Essay : Road versus Rail – Part Four

Carole Nash Classic Insurance Specialists

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 on BR

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 of British Rail? - A total success and still reigning supreme after 36 years.

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.

APT_at_Crewe

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

Vauxhall Cavalier Mk2

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

HS2-logo-2

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.

Keith Adams

Keith Adams

Editor and creator AROnline at AROnline
Created www.austin-rover.co.uk in 2001 and built it up to become the world's foremost reference source for all things BMC, Leyland and Rover Group, before renaming it AROnline in 2007.

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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52 Comments

  1. Good Essay Ian!

    The British government were at fault for the mess which is today’s transport system. The deregulated bus services which were supposed to offer more to the customer have ended up creating even larger monopolies and less service to the public, while the road network has had large investments in some areas but failure in others. However public management does not need to be a failure – just look at the underground and the East Coast after the Nat Express episode. The main error in my mind is that most goods now travel by road instead of rail. Its the large number of this that clog up our roads – think if we ransported a lot by goods only railways we would have a lot free-er roads!

  2. Fantastic essay!

    Certainly over on this side of the Irish Sea to the North, the railways were cut drastically, such as the Downpatrick line which these days could’ve served as a useful commuter line.

    There were high aspirations for motorways here, connecting the cities, ringing the new city of Craigavon, connecting the suburban satellite towns to Belfast, and to the border. Of course, history shows that the situation changed in the late 60s/70s, and only a handful of projects were started (and abandoned).

    We all benefitted from the availability of used cars, especially as rust proofing, quality and reliability improved. It is now possible to buy a £500 used car that is perfectly adequate for daily motoring.

  3. One of the things I find most fascinating about this is how ministers, when they don’t have a party policy to follow, rely on professional advisors and consultants for help in the decision making process, and the advice from the department of transport was that railways were history and the future was road transport.
    So many forecasts in the 1960’s were wide of the mark.
    What particularly angers me is the closure of the Great Central line, the Varsity line and the Waverley route.
    Network Rail are bringing the section of the Varsity line from Bletchley to Oxford out of mothballs, and are in the process of deciding how and where to reconstruct the route from Bedford to Cambridge.
    A section of the Waverley route is being restored out of Edinburgh.
    We would not be discussing HS2 if the Great Central line still existed north of Claydon junction. Northbound freight could be sent up it, freeing capacity on other mainlines for passenger use. Todays politicians are having to make decisions to undo mistakes made before many of them were born by mostly deceased polticians who are not not around to witness the catastrophic mess they created.

    • also the Newport Pagnell branch, converted to a “mugging alley” – a footpath hemmed in with vegetation. The Bedford-Cambridge section was partly closed so that a radio telescope could use the trackbed at Lord’s Bridge. Trumpington to Cambridge is now encased in (faulty) concrete as a guided busway – a neat way to ensure that it will never carry freight again.

  4. House prices in Oxford and Cambridge have risen to the point where people want to commute to work in these cities. People actually commute to Cambridge from as far as Kings Lynn. Chiltern Railways is one of the driving forces behind the attempt to unravel the bungles of the past. They operate out of Marylebone, formerly the London terminus of the Great Central Railway. When the GCR line was closed in September 1966, the section from London to Claydon was retained. Commuter trains ran as far as Aylesbury. Beyond this freight trains carried London’s waste to a site at Calvert. The line used to carry on to Claydon, where it used to cross the Varsity line and on to the next station, which was Finmere. In a joint project, Network Rail and Chiltern Railways are building a spur that connects the old GCR line to the Varsity line, ressurecting the line from Bletchley to Oxford, thus creating a new Marylebone to Oxford service.
    So Adrian you are making a very good point. What a daft idea to create a new town and then close one of its rail links.

  5. Compare the cost/benefit of HS2 to that of spending the same amount on reintroducing closed lines and improving crosscountry rail services. Cynically the major beneficiaries of/impetus for HS2 might be MP’s travelling to/from their Northern constituencies…

    Why shouldn’t the state fund the road network given how much money from road and fuel taxes has traditionally been syphoned off to be spent elsewhere?

