WITH the railway industry in ferment – with passenger numbers dropping, crippling strikes on the horizon and a dramatic reorganisation in prospect, Christian Wolmar’s new history of the nationalised British Rail could not be more timely. Long the butt of jokes about curling sandwiches and the “wrong kind of snow”, Wolmar’s insightful book goes a long way to rescue its image, laying to rest many shibboleths on the way. Many mistakes were made in the early days after 1948 as the new organisation strove to merge the Big Four private companies, exhausted by war. Notable among these was investing in steam locomotives (such as the 1951-buit Britannia class pictured above) when we should have gone for electrification.
In the early days, the railway was staggeringly inefficient – a third of the network carried just 1 per cent of passengers and 1 percent of freight and antiquated tank engines bumbled around weed-covered branch-lines, transporting fresh air. Wolmar shows how BR managers woke up to modernity. By the 1980s, it was one of the most efficient systems in Europe, with fewer subsidies than France, Germany or Italy. Slick new brands such as InterCity, ScotRail and Network SouthEast were created and Britain built the best diesel trains in the world – the InterCity 125s.
Much of the progress, Wolmar argues, was thanks to Dr Richard Beeching, who slashed the network by a third. A necessary pruning, Wolmar argues, since the tracks could never have flourished in the age of the motor car. Soon, we are to have a new organisation called Great British Railways as the disastrous privatised system is dismantled. With many lessons to be learned, Wolmar’s book should be required reading for its new managers.
British Rail: A new history is published by Michael Joseph, price £30