Was it cost-effective? It must have been at one time, since the system seems to have worked for years. Until somebody, somewhere, decided that perhaps it didn't. The result, tortuous decades later, is that most of the stations now have only a part-time ticket-office or worse, machine-only ticketing. The live-in station masters are long-gone and the level-crossing keepers have recently been dispensed-with too. An electronic voice tells passengers which, if any trains are due in, security cameras scan the platforms and if there are persistent problems during the evening with 'der yoof', the police will perform an occasional purge. These changes are known as 'efficiencies' or 'improvements.' Sometimes, the entire local rail network may be closed for up to three days at a time, in order to carry out the efficiencies and improvements. I get the impression that it all works extremely well – as long as no actual passengers are involved in the procedure.
Great Bentley station is one of the prettiest in the county and for years after the war nearly always won the Best-Kept Station awards. The place was manned by a cheerful Scots railman called Jock who sold tickets, opened and closed the gates and swept the platforms. I also seem to remember flower beds on the Colchester side and even, a small goldfish pond. People these days sometimes think you're a bit peculiar if you start waxing nostalgic about old country stations, but some of them, a few decades ago, were uniquely pleasant places, with coalfires in waiting rooms, as well as serviceable and unlocked loos. A goldfish pond on a station platform? It seems almost unimaginable now. Though, I believe that it's the gradual removal of exactly such eccentrically-civilised touches which has helped to coarsen we English as a people.
At Wivenhoe Station last winter, for instance, a cat took to coming into the ticket-hall and sleeping on one of the seats. Soon enough, a cushion found its way onto the seat and the cat could be seen sleeping on that, or upon waking, being made a fuss-of by various passsengers. It transformed the feel of the room. People mired in the tedium and insecurity of rail travel love such things. Goldfish ponds, flower beds, a station house with a family living in it and a cat on a seat somewhere? It was a great idea. All manner of inefficiencies and delays might be softened by such things if they were to be reinstated today. You could get rid of all of those security cameras, flashing electronic bulletin boards, all those silly automated announcements and no-one would really mind. People just want to feel looked after when they're travelling. This, unfortunately is rarely the case nowadays. Ask a government expert and he or she will tell you that the old railways used to lose money. Though, they did used to work – sort of. And you didn't generally embark on a train journey with a vague sense of trepidation or even dread, wondering: “Now what?” Nor did you accept that for large chunks of the year, at weekends especially, the train which you'd paid for would actually be a bus. Our rail-travel system is actually a type of madness – an infuriating and inglorious madness which we have become complicit in allowing to impede our lives and livelihoods."