    Another factor to bear in mind might be the rise of low cost air travel between UK cities – that and the low cost of car hire compared to rail fares makes me wonder why inter city rail is still so popular.

    • As I understand it HS2 plans to use 11 miles of the GCR in the Finmere area. I have used Google earth to trace the GCR trackbed. It could be relaid as far as Brackley, but would then have to be routed around Brackley to rejoin the trackbed north of the town. The trackbed then travels north through Helmdon and over the still standing Helmdon viaduct. It then travels on to Culworth, but there are now farm buildings on the station site. Then on to Woodford Halse, which was a major engine shed. Next is Catesby tunnel and viaduct, impressive monuments that have not seen a train for five decades. The line then travels to Rugby, where the platforms of Central station are still extant. The trackbed in the Rugby area has been turned into the Great Central Way path. However at Newton the M6 cuts right across the GCR trackbed. At Lutterworth the station site is built on, the same applies to Whetstone.
      In Leicester the Central station building still exists, but other railway structures are in the process of being obliterated. North of Leicester is the Great Central heritage line which travels as far as Loughborough. There used to be a bridge taking the GCR across the Midland mainline, but that was demolished around 1980. And north of this is another heritage railway, the Great Central Railway (Nottingham), which runs all the way to Ruddington. Both heritage railways hope that Network Rail are going to install a bridge in 2015 at Loughborough to reunite the two sections of line and create an 18 mile heritage railway based on a twin track mainline. North of Ruddington the trackbed travels on to Nottingham, but Nottingham Victoria station has been erased and turned into a shopping centre. But north of Nottingham the GCR has been erased off the face of the earth, cuttings filled in, bridges demolished, housing estates. So if the GCR was to be revived, it would probably only go as far as Leicester. Also Chiltern Railways have laid claim to the Marylebone-Claydon section for their new route to Oxford.

  6. At least with a train going between cities you can start & end somewhere reasonably central, which isn’t always possible when flying, along with the problems of checking in hours before take off & luggage restrictions.

  7. As a long time visitor to ARonline, I have to say that I’ve just read 4 pages of drivel…

    Ian, your essays are usually a good read, and to the point, how well did you you research the railway’s side of things? It’s almost like you looked for the first thing mentioned on Wikipedia…

    What about the unions? Surely they had a place to play in the success or otherwise of the railways of the Uk since the First World War?

    A shockingly bad essay, with very blinkered hindsight.

    • Andy
      You are entitled to your opinion, and no I did not use Wikipedia but I will ask you to elaborate where you disagree with me.
      One of my intentions was to produce an alternate view on a car website and provoke debate.
      Apart from the run ins with ASLEF, the unions were surprisingly compliant in the run down of their industry. Many bus drivers were NUR members. Maybe the Union leaders also believed that long term their members were also in a declining industry?
      You accuse me of blinkered hindsight, I don’t apologise for that, but all the predictions of passenger mileage in the 1960’s were way off the mark, and the taxpayer is now having to repair the damage caused by decisions made on the back of this data.
      I don’t apologise for suggesting that Britain should have adopted a toll roads system as a way of funding a fast road network. It is a way of life on the continent,why not here?
      This could have freed funds to invest in the railways. It was demonstrated that when new technology was used such as diesel railcars, electrification, HST etc, that the railways could compete with road and take traffic off our roads. Again this is a policy that worked on the continent.
      I know we all moan that we pay enough taxes, but we will give the same amount of tax to government they need to balance the books, whether it is branded NI, PAYE, income tax,road tax, inheritance tax, VAT etc. It all goes into the same pot and is distributed accordingly.
      Both William Rodgers and Michael Portillo have confirmed on BBC radio that they felt there was a pro-road atmosphere in the department of transport when they were ministers there.
      The fantasy of high speed inter city road travel has vanished forever. I would love to cruise in my X308 Jaguar XJR at 100 mph plus, but the state, who built the fast road network, now takes a very dim view of such activities, and has invested in technology to catch offenders. Indeed some parts of Britain seem to be like a police state with surveillance cameras everywhere. And everytime it is suggested that is might be a good idea to raise the 70 mph limit, the road safety lobby go on the offensive, and the idea is dropped.
      There was a period, which was November 1959 to November 1965 when it was possible in Britain to drive flat out, but those days are gone.
      Over to you.

