HomeHeritageThe fall and rise of Britain's railways: Part 2

The fall and rise of Britain’s railways: Part 2

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This year sees the fiftieth anniversary of Richard Beeching’s ‘The Re-Shaping of British Railways’. Writes Colin Garratt

2013 also sees the thirtieth anniversary of the Serpell Report. These two events mirrored the tempestuous undertones of railway policy in the years following World War Two.

In this eight part series, Colin Garratt of Milepost 921⁄2 outlines the turbulent events which led up to the privatisation of British Rail in 1993, concluding with an analysis of the current situation and where it might be heading.

Britain’s railway emerged from World War Two in a devastated state.

It had served the nation magnificently during the six year conflict but the cost of restoring the network to pre-war standards was enormous. Massive government spending was essential but this was not forthcoming and inevitably the railway went into a loss making situation which was to haunt it through the turbulent years which lay ahead.

The Labour Party had wanted to nationalise the railway since 1908 and the opportunity finally came with the 1945, post war, election victory in which Labour secured a large majority. The Transport Act of 1947 brought the railway under the aegis of the British Transport Commission, eventually taking the name British Railways.

The government’s intention was to vest the BTC with all forms of public transport to create a vast monopoly, centrally co-ordinated.

The organisation and operation of the railway was overseen by the Railway Executive which consisted primarily of former railway men.3 [online]

One of the most exciting aspects of the 1947 Transport Act was the nationalisation of the road hauliers to create British Road Services and to dovetail their operations with those of the railways. Only by single ownership was integration possible.

The Transport Act of 1947 brought the railway under the aegis of the British Transport Commission, eventually taking the name British Railways.

The cost of a privately operated, road based economy was, even then, seen as being inefficient and costly, not to mention the heavy toll of fatalities and serious injuries. The grouped companies which had created British Railways (LMS, LNER, SR and GWR) provided an excellent foundation for such aspirations.

They were already transport systems in their own right and, prior to World War Two, the LMS alone had owned: 25 docks, harbours and piers; 66 ships; 4,000 lorries with 3,000 trailers; 8,000 horses and 29,000 road vehicles; 25 hotels; 2 tramway systems and 13 canals with 542 route miles. The LMS was also a major partner in railway air services.

Better times ahead

British Railways began operating on the 1st January 1948 and at midnight on the 31st December 1947 the drivers of night trains sounded their locomotive whistles in recognition of, what they believed to be, better times ahead.

The integration of the railway and road hauliers for the collection and delivery of goods was a bold decisive and dramatic move. The post war Labour government, with its huge majority, was emblazoned with socialist ideals enshrined in such timeless politicians as

Aneurin Bevin who, like other key socialist leaders, had his beliefs galvanised amid the tough world of the South Wales coalfields. Steel and coal were also brought into state ownership along with the railways.

20,000 locomotives

British Railways continued to be worked almost entirely by steam and the new administration inherited some 20,000 locomotives, embracing hundreds of different designs. Many of these dated back to pre-grouping times when, prior to the creation of the Big Four in 1923, the nation’s railway network was made up by 120 different companies, all with their own individual designs, many of which were ailing and life expired.

4 [online]This diversity was delightful for railway historians but an anathema from an operational view point. A set of standard designs intended to cover all types of traffic nationwide was envisaged and this gave rise to the locomotive exchanges of 1948 which saw the leading designs of the Big Four tested on each other’s territory.

The technical results were closely monitored but not really used in the preparation of twelve standard designs, the first example of which, a Pacific named ‘Britannia’, was exhibited at the Festival of Britain in 1951. The avid building of the standard designs through the 1950s reflected Britain’s intention to continue with steam traction, certainly until the end of the 20th century, despite the fact that it had all but disappeared from other leading economies such as North America and parts of western Europe.

The concept of a fully integrated transport system was sadly destined to have a short life and no sooner was the plan in operation than the incoming Tory government of 1953, under the

Transport Act of that year, put the road hauliers back in private hands, so opening a can of worms for the railway industry which remains in evidence to this day.

Railway Boards

The 1953 act also broke up the Railway Executive in favour of area railway boards which the new government saw as a better basis for the railway to compete. During its six year existence the Railway Executive had managed to marry together the Big Four into one entity but the Treasury remained reluctant or unable to allocate the necessary capital, rendering financial meetings with the railway’s paymasters ‘cap in hand’ affairs. Clearly the railway could not balance its books without government support.

