control from the driver who is glued to his seat as if on a horrendous thrill-ride?
Undoubtedly tree owners will be most unlikely to remove their trees voluntarily - citing expense, noise or loss of privacy - legislation may be needed, and if not, why not?