Ian Nicholls, AROnline‘s resident historian, takes a detailed look at how the UK’s railways developed, and compares it with the rise of the motor car.
Here, in Part Four, he looks at the decline of rail and the growth road use between 1973 and the 21st century.
Bowie with his intrepid guitarist Mick Ronso having a British Rail lunch on the train to Aberdeen
By 1973, the rail closure programme had slashed the British Rail network from 20,000 to 11,300 miles. Ironically, the Chairman of British Rail was now Richard Marsh, who had quit politics in 1971 to take up the post. John Peyton asked the British Railways Board what had gone wrong in the past and whether the network was financially viable.
The British Railways Board accepted that many of the line closures had been mistaken, driving down revenue and making profitability ever more elusive and no further benefits could be derived from cutting the system further. The Board told the Government that growth could be achieved, but it would cost £1.787bn over 10 years.
Presumably this meant widespread electrification as in the BTC’s 1957 plan. By now British Rail had received all its quota of diesel locomotives and was weeding out the sub-standard types for early disposal. A decade of rail closures had taken place due to political consensus, which we are often told is a good thing, but in this case perhaps the consensus was wrong?
The Energy Crisis makes itself felt
The October 1973 Yom Kippur war and the resulting oil price rises came as a rude shock to the Western world which had built its prosperity on the back of cheap oil. In the space of three decades, Britain had transformed itself from a nation of public transport users to a car-dependent society and the hike in oil prices hit home hard. In the hysteria following the Energy Crisis, the Transport Minister, John Peyton, announced a halt to rail closures, as alternative forms of transport to the car were investigated.
The Heath Government was defeated, amid the gloom of the Three-day Week, in the snap General Election of March 1974 and Harold Wilson and the Labour Party returned to power. In December 1974, the Government came to the rescue of the ailing British Leyland and, by 1975, the company was nationalised and receiving taxpayers’ money. The Government was prepared to invest in British Leyland, but not British Rail.
In May 1974, British Rail at last completed the London to Glasgow electrification. Lightweight, powerful and fast-accelerating electric trains slashed the London to Glasgow time down to five hours. British Rail was justifiably proud of its newly-electrified West Coast Main Line, but by now the money and the political will to electrify any other entire main lines had evaporated, and for over a decade the London to Glasgow route was a one off. Electrification was for now confined to busy commuter lines where high passenger use justified its implementation.
APT versus HST
The most iconic train from British Rail? The HST (InterCity 125) A total success and still reigning supreme after 40 years in service
By 1976, Britain was effectively bankrupt again and the Government had to go to the International Monetary Fund for a loan. With all this going on, there was no hope of the Government investing in the railway network. It would have to limp on with its 1950s and ’60s diesels operating on an infrastructure little changed from the days of steam.
British Rail knew that to compete it had to upgrade its services once again. Speeds had to be increased from 100mph to 125mph to compete with ever improving car technology. British Rail came up with the Advanced Passenger Train (APT), which incorporated a tilting mechanism to enable it to ride through curves at high speed and thus use existing lines. Eventually, it was decided that the APT would be an electric multiple unit operating on the west coast main line at speeds up to 155mph.
However, this type of technology would take time to develop, and BR engineers suggested a more conventional diesel powered multiple unit that would also have the benefit of being able to operate on non-electrified lines. This was the Class 253, the High Speed Train (HST) or InterCity 125. The HST began operating on British Rail in October 1976 and was an immediate hit. Its ability to cut journey times and cruise at the same speed as Mallard’s 1938 record for steam, immediately boosted passenger numbers.
The HST soon appeared on the East Coast Main Line and then the Midland line out of St. Pancras. The HST reduced the London to Edinburgh journey time from the Deltic’s five hours 30 minutes to four hours 45 minutes. From the Government’s point of view, the HST was good news – it offered the performance of an electric locomotive without the expense of electrification. The HST is one of the greatest British railway achievements of all time, and one of the few British engineering products of the 1970s that retained any credibility.
The Advanced Passenger Train was doomed to failure
Margaret Thatcher – the gamechanger
In May 1979, there was a change of government when Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Party came to power after the 1978/’79 Winter of Discontent. This widespread industrial unrest, much of it by public sector workers, did much to undermine the public’s confidence in the ability of public service institutions to deliver the services expected of them without a hefty pay rise for its employees.
It would make their ultimate privatisation easier to sell to the electorate in the years to come. In British Rail’s case privatisation still seemed a long way off for, despite its public relations efforts, this was still very much the age of the car, and the change of government did not change attitudes within the ministry of transport.
Despite this, passenger numbers were on the up, with 1979 being the best year since 1963. British Rail seemed to be doing better than British Leyland, which was now a terminal basket case, even if no one wanted to admit it. British Rail’s success in attracting passengers was all the more remarkable when one takes into account the fact that UK new car sales were booming. In 1978, 1.59 million were sold, increasing to a record 1.71 million in 1979. The paranoia about the Energy Crisis had faded from the headlines and, although it would return in 1979/80, there was no realistic alternative to the car.
The paradox was that UK car production was collapsing, British Leyland was a basket case and most of the Fords and Vauxhalls which benefited from the UK’s company car market were continental imports. Indeed, it was predicted in 1979 that, if the existing penetration rate of car imports continued, then they would have the entire UK market by 1987.
More rail decline amid car improvements
Rail passenger use declined again in 1980 due to the recession, but revived again in 1981. In August 1981, Vauxhall announced the highly-competent Cavalier MkII. This car, complete with overhead camshaft engines and five-speed gearbox, was a people’s car for the motorway age, and was a generation ahead of Ford’s antique Cortina. Soon, amid a climate of booming car sales, Ford and Vauxhall were slugging it out for sales supremacy.
