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Back on track


Nearly a century of decline preceded the present resurgence of Britain's railways, says Mike Winney.

When the 20th century dawned, Britain's railways were at their peak as the pre-eminent, mature transport system of the industrial age. Steam reigned supreme.

Eight decades of locomotive development had led to a range of machines for land transport of unmatched power, elegance and speed. These engines hauled trains weighing hundreds of tons at a mile-a-minute and more. Intercity travel was comfortable, reliable and affordable for all but the poorest classes. The rail network was virtually complete.

Just past the turn of the 19th century the Great Central Line was completed, the last trunk railway of any significance before the Channel Tunnel Rail Link was begun in 1998.

In 1900 regulations enforcing rigid safety discipline together with the well-oiled interlocking machinery of the complex, manually operated, switching and signalling equipment ensured that rail travel had a good safety record.

By the end of the 19th century rail transport was being introduced to city centres by street-running trams hauled by horses, centrally driven cables, and then electric traction.

The world's underground railways - true mass transit - had begun with the steam-hauled Metropolitan Railway, opened in 1863 to link the Great Western Railway's London terminus in Paddington, remote on the west side of town, to the City at Farringdon Street.

Deep level railways started at the turn of the century with London's City & South London electrically driven line, now the City branch of the Northern Line in 1890, and really got going when the Central Line opened from Bank to Shepherd's Bush in 1900.

At the beginning of the century, car ownership was restricted to the very rich. Long distance car travel was uncomfortable and prone to disruption from punctures and breakdowns. As a result, early this century railways had no rivals in Britain for journeys of between 10 and 500 miles.

With mass production, cars became cheaper and more reliable, and gradually began to erode rail's competitive edge. By the 1920s Britain's railways were beginning to feel the effects of increased car ownership. Cash starved railway companies consolidated into groups, with legendary names such as the London North Eastern Railway and London Midland & Scottish which were to compete harder than ever for the valuable express traffic between London, the North and Scotland.

Through the 1930s bigger and more powerful locomotives hauled trains even faster. LNER secured the ultimate steam record at 126mph.

But by the mid-1940s, six years of war service had reduced the railways to a decrepit state. The glamour had gone and independence went with nationalisation by the postwar Labour Government.

Postwar, car ownership boomed. Road freight was also on a roll with the advent of ever larger and faster trucks. Uninterrupted long distance road travel arrived in Britain with the upgrading of the A1 and the construction of the first motorways in the late 1950s.

In the railway depots, modernisation plans were devised, diesels, and occasionally gas turbine, locos were introduced and plans for high voltage electrification formed.

But the railway workshops were still knocking out steam locos with the same basic features of the 1820s' locos: coal fired boiler to generate steam; cylinders, pistons and cranks to drive the wheels; and a regulating lever for the driver to control the beast.

Somehow no one in British Railways seemed to notice that there were virtually no passengers on some lines and that freight was in decline. Then Dr Beeching arrived.

A cold and calculating examination of the hugely loss making rail network concluded that a revolutionary change was needed. This resulted in the culling of 8,000km of track and 2,363 stations.

Modernisation of the West Coast Main Line overlapped with Beeching and in the 1960s resulted in the first substantial length of railway to be re-equipped for high voltage overhead electrification. The Southern Railway had pioneered electrification earlier on with the relatively low cost, low voltage third rail system. But lack of investment since left many of its routes and much of its rolling stock resembling museum exhibits.

Powerful diesels replaced steam on the East Coast Main Line and Great Western. Then British Railways' Inter- City 125 diesel trains stepped up the speed on both these routes, creating some of the most intense high speed rail services in the world.

In the 1980s, France's Train a Grande Vitesse set the standard for the future, making 300km/h and more a normal cruising speed for railway travellers. High voltage electrification sharpened up the East Coast Main Line in the late 1980s but the Great Western, with its less intensive traffic, has stayed with ageing diesels. Ironically the current focus on the decrepit state of the WCML is directed at the 'modernising' 1960s signalling and infrastructure which is at the end of its life after just three decades. The earlier equipment had lasted almost a century.

Splitting nationalised British Railways into operating and infrastructure companies and then privatising them with the sale of the 16,000km of track assets in 1996 is a revolution that is still too recent to assess fully.

The change has stimulated substantial new investment and changed the perspective of railway operations. But inevitably, as direct Government subsidies are cut back year by year, there will be a sharper focus on revenue rather than service.

The core of the network is likely to increase in profitability as thrombosis spreads through the motorway network. But creative ideas and enthusiasm will be needed to save marginal lines.

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