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132 of 135 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Suberb exposee of government incompetence
For anyone who likes travelling by rail and believes that rail travel is a good thing this book is a must. The author takes a trip from Penzance to Thurso and back, going as fast as he can up and meandering down. In doing so he demonstrates beautifully the occasional joys and many vexations of travelling by rail in Britain. However, the book is not just about the trip,...
Published on 22 May 2009 by Adrenalin Streams

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51 of 56 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Journeying to the soul of Britain
Eleven Minutes Late is former Guardian journalist Matthew Engel's thesis on Briain's railways. He sees the railway system as the ultimate expression of Britishness, representing all of its ingenuity, incompetence, nostalgia, corruption, humour, capacity for suffering and even its sexual repression

Engel eschews the romanticism that many other travelers employ...
Published on 5 July 2009 by J A C Corbett


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132 of 135 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Suberb exposee of government incompetence, 22 May 2009
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For anyone who likes travelling by rail and believes that rail travel is a good thing this book is a must. The author takes a trip from Penzance to Thurso and back, going as fast as he can up and meandering down. In doing so he demonstrates beautifully the occasional joys and many vexations of travelling by rail in Britain. However, the book is not just about the trip, it also covers in detail the history of how the railways came to be built and of the staggering incompetence of government policy towards the railways over the past 150 years, culminating in the appallingly botched privatisation in the 1990's and why no government is prepared to invest what it takes to give us the railway system we deserve in a country that is ideally suited for rail travel. A fine piece of work.
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57 of 60 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Will brighten up any delayed journey...., 23 Jun 2009
By 
K. Steele "RapidAssistant" (Scotland, UK) - See all my reviews
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I bought this book minutes before getting on a Virgin train from Glasgow to London, and although I didn't have the "priviledge" of meeting the foul mouthed buffet car attendant Umerji, I certainly did manage to be eleven minutes late (fifteen to be exact). The title of course refers to the latest idiosyncracy of the British railway network, in that a long distance train is only "late" if the delay at the arrival terminus exceeds ten minutes.

That aside, Matthew Engel takes us on a journey from Penzance to Thurso and back; up and down the modern network, fighting his way through the many quirks and idiosyncracies of a transport system originally built by feuding Victorian entrepreneurs more interested in making a profit than necessarily doing what was best for serving society's needs. The story is intertwined with a brief history of how the system we know today came about; the various highs and lows from the Railway Mania of the mid 19th Century, the subsequent consolidation and nationalisation into British Rail, culimating in the disastrous 1990s privatisation and its aftermath. Along the way, the story is interspersed with little anecdotes about the people and situations Engel encounters on his travels.

The British of course have a love/hate relationship with the iron road. We get misty eyed over old steam engines, heritage lines, how the infamous Beeching cuts of the 1960s were one of the biggest acts of post-war vandalism, yet complain that todays trains are too often late, too old, too expensive, and represent inefficient use of taxpayer's money. Yet we all know our country was built by its railways, and that we simply can't do without them - for all their faults. Engel nails this paradox with witty and entertaining style.

The latter chapters on privatisation are particularly good, as they quickly summarise the tragedies and follies of one of the most spectactular Government policy failures in recent memory - without getting bogged down in details - think of it as a great companion to Christian Wolmar's "On The Wrong Line" if you can't be bothered with all the in-depth analysis.

An excellent read - it will brighten up any delayed journey!
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51 of 56 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Journeying to the soul of Britain, 5 July 2009
By 
J A C Corbett (Blackheath, London, UK) - See all my reviews
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Eleven Minutes Late is former Guardian journalist Matthew Engel's thesis on Briain's railways. He sees the railway system as the ultimate expression of Britishness, representing all of its ingenuity, incompetence, nostalgia, corruption, humour, capacity for suffering and even its sexual repression

Engel eschews the romanticism that many other travelers employ or the sense that there were `good old days' never mind a golden era in British railways. They have always been dirty, cramped, late, subject of incompetent government policy - though perhaps never quite as expensive as they are now. This is no love letter to Britain's railways.

It falls down somewhat because it is neither travel book, history, nor extended piece of journalism. It seemingly starts out entwining Engel's experiences with British railways and their story. But quite abruptly, around chapter 2, he abandons his journey and resumes it only around 30 pages from the end, as if an after thought. It is all written in a lively and engaging manner, but there is nothing particularly new or original.

On the other hand his account of the 1990s privitisation of British Rail, which he presumably covered as a journalist, is an outstanding polemic against slap dash and ill considered political doctrine.

