Hundreds of thousands of passengers and freight users are set to benefit from one of the biggest Christmas and New Year investment programmes ever carried out on Britain’s rail network.
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.
The origins of the bridge at Sharpness lie in the early 19th century. The Severn & Wye Railway was authorised by parliament on 10 June 1809 as the Lydney & Lidbrook Railway. The following year, on 12 June, a change of title to the Severn & Wye Railway & Canal Co was authorised. Construction of the Lydney Canal and the associated plateway commenced.
The line opened from Lydney to Lidbrook via Mierystock Junction (near Serridge Platform) along with a short branch to Churchway (north of Cinderford) as a horse-operated 3-foot 6-inch gauge tramroad. Further short branches followed and, in 1847, the South Wales Railway agreed to operate the line and, six years later, obtained powers to supply motive powers.
In 1868 the line was converted to broad gauge through the laying or an additional line alongside the tramroad from Lydney to Wimberry but, due to a dispute, broad-gauge operation did not commence until 19 April 1869. The line’s broad-gauge career was, however, shortlived, and between 1872 and 1874, both the broad gauge and tramroad sections were relaid to standard gauge.
Other work at the time included the construction of the ‘Mineral Loop’, which opened in 1872 and the passenger branch to Coleford. Passenger services first operated over what had been, until this point a purely mineral line, from Lydney to Lydbrook on 23 September 1875.
The Severn Bridge Railway was promoted jointly by the Midland Railway and the Severn & Wye Railway. Authorised in parliament on 18 July 1872, the railway was intended to facilitate the movement of coal from the Forest of Dean coalfield to the newly enlarged docks at Sharpness.
Construction of the 4,162-foot bridge began in 1875; costing some £200,000 to construct, the bridge was some 70-feet above the high water level in order keep the shipping channel to Bristol and Gloucester docks clear.
The iron for the bridge came from the Hamilton Windsor Iron Works and funding for the project came from, inter alia, the Midland Railway and the Gloucester & Berkeley Canal. The Severn Bridge Railway and the Severn & Wye Railway & Canal Co were merged pursuant to an act of 21 July 1879 to form the Severn & Wye & Severn Bridge Joint Railway and the line from Sharpness to Lydney Town opened on 17 October 1879.
However, financial problems leading to bankruptcy resulted in the Midland and Great Western railways acquiring the company for £477,300 in 1885, with the railway officially becoming a joint venture on 1 July 1894 as the Severn & Wye Joint Railway. Apart from the main line from Lydbrook (where there was a connection with the Midland’s line from Monmouth to Ross-on-Wye) to Lydney, Sharpness and Berkeley Road, the SWJR also had passenger branches to Coleford (opened 9 December 1875) and to Cinderford (opened 2 July 1900) as well as the ‘Mineral Loop’ (opened to avoid the necessity of reversal at Serridge for freight traffic; passenger services went through to Cinderford and reversed) and a number of mineral branches.
At opening, the S&W&SBC possessed eight locomotives, four coaches and 26 wagons. After the MR/GWR take-over, the Midland handled the track maintenance and the rolling stock passed to the GWR. After 1885 the GWR provided the locomotives, with coaching stock from both of the railways appearing over the line. The opening of the Severn Tunnel in 1886 had a further detrimental effect on traffic, but the bridge remained a useful diversionary route in the event of problems in the tunnel.
In 1910 the pattern of services saw seven return workings per weekday from Berkeley Road to Lydney Town, of which three ran to or from Lydbrook Junction. In addition to these services, there was a single morning service from Cardiff to Sharpness and a return afternoon working; according to the timetable these could be extended to or from Berkeley subject to advance request being made. In all, there were four return workings per day between Lydney and Lydbrook Junction, plus a further two that operated between Lydney and Cinderford only (three on Thursdays or Saturdays). There were four services to Coleford per day and five from Coleford with an additional service in each direction on Thursdays and Saturdays. There was no Sunday service on any of the lines.
