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The Nationalised Railway: 1948 - 1992
Compiled using "The Oxford Companion to British Railway History" by Jack Simmons & Gordon Biddle
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Post-War Rebuilding

Forging Ahead - The First British Railways Standard Express Locomotive
BR publicity poster for new standard steam locomotives [© BRB Residuary]
By the end of the war, the railways were worn out, both physically and financially. Attlee’s Labour government came to power in July 1945 with a large majority and a mandate to nationalise the railways, as well as almost every other form of public transport. The Transport Act 1947 was passed despite substantial opposition, and brought virtually all railways, including London Underground, under the control of the British Transport Commission (BTC). Railway shares were exchanged for British Transport Stock, with a guaranteed 3 percent return chargeable to the BTC; this would prove to be a significant burden to the BTC’s finances.

Under the BTC, the Railway Executive was charged with running the railways, although the name British Railways came into immediate use for day-to-day purposes. On January 1 1948 the nationalised railway was born.

The Railways Executive’s immediate task was to bring the railways back to the point where they could operate effectively; the war had taken a heavy toll on both rolling stock and infrastructure. Funds were not available for full modernisation, so a set of standardised steam locomotive and rolling stock designs were quickly drawn up by a series of ‘ideal stocks’ committees. From 1951 about 900 ‘standard’ steam locomotives were produced to fill the gap that the war had left.

Modernisation Developments

Glasgow Blue Train publicity shot
BR publicity for the new Glasgow electric 'Blue Train' at Craigendoran [© BRB Residuary]
The BTC were not happy with the continuation of steam on the railways; elsewhere in Europe diesel and electric traction, which had higher availability and lower running costs, was becoming commonplace. By the 1950s more money was available, and in 1955 the BTC embarked on the first ever nationwide railway investment programme, detailed in the Modernisation Plan. This proposed a £1.2bn spend over 15 years, to completely replace steam traction with a mix of diesels and electrics. Loose-coupled unbraked wagon freight would be replaced with modern, high speed vacuum-braked long wheelbase wagons, and the excess of small freight yards would be closed; instead freight would feed into enormous US-style marshalling yards.

Electric services extend from London to Liverpool and Manchester along the electrified West Coast Mainline; and along the suburban lines extending out of London’s King’s Cross and Liverpool St, and those around Glasgow. The problem of loss-making rural lines would be addressed by the introduction of cost-effective diesel multiple units and railcars. The outcome of the plan was to be a more economically self-sufficient railway.

The modernisation programme soon began to unravel, for a variety of reasons. Railway managers, unused to managing such a huge development budget, made a series of disastrous decisions. A large number of diesel designs were ordered simultaneously from inexperienced British manufacturers, without a prototype phase for testing the designs; many classes were scrapped within a few years of delivery.

The vacuum brake was abandoned in favour of the superior air brake. The vast marshalling yards became huge white elephants, designed to cope with freight volumes that were rapidly disappearing onto the roads. The electrification schemes were hindered by a late decision to change from 1500V DC to 25kV 50Hz AC electrification, planning difficulties, and a lack of technical resources. Additionally, despite the modernisation of many parts of the system, no attempt was made to rationalise the network.

Devastation at Harrow & Wealdstone, 8th Ocotber 1952
Devastation at Harrow & Wealdstone: 8th Ocotber 1952 [© Borough of Harrow Archives]
The 1950s saw two terrible accidents; on 8th October 1952, at Harrow & Wealdstone station the Up Perth sleeper train failed to observe stop signals in patchy fog, and collided at 60mph with a local train standing in the station. Before the signalman could act, an express bound for Liverpool & Manchester collided with the wreckage. A total of 112 people died, and the subsequent report, together with the further collision at Lewisham which killed 90 people five years later, accelerated the introduction of the Advanced Warning System (AWS), which gave the driver an in-cab indication of signal aspect, and applied the brakes automatically in the event of a signal overrun.

