August 2004

August 29, 2004

How important were the Parliamentary Acts in the building of railways?

Patrick Crozier | Rail History

In "The British state has never been very good at interfering in the railways" I said:

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.

which is rather hedging my bets.

The Acts in question were the ones passed prior to the building of every single major railway in the UK. They did three things. Firstly, they provided the railway companies with the ability to compulsarily purchase land. Secondly, they created the joint-stock companies that became the railways. Thirdly… well there was a third thing (a former BR librarian once told me so in no uncertain terms) but I can't remember what it was.

So, some questions:

Can you build a railway without compulsory purchase? I just don't know.

Can you build/could you have built a railway without a joint-stock company? What is/was a joint-stock company? Is it the same as a limited company? Were there alternatives? Again, I just don't know enough to pass comment.

What would have happened if the Acts had not been passed? US academic, Bruce Benson reckons that steam carriages may well have come to the fore (see III.2). As I understand it, at the same time a revolution was taking place in road construction, though, presumably, new roads would have had exactly the same problems as the new railways.

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Patrick Crozier | Rail History

I said a whole bunch of things about Grouping in "The British state has never been very good at interfering in the railways" and I thought I ought to expand on them a bit. I am afraid this is all going to be off the top of my head so I just have to hope that memory serves me well.

In the early 1920s, Britain had just been through the First World War which had seen a massive increase in the scope of the state. This included the state taking over the railways. There were also calls from the burgeoning trade union and labour movements for the complete nationalisation of the railways. The compromise was Grouping. The 100 or so independent railways were (with few exceptions) "grouped" into the: London, Midland and Scottish (LMS), London and North Eastern (LNER), Great Western (GWR) and Southern Railway (SR).

In some cases the groups were not particularly good fits. LMS never really understood the North London Railway and it began to decline. The Great Central also underwent something of a decline after being grouped with one of its arch enemies. For some reason the London, Tilbury and Southend line (it was called something else at the time) ended up with LMS rather than the more logical LNER.

It took many years for the groups to even match pre-1914 performance. I believe it was Ian Allan (of railway publishing fame) writing in the 1920s under a pseudonym who in one of the railway publications (Railway Magazine?) pointed this out week after week.

The groups operated under two financial restrictions. The first was common carrier legislation (see Andy Wakeford's comment) which obliged them to carry any consignment, regardless of size or regularity, at pre-published rates and not to offer any special deals. I should point out that at the time the freight business was much bigger than the passenger business. The second was a cap on profits. It should be pointed out, though, that the railways were the beneficiaries of a number of low-interest loans in the 1930s.

The railways were also banned from owning or operating lorries. That (apparently) made it difficult to operate inter-modal services, again damaging the business.


The North London Railway. A railway in north London. And it's still there. Once had a terminus at Broad Street in the City. This was closed in the mid-1980s after a severe decline in traffic.

Update 01/09/04

More on the financial restrictions. At Grouping the State introduced a the Standard Net Revenue - a sum that the companies collectively could not exceed. If they did 80% of it would be taken away from them via reduced charges. See p326 "Railwaymen, Politics And Money", Adrian Vaughan, John Murray, London 1997

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August 24, 2004

Why safe trains (and planes) make commercial sense

Patrick Crozier | Air Safety | Rail Safety

This was something I said in "The Regulation of the Railways Act (1889) was unnecessary".

It's very simple: train crashes are expensive with damage to reputation, compensation, changes to operations and train sets ending up in the wrong place.

But the main cost is the capital cost. Trains (and planes) and their infrastructure cost a lot of money. They are difficult to replace - often impossible.

Owners of trains do not want to lose them. "Ah, but they are insured." say some. But where does the money for insurance payouts come from? Insurance premiums. Any insurer worth his salt is going to price insurance premiums so that they cover expected payouts. Any insurer who doesn't is likely to go bust.

Update 02/09/04

Just to add, I did some back-of-an-envelope calculations on this a couple of years ago.

I was also struck by something that a train MD once said: "Even a minor derailment or a collision can cost a fortune. I mean millions."

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August 23, 2004

The Regulation of the Railways Act (1889) was unnecessary

Patrick Crozier | Rail Safety

The Regulation of the Railways Act (1889) was the "whole raft of safety legislation" I was referring to in "The British state has never been very good at interfering in the railways".