A number of strikes throughout the 1950s bedevilled the industry and played into the hands of the rapidly developing road hauliers and invoked further financial instability for the railway. The all- conquering system that had got Britain through World War Two became regarded by some as a loss making, strike bound industry. Fortunately the railway was still regarded as essential, unlike Britain’s vast network of electric tramways which faced extinction following the war.

One of the BTC’s first acts had been to prepare a railway modernisation plan but this came very low in the government’s priority of reconstruction. Also, looming problems of obtaining sufficient quantities of suitable coal for such a large fleet of steam locomotives became increasingly paramount with every passing year.

During the early 1950s, the coal industry made it clear that they could not guarantee the railway’s needs. This situation was a major factor in the decision to abandon steam when the Modernisation Plan finally appeared in 1955.

The plan was a vast project to refurbish the entire railway, restore its losses and enable it to win back traffic lost to roads and provide for an effective business to compete with road transport. It also spelt the end of steam traction in favour of diesel and electric along with electrification of the busiest trunk route, the West Coast Main Line, between London Euston, Birmingham, Manchester and Liverpool.

In the event, steam locomotives, in the form of the standard designs, continued to be built until as late as 1960 and it was ironic that5 [online] this change of policy served to increase the different designs rather than reduce them. The standard designs were to total 999 locomotives.

Replacement of steam traction

Many informed observers believed that the steam locomotive was such a fundamental aspect of our way of life that it could not possibly disappear until the end of the twentieth century at the earliest. However, BR ran its last mainline steam train in August 1968, after a 13 year witch hunt to be rid of steam at all costs.

And the changeover was tortuous with too many untried diesel designs rife with teething problems and frequently needing steam locomotives to come to their rescue. On one occasion, a ‘Peak’ failed on the Settle to Carlisle line and was rescued by a former LMS Midland 4F 0-6-0 which, in its efforts to make up lost time, reached 77 mph!

The replacement of steam traction was seen as essential as Britain began cleaning up the scars left on the landscape by the Industrial Revolution. Lancashire needed to look like Buckinghamshire.

The railway was seen as a hangover from Victorian times; smoke and fire belching machines running through blackened, soot stained structures did not fit with the white collar revolution of the 1960s.

Heavy financial losses

Car ownership was becoming a national obsession. By 1960, one in nine families had a car with two or even three car families. This demand fanned the road building programme which, in turn, gave rise to rampant heavy trucking and increasingly bigger lorries.

Heavy financial losses continued to plague the railway industry through the late 1950s. In 1960 the deficit was £68M – around 1.34 billion in today’s terms – and this had risen to £87M by 1961, equivalent to approximately £1.68 billion.

In 1956, the Conservative government stated that, in order to avoid spirals of inflation, every effort would be made to avoid price increases in basic industries. Part of this edict stated that any increases in railway charges should be avoided. The inevitable effect on the railway’s finances need hardly be stated. For some reason, the railway’s deficit received more than its fair share of adverse publicity and the future of the railways became a highly emotive topic.

In 1960, the then Tory Prime Minister, Harold MacMillan, told the nation ‘you’ve never had it so good’, earning him the title of Super Mac. But he didn’t mean railways. MacMillan’s Minister of Transport, Earnest Marples, (who had

considerable interests in road building) wanted money allocated to railways to go to road development.

He determined to put an end to ‘the railway’s financial problems’ and to somehow strip the industry down to a level at which it ceased to lose money. One obnoxious, quick and easy answer to the railway’s problems which permeated the nation over these years was to turn the railway’s Permanent Way into roads; rubber tyres were the way forward!

A committee of enquiry even advised Marples to stop work on the 1955 Modernisation Plan, including putting on hold the West Coast Main Line electrification.

Richard Beeching

Disturbed by this report, Marples commissioned Richard Beeching, a technical director of ICI, to provide a solution to what he saw as an indefinite government subsidy to the railways. Beeching was appointed Chairman of the BTC in 1961 and Chairman Designate of the newly formed British Railways Board in 1962.

Heavy financial losses continued to plague the railway industry through the late 1950s…

Marples, his parliamentary sidekick John Hay and Beeching were all outsiders to the railway and their odious presence in the realms of transport made one long for the aspirational ideals of the post-war Labour government’s integrated public transport system.

This was the lowest point in British railway history and the actions of this time did not bode well for the industry. The witches brew which these three men came up with shocked the nation and recalled the rant of the three witches in Shakespeare’s Macbeth: ‘Double double, toil and trouble. Fire burn and cauldron bubble’.

Part 3: Richard Beeching’s Re-Shaping of British Railways will be published in May.

Photos courtesy of Milepost 92 1/2


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