When the kids arrive in Oakworth and go to school, Headmistress Annie has some rules for all of them.
“First, respect for our elders. Second: Honesty at all times. Three, no fighting, no spitting, no biting. Four, most important of all, camaraderie.” Annie encourages her students, both longtime residents and newcomers, to stick together. to support each other. That’s what people should do in difficult times: be there to lift each other up.
Those are good rules. And while railway kids sees every law broken at some point, those rules (at least some of them) still form the moral foundation of the story.
Rule #4 is the most critical here, and we see many people supporting those around them. This is especially true of the Watts children, who stick together through adversity and form a strong bond with Annie’s son Thomas. Finally, all of Oakworth’s children unite for a good cause. Even the local thug joins in.
However, the adults here are not so successful in showing real camaraderie – especially when dealing with the black GIs stationed nearby.
Oh, the British residents of Oakworth and neighboring towns are very accepting of the African Americans in their midst. They even reject an American suggestion that blacks should be primarily excluded from white taverns, restaurants and meeting places. (The military was still fairly strictly segregated, even in World War II.) But when locals refuse to separate their facilities, American military police don’t take it for granted: They break up such multiracial gatherings and beat up minority soldiers — even though those soldiers did wear the same uniform as them.
Historically, such clashes between black American soldiers and white American MPs were not uncommon in Britain during World War II and racial tensions railway kids serves as a catalyst for important moral decisions made by both children and adults. As an adult says to Thomas, “All it takes for evil to flourish is for good to do nothing” (paraphrasing the famous quote attributed to Edmund Burke).
[Spoiler Warning] When the film’s four central children learn that Abe is both 14 (he lied when he walked in) and ran away to escape prejudice and abuse from the MPs, they all agree that what Abe was exposed is not correct. But they argue about how to correct this mistake. Lily insists they must secretly help Abe escape. Thomas argues they should tell the adults in their midst.
“In this world you have to be smart, take risks, tell untruths,” says Lily. “It’s cold survival.”
“No,” says Thomas. “That’s called a Liar. And I’m not. Not now, never.”
It takes a while, but Thomas’ determination to tell the truth – to trust adults to do the right thing – gathers momentum and ultimately proves to be the right course. Indeed, Oakworth’s adults most of time prove conscientious and principled.
Oh, and we should first and foremost note the kindness of these adults who were willing to take in strangers’ children. “Providing new homes for evacuees is a national service,” proclaims one poster, and it was so.