If I recall correctly it mandated the introduction of fixed block, interlocking and continuous brakes (don't ask me what these things are - I don't know). Most of these things were already being done. According to p212 of Adrian Vaughan's "Railwaymen, Politics and Money" half of carriages were already fitted with automatic, fail-safe brakes, 97% of double lines were already absolute block and 93% of points were already interlocked.

More importantly, the whole assumption behind these safety regulations (and others for that matter) is simply wrong.

Even if you do accept that assumption, there is still no particularly good reason to act. Rail has always been pretty safe anyway (if you go by the, admittedly, rather clumsy figures available to us). Why is it so safe? Because it makes commercial sense.

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August 21, 2004

Just asking: Mode of transport theft

Jackie D | Road General

I have a post up at Samizdata about car thieves and how useless the police can be at catching them. I have not owned one since I moved to the UK, but I got my first car at age 16 and was fortunate never to have any of them stolen. Each of my cars did at one point or another get keyed, though, and it was pretty pointless reporting the incidents to the police. So I didn't.

From what I have heard, seen, and read, car theft is a huge problem in Britain. How many of you have had a car or other motor vehicle stolen? How much help were the police?

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August 20, 2004

Mark II coaching stock

Patrick Crozier | Glossary

Mark II - from Southern E-Group
Having said something about Mark I and Mark III coaching stock I suppose I ought to mention the Mark II. Unfortunately, it's going to be a short mention because I know very little about it. Not only that, but I have two distinct mental images of it: one with it looking like an updated Mark I and another looking remarkably like a Mark III. I believe they are currently used by ONE on the London-Norwich route.
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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.


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.

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August 14, 2004

Why I think road pricing would benefit the least well off

Patrick Crozier | Road Pricing

This was something I said in "The way to deal with congestion".

I suppose one should begin by pointing out that the least well off don't drive because they can't afford cars. So, they are unlikely to be the worst losers from road pricing.

If roads were priced there would be less congestion. That would mean that buses could move around faster. It would also mean that they would be more punctual. Moving around faster would mean that they could carry more passengers for the same amount of money. That would mean operating a bus became cheaper. That would encourage an expansion in the number of services. Because they could move around faster more people would want to use them. So, they could charge more. But that, too would increase the number of entrants, eventually forcing prices down.

Mind you this all assumes a free market in buses which is not quite as straightforward as one might like it to be.

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The way to deal with congestion

Patrick Crozier | Road Pricing

In "Why I am not that worried about the absence of high-speed lines in the UK" and elsewhere I have stated that there is a better way to reduce congestion than build high-speed railways/subsidise buses and trams.

The way is to price it. Road pricing, road tolling, congestion charging, toll rings, call it what you will - that is the answer.

Why? Because charging for something reduces the demand for it.

But isn't this just theoretical? No, road pricing has been shown to work from the earliest times. In the present day road pricing schemes work on many motorways and successful city centre schemes exist in London, Singapore and Norway.

But won't this hit the poorest most? Actually, I think it will benefit the poor, depending on how it is done.

But why is pricing better than building high-speed railways, building more roads etc? Because it addresses the problem directly and because it gives people the flexibilty to solve the problem for themselves.

But don't you need an alternative first? But who's going to supply it? We know the state is unlikely to succeed and at the moment the incentives ie pricing do not exist for the private sector to get involved. How to deal with such transition problems is something I am not quite sure about though.

Update 14/08/04

I should have mentioned that in an ideal world it would be the private sector, not the state, doing the charging ie owning the road.

There's another question:

But doesn't congestion charging hit retailers? I don't know if this is the case or not though it has certainly been claimed to be the case in London. If it is true, it is possible that it would be solved by variable rate charging. But maybe not, in which case it may be the case that, well, perhaps the centre of a city isn't the best place for shopping. Maybe it is a better use of land if shopping moves out and something else moves in to replace it.

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August 11, 2004

High speed railways are no fun

Patrick Crozier | Rail Miscellany

This was something I mentioned in passing in "Why I am not that worried about the absence of high-speed lines in the UK" and while I would never claim it as a decisive factor I think it is worth recording.

I have now travelled on high-speed lines in France, Belgium, Italy, Germany and Japan. And they are all dull. They're too synthetic. Too quiet. Too antiseptic. Too fast even. They don't move about enough. They don't make any satisfying noises - like the rush of air against the superstructure, far less the (now not quite so familiar) clickety-clack of British commuter railways. Far better the joys of a British Mark III carriage or even the deep-sprung seating of the workmanlike Mark I. Just a shame they're headed for the scrap heap.

