Off topic. On message.

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Dyspozytor takes a trip down memory lane to his school days and reflects on the UK elections.

Lost domain

A treasure trove of transport history. The River Thames (bottom right) has been a transport route since before the Romans invaded Britain. The Roman road from London to Bath (left bottom to mid right) was by-passed by the Great West Road which itself was superseded by the M4 motorway. The canalised River Brent  (top left to bottom right) was opened in 1798 as part of the Grand Junction Canal. The area comprising both banks of the canal to the north of Brentford Locks was the canal company’s Brentford Dock. The last commercial traffic on this section of the canal ceased around 1980.

The London & South Western Railway’s line from Barnes to Hounslow (lower left to upper right) opened in 1849 and is still open for passenger services. The Great Western Railway’s Brentford Branch, opened in 1859, was the last commission of Brunel, the GWR’s chief engineer. The whole triangular built up area to the south of Thames Locks was the GWR’s Brentford Dock. The Dock closed in December 1964.

The Great West Road (mid left to top right) from Hounslow to Kew was opened around 1930. The remaining section from Kew in Middlesex to the Cromwell Road in London completed in the 1950s. The eastern section of the M4 motorway (top left to top right) from Slough to the Chiswick flyover was opened in 1965. The white oblong on the right is the Griffin Park ground of Brentford Football Club.

Satellite view courtesy Google Maps. Click the image to open an interactive map of this area on Google Maps.

Today, Parliamentary elections are being held in the United Kingdom. What have football and party politics got in common? Both are capable of generating enormous levels of passion, both – in spite of the media hype – seem to leave a large portion of the population stone cold. I first noted the similarities between the two as a schoolboy.

Let us start at the beginning. In the early 1960s, whenever I could get away from school, much of my time was spent on the Grand Union (formerly Grand Junction) canal at Brentford where – having made friends with the lock-keeper at Lock 99 – I became his unofficial deputy. I had discovered the canal, the lock and my friendly lock keeper while on a cycle ride to explore the ex Great Western Railway Brentford branch line.

Firestone

Almost the entire section of the Brentford branch line that lies to the north-east of the Great West Road is visible in this photograph. It shows the area as it was in 1953. The Imperial Biscuit Works is the factory on the extreme left – it had its own siding as did Firestone Rubber Tyre factory in the foreground. This building with its iconic Art Deco frontage was demolished during the August 1980 bank holiday weekend before it could be listed.

Lock 99 of the Grand Union Canal is visible on the extreme right and Brentford Town Goods Depot is in the middle distance. Those with a keen eye will spot the Great Western main line and Wharncliffe Viaduct which carries the line over the River Brent valley. Photo ©Historic England.

(Click the image to see the original on the Historic England website and for details regarding reuse.)

At 07:00 each morning during the holidays, I would help to lock through 6 or 7 lighters (unpowered barges) that had been waiting below Lock 99 while their two-man crews (tractor driver and steerer) had breakfast at the café serving the Firestone Tyre factory.

Already the narrow boat pairs (motor boat and unpowered butty) heading for Birmingham had left the British Waterways Brentford Dock and locked through Lock 99, before the lock-keeper had come on duty. They were in a hurry to clear the 6 lock Hanwell Flight before the lighters began to move.

On Friday afternoons I was allowed to leave school early and as often as no cycling along the canal in the late afternoon, I would see a pannier tank haul a train of coal wagons along the branch where it ran parallel to the canal.

And so at an early age my life became linked with two transport routes that were on the way out: the railway to Brentford Docks and the Grand Union Canal. Meanwhile the M4 motorway was being cut through one of the lakes of Osterley Park and taken over Boston Manor Park on an ugly steel viaduct.

My lock keeper friend took me to see the run down Brentford Docks just before they closed in December 1964. The tractor-hauled lighters carried their loads up to Hanwell and Southall until the closure of London Docks. Long distance narrowboat carrying along the Grand Union continued on a small until the closure of Blisworth Tunnel for major engineering work in 1980.

It was easy to see even at my tender age that a tiny tractor pulling a barge loaded with 80 tons of cargo, or a pair of narrow boats carrying 50 tons between them with the motor boat powered by a single cylinder Bolinger engine, or an ex GWR 0-6-0PT 57xx class loco pulling 25 coal wagons, were all burning much less fossil fuel than if the same loads were being carried by heavy lorries. Likewise it did not require a Philosophy, Politics and Economics degree from Oxford to see connect the dots when a Minister of Transport called Ernest Marples was promoting a switch from rail to road while his wife’s company, Marples Ridgeway, was building motorways.

Biscuits and Firestone

The Great West Road, looking from Osterley towards the Brentford Dock branch line in 1931. The Imperial Biscuit Works is the first factory on the left and Firestone Rubber Tyre factory is far distance. Photo ©Historic England.

(Click on the image to see it on the Historic England website and for details of re-use.)

During the 1960s, a great deal of effort was expended explaining to the general public that railways make a loss and road transport is ‘more economic’ to justify the wholesale destruction of Britain’s railways. A great deal less was said then, and has been said since, about the way that this economic argument is slanted against railways which in the UK, as in Poland, are expected to bear their capital and maintenance costs – a charge which is not made on the balance sheet of road transport. If the environmental and health costs of unbridled road expansion are taken into account the case for investing in railways becomes even stranger.

Ever wondered why in countries such as Austria and Switzerland which do put their roads and railways on the same financial footing it still ‘pays’ to transport rail freight by the wagonload and also carry it over their extensive networks of narrow gauge railways.

In 1993, Britain’s railways were broken up into over 90 companies and privatised. Poland’s railways are undergoing a similar process and the privatisation of PKP Energytyka – responsible for supplying the traction current – and PKP Informatyka – responsible for PKP’s computer services – is being rushed through with indecent haste.

Not surprisingly the ‘reform’ pushed up costs and made long-distance ‘walk-on’ fares too expensive for ordinary people who switched coach services. Since those days the major political parties have produced a great deal of hot air – usually while in opposition – about making railway services more affordable for passengers and switching freight from road to rail. These promises are quickly forgotten as soon as the opposition party is elected to government.

Which brings me back to the football analogy at the start of today’s post. While the fans roar their support for one or other side, the real action is taking place off the pitch. Who will invest in the club? Which players should be bought? What will the sponsor want for his money?

As it is with football so it is with mainstream politics. If you share my concern for the destruction wrought by the UK’s pro road transport policy and have still not cast your vote, why not fire a shot across the bows of the mainstream political parties and cast a vote for the Green Party?

EPSON scanner image

The site of Brentford GWR station in 1961. Note the overhead wires for providing the traction current for trolleybuses. The footbridge to the British Waterways office at Lock 100 can just be discerned under the railway bridge, Photo ©Ben Brooksbank.

(Click on image for details of licensing.)

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