August 15, 2004

The British state has never been very good at interfering in the railways

Patrick Crozier | Rail History

This was something I said in "What Alistair Darling should have said".

State interference in Britain's railways got off to a slow start. They introduced the Parliamentary Train which doesn't seem to have had much of an impact. They introduced a whole raft of safety regulation in the 1880s - mainly relating to things that were being done anyway. At some point they started accident investigations. When the London, Chatham and Dover Railway and the South Eastern Railway merged, the state managed to pile on them so many restrictions that the merger was rendered virtually pointless.

It wasn't until after the First World War that the state really got stuck in. Grouping created vast, inefficient conglomerates that took years to match pre-war performance. Financial restrictions undermined the profit motive and commercial restrictions prevented the companies from integrating road and rail.

In the Second World War, the government managed (and I am not quite sure how) to leave the railways on a financial knife-edge and their infrastructure in a parlous state.

And then they were nationalised.

British Railways came under the umbrella of the British Transport Commission whose aim was to promote integrated transport. It didn't. But BR had it's own share of failures. First of all, it invested heavily in steam when it was clear to most of the rest of the world that the future lay in diesel and electric traction. In the mid-1950s they realised the mistake and embarked on a crash Modernisation Plan. The haste led to the adoption of many poor designs. The misreading of the way of the world led to the construction of several almost completely useless marshalling yards. The losses started to mount. Service went to pot with the British Rail sandwich becoming a national joke.

By the early 1960s the losses could not be ignored. The Beeching cuts saw half the network disappear. It was probably the most sensible thing the Government has ever done on the railways.

In the late 1960s, subsidy to BR was put on an institutionalised basis with the introduction of the Public Service Obligation grant.
In the 1970s, BR invested heavily in the Advanced Passenger Train which turned into an expensive flop. Mind you it also managed to build the High Speed Train and the Mark III carriage - so, it wasn't all bad.

In the 1980s, BR was pretty much ignored by the Thatcher government. And did quite well. InterCity and London's commuter routes even underwent something of a revival.

And, to be fair to the state, it did pass the Acts which, by permitting the compulsory puchase of land and the formation of joint-stock companies, probably made the railways possible.

Footnotes

Parliamentary Train. An Act of Parliament forced all train operators to provide at least train every day calling at all stations and charging no more than 1d a mile.

Grouping. In the early 1920s the tens of independent British railways were forced to merge into four groups: Southern Railway, Great Western Railway (GWR), London, Midland and Scottish (LMS) and London and North Eastern Railway (LNER).

Update 30/08/04

Tim Hall details the Modernisation Plan's low points.

Update 03/09/04

Beeching did not see the closure of half the network. As these official figures show, in the period 1963-1968 only about a quarter of the network was closed. Having said that they do show that the current network is only about half the size it was at its peak.

Trackbacks

Comments

It must be remembered that the APT that 'flopped' was the second to be built. The first was a gas turbine engined train which ran perfectly, and but for the oil crisis of 1973, which made it far too expensive to run, would have gone into production. The High Speed Train was a success in the end, but only after much tinkering with its initially substandard engine. The post '73 electric APT was so much of a test bed for new technology, some of it 20 years ahead of its time, that one wonders just how serious BR were by then about actually building it in bulk. Even so, they had it working reliably after a year of so of running, but in a way that prefigured the fate of the Millenium Dome, by then the press had sealed its fate.

Posted by James Hamilton on August 16, 2004

The history of British Railways is shot through with political interference - for example one of the reasons that the Modernisation Plan resulted in an influx of unsuitable and untried motive power was the political requirement to spread the work around as many (UK) manufacturers as possible. Instead of getting the best supplier, small runs of untried designs were procured from hopelessly incapable suppliers. The worst example was North British, who built many fine steam engines, but had no experience of diesels, delivered some of the most unreliable products ever to grace the UK rail system and then went bust under the weight of the warranty claims. There were too many builders and all this policy did was stave off the inevitable merger, liquidation and consolidation of the industry, and as usual the stool pigeon in all this was BR.

Posted by andy wakeford on August 17, 2004

Patrick's summary makes constructive comment difficult. Once the car and lorry started to affect every aspect of daily living, the role of the railways in a competitive environment meant change. The railways were 'common carriers' until about 1970, and this brought many restrictions. Despite the coal shortage in 1948, modern steam engines were required to replace the older steam engines which had served valiantly in the war. The diesel engine at this time was in its infancy for rail development. Until the 1970's, the railways played an essential role in the life of this country. Hindsight will suggest many alternatives to poor decisions, but the whole subject is very complex.

Posted by Brian Hayes on August 18, 2004

Brian,

If constructive comment is difficult try some of the destructive kind! If I'm talking nonsense I want to know about it.

What is a "common carrier"?