A new generation of cars flooded the secondhand market as motorists began to adjust to the concept of slotting the gear stick into fifth instead of revving the nuts out of fourth gear.
It was at the end of 1981 that the Advanced Passenger Train made its debut on the London to Glasgow route. It was a public relations fiasco for British Rail, the media seized on problems with the tilting mechanism as a symbol of the incompetence of nationalised industries. The APT was pulled and was not tried again until 1984 when it knocked a full hour off the journey time between the two cities. By then the will to proceed with the project had evaporated and it was quietly shelved and passengers had to make do with 110mph speeds.
Thoughts of privatisation
In May 1982, the Thatcher Government instituted yet another enquiry into the rail network fronted by former senior civil servant Sir David Serpell, who had once worked under Ernest Marples. The Serpell Report listed a number of future options for the railway network, but the one the media focussed on was Option A, a brutal pruning of the network to a mere 1600 miles of trunk lines. The road lobby fantasised about turning the disused track bed into super highways for yet more road traffic.
British Rail was fortunate to have as its Chairman Sir Peter Parker, whose interest in amateur dramatics was an asset in presenting himself in public. The Serpell Report was a turning point. The Government had been presented with the opportunity to annihilate the railway system but had found the option politically untenable.
Both Richard Marsh and Sir Peter Parker had fought a running battle with the train drivers’ union, ASLEF, over manning levels. The demise of steam meant there was no longer any need for a driver and fireman in a locomotive cab, but ASLEF insisted on two men crews, regardless of distance in the new diesel and electric trains, a situation that persisted over a decade after the demise of steam traction. British Rail washed its linen in public as it battled with ASLEF.
Was Beeching right?
Both the InterCity 125 and the new St. Pancras to Bedford electric trains were delayed because they had single crew cabs. In March 1985 Lord Beeching died. The problem with assessing the good doctor is that, for at least 20 years after his infamous report, he appeared to have been right. The railways were a relic of a bygone age and seemed to have no future in a car-based society. Railways were seen as being used by high earning commuters, pensioners and students.
The 1980s were perhaps the high point of private motoring in Britain. New car sales were soaring, and by now there was a glut of secondhand bangers on the used car market for the more impoverished amongst us. Insurance premiums were still relatively low. This was the heyday of cheap motoring. The roads were full of sales reps hustling everywhere in their Cavaliers, Sierras and Escorts. Metros and Fiestas were everywhere. We had never had it so good.
By 1986, British Rail’s finances were improving as the organisation began to cut costs effectively. Passenger numbers were rising and the concept that the railways were a Victorian liability to the state began to fade away. The East Coast Main Line from Kings Cross to Edinburgh was electrified, along with the Liverpool Street to Norwich line.
More investment – too little to late?
During 1989-90 the Thatcher Government announced a £3.7bn investment in the railways, but also a £12bn road programme – even Margaret Thatcher seemed to believe that it was the state’s duty to fund a road network that was free at the point of use. As passenger numbers rose British Rail now looked like a candidate for privatisation, which duly came to pass in 1994.
The infrastructure was maintained by Railtrack PLC while passenger train services were franchised out on a geographical basis to 25 different operators. Freight services were operated by six different companies. Railtrack eventually went bust and transformed into the state-owned Network Rail.
The whole privatisation of the railways is a complex issue, with many observers feeling that the network is costing the state more than it ever did in the days of British Rail. Whether services have improved or not could take up another article, but certainly the prevailing attitude that the railways were yesterday’s technology, one that would gradually be replaced by the road network, has now disappeared.
For the 21st century and beyond
The decision by Parliament in 2014 to back the High Speed 2 line reveals that the state now feels it is its duty to improve the nation’s rail infrastructure. In the 21st century the upsurge in passenger numbers has resulted in the Government ploughing billions into the rail network to compensate for decades of under-investment. Unfortunately, Network Rail overestimated its ability to deliver on schedule and within budget, resulting in June 2015 in a pause in its plans to electrify the Midland main line out of St. Pancras.
Many reading this article may not have travelled by train in years, some only on a heritage line and some readers may never have travelled by train. The rail closures of the 1960s and ’70s probably fuelled the migration to a car-based society. Often our choice of residence is based on the availability of car parking. Attempts by Government in the past to create a transport policy have failed because it involved telling people they can’t use their cars.
Despite increased congestion, the car is still great value for money, offering personal mobility and convenience. The past seven decades have resulted in an enormous change in our transport system. And at the time of writing is there any realistic and flexible alternative to the internal combustion engine, even if one does regularly commute by train?
If there was one major mistake made by Government, it was the decision that the state should fund the fast road network, unlike in many European countries where a system of toll roads built by private enterprise came into being. This could have freed up funds to develop the rail network. A controversial concept indeed…
However, as a consequence Britain has private train services and public high-speed roads, in some countries the reverse is the case.
Is the Editor of the Parkers website and price guide, formerly editor of Classic Car Weekly, and launch editor/creator of Modern Classics magazine. Has contributed to various motoring titles including Octane, Practical Classics, Evo, Honest John, CAR magazine, Autocar, Pistonheads, Diesel Car, Practical Performance Car, Performance French Car, Car Mechanics, Jaguar World Monthly, MG Enthusiast, Modern MINI, Practical Classics, Fifth Gear Website, Radio 4, and the the Motoring Independent...
Likes 'conditionally challenged' motors and taking them on unfeasible adventures all across Europe.
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