The line’s joint status remained after the Grouping in 1923 but the deterioration in the economy during the late 1920s saw passenger services withdrawn from the main line from Lydney to Lydbrook Junction and on the Coleford branch on 8 June 1929. The SWR station at Cinderford remained open for passenger services via the Great Western route from Bullo Pill until these were withdrawn on 3 November 1958.
The timetable from 1939 shows that, following the withdrawal north of Lydney, that there were effectively eight services per day in either direction. The timings, however, varied. Six trains operated on each day, but there were an additional two that were described as Saturdays only and two others that were either except Saturdays or except Saturdays and school holidays. The single journey time for the 8¾ miles from Lydney Town to Berkeley Road was just over 25 minutes.
In 1948, the line passed to British Railways with service in the latter days being normally in the hands of ex-GWR ‘14xx’ 0-4-2Ts or 0-6-0PT.
Closure of the line came in a slightly unexpected way. On 25 October 1960, the bridge was hit by a tanker. One of the piers and two spans fell into the river and passenger services from Sharpness to Lydney Town were suspended. Initially, it was hoped that repairs could be effected but further damage the following February resulted in the decision to abandon the bridge; the remains of the structure were demolished in the mid-1960s. Passenger service from Sharpness to Berkeley Road were listed for closure in the Beeching report and were to be withdrawn on 2 November 1964.
North of the River Severn, the lines that once formed the Severn & Wye Joint’s network gradually closed as freight traffic declined. The final section, from Lydney to Parkend, closed on 7 May 1976 and this section now forms the preserved Dean Forest Railway. The preservation group hopes, eventually, to extend northwards to Speech House.
William Adams (1823-1904) had been locomotive superintendent of the North London Railway (1858-1873) and Great Eastern Railway (1873-1878) prior to his appointment as locomotive superintendent of the London & South Western Railway. He held the position for 17 years before his retirement in 1895. During his career with the LSWR, 524 locomotives were built to his design. At the time that he was locomotive superintendent, the LSWR’s main workshops were at Nine Elms and the site there was expanded during Adams’s tenure. Locomotive work was moved to Eastleigh in 1909 with the carriage and wagon work having been relocated to Hampshire prior to that date.
At the time of Adams’ appointment, the LSWR faced the challenge of increasing commuter traffic as the suburbs of London experienced rapid growth during the late-19th century. The LSWR was ill-equipped to operate commuter services efficiently and so Adams was tasked with producing a design of locomotive that could undertake these services efficiently. The new locomotives required power and a compact design with small wheels to achieve maximum acceleration on tight and intensive schedules. Adams decided on the 0-4-4T wheel arrangement and the ‘02’ class was the second of his 0-4-4T designs to emerge, following on from the ‘T1’ class of 1888 of which 50 were built between 1888 and 1896.
The ‘02’ class was introduced in 1889. In all, 60 were built in five batches between then and 1894; the locomotives were all built at Nine Elms and were numbered 177-236 by the LSWR. Deigned to replace the old Beattie well tanks and other older designs, the ‘02s’ were themselves destined to have a relatively short life on commuter services, being replaced by the more powerful ‘M7’ class of 0-4-4T from 1897 onwards. As a result, they were transferred elsewhere on the LSWR system, where their low weight and short wheelbase made them ideal for use on branch line services. In the early 20th century, the Isle of Wight Central Railway made an enquiry about the possibility of purchasing some of the class; ironically, in the light of future events, this was not pursued.
All 60 of the class were still in service when the Southern Railway was established at the Grouping in 1923. The SR retained the original LSWR numbers for the class. Following the Grouping, however, two of the ‘02’ class were modified at Eastleigh works with the fitting of Westinghouse air brakes to make them compatible with the coaching stock on the Isle of Wight and were shipped across. Tested on the entire network, but principally on the line from Ryde to Ventnor, the ‘02s’ proved their worth.