Also, can we really say that diesels were in their infancy when the the Burlingon Zephyr (or whatever it was called) had been going for 15 years?

I take your point about poor decisions. Of course, the free market could have made just as many mistakes but looking back at the forty or so years prior to 1948 I just can't find that many examples of them getting things completely wrong. Or, at least, not big examples.

Posted by Patrick Crozier on August 19, 2004

Common Carrier legislation was repealed I believe as part of the 1962 transport act which abolished the BTC and created the British Railways Board.

It had been introduced in the 19th century as a requirement for railways to carry all goods at defined charges, and restricted the striking of special deals with particular customers.

It was designed for a monopoly profitable industry; quite apart from the ideological arguments for and against this which I know are dear to this site, the biggest problem is that the regulation continued to persist long after the monopoly had expired with the advent of road transport with the result that individual profitable flows could be creamed off by new entrants to the freight market whilst rail was required to maintain an infrastructure for everyone regardless of commercial viability.
The LMS, LNER, GER and SR lobbied for the removal of the Common Carrier legislation in the 'Square Deal' campaign of 1938; WW2 intervened....

Posted by andy wakeford on August 20, 2004

Patrick's right about diesels not being in their infancy. Not only was the diesel already starting to conquer America, but British manufacturers such as English Electric were turning out perfectly good export models.

The LMS ordered two 1700hp diesels from EE in 1947. By all accounts these machines, forerunners of the very successful class 37 of 15 years later, were a success. There is no reason why they could not have put this design into series production, except Robert Riddles thought kettles were cheaper.

Posted by Tim Hall on August 20, 2004

I have got a copy of Edwin A Pratt's "Railways and Nationalisation" (1911) in front of me - well worth a read, by the way. He was writing about the railway of the day and while he gives plenty of examples of railways being able to vary their rates he gives no mention of "common carrier" legislation or caps on rates. I wonder if it came later.

Posted by Patrick Crozier on August 23, 2004

Re your quote:
"The Beeching cuts saw half the network disappear. It was probably the most sensible thing the Government has ever done on the railways."

As far as the developed world goes, it is largely only the english-speaking nations which opted for wholesale dismemberment of their rail systems. These countries are now faced with the developed world's poorest public transport systems and most heavily congested roads.

Britain is replete with former rail-routes which today would be valuable (and viable) had they not been axed. In the frenzy to rip them out, the option of 'mothballing' was not entertained. Now, the cost of re-instatment is many times what it might have been, for very little actually saved.

As the problems in sustaining today's road- and air-based transport continue to mount, I predict an increasing realisation that the Beeching cuts were a colossal mistake.

Posted by David Bond on December 2, 2004

Permalink
 
 IN BRIEF

November 23, 2004

'Captain commuter' wins Sydney a free day on the trains ...link
PCCC | Comments (0)

Darling's saver ticket for slow-train Britain - he's going to do everything but close them ...link
PCCC | Comments (0)
November 21, 2004

Tollroads Jamaican style - worth it if only for the pic of the toll plaza ...link
PCCC | Comments (0)
November 20, 2004

Postive externalities come to DC - sort of ...link
PCCC | Comments (0)

Railways safer than ever - says Christian Wolmar ...link
PCCC | Comments (0)

Is graffiti art? - LFTTR think the question misses the point. FWIW I think many artists clearly have a lot of talent and it's a shame they don't have an appropriate, nay, legal outlet. ...link
PCCC | Comments (0)

Book review - Subterranean Railway by Christian Wolmar ...link
PCCC | Comments (0)

One airline, 4 crashes, 8 dead: the real price of sugar snap peas in November ...link
PCCC | Comments (0)
November 17, 2004

British Transport Films Collection DVD Volume One - Surely a must for any transport afficionado. It will be released just in time for Christmas. ...link
MH | Comments (0)
November 15, 2004

Crossrail website ...link
MH | Comments (0)
November 11, 2004

Brake fault forces Virgin to cut speed on flagship tilting trains - you know, just for once it sounds as if the HSE could be right ...link
PCCC | Comments (0)
November 08, 2004

TV Alert "When trains crash", 1930 Channel 5 tonight. Talk about timing ...link
PCCC | Comments (1)
November 07, 2004

Ufton Nervet crash - 6 now confirmed dead ...link
PCCC | Comments (4)
November 06, 2004

One person dead as train derails ...link
PCCC | Comments (0)
November 04, 2004

FirstGroup wants to add the tracks to its trains - that's brave ...link
PCCC | Comments (0)
November 02, 2004

Car charge to rise to £6 ...link
PCCC | Comments (0)
October 30, 2004

Psst wanna buy a railway station? ...link
MH | Comments (0)
October 26, 2004

'Kart Vader' - He tears around Quebec City at 100mph. In a go kart. At night. Wearing black. And he films it. Spotted by Jay Jardine. ...link
MH | Comments (0)
October 24, 2004

