The fall and rise of Britain’s railways: Part 4

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This year sees the fiftieth anniversary of Richard beeching’s ‘the Re-Shaping of british Railways’, Writes Colin Garratt

2013 also sees the thirtieth anniversary of the Serpell Report. These two events mirrored the tempestuous undertones of railway policy in the years following World War Two.

In this eight part series, Colin Garratt of Milepost 921⁄2 outlines the turbulent events which led up to the privatisation of British Rail in 1993, concluding with an analysis of the current situation and where it might be heading. the 1960s proved to be a dramatic decade for britain’s railway.

A new corporate livery was introduced comprised of Rail Blue, grey and flame red. A change of name was made from British Railways to British Rail and an ingenious double arrow logo was introduced which remains in widespread use to this day.

These powerful symbols were conceived during the final years of Beeching’s tenure. The blue livery lasted for some twenty years. Many people found it oppressive. Certainly it was very different from the multi-coloured trains of today. However, nowadays, some forty years after its inception, the blue period is regarded with great nostalgia.

1960 revealed an interesting glimpse of the future with the introduction of the 90 mph ‘Blue Pullman’. These trains ran on the London Midland and Western Regions. They were fast, spacious, air conditioned and comfortable and with a high powered diesel engine at either end they were the forerunners of the celebrated InterCity 125s destined to appear fifteen years later.

Great supporter

The 1960s saw the Beeching era come and go. Under the incoming Labour government of 1964 Prime Minister Harold Wilson appointed Barbara Castle as Secretary of State for Transport. Although Beeching’s closures continued apace under Labour, Castle was to prove a great supporter of the railways.

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She wiped out a considerable amount of railway deficit and drew a clear distinction between the commercial railway, which could operate at a profit and the social railway, which needs subsidy but benefits society as a whole.

The Labour Party took the view that the railway could not run at a profit. Even Beeching had tacitly accepted that his re-shaping, harsh as it was, would not put the railway into profit.

An exciting new railway

The electrification of the West Coast Main Line, Britain’s busiest trunk route, between London Euston, Birmingham, Manchester and Liverpool had come into operation, heralding an exciting new railway.

In the previous year the first Freightliner depot, a legacy of Beeching, had opened at London’s York Way. This became so successful that it was overwhelmed with traffic and operations had to be transferred to Willesden. Freightliner depots pioneered the development of containerised traffic on which today’s logistics are based.

As part of the East Coast Main Line upgrading, a class of 100 mph giant Deltic diesel locomotives was built by the North British Works, Glasgow in 1961. These were highly impressive machines which did much to foster interest in Britain’s new railway. They reduced the journey time from Kings Cross to Edinburgh to six hours and were a compelling substitute to the much mooted electrification of the East Coast Main Line.

The British Rail board became convinced that the railway’s future viability depended on modernisation and vigorous marketing. The new stations built on the West Coast Main Line under the electrification programme were immensely popular as was the modernity of the new Euston station.

Although the destruction of the Doric Arch and Grand Hall was regarded as vandalism, a situation made all the more poignant was a similar threat to nearby St Pancras with its magnificent train shed and the neo-Gothic Grand Hotel, one of London’s most magnificent buildings. Such sentiments indicated a determination to create a modern railway with little respect or concern for the historic wonders of our legendary past.

Passenger Transport Executives

Parallel to the development of long distance trunk routes was the urgent need to maximise public transport in Britain’s largest conurbations to offset ever increasing traffic jams which were endemic in Britain’s metropolises during the 1960s.

Barbara Castle created the Passenger Transport Executives (PTEs). These were operated by railway management and local authorities in areas of heavy population and were given government grants to improve the transport infrastructure. The executives proved very successful with their high profile approach to public transport, not least the combining of the railway with bus operators.

PTEs operated in West Midlands, Merseyside, South Yorkshire, Manchester, Newcastle and Glasgow. It is interesting to note that even today the East Midlands Trains timetable – almost fifty years later – states that “the frequency of its services between Sheffield and London is supported by the South Yorkshire PTE”.

