Past parallels?

The Type 2 (later Class 24) B-Bo- diesel-electrics were amongst the first to enter service after the adoption of the Modernisation. Here No D5033 is seen on shed at Shrewsbury in 1970.
Published Wed, 2015-11-04 13:12

It is now 70 years since the British Rail Modernisation Plan was unveiled by the British Transport Commission.


The Type 2 (later Class 24) B-Bo- diesel-electrics were amongst the first to enter service after the adoption of the Modernisation. Here No D5033 is seen on shed at Shrewsbury in 1970. © Roger Cornfoot and licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons Lic

The aim of the plan was outlined in three introductory paragraphs. The second of these read as follows: ‘This Plan aims to produce a thoroughly modern system, able fully to meet both current traffic requirements and those of the foreseeable future. It is based on the premise that its main components shall be capable of being started within five years, and completed within fifteen years. For special reasons, which are stated, certain parts of the Plan will take rather longer to complete.’
The rationale for the plan was relatively simple. It was to try and stem the increasing losses that the railway industry was facing as a result of competition. Since the end of World War 2, road traffic had increased considerably with car ownership increasing and with the road haulage industry continuing to grow. The railway’s position as the ‘common carrier’ meant that it was at a competitive disadvantage to the latter, since the road haulage industry — much of which was also controlled by the BTC ironically — could pick and chose the most commercially attractive traffic, leaving the railways to deal with the most unprofitable.
The railways had also faced many years of under-investment. During the era of the ‘Big Four’, there had been some investment, but much of this had gone into the prestige passenger services — as evinced by the competition on the Anglo-Scottish services of the LMS and LNER — but relatively little had gone into the development of improved services across the network. Indeed, all of the ‘Big Four’ has chosen to invest in the competition, buying shares in bus companies and developing their own fleets of lorries. The lack of investment was compounded by the battering that the railway industry took during World War 2.
By 1955, when the BTC issued its plan, the railways had been starved of investment. In Europe and North America, much investment had gone into diesel and electric traction; this was cheaper and more efficient, but Britain lagged. A nation built on a massive coalfield did not feel the need to use imported oil, even if electricity could be generated by that domestically produced coal. As a result, Britain was still constructing large numbers of labour-intensive and increasingly inefficient steam locomotives.
The Plan authorised the expenditure of £1.2 billion (at 1955 prices) on the wholesale replacement of steam traction by diesel and electric locomotives and multiple-units, on the construction of a network of massive new marshalling yards and the start of the electrification of major routes (such as West Coast main line to the West Midlands and Scotland).
The Plan was undoubtedly ambitious and, given a generation of underinvestment, absolutely essential if the railway industry was to survive. However, with the benefit of hindsight, it is clear that the plan was also misconceived in many respects. Construction of steam locomotives continued for a further five years (with the result that many only had a working life of less than a decade). Vast expenditure went into the procurement of diesel— both hydraulic and electric — locomotives from numerous manufacturers; some of these proved to be highly successful but others less so — and even many of the former had to be modified before they were to achieve that success. Moreover, vast numbers of the new diesel locomotives were also to achieve an operational life far shorter than that anticipated. Perhaps, however, the greatest mistake was the massive investment in the creation of the national network of marshalling yards — such as Tinsley as discussed elsewhere on this website — to cater for a traffic — wagon-load freight — that was increasingly difficult for the railway industry to carry profitably when faced by competition from the road haulage industry.
There was another problem: the Modernisation Plan was designed to make Britain’s railways profitable. Quite how the burden of the additional interest on the money borrowed to fund the Modernisation Plan was supposed to be covered was only to emerge when it became clear that the plan wasn’t reversing the industry’s losses — it was, in fact, making them considerably worse. The result, as all railway historians and enthusiasts know, was that the Conservative government under Harold MacMillan appointed Dr Richard Beeching to the chairmanship of the newly-created British Railways Board with a remit to make the railways profitable. Eight years after the Modernisation Plan came the Reshaping Report.
That’s history, as we’re all know, but what relevance does it have for the contemporary railway industry? Potentially, there are a quite a number of parallels.
Firstly, as the government is very keen on reminding us, Network Rail is in the middle of a multi-billion pound plan to deliver massive improvements to the industry. Schemes such as the electrification of the GW main line to Cardiff and Bristol, the Midland main line to Sheffield and the transPennine route are all core to the creation of a railway industry fit for 21st century Britain. However, the massive investment that has gone into Network Rail over the past decade has to be seen against a background where the industry was starved of funding during much of the 1980s and during the hiatus caused by the Privatisation process. The past week has seen much media coverage over the age of much of the rolling stock in use; age in itself isn’t a problem, but much of the stock identified — such as some of the Pacer units — were designed as relatively cheap stop-gap units built at a time when BR was starved of funds. These could — should, perhaps — have been replaced in the 1990s but Privatisation took precedence and, 20 years on, the industry still soldiers on with them.
Another parallel with the late 1950s is that the debt incurred by Network Rail is once again counted towards the overall National Debt. The changed accounting methods mean that the Chancellor of the Exchequer is bound to take an interest in how Network Rail performs and how savings can be affected. The reality is that the railway industry, as in the 1950s, still operates at a loss; the required level of public subsidy, introduced by Barbara Castle in the late 1960s as the concept of the ‘Social Railway’ became accepted, is arguably higher than under British Rail in its later years and, again, may face government scrutiny. Over recent years, fare increases have tried to shift the balance from tax payer to traveller, but this has proved unpopular and may be increasingly unacceptable politically in the future.
There is, however, one major difference between the 1950s and the second decade of the 21st century: in the 1950s the railway was an industry in decline; today, passenger traffic is booming and showing no signs of plateauing. The forecast that commuter traffic would decline as more opted to work from home — the supposed benefit of the growth of the internet and modern technology — seems not have been borne out. Indeed the challenge for today’s railway industry is how that ever-increasing demand is met because without increasing capacity there will be the problem — already encountered by many — of an increasingly poor product on offer to the passenger.