There was little mourning after the UK’s nationalised train operator, British Rail, ran its last service in 1997. Over its 49-year existence, it had been widely criticised as a complacent, unimaginative bureaucracy. For much of its life, passenger and freight traffic declined — in the country where train travel was invented.
Aspects of the privatisation that broke up British Rail proved unpopular, however, and since March 2020 the pandemic has shredded the finances of the private companies running passenger services. The governing Conservative party, which oversaw privatisation, is creating a new, nationalised body — Great British Railways. Private companies in future will handle only the basic aspects of operations.
In a depressing reminder of the worst days of British Rail, the network in June suffered three days of the most comprehensive strike action since privatisation, where a dispute led to 40,000 members of the RMT union stopping work.
Christian Wolmar’s reassessment of British Rail is, consequently, timely, even if it partly catalogues its shortcomings. Wolmar says the organisation’s detractors suggest that at nationalisation in 1948, the operator took over a well-functioning system and bequeathed a battered mess to private successors.
The truth, Wolmar argues, is almost the opposite. He documents how the newly-nationalised body, initially called British Railways, took over a network and rolling stock worn out by overuse, war damage and inadequate spending. When the system was broken up and privatised, he argues, it was efficiently organised and enjoying growing use.
Yet much of British Rail’s history is hard to present sympathetically. The new body was split into six regions based mainly on the four railways created by government-directed mergers following the first world war. They pursued independent strategies to procure modern locomotives, including some catastrophic ones.
The best-known development in the postwar years is the Beeching programme of cuts, which closed large, lightly used swaths of the UK’s network. But Wolmar recounts how the cuts transformed travel patterns, losing the surviving network more traffic than expected.
He argues that British Rail found its feet in the 1980s and 1990s and was making progress. A brilliant generation of managers was finding ways to drive up traffic and, in some cases, reopen closed lines. By 1996-97, passenger kilometres were 18 per cent up on British Rail’s nadir in 1982.
However, Wolmar neglects the demand that went unmet. Between privatisation in 1996-97 and the peak before the coronavirus pandemic, passenger traffic more than doubled, reaching all-time highs.
Defenders of British Rail’s legacy sometimes attribute this post-privatisation traffic boom to the general rise in all forms of transport. But rail travel grew far faster than others, meaning that a relatively clean, efficient form of transport took market share from more damaging ones.
The ownership change may not have been the decisive factor. Wolmar describes in depressing detail how under British Rail, investment decisions were at the whim of ministers. A sector with decades-long investment horizons was hostage to year-by-year funding fluctuations.
When striking franchising deals by contrast, officials had to make long-term financing promises. They were under pressure to facilitate growth. Wolmar accepts this was beneficial but suggests it could have happened under state ownership. The counterargument is that it did not.
It is helpful to be reminded of how British Rail led in developing some high-speed rail technologies and started to think about how to maximise revenue and traffic. It also instituted an electrification programme, which shamefully stopped for decades after privatisation.
The hope must be that, as the system recovers from coronavirus, Great British Railways can combine the best aspects of the privatised railway with the ingenuity and professionalism that Wolmar reminds us marked the later nationalised years. The fear has to be that the network again lurches into an organisational muddle.
British Rail: A New History by Christian Wolmar, Michael Joseph £30, 416 pages
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