Essay : Road versus Rail – Part Two

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 Two, he looks at the growth of both rail and road use between 1945 and ’59.

Clement Atlee

In 1945, the Labour Party, led by Clement Attlee (above), was elected by a landslide with a radical reforming mandate to create a land fit for heroes. Part of this was to nationalise the commanding heights of the British economy. Its 1945 election manifesto stated: ‘Public ownership of inland transport. Co-ordination of transport services by rail, road, air and canal cannot be achieved without unification. And unification without public ownership means a steady struggle with sectional interests or the enthronement of a private monopoly, which would be a menace to the rest of industry.’

This and a lot of other things contained within the manifesto looked good on paper to a war-weary public. Nationalisation was meant to benefit the nation as a whole, as opposed to a few shareholders. It was a bold concept in a brave new world. The widespread disillusion that culminated in the Winter of Discontent of 1978-’79 was well in the future.

In 1945, a delegation from the British Road Federation and the Society of Motor Manufacturers visited Germany to inspect the autobahn system. They predictably pressed the new British Government to invest in a motorway system and, in May 1946, the Minister of War Transport, Alfred Barnes, announced a motorway programme extending to some 800 miles.

They were

  • London to Cardiff
  • London to Carlisle via Birmingham
  • Bristol to Leeds
  • Warrington to Hull

The Government brought in legislation to enable construction to go ahead but then hit a hurdle – how to finance this and all its other election promises. The simple truth was that Britain was broke and, for all its socialist rhetoric and the simplistic economics contained within its manifesto, the Attlee Government had no means of financing its programme.

Big ambitions curtailed

Since early in the war Britain had been propped up economically by the United States. Abruptly, in 1945, the Transatlantic cash supply that had enabled Britain to fight the war was turned off. Economic austerity measures were brought in and the Government, whose election manifesto claimed that unemployment was caused by under consumption, was forced to negotiate a loan from the United States that took five decades to pay off.

With this reality check, the motorway programme was put on hold. With railway nationalisation on the cards, the boards of the Big Four railway companies effectively took on a caretaker role and declined to co-operate with the Government.

On 1 January 1948, the state-owned British Transport Commission (BTC) came into being. The BTC was an all-encompassing body designed to oversee transport by inland waterways, rail and road transport. The rail part of the BTC, comprising the former Big Four companies, became known as British Railways. The attempt to nationalise road haulage proved more difficult, and the British Road Federation fought a strong rearguard action.

Some 3800 firms, which undertook journeys in excess of 40 miles, which in turn extended some 25 miles from the vehicles operating centre, were taken into public ownership. As a consequence of the delaying actions by the road haulage lobby, the nationalisation of road hauliers did not come into effect until 1951, when the sun was already setting on the Attlee Government. The basic idea was that the rail network would handle all long-distance freight and road transport would take the goods from the rail hub to its ultimate destination.

1948 – The modern era begins

1962 Morris Minor to continue in production in current form

Also in 1948 two significant new British cars made their debut. In terms of mass appeal, the Morris Minor (above) was the most significant. It was a people’s car, the kind of vehicle ex-servicemen aspired to own, and transport their growing families, and it was the first British car to reach the one million production landmark.

The other significant car was the Jaguar XK120. The Labour Government had urged the British motor industry to export in order to help the nations economy, and the XK120 was one such response from the newly-christened Jaguar company.

While the railways were encumbered with speed restrictions caused by maintenance issues, the car was getting faster. With its twin-cam XK engine, the XK120 showed that the car was evolving from the three-speed, side-valve engine configuration that was common place at the time. The XK120 also demonstrated Jaguar’s technical ability in creating cars for a motorway age – something the company would perfect over the next two decades.

The car flies, the railway stumbles

Meanwhile, over on the railways, the crippling financial situation meant the Government could not actually afford to buy out the Big Four shareholders. It was estimated that the rail and canal network were worth around £1 billion at the time. What actually happened was that the railway shareholders exchanged their shares for stock in the British Transport Commission based on the share price in November 1946.

The former railway shareholders would be paid a fixed rate of interest (3 per cent) for a set period (40 years) in order to complete the purchase of the railways by the state outright. This amounted to £40 million in the first year. The BTC also bought out all the private owner wagons that ran on the rail network, which in effect relieved the former owners of the financial obligation to use the rail network.

This pleased no one. The shareholders argued that the railways were run down in November 1946 and the share prices were depressed because everyone knew that nationalisation was in the offing. Others argued that, with road transport restricted, the financial position of the railway companies looked rosier than it really was.

In March 1948, it was estimated that maintenance arrears amounted to £179m. The Chancellor of the Exchequer, Hugh Dalton, described the railways as a ‘poor bag of assets’.

British Railways is born

The management of British Railways was inept from the start. At nationalisation BR had inherited a staggering 20,000 steam locomotives divided into 400 different classes. To compound the situation British Railways decided they needed an additional twelve classes of what became known as Standard steam locomotives. This resulted in the cancellation of orders placed by the Big Four for experimental diesel and electric traction. It took until 1951 for BR to conclude that maybe steam had had its day.

In 1951, the Conservatives returned to power under Winston Churchill, by which time the BTC had become a bloated bureaucracy. The new Government soon privatised the newly-nationalised British Road Services. The 1950s were the Indian summer of Britain’s rail network as car ownership grew. Perhaps the highlight of this period was the introduction of the Britannia class of BR standard locomotive between Liverpool Street Station in London and Norwich, cutting the journey time down to just two hours.

