The British Transport Films Collection Vol 15: Life on the Line
R0 - United Kingdom - British Film Institute
Review written by and copyright: James-Masaki Ryan (3rd February 2024).
The Film

"The British Transport Films Collection Vol 15: Life on the Line"

Since its founding in 1949, the British Transport Films organization produced more than 700 films. Headed by influential documentary filmmaker Edgar Anstey, the organization’s films ranged from training films, infomercials, travelogues, and safety films, which a number were screened for the public while some were internal films for reference and training for crewmembers or businesses. Many of the films have been archived at the BFI Film Archive, and for the last twenty years they have been given new life on DVD with the films remastered from their original elements. Each volume had a particular theme and showcased the range of films that the organization produced, from friendly narrated commercials for passenger railways to frightening reenactment films to promote safety protocols. “Life on the Line” is the fifteenth volume and sadly the final planned DVD set by the BFI, featuring 14 shorts from BTF plus one bonus BTF video short.

The following shorts are included:


- “Multiple Aspects” (1969) (20:02)
- “Top Levels of Transport” (1969) (15:13)
- “A Tale Out of School” (1969) (25:26)
- “Our Business Is Moving” (1970) (14:45)
- “A Day with SELNEC” (1972) (22:35)
- “Sea Road to Britain” (1974) (19:40)
- “Keep Your Business Moving” (1977) (7:28)


- “The Kowloon Connection” (1979) (16:42)
- “Life on the Line” (1979) (14:34)
- “Who's in Charge?” (1980) (16:48)
- “TOPS for Industry” (1981) (13:06)
- “Round Trip to Glasgow” (1982) (13:45))
- “Robbie (Overhead Lines)” (1986) (13:24)
- “Channel Tunnel: Tomorrow's Way” (1986) (22:36)

For this final volume, many of the shorts come from late in the time of the BFT shooting on film, as from the 1980s onward, video became the cheaper and easier format to handle and produce. All the shorts in this set were shot on 35mm or 16mm film (though there is one example of a video short which is in the extras section.) The shorts in this set range from the hard work that the British Transport provide for the community and customers, research and development of new technology for business and leisure, safety hazards for workers and for children, as well as looks into the future of transportation for the country and beyond. Each film is distinct in its presentation and construction, yet all have the distinct BTF touch that can sometimes be cheesy yet well done in being informative works.

The first film on the first disc in the set is “Multiple Aspects”, which showcases the incredibly difficult feat by engineers, construction workers, and rail staff in redesigning and remodeling the busy Paddington Station during a five week period in 1968. The documentary looks at the work that was done to close off portions of the station which did cause confusion for travelers, and the long nights worked in shifts by the staff to make sure the tracks were moved and new platforms were constructed for a total overhaul in a short period of time. It is more or less an instructional film for future reference to how the tasks were done in a timely manner and how the information could be used for future examples of deteriorating stations getting a future overhaul.

The next film “Top Levels of Transport” is a showcase reel for new technologies to make travel a smoother experience for both business and leisure purposes. It includes the Motorail, which was introduced in 1966 for cars to be loaded onto trains (which was discontinued in 1995), convenient and relaxing ferries to cross the waters, efficient new ways for loading and unloading of goods and materials from trains, as well as a coronation for the new operations at Euston Station by Queen Elizabeth. This is not a short that focuses on one subject, but a reel of grand highlights for the modernization and a look at what the transportation department developed in the then recent years.

“A Tale Out of School” is a fascinating travelogue featuring a group of pupils from Skipton Girls High School on an excursion to Switzerland. The cameras follow the pupils and their two schoolteachers from their hometown on the journey by train and then by ferry to the English Channel, as they make way to Switzerland via overnight train from France. Rather than just showcasing the British infrastructure, this short also looks at the French and Swiss rail system, their accommodations and amenities within the train carriages and also the fun the students have by playing cards, eating, and taking snapshots without parental supervision. It features narration as well as some recorded thoughts of some of the students on their first school trip, and for some their first out of their country.

Next is “Out Business Is Moving”, which is another showcase reel, and the 10th in the series of the Rail Report cinemagazine. In this short, there is footage of Princess Anne visiting Dover to see the new hovercraft from Seaspeed that is aptly named “The Princess Anne”, as well as a look at designs for the Advanced Passenger Train, which would eventually prove to be a problematic endeavor in research and development for the railways in the years to come.

The next short looks at SELNEC - South East Lancashire and North East Cheshire in “A Day with SELNEC”. Later renamed GMPTE (Greater Manchester Passenger Transport Executive) in 1974, SELNEC was comprised of buses and trains which covered the largest public transportation system in the country after London. The short looks at the surroundings of one working day with the operations, and the connected nature of making everything work around the clock and on schedule.

