15 January 2007
Pete Waterman on pre-nationalisation state interference in the railways
Brian Micklethwait

Yesterday I watched a trainspotting documentary TV show fronted by trainspotting fanatic Pete Waterman, in the house of a friend who owned the DVD.  Waterman made his money producing pop songs but he apparently likes to spend it, some of it, buying up and restoring classic steam locomotives.

Anyway, in part two of this four part series, which covered the pre-WW2 pre-nationalisation period, Waterman said something interesting, which I did not know.  He said that Britain’s four great pre-nationalisation railway companies, LMS, LNER, the Great Western and the Southern, were obliged to become “common carriers” of freight.  Whoever wanted to use trains to send freight could do it, at a price determined by the government, however inconvenient and hence unprofitable it might be for the train company.  Nor were the train companies allowed to charge less than the government-ordained and publicly announced price for freight.  No wonder freight on the roads took off, if you will pardon the use of a transport metaphor to describe transport.  All they had to do was (a) undercut the railways by a few quid for convenient jobs that they wanted, and (b) just refuse to do all the inconvenient stuff, which the railways then had to do.  No wonder the railways went into decline, and were unable, after the war, to resist nationalisation.

“They were forbidden”, said Waterman, “to be entrepreneurial.”

Is that true.  Or is Pete Waterman just a rich and rabid trainspotter, who believes what he wants to believe?


  1. No, this most certainly is true.  They also had a profits cap and (if memory serves) were prevented from offering road services of their own.  Who knows what sort of road-rail integration would have proved possible.

    It is also worth bearing in mind that until about 1960, freight was responsiblee for the lion’s share of railway income.  So, the restrictions had a much greater effect than we tend to think.

    Having said that, the effect of common carrier legislation was only temporary.  Rail freight (as a mainstream form of transport) was sooner or later going to become uncompetitive, as indeed it did in the 1950s.

    Posted by Patrick Crozier on  15 January 2007 at 06:44 am

  2. Isn’t the more important thing about the railways being common carriers - which I believe they had been since they first were created - was that they were obliged to carry whatever traffic was offered.  This meant that the road hauliers could take the lucrative traffic and turn down that which they didn’t want, whereas rail had to take everything.  I have read that BR had to haul one wagon of fish offal from Lowestoft docks each day in the 50s, a stinking load that no road haulier would take.  It was, apparently, an unwelcome job for the allocated guard!

    Posted by Bill King on  20 January 2007 at 05:38 am

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