  8. Another point.
    If an alternate form of energy for motor vehicles was created based on human faeces, then the politicians would find a way of taxing it.

  9. The Railways had a terrible time in the 1920s and 30s, , the Great Depression killed off so much goods traffic, never to return to the Railway. Sir Nigel Gresle’ys cash-strapped LNER laid off vast numbers of staff and many years of part time working.

    The Railways were broken at the end of WW2, worn out etc, Two companies were close to bankrupty and the 1948 Nationalization was actually welcomed. Lord Stamp, chair of the LMSR did not think he could raise the capital to rebuild his railway while it remained a private company.

    The railways lost money after the war but losses were tolerated in the national interest, there was nothing to replace the railway, motorways and fast roads were still to built, and none of the Govts would tackle the railway hot potato.

    Beeching, many express opinions but few seem to have read his report!

    Beeching was brought in after the losses skyrocketed late 50s/early 60s. Beeching identified the root causse of the losses, routes with revenues of a tiny fraction of their operating costs, vs those revenues 6 to 8 times their costs, he identified the extermely poor single wagon load trade and that half of the coach fleet was for holiday excursions use a few days and weeks of the year His traffic survey was only conducted over one week in April, instead of a full 365 day year, but that had to suffice, such was the pressure to sort out the crisis.

    Beeching made positive suggestions which featured the strengths of rail, block trains of containerized traffic eg Freightliner, Beeching was not the demon, more of a visionary

    • Some good points there. Beeching was not all bad, and did bring a more business like approach to running the railways.
      I think the main issue was the mathematics behind the closure programme, and what the break even point was. I think many lines were closed before an extensive de-manning programme was undertaken. Stations had buildings employing station masters, porters,ticket office clerks etc. Now all you get is a platform and a bus type shelter, with no human being in sight. Once on board the train the ticket collector has an impressive piece of hardware that seems to be able to sell you a ticket to wherever you want to go.

      • True, but Stamp did make this comment around 1938 when talking about the prospect of bombing and how to repair and fund the repairs should war start.

  10. I’m a transport planner by profession…

    If I may plead a little for my profession – in relation to the comments in these excellent essays about forecasts of traffic growth being wide of the mark – what you need to remember is (a) making such forecasts is very difficult, because it relies inevitably on a whole load of assumptions about economic growth, changes in personal income, views about commuting, changes in the composition of the labour force (particularly pertinent here is the rise of twin income families in the period covered by these essays) – most of these are difficult to call and (b) that any forecasts are subject to political – ahem – “interpretation” – particularly because they are inevitably speculative and hence difficult to defend.

    The implication of this, then, is that the transport strategy adopted is often politically driven, and supported by selective use of evidence, rather than evidence driven, and informing policy. In this country it’s perhaps particularly bad because we only seem to act when things get into a really crumby state – e.g. The railways were modernised in a hurry in the 50s because they were on their knees – not because someone had taken a long hard stare into the future and decided what was really needed (although in a funny way, that’s what Beeching did in 1963). The combination of politically driven strategy and only reacting when a crisis point has been reached is probably a crappy way to plan anything, really, and has its share of bad outcomes here.

    • Some of the spanners in the predictions were the birth control pill which restricted population growth, the post 1973 fluctuations in oil prices, the collapse of manufacturing in the north and the prosperity in the south which put pressure on the transport network in the south.
      I suppose some people just see motoring as a pain and prefer the train.

      • I think they also failed to foresee the problems that would stymie the motorcar given time – particularly the OPEC oil shock of 1973 and the difficulties associated with building large roads in urban areas. If you read things like “Traffic in Towns” there are all kinds of clever proposals for large scale road building in city centres. In practice these turned out to be too expensive and contentious to deliver, and in many ways I think their delivery would have disfigured many towns and city centres (and many were disfigured anyway and are, these days, every bit as congested as cities which were not rebuilt around the needs of the car). And I don’t think anyone really realised what an issue pollution from cars would be either.

