Thomas and the Fat Controllers

Tony Crosland as Secretary of State in the 1970s saw a future for “a smaller, sensible little railway”. By this, so railwaymen said, he meant a through carriage (first class) to his constituency at Grimsby. Even this scaled-down model would not have survived the advice of Alfred Sherman, who urged Margaret Thatcher to pour concrete on the railways and run buses down them. Rail, he told her, was an anachronism, and had been since the invention of the pneumatic tyre. 

He would have been vexed to find that the railways are still with us, and apoplectic to learn that old lines had been reopened and new ones were being planned and even built. More surprising still, people are actually using them — more passengers, indeed, than at any time since their heyday. Ministers and advisers before Crosland and Sherman had assumed that the railways were an exercise in managing decline. Their defence was a long rearguard action, and now Richard Faulkner and Chris Austin, who were guerrilla generals in this campaign, have told the story.

It can be traced, oddly enough, to a plan to modernise the railways, which meant spending a fortune to keep them going on familiar principles, steam traction included. This coincided with a strike which caused Royal Ascot to be cancelled and drove traffic to the roads. Something different was needed. Enter Richard Beeching in 1963, the technocrat from industry, with a plan designed to focus the railways on what they did best, by developing the main lines and transforming the freight business. He is unjustly remembered as the demon axeman. 

Branch lines and wayside stations had been pruned before he came, but no one seemed to know what they cost, or might cost, if they could be run without stationmasters and signal boxes. Pruning them was never going to transform the railways’ fortunes — and, in time, it ran into political buffer-stops. The rural line from Craven Arms to Swansea traversed five marginal constituencies and is still in being. The lowlands of Scotland lacked clout and became a railway desert.

Whitehall still hoped and worked for something more radical. A “blue paper” (no lines west of Exeter) was leaked and disavowed before it could turn white. A white paper (bus substitution) was escorted into the file marked “Too difficult”. The Serpell review (no lines north of Glasgow) was published in 1982 and dropped like a red-hot shovel. A strike that would have closed the network without scratching Ascot was seen off. The war was being won.

The radicals now pinned their hopes on privatisation. This was the ruling party’s nostrum — but to the Treasury, the railways and the mines were two declining industries, so let them decline on someone else’s hands and at someone else’s expense. The effects, good and bad, were unforeseen. Railtrack was run like a property company and learned about engineering the hard way. Network Rail, its “not-for-profit” successor, borrows against a government guarantee. Some of the franchisees have outwitted Whitehall, and some outwitted themselves.

Even so, the privatisers should have had more faith in their nostrum. As a spur to management, it had been sufficiently proven. The operating companies were able to lease new trains and to run them faster and more often — and still to find that they were overcrowded. Whitehall has had to bless novel ideas for lines around and under London, for electrified main lines, for a new high-speed line. Railways have turned out to be a growth industry.

The guerrillas duly draw the moral, but skim over the last part of the story. It will need telling. 

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