While the short “A Tale Out of School” showcased a group traveling from the UK to Europe, “Sea Road to Britain” is the opposite of that, as it shows tourists from Europe visiting the UK via ferry with their cars and exploring the countryside landmarks. From Stonehenge to Hadrian’s Wall to cathedrals, there are a number of locations showcased, while also including awareness of the country’s road signals being made to be universally understood. That is in addition to making sure the continental Europeans don’t drive on the wrong side of the road. It’s an interesting travelogue, though the audience seems to be more for foreign visitors and making them interested in the country’s tourism.

“Keep Your Business Moving” is a look at the Inter-City Conference and Exhibition Services. Why hold an exhibition in one location when you could have an exhibition on a traveling train? This short looks at an example of a train that was fit to show various companies and their new products and patrons who could board the trains to check out the exhibition itself. A fascinating idea at the time that has gone to be a relic from the past with the modern days with the internet being able to showcase exhibitions directly into people’s homes. Though the idea was certainly a fascinating one to put into fruition.

The second disc begins with the then colony of Hong Kong in “The Kowloon Connection”. With the ever growing population and a need for a better mass transit system by railways and subways, this short has a look inside the Metro-Cammell factory in Birmingham where new trains for the in development Hong Kong MTR were being constructed. In addition to the making of the trains, the short also looks at the fascinating way that the carriages were shipped halfway across the world.

The next two shorts, “Life on the Line” and “Who’s in Charge?” are instructional films for railway workers on safety. For “Life on the Line”, it is distinct that the narrator looks directly into the camera to explain about the safety precautions that must be taken while working on and alongside the tracks at any time. “Who’s in Charge?” is a fascinating look by reconstructing a tragic accident that killed two railway workers and how some simple steps could have prevented the outcome. The intriguing part comes from the ending, which shows that it was all a reenactment for the cameras but still emphasizing that safety should still come as a prime concern for all crewmembers. The acting isn’t too bad here with the limited resources, and it is more important that the message comes across rather than flashiness from the performers.

Total Operations Processing System, or TOPS is the subject of the next short, entitled “TOPS for Industry”. The computer program was adopted by British Railways in the 1970s as a means to make information on train cargo and their whereabouts more efficiently accessible for businesses. The short looks at the program and how it is used for companies and the railways, and interestingly it is a program that is still being used to this day. Unfortunately it is an outdated one being text based and difficult to use. There have been attempts to replace the system with something newer and easier to use, though at this present time more than half a century later, TOPS still remains an integral part of British business and transportation.

The next short has actor and television presenter Peter Purves talking directly to the audience in “Round Trip to Glasgow”, while on a high speed train from London to Glasgow. The short looks at the Advanced Passenger Train and its tilting carriage mechanic to ensure high speeds can be maintained through curved tracks and for a relaxing experience. While the APT was being designed and redesigned for a number of years by British Railways since the 1970s, it had a lot of trouble with research, development, and usage. With its first successful run in 1981 making the journey between London and Glasgow to just over four hours, it was actually faster than the fastest rail service between the two cities in the modern twenty-first century, and that was due to the tilting carriage design that increased the speed. Though it was marketed as being a smooth experience, it was nicknamed “queasy rider” by journalists for its tilting, and there were problems with bad weather that season, abruptly cancelling a number of its scheduled runs. British Railways hired Purves as a spokesperson as seen in the film, but by the time the film was made to promote the APT, it went through even more delays in reintroduction and had bad press all over its name. With £47 million spent by British Railways on the APT, it was only in regular service until 1984. “Round Trip to Glasgow” was made to promote how great the train was, but became somewhat of a lost film due to British Railways suppressing the film as the train itself was receiving too much negative publicity. Thankfully it can now be seen with new eyes as a historical footnote to an idea that started off as efficient, but ballooned into a PR person’s nightmare over the course of a decade.

While there were some safety precaution shorts presented in this set for railway crewmembers, “Robbie (Overhead Lines)” is one that is directly aimed at children and teaching about safety. And it is a traumatic one to say the least. Robbie (played by Robin Crane) has his football cleats thrown on top of some wires alongside the railway tracks by his friends Bert (played by Peter Bolt), Jake (played by Gary Forbes) and Sally (played by Alison Bond) as a small prank. Later, his mother (played by Deborah Norton) receives news from the police that her son has suffered a terrible accident and was taken to hospital. While the short doesn’t show anything violent, the horrific accident of electrocution is well implied in this acted short. This is the 1986 version of the film. The story was first produced in 1979 in three versions, with Purves serving as the narrator and introducing the short, with each version being slightly different – one being an accident on a non-electrified line, one with an overhead electrified line and the last being a rail electrified line. These were shown in classrooms, and the version shown depended on the railway lines used in the neighborhood areas. For the 1986 version, Keith Chegwin introduced and narrated the short featuring the overhead electrified line footage.