In his travels he comes across as a more erudite Bill Bryson, rather than someone who writes with the genuine wit and insight of Stuart Maconnie (to give a recent example) or the brilliance and élan of a Paul Theroux. As a historian he lacks the authority of Christian Wolmar and as a journalist the controlled anger of Ian Jack. None of this is to say that Matthew Engel isn't a fine writer, more that Eleven Minutes Late would have benefited significantly had he decided at the outset which form of writing was going to dominate.

This is a fine, entertaining book, but ultimately, it all felt a little rushed: I read it over the course of a weekend, but by next weekend I feel that there will be nothing that lingers in the memory.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Not What You Think, 10 Jun 2012
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This review is from: Eleven Minutes Late: A Train Journey to the Soul of Britain (Paperback)
Sadly, I was disappointed.

I was expecting a travelogue, a journey around the British Isles by train.

Yes, this is there, but it is all too brief. The vast majority of the book is a tedious history of railways form their birth and all of the tedious political ramifications and fighting over the years.

I found the actual parts of the book when the author was travelling around by train and the towns and stations involved to be very good and quite entertaining. However, had I wanted to read about the history and politics I would have bought a book called "history and politics of British railways". This was subtitled "A train journey into the soul of Britain" and it most definately wasn't.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars a history of madness, 11 May 2011
By 
Michael Gross - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Eleven Minutes Late: A Train Journey to the Soul of Britain (Paperback)
After 18 years in the UK, I still struggle to understand why the railways aren't working, but this book helps a lot. I might have put the blame on privatisation, which happened soon after I arrived here, so I don't have as many bad memories of British Rail as I have of the privatised mess that came after its demise. Engel's book, part travelogue, part amateur history of the railways in the UK, reassures me that privatisation isn't where things started going wrong. Apparently, they have been going wrong from the start, or at least from the point when speculative building of railways in random places led to a bubble and the inevitable implosion.

Since then, the railways have always been under the control of people who didn't care about their passengers or services, and who made every conceivable error and a few inconceivable ones on top of that. All this makes for a fascinating read and would be really funny if it was fiction, but sadly it happens to be history and current affairs, and it continues to bring real misery to real people.

I like to spend my holidays in continental Europe and typically travel by train, so I get regular reminders of the fact that it is actually physically possible to run a rail network that gets people from A to B at the advertised time, in comfort, and at a fraction of the price one would pay in the UK. However, Engel suffocates any nationalist pride I might develop when thinking of the German railways too much by reminding me that the efficiency of their infrastructure is largely due to the fact that it was planned strategically by the Prussian rulers. They didn't care about the travelling public either, but they did care a lot about moving troops across the country as efficiently as possible.

Amazingly, their warmongering motivation has produced an invaluable asset for peaceful travellers using the network more than 1.5 centuries later. Come to think of it, the Bundesbahn network is strongest in north-south directions, transporting holiday makers to the Alps or the North Sea, while military aggression was typically directed in eastern or western direction, so maybe somebody secretly did think of the travelling public after all.

Engel starts out by describing his own exploration of Britain's rail network with the benefit of a rover card, then slips into chronological history mode, and only returns to his exploits at the end. Given the sheer mindboggling madness of his subject matter, however, even the chronological core of the book is never at risk of becoming tedious. It reads like Alice in Wonderland, you fully expect to see the Mad Hatter turning up any time.

The title of the book refers to one of the many symptoms of systemic madness. Up to and including ten minutes after the advertised arrival time, a long-distance train is still recorded as "on time." (In fact, I have seen trains listed as on time on departure boards half an hour after their scheduled departure time had gone by.) Thus, the author hoped on his exploratory travels to catch a train that was more than ten minutes late. In a freak coincidence, none of his trains was.

Engel also offers explanations for the trials and tribulations we suffer locally at Oxford. I knew that the absence of a line linking Oxford to Cambridge is because this line was closed down in the 60s. What I didn't know was that this happened within months of the same government's decision to build a new city adjacent to this doomed line: Milton Keynes. Britain's largest new town was actually built on land belonging to the village of Bletchley, which had a station on the so-called Varsity line. Oxford-MK-Cambridge would have been a valuable link saving thousands of unnecessary rail travels through London and road trips through the Chilterns every year. The author's comment, concise and to the point: "Crazy."

As for the line leading north from Oxford, to Worcester and Hereford, Engel says "much of the route was single-tracked to save money." They actually paid people to rip out tracks from an operating double track railway line to convert it back to single track? Why don't we single-track a couple of A roads as well? That would save money on fixing those potholes. And does the M40 really need four lanes between Oxford and London, in these cash-strapped times?