The downside of auto-mobile bans - drivers text instead ...link
PCCC | Comments (0)

Councils ban shrines to road crash victims - a story that neatly combines both transport and the issue of the day: mawkish sentimentality ...link
PCCC | Comments (0)
October 20, 2004

The air hostess, the long hair and the sun roof - one of the more imaginative ways of staying awake at the wheel. ...link
PCCC | Comments (0)

Wheelchair-using MP travelled in 'cattle truck' - so, that's just the same as the rest of us then ...link
PCCC | Comments (1)

23 escape from burning train ...link
PCCC | Comments (3)

Wikipedia accuracy under fire - so, it's back on with the Glossary? ...link
PCCC | Comments (0)
October 19, 2004

Rail chief quits after four months - walking away from £130,000. Golly ...link
PCCC | Comments (0)
October 14, 2004

New comment on old posting - Tim Hall explains the story of the Highland Railway, its new locos and its soon-to-be-ex-Chief Mechanical engineer ...link
PCCC | Comments (0)

Out now: DVD version of leaves on the line ...link
PCCC | Comments (0)
October 13, 2004

New link - Transport Watch UK. Lots of facts, lot of comparisons. Doesn't look good for rail ...link
PCCC | Comments (4)
October 11, 2004

Take the car and save the planet - walking kills, apparently ...link
PCCC | Comments (0)

Hybrids better than the real thing - golly ...link
PCCC | Comments (0)

Don't invest in mega-projects - says Peter Gordon ...link
PCCC | Comments (0)
October 05, 2004

Prescott backs plan to reopen branch rail lines - well, he says he does ...link
PCCC | Comments (1)
October 04, 2004

New Glossary Entry - the Advanced Passenger Train ...link
PCCC | Comments (0)
October 03, 2004

People are building their own speed cameras - One fellow is even selling fully functioning ones ...link
MH | Comments (0)

Pendolinos and Voyagers may prove to be one of privatisation's disasters - says Christian Wolmar ...link
PCCC | Comments (11)

Omedetō gozaimasu! - Tech Central Station on the 40th anniversary of the Shinkansen ...link
PCCC | Comments (0)
October 02, 2004

Compulsory purchase to go - in US? Johnathan Pearce has some musings ...link
PCCC | Comments (0)
October 01, 2004

Indian railway runs out of wheels - because it refuses to import ...link
PCCC | Comments (0)

All for sprawl - Tyler Cowen links to a couple of articles including one from the NY Times magazine which is attracting a lot of attention ...link
PCCC | Comments (1)

Underground maps as art - according to Brian ...link
PCCC | Comments (0)
September 30, 2004

Recent comment - Uncle Roger on the difficulty in working out accurate subsidy figures ...link
PCCC | Comments (0)

Europe by train - Tim Hall on Stephen Karlson's adventures ...link
PCCC | Comments (0)

Carpool lanes = communist gulags - Tim Hall is beginning to get it, possibly ...link
PCCC | Comments (0)
September 29, 2004

P&O axes 1,200 jobs as ferry travel sails into past ...link
PCCC | Comments (1)
September 27, 2004

Hurtling towards a £7.6bn bill at full tilt - Alistair Osborne on the WCRM fiasco. Actually, I thought £7.6bn was on the low side ...link
PCCC | Comments (2)
September 26, 2004

A double-decked shame - RJ3 laments the passing of the Routemaster. It's those EU bastards, I tell you ...link
PCCC | Comments (0)

Tilting trains are rubbish - according to Ross Clark. Now he tells us ...link
PCCC | Comments (2)

Delays plummet by 28% - says Network Rail ...link
PCCC | Comments (0)
September 25, 2004

New glossary item - the Health and Safety Executive - in which I demonstrate my almost complete ignorance of this institution ...link
PCCC | Comments (0)

Scant improvement in train times - according to latest figures ...link
PCCC | Comments (0)
September 22, 2004

EU plan will hit safe women drivers - and it's all in the name of sex equality ...link
PCCC | Comments (0)

Unions gang up to demand railway renationalisation - they mean it isn't already? ...link
PCCC | Comments (1)
September 21, 2004

Top car makers support road-jam charging - Ford, GM, Honda, Daimler ...link
PCCC | Comments (0)

Journey times cut as 125mph tilting train sets record - after £8bn and the odd bankruptcy tilting trains that actually tilt are finally here ...link
PCCC | Comments (0)
September 18, 2004

ABD calls for environmental audit of public transport - all those particulates ...link
PCCC | Comments (2)

Camera Partnerships must come clean on real causes of accidents - says ABD ...link
PCCC | Comments (0)
September 16, 2004

The Green Quadratic - ASI paper on planning from 1988. Now available on-line ...link
PCCC | Comments (0)
September 14, 2004

Up with conductors - they're really good, you know ...link
PCCC | Comments (1)