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August 10, 2004

Why I am not that worried about the absence of high-speed lines in the UK

Patrick Crozier | Rail Economics

This is something I said in "The UK rail problem". Essentially, the argument boils down to the fact that (to my knowledge) no high-speed line (even the cheaper ones) has ever made a profit and that (at least in the economic sphere) things that don't make a profit shouldn't be done.

Perhaps one ought to add that a train's top speed is not necessarily that big a factor in overall journey time. Frequency, line speed, acceleration, the number of stops and, of course, the distance between the railway and the start and end points all have a big part to play. this is one of the reasons why (as I understand it) the business-orientated railway of the 1980s was so keen to increase service frequency.

Oh, and one other objection: they're no fun.

But what about the externalities argument? This is something I have some sympathy with but while I have heard it mentioned in relation to urban systems I have never heard it convincingly argued in relation to high-speed railways. Even so, the answer is for potential builders of high-speed railways to capture those benefits. I believe there may be ways of doing this but if it proves impossible then so be it.

But won't it lead to our roads becoming even more clogged with traffic? Only if we do nothing and there is a fairly simple solution to congestion.

Update 03/09/04

Interesting report from the Commission for Integrated Transport entitled "High-speed rail: international comparisons"

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August 08, 2004

Should trains carry bikes?

Patrick Crozier | Cycling

In a comment on "The UK rail problem", tom said:

How about the most disgusting of all, rush-hour train bans [of bicycles], they weren't around pre-privatisation.

The assumption being that bikes on trains are a good thing. To which I am inclinded to ask: "Good for whom?"

But there's another assumption here and that is that bikes are a good thing and therefore should be promoted. I think this is debatable. Bikes have their plusses and their minuses. The shame is that one of their big plusses ie that they don't cause pollution, is not reflected in the price. Of course, it should and I believe there are ways it could.

Having said that even if pollution costs were reflected in the price of transport I would have severe doubts as to whether cyclists would find it worthwhile putting their bikes on trains or that train companies would find it worth their while allowing them to.

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August 07, 2004

Punctuality in the UK

Patrick Crozier | Rail Delays

Having made the claim that UK rail punctuality has fallen from about 90% at privatisation to 80% now, I thought I ought to see if I could find some figures.

The first place I looked was the SRA. But they don't have figures for punctuality. Oh no. They combine cancellations into the figure, which, although a bit of a fudge, strikes me as a relatively sensible thing to do. Sadly, the figures do not go back to before privatisation but (as I recall) they weren't so different in those days. Even so, the figures that they do have (see p14) do, more or less, bear me out.

The same applies to the Department of Transport but they have a longer series which go back to pre-privatisation days. Again, the figures, more or less, back me up.

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August 05, 2004

The UK rail problem

Patrick Crozier | Rail General

In my posting "What Alistair Darling should have said" I suggested that the UK's railways were not quite as good as they could be. Now while one can never be entirely sure about that I think we can be reasonably sure about some things:

Punctuality. Since privatisation, punctuality has declined from 90% to 80%.

Subsidy. Since privatisation state support for the industry has increased from £1bn a year to about £4bn. This does not include a £20bn government loan guarantee that Network Rail is slowly making its way through.

Overcrowding. Rotten term, but passenger comfort has definitely declined in recent years.

I think we can be reasonably sure about some other, more long-term problems:

Graffiti and vandalism. There is hardly a train in the country that isn't affected by these to a greater or lesser extent.

The run-down nature of much of the infrastructure. In this I include not only the stations but also a lot of the trackside which is often overgrown where it isn't strewn with litter and debris.

There are some non-problems. For instance, I do not regard the absence (save for the Channel Tunnel Rail Link) of high-speed lines as particularly serious. Or, the dramatic increases in some fares. Or safety which is about the same as it was before privatisation.

Having said that there are some good things about the network. The National Rail Enquiry Service (despite recent stories) seems to be very good and didn't exist before privatisation. Internet ticket agencies have made the business of selecting and buying a ticket much easier. Passenger information is getting much better. There are some nice new trains running about. Mind you there are some pretty nasty new ones too.