Retrenchment and Cutbacks

Withdrawal of passenger services between Nottingham Arkwright St and Rugby Central
Beeching era closure notice [© BRB Residuary]
The final spend of the modernisation plan was actually £1.5bn; although the programme achieved a number of its aims, British Railways’ financial position continued to worsen as the 1960s began. This led the treasury to view the railways as incapable of financial prudence; a view that would sour its relations with rail for decades. Two government reports concluded that the BTC was too unwieldy and insufficiently commercial in focus; the Transport Act 1962 was passed, and broke the BTC in two. The railways part became the British Railways Board (BRB) on 1 January 1963, with its chairman, Richard Beeching, given a remit by the government to cut costs.

Beeching demanded, and got, a full set of data on costs and revenue for each line of route. He concluded that the case for service withdrawals and line closures was overwhelming, and published his findings in the infamous report "The Reshaping of British Railways", universally known as the Beeching Report. The report pointed up the low receipts in rural areas, and low utilisation of rolling stock (particularly freight), and suggested that 2000 stations and 250 passenger services should be axed.

The report was not only about closures; Beeching identified the embryonic ‘liner’ and ‘merry-go-round’ freight train concepts, and recommended their expansion nationwide. However the public furore over the report was unprecedented; indeed so much so that it obscured the second of Beeching’s reports, "The Development Of The Major Railway Trunk Routes", which recommended more investment in the core routes. Disagreeing with the incoming Labour government, Beeching retired in 1965. However the new government enacted many of the Beeching closures. Some were undoubtedly necessary; others later proved to be folly. Staff numbers were greatly reduced, and new working conditions were negotiated.

Beeching had hinted in his first report that there might be another way to retain loss-making rural lines; if the public recognised that these lines served a social need, some form of formal public subsidy might be set up. The Labour government, with Barbara Castle as Transport Secretary, were receptive to this idea, and enacted the 1968 Transport Act. This created the Passenger Transport Executive (PTE) concept, empowering local authorities in major cities to subsidise and invest in important routes. A system of Public Service Obligation (PSO) grants was set up, to allow rural routes to remain open in the public interest. The Act also wrote off much of the capital debt inherited from the BTC.

Stabilisation and Corporate Identity

By 1967 the West Coast Mainline electrification scheme was coming to fruition, and a number of suburban electrification schemes had been completed. The last steam locomotive was withdrawn in 1968. British Railways had become British Rail (BR), and a new corporate identity was developed, including the famous ‘reverse arrow’ logo.

A bad accident occurred at Hither Green on 5th November 1967; 49 people died when a busy 12 car train derailed at 70mph due to a piece of rail-head having broken off at a rail joint. The report into the accident highlighted the effects of newer small-wheeled trains with unsprung motors on older track designs, and recommended that the laying of Continuous Welded Rail (CWR) be accelerated to eliminate rail joint defects of this type.

The early 1970s saw the passing of the Railways Act 1974. This replaced the service-specific grant system with an overall PSO grant, and introduced freight grants to encourage new loading facilities to be built.

The same year saw the beginning of construction on the long-planned Channel Tunnel between Kent and Northern France; the joint venture between the UK and French governments and railways was to include a high speed link to London. However the following year, in the face of a growing recession caused by the oil crisis, the government cancelled the project.

A further electrification scheme, to extend the wires north to Glasgow, was approved based on a more lightweight and therefore cost-effective type of Overhead Line Equipment (OLE); this scheme reached Glasgow in 1974.

High Speed Progress

Advanced Passenger Train - Experimental
Publicity shot of APT-Experimental [© BRB Residuary]
At this time BR was determined to further modernise, despite the lack of funding for R&D or infrastructure upgrades. It began to experiment with rolling stock designed to push the existing routes to higher speeds. The Advanced Passenger Train was developed as a tilting high speed train; first as a gas-turbine testbed, and then as an electric service prototype. The train was a step change in technology, with articulated bogies, lightweight body and hydro-kinetic braking, all designed to operate at speeds of up to 155mph. Despite a number of teething problems and some spectacularly bad media coverage, the train was on the verge of being service-ready when funding was cut in 1984 by a sceptical new government.

