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Thursday, 16 May, 2002, 11:01 GMT 12:01 UK
Bad railways? Blame it on the 1950s
Steam engine
Britain's railways were stuck in the steam age
After the train crash at Potters Bar, attention has again been focused on our beleaguered railways. The sorry state of the network can be traced back 50 years when the first plans to modernise fell flat, finds a BBC Radio 4 documentary.

Back in the steam-driven 1950s, the government was advised it was a waste of money to invest heavily in the railways. They were a soon to be obsolete form of transport - since in 30 years' time its passengers would instead be taking to the skies in helicopters.


We do not have a railway system which is fit for the 21st century

Stephen Byers

Now, with neither an efficient railway nor personal helicopters to travel in, the UK is paying the price.

As our railways lurch from one crisis to the next, Transport Minister Stephen Byers has admitted: "We do not have a railway system which is fit for the 21st century".

Stuck in the steam age

In 1947 the railways were nationalised under the British Transport Commission.

Severely damaged during World War II, the rail network the government had inherited was not only dilapidated but also facing a dire financial crisis.

Steam train
The promised transport revolution never happened
While other European countries and the Americans were experimenting with diesel and electric technologies, British railways were suffused in the tradition of steam - an operating system which did not necessarily meet passenger requirements.

Cyril Sharpe, a former engine driver, remembers the steam trains as "the most horrible, dirtiest things I ever came across in my life. It represented nothing but hard graft."

The railways, once considered the symbol of British modernity, were now stuck in a Victorian time warp.

The modernisation plan

Realising it was time for action, the British Transport Commission came up with a massive modernisation plan in 1955.


In the 1950s we have a railway which is having some difficulty defining its future and deciding what it is doing

Professor Colin Divall
The cost of modernisation was estimated at 1.2bn - a huge sum for the 1950s.

After years of neglect, half of the money was required simply to nurse the existing network back to its former health.

The remainder was to be dedicated to modernisation - the final decisive shift from steam to electrification.

Envisaging the future

The government's response to the modernisation plan revealed immediate uncertainty.

Some called the plan imaginative. Others urged caution, still doubting whether the railways had a future.

Lord Cherwell, the special government economic adviser, backed this more pessimistic view of the train's life expectancy.

Prime Minister Winston Churchill
Winston Churchill: Told trains would be obsolete
He argued "that helicopters or other formats of transport" might well reduce the need for railways, and advised the then Prime Minister Winston Churchill that it would be a waste of money "bolstering up an obsolete form of transport".

And other politicians, including the soon to be Transport Minister Ernest Maples, were only too aware of the growing political importance of mass motoring.

As scepticism grew about the future of railways, resources correspondingly shrunk.

Britain fails to modernise

Modernisation plans came to an abrupt halt in the early 1960s when the government made a brutal assessment of the rail operation's lack of profitability.

Major electrification plans were shelved and steam trains, manufactured until 1960, was replaced mostly with a cheaper option - untested diesels.

High speed Japanese train, at Kyoto Station
The Japanese had their bullet trains
While rail industries in Japan and Europe were forging ahead with state support - Japan had bullet trains and brand new diesels were speeding around France - Britain made do with the "Deltic" train, powered by a speed boat engine bolted on to a locomotive chassis.

The pattern of decline for Britain's railways was set.

The 1960s and 1970s became the "decades of underinvestment" as the growing motor industry fast took political priority - something which the modernisation plans had utterly failed to anticipate.

Repeating past mistakes

Professor Colin Divall a Professor of Railway Studies sees clear parallels between the anguish of 1950s and the current debate about our railways.


Most of my life we have been saying there must be a transport policy and there never is

Sir David Serpell
"In the 1950s we have a railway which is having some difficulty defining its future and deciding what it is doing."

Then as now, he says, the government was fond of making grand statements and setting tough targets for the rail industry but "is not really willing to engage in a serious or sustained debate about what the railways is really there for".

Or as Sir David Serpell, a senior transport official during the 1960s, puts it: "Most of my life we have been saying there must be a transport policy. There never is."

The first of the Why Did We Do That? series, Retarded Railways, was broadcast in the UK on BBC Radio 4 at 2000BST on Thursday, 16 May, 2002.

See also:

27 Feb 02 | UK Politics
Transport groups demand stability
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