Engel also examines the political short-termism that is partially to blame for all this. Obviously, people who only think as far as the next election won't be spending much time planning a railway system for the next decades. Maybe France has the TGV because its presidents served for seven years at the time when that kicked off? I'm not quite convinced yet, but it might be an explanation.

For all his brilliant (yet amateur, thus accessible) analysis, Engel can't offer any remedies to fix this mess. Personally, when the pain gets too strong, I take a coach to London, and the Eurostar from there.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Shunted Into A Siding, 13 Nov 2011
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This review is from: Eleven Minutes Late: A Train Journey to the Soul of Britain (Paperback)
Matthew Engel wanted the last train he travelled on whilst writing this book to be (eponymously) eleven minutes late - it wasn't, and similarly, this was frustratingly not quite the book it suggested itself to be via its sub-title "A Train Journey to the Soul of Britain". The contemporary state-of-the-nation travelogue that this implies is virtually non-existent, save for a smattering of through-the-train-window observations and one very funny sketch of a witless buffet attendant. What this book is instead, is a solid, readable summary of the history of British Rail(ways) through Victorian dot-com-like investment deceptions, nationalisation, Dr. Beeching and back into privatisation under John Major's rushed re-shape of a massive sclerotic industry. So I constantly had the feeling I was sitting on the wrong train, pottering along a branch line, when I thought I was heading somewhere entirely different. An interesing journey, but not the one I bought a ticket for.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A cure for train-based homesickness, 1 Sep 2010
By 
James C. Foreman (Hong Kong) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Eleven Minutes Late: A Train Journey to the Soul of Britain (Paperback)
Possibly in an act of cultural insensitivity (who goes to Taiwan to buy books about the British railway system?) I picked this up in the Page One bookstore in Taipei 101. It's wonderful that there should be such an enormous bookshop in the shopping mall, when pretty much all the rest of it is shops selling fashionable things exactly the same as every other fashionable thing.

Whereas Eleven Minutes Late is an account of something rather unfashionable - the British railway system. Although system is a grandiloquent word for something so cack-handedly disorganised. Engel does a very good job of demolishing some of the commonly held beliefs that the British have about their trains: that Beeching was solely responsible for so many of them being closed, that people liked steam trains (those "cast-iron bastards"), and that the inefficiency and disorganisation of the railways was always a flaw. (In the 1940s it wasn't; the redundancies and spidery routes around the country, built by rival railway companies, made the system resistant to bombing and capable of transporting troops and supplies in ways that a more efficiently designed system might have failed at. The British railways, chaotic as they always have been, are capable as a result of routing around problems. Somebody is going to make money from showing that the British railways are a good metaphor for the internet, one of these days.)

And at the same time, it's a book that celebrates small people with obsessions, and Engel's own obsession with all the failures and incompetency that has beset the country. It makes me feel nostalgic, in a strange way, for the inefficiency and the failures and let-downs and difficulties of the British way of life. Not enough to make me want to move back, not enough for me to want to sit on a train for four hours to get to Bristol from London, and certainly not enough to want to travel from Penzance to John O'Groats, but it makes me miss London in some uncertain way anyway.

There's also a terrific encounter with a very rude member of staff near the end, but I won't spoil the surprise for you.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars MUDDLING THROUGH, 4 July 2010
By 
DAVID BRYSON (Glossop Derbyshire England) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Eleven Minutes Late: A Train Journey to the Soul of Britain (Paperback)
When the British have to find conversational platitudes, in the apparent belief that these are better than silence, their usual topic of first resort is the British weather. Next after that is Britain's railways -- like the weather, this subject of discourse invites inane and stereotyped criticism, receives conventional and thoughtless assent, and provides a handy and inoffensive way of closing down a dialogue that has nowhere further to go.

On the other hand, there is more than one category of Briton for whom the railways are a matter of intense interest, sometimes verging on fanatical. Matthew Engel's very interesting new book seems to be directed at two such classes, those whose interest is historical, antiquarian or nostalgic, and those who see railways as a serious political and social issue. Engel hangs his tale round a long journey taking in as much of the surviving network as possible. This occupies most of the book, it is full of picturesque details and digressions, and it conveys the feel and 'flavour' of rail travel in Britain in the noughties quite well and fairly, so far as I can judge from my own less systematic sampling. This is the stuff for the anoraks and enthusiasts among Engel's readers, a category in which I had better include myself.