        In fact, writing this makes me wonder if you could almost argue cars like the XJ6 purported a false premise that reliably fast city centre to city centre travel by car was ever going to be possible. In practice you could probably never deliver the infrastructure to support it. Developing the intercity rail network was then, a reasonable transport response to that problem – and a reaction to the dawning realisation that the motorcar had its own limitations.

  11. My Dad wrote a very good talk on the Beeching axe for the 50th anniversary, which included a lot of things I didn’t know.

    In some ways the report was almost a fools errand, as many rural branches were beyond saving, but plenty of lines connecting to a main line should have been kept open as they allowed passengers to connect with long distance services.

    I got the impression the real villain was transport minster Ernest Marples, who was very pro-roads, even down to his wife having shares in some companies building the first motorways!

    A better policy of standardisation & modernisation for motive power should have been brought in earlier.

    Starting with standardised diesels & electric locos, rather than building a generation of standard steam followed by too many classes of diesel & electric locos, some of which were being withdrawn even before the last steam ones.

    • In terms of replacing the locks, they should have started the process in the 30s and wound it up in the 70s, not tried to do it all between 1957 and 1965.

      • IIRC the original diesel plan was to keep steam in use until 1980, but the problems of using both power methods together meant the steam withdrawal was brought forward.

    • There were many ideas as to the locomotive fleet, some opposed diesels as an unwanted hindrance to introduction of electrification, some believed steam could be improved to suffice until electrification. The cost of dieselisation was high, new infrastructure to support diesels and the high purchase cost of a diesel loco, Crewe could build 3 steam 9Fs for the price of a single main line diesel
      Q What does a steam locomotive and an electric locomotive have in common
      Answer they both derive their power from British mineworkers coal!. No North Sea oil back then, so diesels had to burn imported fuel, Britain and its balance of payments problem again!

      • The CME of the Southern Railway (& later the Southern Region) OVS Bulleid thought the same, to go directly from steam to electric power as both could use coal.

        The failure of his Leader steam loco which could be driven from both ends cost him the chance to be BR’s sole CME when the regional positions were abolished.

        A few times there were attempts in the UK to covert steam locos to run on oil when prices were down, but apart from some niche applications this never caught on.

  12. I don’t think you can blame Ernest Marples in isolation, he was on the backbenches by October 1964, and most of the closures were after that. The new Labour government had every opportunity to halt the closure programme, but instead continued it. It was rail closure by political consensus, and that was what enabled it to happen.
    You have to remember that back then Victoriana, of which the railway was part, was seen as old hat. Victorian buildings were being demolished to make way for high rise blocks. The old Britain was to be rebuilt in concrete blocks. Minor wartime bomb damage was used as an excuse for wholesale demolition, and replacement by yet more concrete. People like John Betjeman were seen as luddites in objecting to the architectural desecration taking place. There were no TV programmes extolling the virtues of pre-1945 architecture. New meant better.
    The whole mindset pervading the nation was pro-road.Perhaps that was not surprising. In 1963 most trains were still steam hauled, dirty and inefficient, whilst the car was new and clean.
    Now often a train is a shiny DMU, with a fast accelerating diesel engine, and far more attractive to users who can’t remember the days of steam.

  13. The Beeching Axe was probably justified for routes that duplicated other lines, or for lines that had very few passengers, but in other cases was flawed. Lines that were reasonably successful like the Penrith- Workington line, which was popular with tourists, were closed and west of Keswick impossible to reopen as the A66 was built over the line. This now means congestion on the A66 is horrific in holiday season and tourists to Keswick from outside now have no option but to drive.

  14. Railway politics also played apart. Boundary changes resulted in lines coming under the auspices of former rivals. In 1958 the Great Central line switched from the Eastern region, formerly the LNER, to the London Midland region, formerly the LMS.
    The GCR line was progressively run down, with traffic switched to LMS routes.Not surprisingly the line became a candidate for closure. The same applies to the Southern railway route out of Waterloo. In 1963 the line west of Salibury came under the control of Western region,the rival GWR, and north Devon lost its connection to the capital.