Speeding Britons fined in car race to Spain - "Among the cars were Ferraris, Porsches and Rolls-Royces." ...link
PCCC | Comments (0)

MPs to lose free airport parking - oh, how my heart bleeds ...link
PCCC | Comments (0)

The case against driving licences - Paul Clark in Lew Rockwell ...link
PCCC | Comments (0)
September 10, 2004

Drivers trade privacy for insurance discounts ...link
PCCC | Comments (0)
September 08, 2004

Free mints infuriate delayed commuters - some even threw them away, ingrates ...link
PCCC | Comments (1)

Privatize the roads! Liberate the streets! All we have to lose are our parking tickets! - Anthony Gregory in Lew Rockwell ...link
PCCC | Comments (0)

M6 Toll hits 10m journey mark - er, about a month ago ...link
PCCC | Comments (0)
September 07, 2004

California high-speed rail plan - all sorts of claims being made but Peter Gordon doesn't like the precedents ...link
PCCC | Comments (0)
September 06, 2004

Swedish farmer fined 1,211 kronor for illegally parking a snowmobile in Warwick - Krister Nylander lives 205 north of Stockholm and has never been to Warwick. "They can wait till Hell freezes over and I can get to Britain on my snowmobile to pay the fine.” ...link
MH | Comments (0)
September 05, 2004

"Obsession is not too strong a word to describe how railway enthusiasts feel about railways" - Matthew Parris goes to Peru and meets some trainspotters ...link
PCCC | Comments (0)
September 03, 2004

Hidden costs do not justify the level of tax on petrol in Britain - says Graham Seargeant ...link
PCCC | Comments (0)

Shovelling cash - utilities to pay for digging up roads ...link
PCCC | Comments (0)

Alistair Morton, builder of the Channel Tunnel, is dead ...link
PCCC | Comments (0)

Government 'willed' Railtrack to fail - says Corbett ...link
PCCC | Comments (0)

Cyclists saddled with seafront speed trap - in Bournemouth ...link
PCCC | Comments (1)

Historic Amsterdam tram photos Aaaah. Where's amg going to pitch up next? ...link
PCCC | Comments (0)

Why so little US electrification? - Tim Hall ponders the answer ...link
PCCC | Comments (0)
September 02, 2004

London Underground Map - as it really is. ...link
PCCC | Comments (0)

Electric v steam - in 1923. But who won ...link
PCCC | Comments (0)

Freight or passenger in the US? - they're in conflict. Stephen Karlson considers the options ...link
PCCC | Comments (0)
September 01, 2004

Fares and charge up in London - says Livingstone ...link
PCCC | Comments (0)

'Fair fines' planned for speeding drivers ...link
PCCC | Comments (0)

Railtrack is cleared over Hatfield crash ...link
PCCC | Comments (0)
August 31, 2004

Thousands 'ready to quit Aslef' - where would we be without brotherly love ...link
PCCC | Comments (0)
August 30, 2004

Rural watchdog attacks road sign blight - See it's not just me who can't abide the avalanche of street furniture. ...link
MH | Comments (0)

What the traffic will bear - Bob Poole discusses the merits of tolling ...link
PCCC | Comments (0)

Prague trams - photos. Aaah ...link
PCCC | Comments (0)
August 24, 2004

What if you can't drive? - Catallarchy's Sean Lynch considers the options ...link
PCCC | Comments (0)

97% of accidents within speed limit - according to the ABD ...link
PCCC | Comments (1)
August 22, 2004

Prosecute motorway lane hogs - says RAC ...link
PCCC | Comments (3)
August 20, 2004

Radio tags for congestion charge? ...link
PCCC | Comments (0)

World's longest road opens - in Russia ...link
PCCC | Comments (0)

Sprawl is cheap - says Iain Murray ...link
PCCC | Comments (1)
August 19, 2004

Strike threat to BA and Eurostar ...link
PCCC | Comments (0)

Toll roads are safer - at least according to my reading of this Marginal Revolution post ...link
PCCC | Comments (0)

Peking metro to hit 1000km mark - I'm not sure even London's is that long ...link
PCCC | Comments (0)
August 15, 2004

Squander Two calmly talks about speed cameras ...link
MH | Comments (1)

Parking anarchy in St Albans - Police withdraw traffic wardens, Herts council won't have any until October, it's bedlam! ...link
MH | Comments (0)

The future of transport - as seen from the past ...link
PCCC | Comments (0)

Trains less efficient than cars - yes, I know, it's old news ...link
PCCC | Comments (0)

Ferry solution, please - Eamonn Butler wonders how you could introduce competition to a subsidised ferry service in the Western Isles ...link
PCCC | Comments (0)
August 14, 2004

Drink less, speed less, save on insurance - Marginal Revolution has the story ...link
PCCC | Comments (0)