In all, between 1923 and the outbreak of war in 1939, a total of 21 of the class were modified and transferred to the Isle of Wight, where they were renumbered and named as listed below; the final two examples transferred in 1949, shortly after British Railways was established. One problem with the class was the relatively small coal bunker; when No 206 was prepared for transfer as No W19 in 1942, it was modified by a the provision of a much extended bunker. This design became the standard for all the ‘02s’ on the Isle of Wight.
The locomotives were numbered and named as follows:
Back on the mainland, electrification and the introduction of new locomotive classes saw the class’ workload decline, resulting in 12 of the class withdrawn for scrap, leaving 48 in service when British Railways was established in 1948. Those still in service on the mainland were renumbered into the 30xxx sequence; those on the Isle of Wight retained their Wxx numbers.
Withdrawal of the class on the mainland resumed in early 1953 but the majority were withdrawn in the late 1950s and early 1960s as the branch lines over which they operated were closed or converted to diesel operation. The last example on the mainland, No 30225, was withdrawn in December 1962.
By that time the number of ‘O2s’ on the Isle of Wight had also been slightly reduced. Four of the class — Nos. W15/W19/W23/W34 — were withdrawn in 1955/56 and a fifth — No W25 — followed in December 1962. This left a total of 18 still in service. By the early 1960s, the railway network on the Isle of Wight had shrunk to two routes: Ryde to Ventnor and Ryde to Cowes via Newport. Under the Beeching Report of March 1963 both routes were threatened with closure; in the event, and while the lines from Smallbrook Junction to Cowes and Shanklin to Ventnor did close — on 21 February 1966 and 18 April 1966 respectively — the section from Ryde to Shanklin was retained and electrified.
Of the 18 survivors in 1963, the first to be withdrawn were No W34 in September 1964 and No W32 in the following month; two — Nos. W18/W30 — followed in 1965 and four —Nos. W21/W26/W29/W35 — in 1966. This left 10 — Nos. W14/W16/W17/W20/W22/W24/W27/W28/W31/W33 — still in service when the final steam operation of the Ryde-Shanklin service occurred on 31 December 1966. Of the 10, eight were withdrawn for scrap following the end of steam services but two — Nos. W24 and W31 — were retained to assist with the engineering work involved in converting the line for third-rail electrification. Once the work was completed, the final two locomotives were withdrawn in March 1967.
Although there were attempts to preserve both of the survivors, only No. W24 was secured and No. W31 was to be scrapped. Today, No. W24 remains on the Isle of Wight, preserved on the Isle of Wight Steam Railway as the only example of the 60-strong class to survive.
The announcement last week by the Secretary of State for Transport, Patrick McLoughlin, that the previously announced delays to the plans for the electrification of the Midland main line north of Bedford and the TransPennine network is, on the face of it, good news.
In readopting one of the oldest names in Britain’s railway history, the operator has made an unashamed bid to try and claim the undoubted inheritance and glamour that the ‘old’ Great Western had. This is made explicit in the press release that accompanied the announcement:
Our aim is to reinstate the ideals of our founder, Isambard Kingdom Brunel. And deliver a rail service for the 21st Century to Build a Greater West.'
Changing from FGW to GWR
In September 2015, FirstGroup started the process of ‘un-branding’ the business by changing the company name from First Great Western to Great Western Railway. This won’t happen overnight, as going back to the name given to us by our illustrious founder, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, is a huge step that will take time to fully introduce.
It’s more than a rebadging exercise. It’s a complete shift in our ethos as a train operator. It means we no longer behave as a franchisee, but as a custodian – responsible for reinvigorating the west by returning the railway to its former glory.
FirstGroup began operating the West’s railways in April 2006. The region brings together the former First Great Western, First Great Western Link and Wessex Trains businesses.
We know your railway truly belongs to the region it serves and is more important than any holding company. We’re proud to have the chance to bring back Brunel’s original ideals and take them forward into the 21st Century.
