British Rail: A New History by Christian Wolmar - review by David Gelber

David Gelber

Carriage Story

British Rail: A New History


Michael Joseph 394pp £30

Two years ago, Mick Lynch, a red-in-tooth-and-crankshaft trade unionist, might have seemed the last of a dying breed. With Britain stuck in a seemingly inexorable loop of lockdowns, there was a notion that trains and all who live by them were for the breaker’s yard. Now, after masterminding a series of national rail strikes, Lynch is king of the tracks. He has vaulted the railways back onto the political agenda, and with his soundbite-ready denunciations of Tory rule has also won the freedom of the airwaves.

Lynch is one of the faces of the modern British railway. Another is Michael Portillo, who offers, in suitably pastel-coloured attire, a gentler vision. In his Great British Railway Journeys, now thirteen series old, he travels across the country in airy, noiseless carriages, with no hint of points failures, leaves on the line or cable theft, let alone industrial action. Past and present are welded together as smoothly as steel track; conflict belongs firmly in the past. Rather less well dressed (or perhaps better) is Francis Bourgeois, the TikTok trainspotter. With his nasal tones and maniacal bellows of excitement on station platforms, Bourgeois is either the apex of the breed or a strangely committed satirist of it. Whichever one, his videos of passing locomotives (or more often of himself, with the odd snort of a diesel engine in the background) have garnered tens of millions of views. Then there is Mark Smith, aka the Man in Seat Sixty-One, whose reassuringly 2000s-style website is the go-to for anyone wanting to understand the difference between an off-peak and a super off-peak return, and what the enigmatic words ‘any permitted route’ printed on a train ticket really allow.

The thing that should worry those who use Britain’s trains is that none of these figures actually represent the railways. Could any travelling passenger name the chief executive of Govia Thameslink, Avanti West Coast or any of the other twenty or so train operating companies in the UK? One of the striking aspects of Christian Wolmar’s new history of British Rail (BR) is how prominent its leaders were on the public stage. Peter Parker, its chairman from 1976 to 1983, could be found doing voiceovers for BR advertisements, dressing up in drivers’ uniform for photoshoots and presenting himself for interview on national television. His successor, Robert Reid, had a direct line to the secretary of state for transport, with whom he went shooting, and was on first-name terms with Denis Thatcher.

Of course, the fragmentation of the railways following privatisation in the 1990s means that they are no longer run by a single industrial baron in the Parker mould. Nevertheless, they are now significantly busier than they were in his time – between 1983 and the start of the pandemic, passenger numbers increased by two and a half times. Furthermore, the companies that run them have powers seldom seen in the private sector: the ability to determine when, how and in what state passengers are delivered to their workplaces or homes; the right to fine, investigate and prosecute customers, often on trifling pretexts; the care, even, of the lives of travellers. With their own customs and estates, laws and bylaws, the railways are a world apart. Who actually accounts for them?

That question might be answered next year, when Great British Railways, a new body set up to superintend the rail network, is launched. Its awkward name – part throwback to BR, part patriotic boosterism in the Boris Johnson mould, part aspiration – speaks to the uncertainty facing Britain’s railways. The pandemic decimated passenger numbers and revenue, while the one blue-riband project, High Speed Two, has become a political plaything, its route being sliced and diced according to the exigencies of Parliamentary arithmetic on any given day.

As Wolmar shows, however, uncertainty is nothing new where trains are concerned. The railways have been in almost permanent crisis since 1948, when the Big Four, the handful of companies that had dominated the interwar railways, were brought into public ownership by Clement Attlee’s Labour government. Indeed, crisis as much as ideology lay behind railway nationalisation. Overuse and underinvestment during the war years, not to mention the depredations of the Luftwaffe, had left the railways in a threadbare state and the Big Four effectively bankrupt.

Yet nationalisation did not solve the railways’ financial problems. From the mid-1950s up to privatisation, BR failed to make a profit, notwithstanding a series of cost-cutting expedients. The most notorious of these were the closures overseen by Richard Beeching in the early 1960s, when over two thousand stations were eliminated from the network. Wolmar reminds us that this was merely the peak of a continuous retrenchment drive, which saw successive rounds of station and branch-line closures, staffing reductions and sales of assets, including the fifty-four hotels, the multi-million-pound wine cellar and the handful of golf courses BR had inherited from the Big Four. The other side of economisation was the launch of new products, such as the InterCity brand, to draw in more passengers. Some of these proved effective, but the surplus was never enough to pay for the loss-making parts of BR’s business.

Wolmar is no fan of privatisation. His book, however, is hardly an advertisement for nationalisation, even if one accepts the need for state subsidy to keep the trains running. He itemises the poor decisions taken by BR that left the railways in Britain lagging behind their continental equivalents. For two decades after the war, BR persisted with expensive, polluting and labour-intensive steam locomotives, not wishing to go to war with the trade unions in either the rail or coal sectors. Steam engines were finally withdrawn in Britain in 1968, four years after Japan’s bullet train had made its debut. Their main replacements were diesel locomotives, with electrification proceeding painfully slowly (still today, when rail is heralded as a green alternative, only some 40 per cent of lines are electrified).

Even successes, such as the development in the 1970s of the High Speed Train (HST), the fastest diesel-powered train in the world, must be seen in the round. The HST, also known as the Inter-City 125, offered new levels of speed and comfort for passengers, but most continental rail operators had by then electrified their lines, meaning that its export potential was minimal. The working culture Wolmar documents doesn’t much lighten the picture either: drivers drinking on duty, unions shot through with sexism, managers travelling in private saloon carriages while paying passengers were jammed into ancient rolling stock.

Wolmar is the high priest of railway studies and it is to his credit that he sets aside his own convictions to offer a delays-and-all perspective. Some of the best parts of his book come in the sidelights, as when he describes the special trains laid on for hop pickers (along with the unfortunate consequences), or when he explains the use of slip coaches – carriages detached from a rake at speed and allowed to drift into a station under their own momentum, letting the rest of the train proceed without stopping. He is constantly alert to the importance of marketing in making the railways, with all their shortcomings, attractive to travellers. He is less good on business practices: his attempt to explain compulsory competitive tendering, for instance, will have readers turning to Google.

What Wolmar does communicate very effectively is the supreme difficulty of running a railway, with its huge fixed assets, astronomical overheads and susceptibility to changes in government, technology, the energy market and the natural environment. Great British Railways is still searching for a CEO. Could this be Wolmar’s job application?

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