Lost in privatisation

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A Stop Board marking the start of a radio token section at Rannoch railway station on the West Highland Line. Photo Chris McKenna

(Click on photograph to see original and for details of licensing.)

I have nothing against railway privatisation per se. The real impact of any change to the way a nation’s railways are governed depends much more on the initial assumptions and objectives of those who design the transformation than on whether a private company or the state treasury ends up with the ownership of the track and rolling stock.

In 1948, there was significant popular support in favour of railway nationalisation as well as opposition from senior people within the rail industry. Unfortunately, the civil servants rafting the legislation and then running the nationalised railway saw it the move as a way of limiting expenditure during a period of post-war austerity. At the same time, strategic planners in the Ministry of Transport were already shaping a transport policy based on North American developments, designing a national motorway network and planning the wholesale transfer of rail traffic onto road. Britain became the odd man out in Europe – while the its neighbours rebuilt and electrified their railway networks, and introduced modern electric locomotives and rolling stock, BR continued with a policy of make do and mend and continued building steam locomotives until 1960.

Note that it was not nationalisation that was reason for the relative decline of Britain’s railways, but the time and manner of its implementation. Most of Europe’s railways had been nationalised before WW II. When the war ended, there were entire ministries devoted to managing their national railways. No one stopped to think after the war whether the Europe’s smashed-up railways should be rebuilt – it was taken for granted that they should.

In the UK the railways were worn out rather than smashed up. In an era of austerity the railways could be allowed to ‘make do and mend’ – albeit with the threat of losing any remaining competitive advantage. The Ministry of Transport did not have a long tradition of ‘hands-on’ management of the railways and in the post war years was to develop a critical ‘arms length’ relationship with the railway industry’s top management. Enthralled with USA ‘best practice’ – electrification and modernisation was postponed and only partly implemented.

When John Major privatised BR, the public had a love hate with the railways – people loved the railways but travelled by car. Most people were unconvinced of the virtues of rail privatisation and there was much opposition to the Railways Act of 1993. There were three broad options for how the privatised railway should be structured. The management of British Rail advocated privatisation as a single entity – a BR plc; Prime Minister John Major favoured the creation of something like the former “Big Four” railway companies that had existed before 1nationalisation; The Treasury, under the influence of the Adam Smith Institute advocated the creation of 7, later 25, passenger railway franchises as a way of maximising revenue. The Treasury won.

The Labour Party opposed privatisation and declared that when re-elected they would return the railways to the public sector. To make sure that this would be nigh impossible, BR was spit into a hundred separate companies with complex mutual contractual obligations. The UK privatisation model was a disaster! Such extreme fragmentation actually increased rather than decreased costs. Incidentally, the Polish government – global financial crisis notwithstanding – still seems determined to restructure and privatise its railways on the UK model! Currently in the UK the political consensus has gone full circle and the Tories are contemplating a return to the vertical integration and testing it out in Scotland if they win the next general election.

A great deal of industry ‘ know how’ was lost as a result of privatisation. A major casualty was the British Railways Research Centre at Derby, an international repository of leading edge research. Opened in 1964, BR used to boast that it was the biggest railway research centre in the world. The Research Centre worked on such high profile projects as the Advanced Passenger Train, Solid State Interlocking, and rail, wheel and suspension dynamics. The latest post on the Railway Eye blog deplores the loss of so much state of the art knowledge. It seems that the Department for Transport holds a similar view.

One little known Derby project that was killed in its infancy was the remote controlled self-propelled freight car. The idea was to make freight trains more truck-like, i.e. replacing ‘dumb’ goods wagons by motorised intelligent units. These units could travel long distance as orthodox trains and then be automatically broken up and re-marshalled and finally complete the last 20 miles all the way into the factory loading bay. A concept unit was built and featured on TV. The road freight lobby immediately realised the revolutionary potential of what were essentially driverless automatic vehicles that had a fraction of the fuel consumption of ordinary lorries. Urgent consultations were held and the project was immediately pulled. Only one piece of the enabling technology was reused – the dedicated secure radio channels developed to control and monitor the progress of the units became the basis for radio token system which was adopted on certain branch lines.

And what of driverless self-powered freight units? It seems that some tima ago the concept was reinvented by the International Union of Railways. Sadly there is no reference to the original pioneering work that was carried out at Derby!

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6 Responses to “Lost in privatisation”

  1. The Fact Compiler Says:

    Would love to see footage of the self-propelled freight wagon in operation.

    Does dyspozytor know if any exists?

    • dyspozytor Says:

      Sadly no, I have no idea if any film still exists. I did see a brief TV news clip once – the concept vehicle looked like a container flat wagon.

      In an effort to find some more information, I recently e-mailed the webmaster of one of the UK signalling websites, but he had never heard about this project. He promised to do some ferreting about but was unable to provide any leads.

      I have no doubts about the verisimilitude of this story: i) I remember seeing a short film clip on TV news; and ii) circa 85-6 I wrote an article for “Railway Gazette” about the way in which the traditional fail safe characteristics of railway signalling were being re-created in hardware and software.

      Part of my research involved interviewing one of the signalling bods at Derby and it was he who told me about the re-use of the radio channel work.

      I could write to “Railway Gazette” and ask if they could ferret out my original article. It should at least have the name of the chap that I talked, which – if he is still alive – might be a source of further info.

  2. Phil Says:

    I remember hearing about this idea too. Again, I don’t recall any film.

    On the bigger point, John Major was personally determined to smash the railways – not because he hated them per se but like all politicians he wanted to leave his mark on the world and since he didn’t have a good war to be responsible for this was second best.

    • dyspozytor Says:

      I don’t think that that there is any solid evidence for your claim that, John Major was personally determined to smash the railways.

      John Major is on record as saying that he wanted to improve the quality of service experienced by customers – a return to the ethos of the ‘Big Four’.

      Unfortunately, the structure of the post privatisation UK rail industry was designed by consultants peddling hard core ‘free market’ economics. Then the implementation was carried out by civil servants hostile to the railway industry.

      I’m happy to debate this with you in detail. You may submit an article for publication explaining why you think John Major was personally to blame for what now nearly everybody agrees was a major fiasco.

  3. George Hally CME Says:

    http://www.old-dalby.com/mtesting.htm (2/3rds down page)

    Not so much ‘self-propelled’ as fly-shunted, it seems…

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