  15. The Beeching Axe started in Cumbria in the thirties when the great depression and competition from buses meant a large part of the network in the west of the county was closed, leaving large villages like Cleator Moor and Frizington without a passenger service. In the sixties closures resumed with the closure of Carlisle- Silloth, The Waverley Line, Cockermouth- Workington( Keswick- Penrith would close in the seventies) and Tebay- Barnard Castle.

    • During the first world war a reasonably large number of branch lines were suspended as ‘war-time economy measures’ never to reopen. The big four continued to close branch lines during the 20’s, 30’s and some in the 40’s.

      It’s a bit of a myth that Dr Beaching was responsible for all the railway closures. Lines were being closed both before and after his time.

  16. One happy side effect of the otherwise disastrous 1994 privatisation of BR is that it is now almost impossible to close a railway line, for both political & public opinion reasons.

    Indeed with a handful of exceptions the current rail network resembles the rail network of about 1975 preserved in aspic..

      • Woodhead closed to passengers in 1970, or at least the central part of the route, only the Manchester to Glossop , and , Sheffield to Penistone section carried passengers to a schedule., (and still do)!

        Basically there were too many routes over the Pennines, one had to go, Woodhead lost due to being;

        1) the easiest to close,
        2) high recovered scrap value,
        3) poor passenger facilities, ie the junction into Sheffield Midland was cancelled leaving a 20 minute walk between Sheffield Midland and Victoria stations,
        4) the trackbed was in the way for the controversial M67 Motorway scheme

  17. I think the eighties was the end of the golden era for driving. Cars became more reliable, pleasanter to drive and better equipped, parking was still fairly easy and cheap if you had to pay, there were no speed cameras and petrol prices fell in real terms after 1981. Thereafter, for all cars continued to improve and there are no real lemons on the road now, more parking restrictions, the tyranny of wheelclamping for two decades until it was banned, GATSOs, bus lanes, and also the massive growth in car ownership and piecemeal improvements to the roads means more congestion.

  18. Five bullet points:
    1) Cars use 1.5 tons of metal to put (usually) one more person in motion. Trains use a lot less.
    2) Cars last 10-15 years, trains up to 40 (HST)
    3) A lot of commuter traffic these days is transporting children to school and/or nursery. Even motorways are quieter outside term time.
    4) For the flat earthers who want (still) to close the railways, remember the chaos on the railways after the Hatfield crash – and how the motorways almost seized up with a small (4%?) increase in commuter traffic.
    5) Cars seemed very glamorous when a typical street of 50 houses only had 4 cars parked in it in the 1960’s. Now there are often 75-100 cars. It’s no wonder there’s more traffic.

  19. 80 per cent of households own at least one car, compared with 56 per cent 40 years ago. I drive past a bus stop every day and most of the passengers are old women who travel for free, or the very poor who can’t afford cars. Nearly all families and most people in full time employment drive these days.
    It’s simple why I choose to drive, when a bus stop where I could get a bus that could take me to work is 300 yards away. Work is ten miles away and I can drive there in 20 minutes at a time that suits me. Getting the bus takes 50 minutes and I have to then walk half a mile to work, not pleasant in winter. It would also add two hours to my working day, so isn’t convenient, which is my most people prefer to drive over using public transport.

    • I dare say that even town planning has played a role in car use.

      Because there is now no work in my line of employment – I work for a commercial vehicle franchise dealer – anywhere near where I live, I have to make a 30 mile round trip every day.
      There used to be several dealers (Scania, DAF, Volvo, and the previous UK makes) within the city bounderies, but they’ve all been steadily relocated to industrial estates on the edge of the city. So what’s the easiest way to get there? Yes, you’ve guessed it.

  20. Some of the new towns were built with the assumption that most residents would be car owners, making them hard to get around on foot.

  21. There is the idea of Peak Car. it is measured in terms of annual mileage per car (falling)and take up of driving licenses (also falling), Peak Car may have happened 15 years ago,

  22. I get the impression that the planners envisaged a Britain modelled on American lines, with car based towns like Milton Keynes with easy access to a fast road netwok.