Inevitably British Rail developed an obsession to be rid of steam traction. Had a more balanced approach been taken to the changeover in motive power, a smoother transition would have occurred.

Alleged superiority

Many of the new types were built without being tested sufficiently. The building of diesel multiple units – which had begun in the 1950s – was much heralded for branch lines and secondary routes. These new trains, with their ability to start and stop rapidly, showed alleged superiority over steam.

However, many of the stations and lines intended to be serviced by DMUs were closed under the Beeching cuts.

During the changeover some 20,000 steam locomotives were replaced by 3,633 diesel and 317 electric locomotives in a period of less than fifteen years. It is heartening to remember that this huge building programme was carried out when Britain had the full capacity to build locomotives and rolling stock.

Blue Period Class 37 [online]

One of the most successful types was the present day Class 37 Co- Cos which were to be found over the entire network and how heartening to read on their technical specification ‘Built 1965 by the English Electric Company, Newton le Willows Lancashire’ or ‘Built by Robert Stephenson and Hawthorn, Darlington’.

These were two of Britain’s leading locomotive foundries. Both companies had roots going back to the building of steam traction in the 1830s, a time when Britain was the railway builder to an empire and the world. Known for their thunderous, ground shaking exhausts, some Class 37s can still be seen on the national network.

It is an interesting but sobering thought that an incredible 350 companies are known to have built steam locomotives in this tiny sceptred isle of ours with a total build of 110,000 locomotives. Today, that capacity is drastically reduced.

An emotional reaction

British Rail could not divest itself from steam without there being an emotional reaction across the nation. Over the generations since its inception, steam had mesmerised young and old alike; artists, photographers, historians, film makers, model engineers, down to the thousands of small boys on platform ends.

Many found it difficult to come to terms with the passing of steam. It was almost as if the nation had divested itself of football, which was also written into our culture. The last steam hauled expresses finished in 1967 when Bulleid’s former Southern Railway re-built Pacifics gave way to electrification on the main line from London Waterloo to Southampton, Bournemouth and Weymouth.

Vast numbers of enthusiasts from all over Britain flocked to see main line steam on mile a minute timings. The crews, aware of their place in history and despite the engines being badly run down, worked their steeds up to speeds in excess of 100 mph, to the delight of their lineside audiences.

In preparation for disposal

On the final Sunday, 9th July 1967, all remaining Southern Region steam locomotives were despatched either to Salisbury or Weymouth depots in preparation for disposal. The following day Barbara Castle initiated the new electric service. On that Sunday evening it was all over for steam.

It was deeply sad. Around 19.00 that evening I visited Salisbury Motive Power Depot and found the shed full of Locomotives, the majority of which had run down light engine that day, many from Nine Elms. All fires had been dropped but the engines were still in steam and through the evening silence which hung over the depot could be sensed, the traumatic presence of the condemned engines impregnating the air with their acrid aroma of oil and soot so peculiar to the steam locomotive.

At the back of the shed stood two drivers talking, their conversation floated above the gentle sighs of the dying engines. “Thank God they’ve gone; we had a bloody cow last Friday night from Basingstoke – wouldn’t steam. My mate was blacked up with it”.

Rays at Rose Grove [online]

But my sadness and their jubilation were mitigated by the fact that many of these engines were sent to Dai Woodham’s scrapyard at Barry in South Wales and eventually were destined to be preserved and restored to running order.

August the following year saw steam traction end completely on Britain’s main line railway. The last train was the now famous Liverpool to Carlisle Fifteen Guinea Special, a price many considered to be outrageous, but inevitably the train was full.

From then on steam trains were banned from operating on Britain’s main lines. Our railway faced a brave new world of modernisation and all the effects it was to have on the future of the industry.

Part 5: NAME will be published in September.

Photographs courtesy of Milepost 92 1/2