The rebranding is designed to reflect the changed nature of the franchise that the TOC will be operating under for the next franchise period that will run through to April 2019 at the earliest.
GWR managing director Mark Hopwood has said: ‘We will meet the challenge of creating a world-class railway that lives up to its historic name, and we will do that together with you, our customers and our partners. The physical change will not happen overnight, but you will see things change more and more in the coming weeks, months and years. There will however be no change to our commitment to support local communities and to drive forward both the economic and transport agendas in the areas we serve.’
The operator, however, faces a number of challenges. First of all it inherits a complex range of routes that is currently undergoing a multi-million pound investment scheme as the main line is electrified from Paddington through to Bristol, Cardiff and Swansea. It faces the introduction of the new Hitachi-built express sets that are designed to replace the existing High Speed Trains on the main express services at a time when there are still outstanding disputes with the trade unions over the staffing of these new units. The past months have witnessed First Great Western staff take industrial action over this ongoing dispute and there is currently no evidence that a settlement is imminent.
There is always a risk with rebranding — think Royal Mail to Consignia and quickly back again — and there is potentially a greater danger in trying to evoke past glories. The Great Western Railway ceased to exist in 1948; whilst British Railways (Western Region) seemed to attempt to maintain the old company’s ethos, the financial state of the railways in the 1960s and 1970s meant that many of the memories of the supposed golden age of railway travel are viewed through rose-tinted spectacles.
The existing franchise area dates back to the reorganised franchises set in train by the Strategic Rail Authority (SRA) in 2003. What became the Great Western franchise was created out of three earlier franchise areas: First Great Western Link (which had been operated as Thames Trains from Privatisation in 1994 until transferred to First Group on 1 April 2004), Wessex Trains (created following the break-up in October 2001 of the earlier Wales & West franchise that taken over operation in October 1996) and First Great Western.
When originally privatised in February 1996, Great Western Trains, as the franchisee was originally known, was owned by a joint venture —Great Western Holdings — that was set by between a of ex-British Rail managers, First Group and the venture capital firm 3i in order to bid for franchises as British Rail’s passenger network was slowly dismembered. Apart from the Great Western franchise, the company also gained the Regional Railways North West franchise. This franchise was split eventually, after having been renamed First North Western, between TransPennine express and Northern.
In March 1998, First Group, which had had originally a 24½% stake in Great Western Holdings — the ex-BR management had held 51% and 3i the remainder — bought out its partners and the business was renamed First Great Western.
In 2003, the SRA decided that the franchises covering western England and centred on Paddington should be unified. There were three shortlisted companies for the newly enlarge franchise: First Group, National Express and Stagecoach. It was eventually announced that First Group had won the franchise and the new franchise took effect from 1 April 2006.
In May 2011 First Great Western announced that it had decided against exercising its option for a further three years beyond March 2013. The argument that First Group put forward was that, with major investment (including electrification) going into the franchise areas, it made sense to offer a longer deal. It was also the case that by not extending the franchise period, First Great Western was no longer liable for the payments to the government for the period of the extension.
With First Group’s decision, the government entered into a new round trying to let the franchise with four short-listed candidates announced in March 2012: Arriva, First Group, National Express and Stagecoach. It was expected that the new franchise would start in April 2013 and run through to 2028. In the event, however, problems resulted in the government announcing an extension to the existing franchise in January 2013, initially to October 2013 and subsequently to September 2015. This date was subsequently further extended to March, and then April, 2019.
The rebranding exercise reflects the changed franchising arrangements from September and will carry the operation through to 2019. During the period, the franchise will oversee the introduction of the electrified services and the new units.
The election of Jeremy Corbyn as the new leader of the Labour Party means that, unless there’s a change between now and May 2020, the next general election will be fought by a Labour leader with a transport policy that will seek to reverse the existing status quo.