Essay : Road versus Rail – Part One

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.


It is often said that Britain has never had a proper transport policy – that is both true and false. I would argue that Britain has had the transport policy its fickle electorate has wanted. Rural Norfolk, where I grew up, is a microcosm of what has happened in Britain since 1945.

The people aspired towards car ownership, the railways were closed and starved of investment as a consequence, money was invested in road infrastructure and now the price of fuel and road congestion is pushing people back to the railways.

The pro-rail lobby sees conspiracy theories everywhere. One time Transport Minister Ernest Marples had interests in road construction, the Chairman of Leyland, Britain’s biggest bus manufacturer, Donald Stokes, was a personal friend of Harold Wilson, but the real villain was our continued love affair with the car, that symbol of aspiration and personal mobility.

Trying to dissect the conflicting viewpoints is difficult. On the one hand you have the green lobby, who would like us to walk, cycle or use an electric car between railway stations, where an eco-friendly electric train will take us to our destination.

Then, at various points in the past 50 years, the road lobby has advocated the elimination of the railway system and the tarmacking of the track beds to create more high speed roads. The zenith of the railways was in the period prior to World War I. During the war the various privately-owned railways were brought together under the Railway Executive Committee, effectively they were under Government control for the duration of hostilities as a single unified rail system.

The aftermath of World War I

The railway companies were guaranteed income at 1913 levels. With heavy wartime traffic, the railway infrastructure was exhausted by 1919. Despite the end of the war in November 1918, the Government continued to exercise control over the railways and a period of inflation, when it awarded high pay rises to its employees, damaged the finances of the various companies that still received income at 1913 levels.

By 1921, the state-run, but still privately-owned railways were £60 million in the red, an astronomical figure for the time. The Government mulled over the idea of nationalising the rail network but came up with a compromise, known to history as the ‘Big Four’. This was to force the 120 rail operators into four regional-based companies, the London, Midland and Scottish Railway (LMS), the London and North Eastern Railway (LNER), the Southern Railway, and the Great Western Railway (GWR).

The latter already dominated its designated area and simply absorbed a few minor companies. These new companies came into being in January 1923. The Government set up a Railway Rates Tribunal to standardise freight and other charges – what we would now call a regulator. The four new regional operators were now obliged by law to carry any load, however uneconomic, and to publish their rates.

A threat from road hauliers emerged when the Government began selling off Army surplus lorries from 1921. The period from 1923 to 1939 was the golden age of the passenger train in Britain as the various companies competed to offer the fastest services. Flying Scotsman, Royal Scot, Coronation, Silver Jubilee, Cornish Riviera, Golden Arrow and Coronation Scot were just some of crack express trains of the era.

The Nigel Gresley-designed A4 locomotives of the LNER were capable of sustained 100mph plus running, even if the track infrastructure was not, and every schoolboy knew that one of the class, 4468 Mallard, had reached 126mph, a record for steam traction that still stands. Unquestionably, for long-distance travel the train was still by far the best option.

High speeds, reduced profits

4488 Union of South Africa -2518013

High-speed trains 1930s style – LNER A4 4488 Union of South Africa hauls the crack Coronation express on the East Coast Main Line

However, these publicity-seeking trains masked a problem. The ‘Big Four’s’ finances were hit by the General Strike of 1926 and the Great Depression of 1929, and never really recovered. With their finances hampered by the Government’s restrictions, hopes that annual earnings would stabilise at £51 million from 1928 onwards were dashed. In 1929, the operators’ income was £41 million and, in 1938, that had dropped to £28 million, when the nation was under going an economic revival.

In the meantime, productivity only increased by 1.2 per cent per year. Profitability continued to be inadequate and shareholder dividends few and far between. As a consequence, railway investment was low. But the ‘Big Four’ did investigate alternative forms of traction such as diesel and electric, in order to combat the threat posed by road travel. Also 240 miles of loss-making or duplicate lines were closed. The railways remained profitable, but only just.

In 1930, there were still only a million cars on Britain’s roads but, by 1939, that had doubled to two million, although only a handful could top 100mph. In 1931, the national 20mph speed limit was abolished and at least one pro-rail writer more or less blamed that for causing 7343 road fatalities in 1934. In reality, the 20mph speed limit had been widely ignored. There were 7305 road deaths in 1930 and, after 7343 in 1934, the figure dropped to 6502 in 1935.

Motorway future


The British road lobby looked at emulating the German autobahn network in 1937

In 1937, the British road lobby sent a sizeable delegation, including 58 MPs, to inspect the autobahn programme in Nazi Germany. They came away impressed and put pressure on the British Government to build motorways in Britain. However, this was quashed by the Treasury, which now had to divert funds into re-armament, because of the threat posed by the same Nazi Germany.