For the final film in the set, “Channel Tunnel: Tomorrow’s Way” was a significant look into the future from the eyes of 1986 to the year 1994, when the Channel Tunnel would open and transport between the Great Britain and continental Europe would change drastically. The short looks at three different situations played by actors as to how things would be smoother if there were a railway system to connect Britain to continental Europe, whether if it was for business purposes or for personal travel purposes. The scripted short was produced after the Treaty of Canterbury in 1986, which set the ball rolling for construction of the long unrealized tunnel under the English Channel that would span more than fifty kilometers. By 1986, British Transport Films were mostly making productions in the PAL video format rather than 16mm or 35mm film, but this monumental announcement meant there should be greater care with the production. It would be the final BFT production shot on standard film, and is an excellent and fitting way to close off the BFI’s BFT DVD series with it.

Note this is a region 0 PAL DVD set


The BFI presents the films in the 1.33:1 aspect ratio (non-anamorphic) in the PAL format. The original 16mm and 35mm elements from the BFI National Archive were scanned at 2K resolution and restored by R3store and the BFI. The presentations vary between each film, with some being stronger than others, though overall they are all in very good shape. "Multiple Aspects", "A Tale Out of School", "A Day with SELNEC", "The Kowloon Connection" have some light speckles visible in the image, though not a particularly obtrusive amount. "Keep Your Business Moving" is quite grainy and has some washed out colors, though it is still in a watchable state. "Life on the Line" is a bit soft with washed out colors, but is free of major damage. "Who's in Charge" has very good colors and almost no damage marks on the image. "Round Trip to Glasgow" has some speckles and some blandness in color, but is on the sharper side. "Robbie" has a particularly thick and slightly inconsistent appearance as it mixes footage from both 1979 and 1986, though damage marks are minimal. "Top Levels of Transport", "Our Business Is Moving", "Sea Road to Britain", "Channel Tunnel: Tomorrow's Way" have strong colors and excellent detail for a near pristine image.

The runtimes for each film is posted above. A "Play All" function is available on both discs for the films.

"Multiple Aspects"

"Top Levels of Transport"

"A Tale Out of School"

"Our Business Is Moving"

"A Day with SELNEC"

"Sea Road to Britain"

"Keep Your Business Moving"

"The Kowloon Connection"

"Life on the Line"

"Who's in Charge?"

"TOPS for Industry"

"Round Trip to Glasgow"

"Robbie (Overhead Lines)"

"Channel Tunnel: Tomorrow's Way"


English Dolby Digital 2.0 mono
The original mono audio tracks were remastered from the original elements. Like the picture, each film's audio track will differ in quality. "Multiple Aspects" has a bit of hiss in its audio, "Round Trip to Glasgow" has a bit of crackle in its audio. But for the most part the audio is quite clear without issues of dropout, buzzing, or other damage to be heard, with narration and dialogue being clear and easy to hear throughout.

There are no subtitles available for the films.


"King of the Road" 1986 short (10:57)
While the BTF DVD sets showcased their shorts shot on film, the organization’s output in the 1980s were mostly shot on PAL video, as it was much more cost efficient and easier to work with. The format sacrificed image quality in the process and in the long run the video produced shorts look blurry and less defined with limited color space compared to 16mm or 35mm film, yet there is a distinct period look of the 1980s that is nostalgic to the eyes of the HD and 4K era. This short features an executive whose frustrations with being stuck in traffic due to driving from office to office leads to his assistant booking Rail Drive for him. This was a plan that included reserved train seating plus a rental car at the station on arrival, with the slogan “Drive when you arrive”. It’s interesting to see that the assistant books everything via computer in the days long before the Internet was available in most office spaces, and is also interesting to see the stylistic differences with the visuals and overlayed text in the video format. It’s also a wonder how the BFI were able to include the short as it included licensed music such as the “Happy Days” theme song. The video quality is not too great as mentioned with a slightly blurry effect, though it is in mostly good shape with only a few instances of videotape errors. Below is a screenshot of the short.
in non-anamorphic 1.33:1, in English Dolby Digital 2.0 mono without subtitles

A 20 page booklet is included with the first pressing. First is an introduction from BFI curator Steven Foxon who spearheaded the BTF DVD releases and gives a wonderful thanks to the long two decades of the restorations and releases. There are also great notes on each film and the bonus short by Foxon and by Stephen Edwards, a former finance director for the London Bus Preservation Trust, as well as including transfer information, acknowledgements, and stills.


"The British Transport Films Collection Vol 15: Life on the Line" is sadly the end of the line for the DVD series that began exactly twenty years ago from the BFI. The final collection includes great transfers of fourteen selected works on DVD for the first time which enthusiasts will enjoy, as well as for curious newcomers. Only one bonus short is included as an on disc extra, though it the set still comes as highly recommended.

The Film: B+ Video: A- Audio: A- Extras: C Overall: B+


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