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Monday essay: misplaced enthusiasm?

The Department for Transport is now considering no fewer than 50 suggestions for railways or stations to be reopened. MPs and local authorities have bid for a share of the second round of the Restoring Your Railway ‘Ideas Fund’, and their ideas will be considered by a panel which includes Network Rail chairman Sir Peter Hendy. But Sim Harris wonders how many of these proposals have a chance of reaching even the first station on their long journeys to revival.

THE whole idea of reopening railways would have seemed bizarre less than 60 years ago. This was when Dr Richard Beeching, armed with his notorious axe, was stalking the long corridors of the former Great Central hotel at Marylebone – the HQ of the British Railways Board. His job was actually an impossible one: ‘to make the railways pay’.

The architects of this fantasy ignored the realities of the transport business, which is that the real money is in goods. The railways had a virtual monopoly on anything but purely local freight traffic for many decades, but this happy time (for them) began to fade when the demands of the First World War placed tremendous strain on the companies, so that the system emerged after the war in a run-down state, poised to lose increasing amounts of freight business to the roads, where the newly-liberated internal combustion engine was about to break out of its chains.

Therefore the Grouping, in 1923, when well over 100 railway companies became just four. This should have led to what we would now call ‘economies of scale’ and undoubtedly did, but it was not enough. The new road haulage industry was unconstrained, unlike the railways, and could bid for all the best traffic while turning down the rest.

The railways complained that lorries could take the lucrative loads from town to town, leaving the railways to return the empty packing cases. The railways were ‘common carriers’ with no choice about this, and their goods charges had been tightly regulated since the 1880s.

The depression of the early 1930s added to their woes, and the decline in coal traffic during that decade was another blow, which hit the LNER particularly hard. Well might that company crow (rightly) about the merits of its Gresley A4s and the showpiece, record-breaking run of Mallard in 1938. Good copy for newspapers, but very little money in the bank. LNER shareholders were the worst off among the Big Four, and no dividends were paid on their ordinary shares for year after year.

The Second World War repeated the body blows of the First, and although the railways were lauded for their vital contribution to the war effort and the bravery of their staffs, their reward was compulsory nationalisation in 1948.

The vision of ‘integrated transport’ set out in the 1947 Transport Act was fatally derailed by the financial realities. In partlcular, the Labour government had replaced railway shares with interest-bearing British Transport Stock, leaving the railways and the rest of the British Transport Commission to pay the interest. Having been bought out against their will, the railways were now having to pay for the sale.

The final straw which ended railway profits was another Transport Act, passed by the Conservatives in 1953, which removed most of the restrictions on the road haulage industry and reprivatised it.

Dwindling railway profits became losses in the mid-1950s, and there was no turning back. By 1960, with railway deficits soaring, the government began to seek a solution. The result, the following year, was the appointment of Beeching, and we know what happened after that.

Unfortunately, Beeching was convinced that there was a profitable railway, wrapped in a suffocating network of unprofitable lines.

So, the ‘loss-makers’ were speedily axed. As Beeching was wrong the deficits continued, although admittedly at a slightly lower level for a while. The resulting cost to the nation of a rapidly contracting industry and the loss of hundreds of thousands of jobs was never calculated.

More than half a century later, there has been a fundamental change of heart. Railways are now virtuous once again – green, efficient and vital to the national economy.

So the DfT is looking to ‘reverse’ Beeching, and the 50 proposals now being considered may be a small step on that journey.

It is worth remembering that Beeching was not entirely wrong (he also created container trains of the modern style and did much to modernise the railways, not least by introducing the double arrow logo and the brand name ‘British Rail’). Some of the lines he recommended for closure should probably never have been built and were no loss to the nation, although mourned by enthusiasts.

The list of 50 now to be considered by the panel convened by the DfT would make interesting reading, but perhaps we should be aware of misplaced enthusiasm. Railway enthusiasts love railways, but they are not always that bothered by realities.

The late lamented MP Robert Adley could sometimes blur the distinction between supporting railways as a form of transport and being a railway enthusiast (in other words, someone who is ‘into trains’).

For example, he regretted the replacement of a large gantry of semaphore signals at Southampton with colour lights on the grounds that it ‘lent character, colour and individuality to the railway scene’. It may have done, but semaphores are inefficient and need a lot of expensive staff. Someone enthusiastic about the industry would surely welcome modernisation. (Heaven knows what Mr Adley would have thought of ETCS, which abolishes lineside signals entirely.)

One paper produced by a enthusiastic rail users’ group a few years ago also blurred this distinction. It proposed the restoration of a particular junction as part of an improvement in services and underlined its point by including a photograph of a steam-hauled goods train negotiating that junction in 1955. An archive picture was possibly justified, but the caption, which carefully set out the number of the locomotive (clearly visible on the smokebox door in any case), the locomotive type and the purpose and destination of the freight train was not. The authors of that document had let their enthusiasm run away with them, although the officials of the Department for Transport have no reason to be interested in the details of a probably long-scrapped locomotive.

A similar misconception occasionally leads to claims that heritage railways have ‘shown how to reopen railways’. As tourist attractions and centres of preservation, yes. As modern railways and therefore forms of transport, no. As Mr Adley also pointed out, the ‘real railway’ cannot rely on hordes of volunteers, some of whom may also own various items of the railway’s rolling stock. Neither, we may add, can it run trains more or less when it chooses.

Let us hope that few of the 50 proposals now in the hands of the DfT make similar errors, or they may be doomed to come off the track at a very early stage.

The latest print edition of Railnews was published on 2 July. This and some previous issues can be obtained by calling 01438 281200 from UK numbers or +44 1438 281200 internationally, and selecting Option 2.

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