Punctuality. In Britain a train is defined as being on time if it arrives within 5 minutes (or 10 for long-distance trains) of its schedule.

Privatisation. Don't like the term myself, but common usage for the changes that occurred to British Railways, the UK's nationalised railway, in the mid-1990s.

Channel Tunnel Rail Link High-speed line connecting London with the Channel Tunnel.

High Speed. Not particularly well defined railway term. Seems to mean anything above 125mph.

National Rail Enquiry Service. Central telephone help line for all things to do with trains. I think they'll even sell you a ticket.

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August 04, 2004

What Alistair Darling should have said

Patrick Crozier | Rail Review

A couple of weeks ago Secretary of State for Transport, Alistair Darling, announced his proposals for the railways. I doubt if it was a particularly inspiring occasion and that is one of the reasons I have been slow to comment on them. But just imagine if it was (inspiring, that is). Perhaps his speech would be a bit like this:

"Mr Speaker, with permission I would like to make a statement.

The railways of Britain are a complete mess and it is us, the Government (my predecessors and I) who are to blame. We've never been much cop at interfering in the railways but in recent years not only have we been doing even more of it but we've got even worse at it. The results have been pretty predictable.

The answer, of course, is to get ourselves out of the picture and to liberate the railways. To this end we will bring in legislation to do the following: abolish subsidy, abolish safety regulation, abolish the wheel-rail split, abolish franchising, abolish fare control, abolish accessibility regulations, abolish compulsory purchase, privatise Network Rail and give the railway the right to not only enforce but determine its own laws. When we've finished doing this we will then abolish the entire department.

Now, I appreciate that while most of this seems eminently reasonable, there may be some concerns:

Will this mean massive closures? Yes, but that's not so bad.

What about the environment? Not withstanding my objections to the term, that'll do just fine just so long as we get the legal framework right.

What about our grands projets like CrossRail and the Chelsea-Hackney Line? If they're any good they'll get built and a damn site sooner and to a far higher quality than if we were involved.

Won't this mean lots of people taking to their cars and clogging up the roads? Well, I have some plans there.

What about safety? That'll do just fine without us.

Won't this lead to local monopolies? It all rather depends on what you mean by a monopoly. My guess is that the railways will find that they have quite enough competition thank you very much.

How can you build railways without compulsory purchase? Well, maybe you can't but then it probably isn't such a good thing anyway. But I think there's a good chance that you can.

How can you trust the private sector to run a railway? Well, it works in Japan, the United States and it worked pretty well here for over a 100 years.

Mr Speaker, no one can be quite sure what will happen on the free railway but the chances are that they will be a darn site better than if I or anyone in this House had anything to do with it."

Update 05/08/04


Crossrail. This is a scheme to dig an East-West tunnel under Central London capable of taking mainline trains from somewhere near Paddington to somewhere near Liverpool St. It would be very expensive but many regard it as essential. Has its own Transport Blog and In Brief categories

Chelsea-Hackney Line. A sort of South-West to North-East Crossrail but not quite as important.

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More bus ticket rip-offs in London

Jackie D | Buses and Jitneys

Just for posterity's sake, I wish to record that - further to Michael Jennings's post and mine on London's broken bus ticket machines - I have in the last fortnight encountered broken machines at Piccadilly Circus and Finsbury Park. If people would keep an eye out for broken machines at other locations, I would be most appreciative. No idea what to do with the data once it has been gathered, but if someone tells me that they encountered a set of bus ticket machines of which one of the dispensers wasn't broken, I will be pleasantly surprised.

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August 01, 2004

So, what do you think about the White Paper?

Patrick Crozier | Rail Review

A few weeks ago the government published the results of its review of the structure of the UK's railway in the form of a White Paper.

I have been putting off commenting but wasn't quite sure why. I think the reason is two-fold. On the one hand I expect to have to plough through reams of the sort of thought-free, platitude-rich, meaningless, turgid rubbish that one has come to expect from modern politicians. On the other hand it is far from clear how to measure it. I know what to measure it against: what ought to be done. But how should one go about the actual measuring? Does one measure it on the basis of the analysis or the actual proposals? And if it is the proposals then how should one interpret their inevitable vagueness, by assuming the worst or assuming the best?

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This is a list of date-based archives from the In Brief section:

November 2004
October 2004
September 2004
August 2004
July 2004
June 2004
May 2004
April 2004
March 2004
February 2004
January 2004