Thursday, 14 February 2008

The Modernisation of British Railways

At the end of the Second World War, British railways were in a mess. Capital investment had been non-existent and amazing feats had been performed by men and machines just to keep the railways going. Winston Churchill, the wartime leader, was thrown out and Labour got their hands on the levers of power. During the War, railways, road transport, canals and mining had all been under Government control, even if privately owned. This made it easier for the new Labour government to implement its 'Clause 4' and nationalise the railways and other industries. And so, 'British Railways' was born at the end of 1947. It was never going to be easy to forge a series of disparate companies with different backgrounds into a unified transport system.

Robert ('Robin') Riddles had performed well at the Ministry of Supply during the war, but he missed out on the CME's post on the LMS when Fairburn died. The job went to George Ivatt and Riddles became Vice President of the LMS. When the railways were nationalised, Riddles was appointed the first Chief Mechanical Engineer of British Railways. As CME, Riddles oversaw a complete series of new designs for steam locomotives. Ultimately, 999 new steam locomotives were produced, some seeing 'active service' for only a few years. In general, the new designs were well-received and the future of steam seemed assured.

But other changes were afoot. People had been changed by their experiences in wartime, whether on active service or, as civilians, drawn into the effects of war as never before. A shattered infrastructure was being rebuilt and people were looking for better times after the privations of war. Immigration from the Commonwealth introduced many new workers who, in general, accepted the unattractive jobs which the British were less inclined to perform but, even so, railway jobs became less and less popular, particularly those jobs associated with steam locomotives. The coal industry had also been Nationalised and, like the railways, was trying to adapt to a new world. Many mining jobs were every bit as unattractive as railway work and the coal industry suffered similar recruitment problems. The quality of coal for steam locomotives became very variable, adding to British Railways' problems in maintaining the services.

Significant effort had been invested in the possibility of converting steam locomotives for oil burning but, eventually, it was decided that imported oil was too scarce and expensive for railway use (this was, of course, before Britain became an oil producer in its own right). All these problems encouraged British Railways to consider a new direction using diesel and electric traction which, politically, was quite attractive as a sign of the modernisation of post-war Britain and so an ambitious programme emerged where steam locomotives (including the British Railways 'standards') were to be replaced by diesel or electric traction. In view of the earlier decision to abandon the programme for oil-burning steam locomotives, this change seems bizarre and one might expect that electrification, rather than dieselisation, would have been preferred.

Before the Second World War, the Southern Railway had brought in major electrification schemes using third-rail 750 volt d.c. and it was agreed that this would be extended on the Southern Region. The War had interrupted the Manchester-Sheffied-Wath electrification project which had been designed to use overhead catenary at 1500 volts d.c. This, and similar schemes on the Eastern region suburban lines from London, were allowed to proceed. However, for new projects, the use of overhead catenary with high voltage a.c. was now preferred. The Midland Railway had inaugurated its own a.c. scheme on the branches between Lancaster, Morecambe and Heysham early in the 20th century. By 1951, the equipment was worn out and it was decided that the necessary upgrading would be made to operate from 25kV a.c. 50Hz to provide working experience prior to major main-line electrification.

The former Great Western lines lost out twice. There had been long-standing plans to electrify the lines in the West Country, to solve some of the problems of working these heavily-graded lines but the scheme was never implemented. In addition, they had enthusiastically grasped the use of oil-fired steam locomotives but this scheme, too, was cancelled. What was on offer under British Rail was the use of Diesel Multiple Units for suburban and branch line use and large diesel locomotives for main-line trains. The independent spirit of the Great Western lived on in that diesel electric transmission was rejected in favour of diesel hydraulic. Certainly, Germany had introduced large diesel hydraulic locomotives successfully and the argument that died-in-the-wool steam locomen would adapt better to understanding this technology than becoming 'electricians' on diesel-electrics had some merit. There was also a brief flirtation with a couple of gas-turbine locomotives.

The LMS had considerable success with their diesel-electric shunting locomotives introduced before the Second World War and the design of the ubiquitous British Railways Class 08 and derivatives was based on these shunters. The LMS produced the first British main-line diesel electric locomotives (10000 and 10001) which saw service into the British Railways era. It was then the maverick designer O.V.S. Bullied who oversaw the production of three large diesel electrics for the Southern Region (10201, 10202 and, later, the more powerful 10203). Oddly enough, the Southern diesel-electrics spent most of their time on the London Midland Region and I had a number of journeys behind them. I completely failed to forsee how steam would be swept away by these noisy, smelly machines.

Alongside the introduction of the new motive power, the railway network was 'rationalised' following the politically-inspired Beeching Plan. There was certainly scope for taking away some of the remarkable route duplications which had resulted from 'Railway Mania' a century earlier and for looking at different treatments for some of the quieter branch lines. The advent of the Diesel Multiple Unit was promoted as the way to ensure an economical extended life for passenger services on minor lines and some success was achieved. However, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the political agenda behind much of the decision-making initiated the decline of public transport in this country which still continues, despite impressive claims to the contrary.