  23. @ Ian Nicholls, America was often held up as the ideal in the sixties. Its living standards were far higher than ours, nearly everyone drove( even the poorest Americans), and the move to suburbia and dormitory towns had started in America after the war. Also by the mid sixties, America had its own version of the Beeching Axe, with the massive growth in car ownership and air travel meaning most long distance train services and rural train services being abandoned due to lack of passengers. Away from the North East and some of the bigger cities, large parts of the States have no train services.

  24. @ Ian Nicholls, we weren’t in the EEC at the time and as America spoke the same language and American popular culture was very popular in the fifties and sixties, this is what we looked to. It’s hard not to see the appeal fifty years ago, families with two cars, nice suburban houses with big lawns, consumer goods that were often a luxury in Europe and city centres with skyscrapers. Continental Europe, with its eccentric cars like the Beetle and Citroen 2CV, lower living standards in many countries, medieval city centres and continuing hostility to countries like Germany, just wasn’t as attractive.

  25. @ Ian, America was held up as this country where most people had a standard of living light years ahead of Britain and a desirable place to live( unless you were in an inner city or the deep South). Even car designs took an American tilt in the fifties and sixties, Vauxhall imitating American designs and using two tone paintwork in particular, and Ford’s Mark 4 Zodiac resembling a slightly smaller Lincoln Continental.

    • There is a body of belief that the modern USA is seeing falling standards of living, similarly Britain, you need two wage earners in a household to keep up with basics such as somewhere to live (mortgage/rent) and do not mention pensions, free universal education, the idea of a career.

      • I agree totally. In Britain there was a fascination with all things American in the 1950s. Americana permeated design and culture.

  26. Just to clarify a point. I don’t think the nationalisation of the railways in 1948 was a bad thing.Apart from the GWR, the big four were virtually bankrupt.
    Nationalisation staved off inevitable bankruptcy.
    However a change of management always causes problems.
    1. The new chief mechanical engineer, Robert Riddles, was determined to make the most of his opportunity to design new classes of steam locomotive. This nipped in the bud the promising experiments by the LMS in diesel traction. Perhaps if George Ivatt of the LMS had been given the British railways job, then 7 years of wasted investment in steam traction might have been saved. Ivatt’s ugly but functional LMS steam designs continued to be built after nationalisation for other parts of the British railways network.
    2. Nationalisation now meant that the British railway network came under the control of the department of Transport which did not have the best interest of British Railways as its main concern. The state now owned the railway network on behalf of the people and then proceeded to butcher it on behalf of the people.
    And as the people wanted to own cars, they were not that concerned about the railway closure programe to make it a major election issue.
    It was only 30 years ago that the Thatcher government declined to invest in the Advanced Passenger Train. No doubt the advice from the Department of Transport was that investing in British Rail was throwing good money after bad. After the wires have been energized between London and Glasgow in May 1974, the department of Transport had no intention of electrifying anymore mainlines. It was only after passenger numbers began to rise despite all the underinvestment, that central government decided to start investing in the railways. To me the 13 year gap between London-Glasgow electrification and the electrification of the London-Norwich line in 1987 says everything about the Department of Transports priorities.

  27. @ Ian Nicholls, at least Britain didn’t wipe out most of its long distance train services and large parts of its urban rail network like America did as the railways were seen as even less relevant in the sixties than here where Interstates and huge new airports were seen as the way forward.
    You have a situation where a city like Detroit, about the same size as Birmingham, has a derelict station in the city centre where trains haven’t run for decades and many western and southern states where passenger trains are non existent. Also states that do have heavy rail services, outside of the North Eastern corridor, usually have tourist trains of little practical use or sporadic, very slow trains that are little used.

  28. For all Thatcher was seen as pro car and anti public transport, there was considerable investment in British Rail after the early eighties recession. Most of the clunking fifties DMUs were replaced by the end of the decade, work started on the Channel Tunnel and there was a big increase in electrification with the ECML and GEML electrified and the remaining lines on the Southern Region that were diesel being electrified.

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