70001 Lord Hurcombe- leaving Norwich

The British Railways Standard locomotives first appeared in 1951. On the London-Norwich line the Class 7 Britannia class reduced the journey time to two hours. Here 70001 Lord Hurcombe leaves Norwich Thorpe station bound for Liverpool Street in London

Passengers could then travel by another train to their holiday on the Norfolk broads – Halcyon days! Inter-city travel was what the railways did best at a time when Norfolk was still relatively isolated by single carriageway roads. Behind the scenes, British Railways had set up a branch line committee to close down what it deemed to be un-renumerative lines, and a discreet closure programme was pursued.

Despite this, the railways were now losing money. Belatedly, the BTC accepted that British Railways needed modern forms of traction. In January 1955 it announced a 15 year, £1.24bn modernisation plan to replace steam with diesel and electric traction. In fact, half the money allocated was earmarked for maintenance arrears. Many of the condemned steam locomotives were new, and BR would continue to manufacture them until 1960!

Out with steam – in with the the motorways

WCML and M1 in June 1960

The West Coast Main Line, running alongside the M1 in Northamptonshire in 1960

The next month, the Minister of Transport announced a £212 million programme to create a motorway system. The pro-rail lobby argue that from the 1950s to the 1980s the attitude within the Department of Transport was decidedly pro-road, whichever Minister was in charge, and that the belief that the rail network needed drastic pruning in order to return it to profitability was widespread.

The Government saw British Railways’ losses as a drain on the nation’s resources, but the spending of millions on an expanded road network was regarded as an economic necessity. The pro-rail faction argued that many branch lines were uneconomic because they incurred unnecessary costs that could be eliminated by cost cutting. The argument went that many lines were over manned, employing unnecessary staff at stations and using dirty old stock that had been relegated from more prestigious work and were hauled by uneconomic old steam engines.

Certainly, where the new diesel railcars were introduced, passenger numbers increased, and experiments with unmanned stations did show a basic railway was viable, but the will to pursue an avenue of opportunity was not there. In 1956, when passenger-miles actually increased to 21 billion, the BTC announced a plan to electrify the line from Euston to Liverpool and Manchester by 1959.

By 1957, when there were a million lorries on Britain’s roads, the BTC were proposing a more widespread electrification plan. Some 2213 miles of track were to be electrified by 1980, including most of the main lines, around 29 per cent of the network – all this at an estimated cost of £250 million. However, within months the total cost of the BR modernisation plan was upgraded to a staggering £1.66bn, and the Treasury became concerned.

In December 1958 the new Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, opened the Preston Bypass, Britain’s first stretch of motorway. The same year British Railways lost a staggering £90 million.

The rail closures begin

Stalham station September 1958

Stalham station in North Norfolk as seen in September 1958. The trackbed from Stalham was utilised in the construction of the A149 road. SPECS cameras proliferate along with a 50mph speed limit after a spate of motorcycle fatalities

The first major rail closure occurred in February 1959. This was the former Midland and Great Northern line, which ran for 170 miles from the East Coast Main Line all the way through Cambridgeshire and North Norfolk to Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft. It enabled workers in the industrial Midlands, many of them were probably in the motor industry, to holiday in places like Sheringham, Cromer and the Norfolk broads.

The usual notion that the train was faster than the car took a knock here. The main Great Yarmouth to Birmingham express took six hours 45 minutes to reach Birmingham, all on a single-track line at an average speed of 30mph. It was claimed at the time the line was losing £640,000 a year. Today, some of the trackbed has been converted into road, including a stretch near my home.


In August 1959, the Mini (above) was announced. Much has been written about the car’s innovation, its motor sport success, but little about its social impact. The Mini was a people’s car that introduced millions of Britons to the joys of motoring. It continued to make an impact when it was old, tatty, riddled with tin worm and barely scraping through the annual MoT test.

With its sub-1.0-litre engine and easy to drive qualities, it was the perfect first car and much cooler than any other car in its first time banger class. The Mini gave mobility to millions of first time drivers, even second, third, fourth or fifth hand. Who needed railways?

Ian Nicholls
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  1. @ Ian Nicholls, by 1959 there over 5 million and car ownership more than doubled in the fifties as rising living standards saw car ownership become more affordable. However, as car ownership was rising from a very low base, seven out of ten households in 1959 were still carless and public transport was still essential. Yet the number of households without cars was shrinking rapidly and the need for such a large number of railway lines was being questioned, as well as seemingly outmoded forms of road based public transport like trolleybuses, which could only operate under electric wires.
    The railways did stage a fightback by a rapid move to DMUs on local services that weren’t electrified, as well as an expansion of the third rail on the Southern region. These were faster, quieter and cheaper to maintain than steam trains and lines that moved over to DMUs and EMUs saw an increase in patronage, but with Beeching on the horizon and a move to road transport, it was only a matter of time.

  2. To be fair to the often criticised 1955 British Railways Modernisation Plan, it did see steam eliminated on most passenger services by 1962, new 100 mph Deltic hauled services were introduced on the ECML that year, and electrification extended to cover the whole of Kent, the Argyle line in Glasgow, and a start made on electrifying the WCML.

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