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Geoscientist Online

On the edge - coastlines of Britain

fgyukThis book summarises the development of the railways around the coastline of Britain since the beginning of all rail development.  The book examines how railway lines have influenced and altered the physical landscape of our coastline. 

It is written in a very readable style and is not an academic treatise, but it provides plenty to think about.  The only significant weakness is the lack of maps to illustrate the, often very detailed, descriptions of how railways were constructed and impacted on our coast.

For any environmentalist the first part of the book is a stark illustration of how uncontrolled development can have serious detrimental effects on ecosystems, the landscape/seascape, the health of coastal communities, and the economic activities that our ancestors carried out.  Therefore the book is a strong advocate (albeit silently) for the rigour of thorough environmental impact assessments of new railway developments.

Today, we take rail safety extremely seriously in the UK, but it is clear that this was not always the case in the 1800’s.  Some startling facts and figures are presented about the poor safety record of early rail travel, not all due to operational or design failures.  Many were due to poor route selection that took little account of the geological setting.  Numerous incidences of landslips/landslides and washouts along the coastal railway lines are documented, and many resulted in fatalities of those using the railways.  It is notable that the newspapers of the time were fatalistic in their reporting – along the lines of “yet another train crash”.

The final part of the book looks at the impact access to the beaches by rail has had on the coastline of today.  There are some fascinating accounts of how taking beach sand and gravels for construction (often of the railways themselves) has resulted in complete changes to the coastal hydrodynamics.  As we now know changes coastal flow regimes is never something to be carried out without considerable care and forethought.  For decades there was no control over removing beach materials, but slowly control was brought to these practices.  Yet local authorities were often the worst offenders, trying to maintain their beaches and rail access without caring about the impact of their beach construction/mining might have on communities elsewhere along the coast.

All in all, a fascinating book that will be of interest to rail engineers, geologists and environmentalists.  A valuable account and worth reading. 

Reviewed by James Montgomery

ON THE EDGE, COASTLINES OF BRITAIN by ROBERT DUCK.  Published by: Edinburgh University Press 2015 ISBN : 978-0-7486-9762-5.