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David is about to start studying Politics, Philosophy and Economics at the University of Essex (see his Community profile).

Britain’s railways were once the best in the world, a mix of companies in ever frantic competition lead to unrivalled speed, service and quality. The Railway Mania of the 1840s, which even lead The Economist to add “railway monitor” to its heading, was a spontaneous 19th Century dot com boom. Many failed to take off, but others thrived and created the backbone of today’s network. Later, the competition between these companies lead to branch lines and extensions, trying to enter the territory of other railways and block them doing likewise.

 
Look at the architecture that remains and you see the lengths the great railways went to, just to attract custom. They had to, many areas had two or more providers (in my area Canterbury, Ramsgate, Margate, Dover, Folkestone, Ashford and Maidstone all had two different London services).
Speed, safety, service and style were all areas of fierce competition. Then it went wrong. The government ran the railways into the ground during WW1, and paid little real compensation. They ‘grouped’ the railways regionally, limiting the competition and leading to the first real closures and cut backs. Many lines had never made profits, or turned a decent return for capital outlay, but were kept to defend territory. Now there was no need.

The state interfered more with the ‘common carrier principle’ – setting a national rate for all goods and requiring railways to accept them at that rate regardless of the costs involved. Many were below cost, pushing up the other prices to offset the losses. Road haulage firms – boosted by cheaply sold Army surplus vehicles – could then cherry pick the profitable goods because they weren’t tied to the common carrier rule (so didn’t have to subsidise unprofitable loads like the railways).
 
Things got even worse after the Second World War. Ravaged by war and government operations, the railways were nationalised at the stroke of midnight, New Year’s Eve 1947 (presumably for dramatic emphasis). Engine crews across the country sounded their whistles in celebration – they should have been sounding the bells of doom. Just as Cinderella’s coach turned into a pumpkin at midnight, the railways turned into a complete lemon (or perhaps a BR sandwich…remember them?!).
 
The first closures soon began, there was no need for many lines as there was no competition at all. The ‘Titfield Thunderbolt’ – possibly the ultimate conservative film (?) was made in 1952. In my area alone, the old Canterbury & Whitstable, Kent & East Sussex, Elham Valleyand Sheppey Light Railways were all gone within the first few years of BR. To show how inefficiency appeared overnight, the Kent & East Sussex was re-laid with new track shortly before being ripped up.
 
With the man from the Ministry in charge, the railways were run into the ground. The modernisation that had been progressing, such as the Southern Electric schemes in the 1930s, were largely stopped. The social departments such as healthcare always got the funding, and much progress was stopped for political reasons (electrification meant less coal demand and angry miners, less labour intense systems made redundancies and more angry unions). We went from the technology capital of the world to a backwards, un-innovative and unimaginative backwater.
 
When they tried to modernise, the top-down ‘giant leaps forward’ Modernisation Plan wasted millions on bad technology, whilst the infamous Beeching Report culled the network from 18,000 to 12,000 miles. It had been 21,000 in 1950, and he wanted to go much further.
 
Privatisation was meant to change things. Indeed some improvements have been made. Even before full privatisation, a move towards more business-like regional operations during the 1980s improved services. When privatisation was planned, a few mistakes have haunted the railways ever since.
 
First was splitting train operator, track owner and train owner. The idea was to allow new freight and charter companies to ‘book’ slots on the track, to allow more service providers. This in part worked – there are several small freight operators, and a wave of new charter companies particularly for steam hauled dining trains. However it lead to confusion between operators and infrastructure owners, which was blamed for the Hatfield accident. Furthermore the infrastructure owner, Railtrack, had no incentive really to improve speeds, comfort or safety. Equally the train owners – mostly banks like HSBC – had little incentive to buy new, better trains. All should be one company, to ensure maximum coherence, competition and investment in improvements.
 
The second mistake was the franchises, which are mostly too large. This gives a regional monopoly and isn’t competitive. Most should be smaller, preferably in the way to create the maximum passenger choice. Unprofitable lines should be tied to profitable ones that find them tactically useful, or made available for anyone else to run (privatisation has allowed micro-franchises such as the Wensleydale Railway). Under the nationalised BR, the government did all it could to stop ‘Run It Ourselves’ start ups!
 
Where lines meet, the tracks should be jointly owned or owned by one rail company, which must then rent time slots to the other – as happened in the past. All spare time slots across the network could be sold through a clearing house, thereby still enabling new and specialist providers access.
 
But some things couldn’t be predicted. Labour hated the privatised railways – their pledge of re-nationalisation suppressed the share price and cost millions when Railtrack was floated. Coming to power, they went into regulation overdrive and quango-madness.
 
When the Hatfield accident happened, they caused a 20mph limit on much of the rail network – a huge overreaction against all technical advice. The train operators lost revenue, they sued Railtrack, the government promised a loan then pulled out. That was it, Railtrack went bust and was effectively stealth nationalised as Network Rail.
 
Britain’s railways again hit the buffers. We now subsidise them more than ever, and some reports say more than anyone else in Europe. Now is the time politicians and the government should stop playing trains with our railway network, and let it run itself properly.

7 comments for: David T Breaker: The history of the British railway system

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