The pro-rail lobby seem to imply that the nascent British road lobby, comprising motorists, road builders, hauliers and manufacturers, should have been strangled at birth in order to safeguard the rail network for the future. This was never a practical option. In 1919/’20 the Austin factory at Longbridge manufactured 4303 vehicles. By 1923/’24 it had built 11,880, 20,337 in 1924/’25 and 45,918 in 1928/’29. There was a dip at the start of the Great Depression, but production continued to rise, reaching an inter-war peak of 90,018 in 1936/’37.

What this demonstrated was the inexorable rise of the motor car as a form of popular transport. The car was flexible and was not tied to a railhead, where the next form of movement was on foot. Moreover, Austin was not a manufacturer of prestige vehicles – like its rivals, the company had harnessed the power of mass production in order to bring down the retail price of its products so as to make them more affordable to the common man.

Granted, an Austin Seven might struggle to reach a seaside resort on a hot summer’s day, and it certainly could not travel from London to Edinburgh in six hours like the LNER’s A4 hauled ‘Coronation’ express, but it could provide convenient local transportation at the owner’s beck and call. The gradual growth of the car, combined with Government restrictions on the rates they could charge, had eroded the railway operators profitability, although UK vehicle production was tiny compared with the heights it would reach in the 1960s.

Comparing the UK with the opposition

Meanwhile, in France, the big five railway companies had been losing money, so in 1938 they were nationalised to form Société National des Chemins de fer Français or SNCF. The French taxpayer then began pouring in capital to modernise the network, which saw the introduction of new diesel and electric traction, including diesel railcars manufactured by Bugatti. Like Britain, France also had a vibrant car industry.

However, in the United States, the threat posed by the car was also countered by investment in more modern forms of traction, but the real enemy of rail was the long-distance airliner. The new Douglas DC3 was not much of a problem in 1939, but the potential was there. In September 1939 war broke out again, and once again the railways came under the control of a Railway Executive Committee with income set to an average of the revenues between 1935 to 1939.

With petrol rationed and the motor industry turned over to war production, the railway was the prominent mover of men and munitions during hostilities. LMS Duchess’s and LNER’s A4s proved themselves quite capable of hauling 25 coach trains at near express speeds. Small branch lines connected to windswept airbases, enabled the movement of personal and munitions.

World War II did, though, take a fearful toll on the rail infrastructure. Rail workers either volunteered or were drafted into the armed forces and were not replaced. By 1945 the backlog of maintenance work was huge, resulting in speed restrictions all over the place, and speed was the railways’ main asset in competition with the private motor car.

Ian Nicholls
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  1. I read somewhere that UK railway track mileage peaked in 1911, which sounds about right. However a fair number of suburban lines were built up until the mid 1930s, so it could have been later than this.

    • 1911 sounds about right. 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.

  2. There was considerable electrification in the inter war period to counter the rise of road transport. By 1939 the suburban system on Tyneside, what is now Merseyrail, Manchester- Altrincham and most commuter lines on the Southern were electrified, adding to an electrification programme that had started in the Edwardian era on Tyneside, Merseyside and south London.

  3. There is a slight typo at the top. I was born in Bedfordshire and now live in Norfolk.However I don’t think I have grown up yet!

  4. A4 Union of South Africa pictured here is still very much with us. It took HM the Queen from Edinburgh Waverley to Tweedbank today.

  5. One of the first casualties was the Gosforth- Ponteland line, which could not compete with road traffic and was closed to passengers as early as 1929. Also a network of lines in West Cumbria, which linked Cleator Moor and Frizington with Whitehaven and Workington, were closed in 1931 as the Great Depression and competition from buses made the lines uneconomic. The start of the rundown of the railways occured in the twenties and thirties as the railways could not compete in some areas with buses and lorries and the depression in trade hurt them in areas which were hit most by the downturn.

  6. The big growth in car ownership in the 1920s and 1930s saw Ford and Vauxhall establish huge new factories on green field sites. Originally both companies used ramshackle factories in inner city areas, Vauxhall gaining its name from the district in London where its early cars were made,but a lack of space saw new factories built in Dagenham and Luton. Also the surge in car ownership saw a boom in places like Coventry and Oxford, where thousands of jobs were created in car manufacturing and component industries, and where thousands of workers moved to from the depressed areas.

    • Ford’s original UK factory was a former tram depot in Trafford Park. After final production was moved to Dagenham engines continued to be made in Trafford Park for many years.

      • It made sense as this factory was to small for mass production. Also building car factories on greenfield sites did have one advantage, when they were switched to war production in 1939, they were away from the air raids. However, this didn’t benefit Coventry as most of its car industry was still in the city in 1939, and the Standard Triumph works opposite the cathedral was seriously damaged.

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