The train takes the strain

In his tireless chronicling of Britain’s railways, Christian Wolmar has touched on British Rail (BR) – or British Railways, as it was known until 1965 – before. There is, for example, his general history of Britain’s railways, Fire and Steam (2007). But it is perhaps surprising that he has only now published a book devoted to the tragicomic phase of nationalization (1948-97), especially given the way it haunts policymakers. Wolmar writes that BR was traduced by “notorious myths”, and the transport secretary, Grant Shapps, is apparently in thrall to one of them. Unveiling in 2021 his new scheme for the railways – the corrective to the privatization that was the corrective to BR – he said, “we won’t be going back to the days of British Rail with terrible sandwiches.” Wolmar takes on this slur at the start of his book: BR’s sandwiches were in fact very good, having been created by “expert chefs and well-known foodies such as Clement Freud and Prue Leith, who actually became a British Railways Board director”.

For Wolmar, BR “was a victim of its history and of the whim of politicians”. He tells how, nonetheless, it gradually got its act together, an effort that culminated in a “golden” last decade, for which it was rewarded by being disbanded at vast cost. It’s a stop-go tale. Investment came and went according to those ministerial whims; subsidy was always low compared to European equivalents. In Britain the “inexorable” rise in car use emboldened a particularly vociferous road lobby, manifested at its most extreme in the Railway Conversion League, founded in the mid-1950s by “an eccentric Brigadier, Thomas Lloyd, who believed all the country’s railways could be replaced by exactly 3,433 buses waiting at stations until they were full.” Lloyd and his co-campaigner, Angus Dalgleish (“only a major”), received sympathetic coverage, and their ideas menaced BR for three decades.

The young BR was a sooty, war-ravaged railway, burdened with debt arising from compensation payments to the previous owners of the network. Attlee’s nationalizing government, being sympathetic to the coal industry, was in no hurry to wean it off expensive and outmoded steam locomotion, and there was no agreement about what it was for. BR had to pay its way as far as possible, but it was saddled with social obligations such as the “common carrier” curse, whereby it was required to transport at cheap cost any load, “from circuses and house movers to sewage and bundles of wool”. Wolmar writes amusingly about BR’s modest early innovations, including a new fleet of sleeper cars, steel-framed (as opposed to wooden) and with electric razor points, but a primitive method of emptying chamberpots: they were inserted into a receptacle in a cupboard, then their contents were upended onto the tracks when the cupboard door was closed.

Between the mid-1950s and the mid-1960s, it was a case not so much of “stop-go” as “go-stop”. The Modernisation Plan of 1955, endorsed by the Conservative government, was almost lightheaded in its ambition and optimism. Here, supposedly, was a fifteen-year program to modernize the railway and make it financially self-supporting. The plan initiated electrification and dieselization, but Wolmar rates it “back-of-the-envelope stuff”. Its program for freight – vast marshalling yards to shuffle the small units BR shouldn’t have been bothering with – was misconceived, and £40 million was gauchely assigned to “rail and helicopter hubs”.

The failure of the plan “caused the Treasury to distrust British Railways’ financial planning for the rest of its existence.” The punitive reaction followed. If the railway could not fight back against the motor car, it must capitulate to it and seek profitability as a smaller concern. When Ernest Marples – a flash, rackety figure with business interests in road-building – became minister of transport in 1959, he recruited Dr Richard Beeching, an ICI physicist, to run BR, which he did with calculating machine to hand, and no regard for the wider social and economic benefits of the railway. He closed a third of the network.

Wolmar is not entirely dismissive of Beeching. He rationalized freight operations and, although to look at this rumpled fellow with his scrubby moustache, you wouldn’t have thought him very modern, he presided over the creation of a visual identity for the organization whose name he abbreviated to the matey “British Rail “. Central to the new image was “rail blue” for trains (surely a fairly dingy shade, but widely admired as an advance on the cosy greens typically used for steam locomotives) and the elemental and enduring double-arrow logo. But Beeching was wrong, even by his own standards. His closures “had little impact on the overall economics of the organization”, and Wolmar’s central thesis is that the dream of a subsidy-free railway is “a Holy Grail that will never be found”.

Beeching’s cuts were unpopular and his second report, of 1965, proposing more of the same, was rejected by the Labor government, even though it had “enthusiastically” implemented his first. Beeching returned to ICI, and apparently declined an offer from John Lennon to apply his calculating machine to the Beatles’ finances. The counter- reaction was implemented by Barbara Castle, Labor minister of transport from 1965 (and a non-driver). She wiped out British Rail’s debt and legislated to differentiate between the “commercial” and “social” railway, with the latter being eligible for subsidy on social grounds.

Another positive phase followed the appointment of the urbane, publicity-minded Peter Parker as British Rail’s chairman in 1976. On his watch BR achieved a certain glamor through the success of the express Inter-City services, associated with the HSTs – streamlined diesels effortlessly capable of 125mph. Adverts proclaiming “the Age of the Train” were fronted by Jimmy Savile. (“Jimmy came up trumps”, Parker wrote, “because of people’s perception that he would only do what he believed in, whatever the money.”) For Wolmar, Parker would be “on the podium” when it came to saluting the best BR chairman, but Bob Reid (the first one – his successor had the same name) “would get the gold”. Reid arrived in 1983, and his crucial innovation was “sectorization”, which lessened the powers of the regional bosses, the so-called “bishops”. The new divisions reflected the various purposes of the railway rather than its geography. Young, talented managers were motivated to innovate within their “profit centres”. Inter-City boomed; London commuter services were much improved and slickly branded as Network SouthEast.

British Rail brought out the pragmatist in Margaret Thatcher. She knew privatization would not be an easy win, given the need for subsidy, but the idea had been floating around in Tory circles, and it crept into John Major’s manifesto for the 1992 election, which he unexpectedly won. The “track authority” model was decided upon, whereby franchisees would run trains – supposedly competitively – over tracks owned by a separate company. But the competitive element did not usually materialize: the franchisees merely squatted on their lengths of track until their term was up or some crisis intervened.

In his epilogue, Wolmar lists the gains privatization was supposed to bring. “None”, he writes, “were achieved.” Rather employing his own arguments here, he quotes Grant Shapps’s white paper of 2021, which argued for reforming the railway and replacing franchising – the key feature of privatization – with an arrangement whereby operators provide services on a restricted contract basis, the revenues going straight to the new “guiding mind” of the system, Great British Railways. The white paper damned the Major model: it “has not done enough to deliver a more cost-efficient sector … The sector’s structures do not work: people working in the rail industry are disempowered … co-ordination is governed by a costly, inflexible spider’s web of often adversarial relationships”. “The amusing aspect of this”, Wolmar notes, is how “the White Paper suggests it was a party other than the Tories which created the privatized structure.”

Wolmar’s book is impeccably organized and makes a fast, enjoyable read. His prose is plain, but there is a swing to it. Only occasionally, as he speeds over the junctions and points, is there a certain jarring: the second Bob Reid “had been selected as a safe pair of hands but quickly became a thorn in the government’s side”. And it seems that nobody in the railway world ever “picks” anything. They always “cherry-pick”.

My father was a BR manager, constantly on the defensive against the little Ernie Marpleses of his acquaintance – “car men” who prized their Ford Capris and considered BR a joke. He had an epithet he reserved for those of his colleagues he considered particularly competent and true friends of the railway: they were “good operators”. Christian Wolmar is a good operator.

Andrew Martin‘s latest book, Yorkshire: There and backwas published last month

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