Concurrent with this programme, a new high speed diesel was prototyped to cover those lines where funds for electrification were not forthcoming. The High Speed Train (HST) pushed existing diesel technology to the limit; a fixed formation train was sandwiched between two power cars designed for sustained running at 125mph. Their service introduction in 1976 on the Great Western Mainline (GWML) was an instant success, bringing new levels of speed and comfort. A further build provided high speed services for the East Coast Mainline (ECML) and Midland Mainline (MML), and the train held the diesel world speed record of 143mph for many years.

Privatisation Looms

By 1982 Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government was beginning to explore the possibilities of privatising large chunks of public sector industry. Sir David Serpell was commissioned to examine the railways’ finances, with a view to making them more attractive. The resulting ‘Serpell Report’ read very much like that of his predecessor, Beeching, 20 years before; the difference being that there were in reality far fewer sensible cutbacks to be made. The bulk of the recommendations fell foul of the inevitable public outcry; one of his proposals was that the network would terminate at Glasgow and Edinburgh. However, the government proceeded to sell off the ferry services (Sealink), hotels and Heavy Engineering operations (BR Engineering Ltd, or BREL).

BR responded by reorganising to make the railways more business-oriented. The ‘sectors’ were created; initially Intercity, Freight, London & South East (L&SE), and Provincial. Area management was strengthened, and the power of the Regional Managers reduced.

At the same time, the finances of the railways began to be squeezed ever tighter. Despite this, BR’s management scored some notable successes, electrifying and renewing the ECML, Cambridge, Norwich and Hastings lines. However, the ghost of Serpell lived on, with a concerted attempt to close the Leeds – Settle – Carlisle line; a move that was ultimately defeated by a huge public backlash.

In 1986 the UK and French governments signed an agreement to make a second attempt at the Channel Tunnel; this time built, at Mrs Thatcher’s insistence, entirely with private finance.

In 1988 the process of sectorisation was further refined, by splitting the freight sector into subsectors, and creating a separate parcels subsector. Only Scotrail remained on geographical lines, mainly for political reasons.

By this time, BR was operating on the lowest level of public funding of any European railway, and at the same time had the highest levels of productivity. However, the recession of 1988 severely affected BR’s property income, and left it vulnerable. The ECML work had drained BR’s investment funds, and the WCML was still in dire need of renewal. Network South East, as L&SE was now known, had a huge amount of life-expired rolling stock. Much of BR’s remaining money was being used to clear domestic routes for Channel Tunnel traffic; a requirement forced by the delays to approval of the new Channel Tunnel Rail Link (CTRL) to link the tunnel with London.

It was against this difficult financial background that John Major’s Conservative government came to power in 1990. Keen to fend off accusations that he was not as strong as his predecessor, Major instructed his civil servants to come up with ways to privatise the railways; a step that Mrs Thatcher had in fact deemed too risky, given the public uproar over Serpell.

When Major won the 1992 general election, a white paper was hurriedly put together. The publicly stated aims were to reduce public subsidy for the railway; privately, the assumption was that the system was in terminal decline, and that the private sector would better manage the contracting railway. Despite Major’s own preference for a vertically-integrated structure, with infrastructure and operations under one roof, the civil servants preferred to split operations away in order to create an internal market, with operators competing against each other for passengers on each line of route. The infrastructure would be left as a state-owned rump, to be known as ‘Railtrack’. Each operational area would be run by a franchisee, with the prize going to the lowest bidder. ‘Open access’ rules would mean that any organisation would have the right to run services over any route. No allowance was made for the concept of growth on the railway.

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Accident Returns: Extract for the Accident at Abergele on 20th August 1868

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Just Arrived
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Report on the Accident that occurred at Little Salkeld on 10th July 1933
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Report on the Accident at Alne on 6th December 1933
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Report on the Accident at Altrincham on 6th December 1933
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