You can belong in this grouping and also among the serious-minded so far as British railways are concerned. The author belongs in both classes, I like to think that I also do, and I am in no doubt that the whole matter is now better understood than before among the British public generally, simply because it impinges more directly on increasing numbers of us, and when it does it is no side-issue far less any joke. Matthew Engel takes time out from his easy-going railway safari, or Odyssey or whatever we choose to call it, to offer a thoughtful and quite penetrating analysis of the history of our railways since the war, the politics of the last 3 or 4 decades, and the the shape of railway things to come. For me, this is what puts the book in the 5-star league. History being history, you can always dissent from this or that individual judgment or from any particular piece of assessment. However I shall risk the view that Engel is going to get a lot of thanks from quite a few people for helping to focus and concentrate our thinking.

What was wrong with thinking about the railways, he explains, is that there was little or no thinking about the railways. They just plodded on without anything much in the way of 'management' as we might understand the term nowadays. Were they a public service like health electricity and water, or should they be meeting some kind of financial targets? If anyone was asking, nobody much was listening let alone attempting an answer. They were subject to fashion and superficial perception, the fashionable perception c 1960 being that they were 'losing' a lot of money. The towering and visionary insight started to prevail that Something Must Be Done, something was done, and I don't propose to summarise what it was here, because it is Matthew Engel's account that deserves to be read and considered with proper attention.

Whatever you think of The Reshaping of British Railways in the 1960's, it's hard to disagree with the view that the privatisation of the railways in the 90's was a gratuitous PR exercise by a government that had no real agenda -- good God, do you remember the Cones Hotline? As just above, don't let me spoil Engel's account of that exercise and what has followed it. I shall say only that he does not take political sides.

Now here is something odd. The early origins of Britain's railways were about as devoid of planning or strategy as can be imagined. The Reshaping had a strategy, albeit a blind and bad one overly influenced by contemporary thinking and missing altogether the imminent expansion of passenger rail travel consequent on road congestion. Privatisation was another shambles. Governments were at fault, managements were at fault, the civil service were at fault. However in the wars Britain's chaotic network gave Britain's war effort better support than Germany got from its own methodical planning. I suspect that we, the public, were most at fault of all. If we had just gone along with our Heath Robinson sprawl of lines and actually used the service more, complaining as we did so, then urban, rural and road planning might have followed instead of obliterating much of the system. Just think of the saving to both the taxpayer and the environment.
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Why Britain's Railways don't work., 9 Mar 2010
This review is from: Eleven Minutes Late: A Train Journey to the Soul of Britain (Paperback)
Travellers may often ask why British railways are quite so bad especially when compared to those on the continent or further afield. In this book which is part travelogue, part history,Matthew Engel seeks to answer the question revealing how the railway system has been the victim of shortsighted political manipulations by successive governments reluctant to invest but all too keen to look for profits.
The book starts with Engel's account of his journey from one end of the country to the other. His enthusiasm brings to life the beautiful, melancholy of the railway line cutting through remote Scottish glens, the architectural grandeur of the stations and his sympathy for the railway enthusiasts who are convnetionally represented as oddballs and misfits. His depiction of politicians is sharp and barbed and often cynical. Engel is highly critical of the forced closure of local services in the 1960s and the ridiuclous privatisation of the 1990s. He mocks the pretensions of many of the companies and reveals the awful quality of passenger service.
What makes this book work is that Engel always writes with balance and precision; his writing is full of a sharp humour and he captures the spirit of the 19th century railway builders beautifully.
I can only say that I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this book!!
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Are you getting what you think you are ?, 2 Jan 2012
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This review is from: Eleven Minutes Late: A Train Journey to the Soul of Britain (Paperback)
I enjoyed this book, on the whole, although it is very "wordy". I am a great "fan" of rail travel and yes, in my teens I was a "trainspotter" ( and why not - we never robbed or mugged anyone or vandalised or graffiti'd anything..........some of us did smoke though ) These days I still travel as much as I can by train ( not enough, though )

However, as with other reviewers, I expected something else / different with this book than I actually got. The book really ISN'T a "journey" around Britain ( except the last 10 pages when he goes everywhere, but too quickly for detail ) and more a very (very ) detailed charting of the political scene behind the "development" of the rail system. The chapter titles ( unless Engel is trying to be amusing ) frequently don't seem to actually refer to anything in the subsequent text

and...I'm afraid I didn't find the Umerji "incident" either amusing or, frankly, believable
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Eleven Minutes Late: A Train Journey to the Soul of Britain
Eleven Minutes Late: A Train Journey to the Soul of Britain by Matthew Engel (Paperback - 5 Feb 2010)
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