British Rail: The Nation's Railway Hardcover – 1 Oct 2013
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About the Author
Tanya Jackson is the transfer development manager of the Historical Model Railway Society and has been in the society since 2000. Prior to this she worked as a journalist for a number of years and wrote comedy for BBC Radio. She has had a number of articles published on model railways.
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Jackson does write in the introduction this was originally to be titled "British Rail - a passenger's journey" but was changed because they felt it confusing. This title would definitely have served the book better, in my opinion.
The book starts around the development of the railways, their gradual amalgamation, the grouping of 1923 and nationalisation. A good chunk of the book is concerned with the development of passenger rolling stock, mainly the MK1, MK2, MK3 and MK4 carriages. The book goes into details about technical developments of the rolling stock and often tells interesting stories about BR. There are some gems of info in there, such as the invention of the pandrol clip for sleepers but this is only mentioned in the context of improving the riding qualities of the carriages.
Jackson does cover some other issues, such as how BR changed customer service. The truly innovative creation of the railway corporate scheme and how BR aggressively marketed itself against road and railway and closes with the disintegration of BR.
Overall I feel it is worth reading but if you want to read about BR infrastructure or the freight side then you need to look elsewhere.
Thoroughness of research, fair-mindedness and a bright and engaging style are the particular things that this book has to commend it. Tanya Jackson has to admit that British Railways became a bit of a joke at one time for perceived unreliability, surly staff and sad sandwiches in its buffets. Most of the British public probably realised to some extent that the railways were under-funded, but for a considerable time this was seen as inevitable because the railways were a sunset industry, due to lose out to road transport, (and to a lesser extent to air), and consequently a drain on the public finances. Even those (such as myself) with a dangerous little learning criticised the operation for seeming inability to keep up with its European counterparts. In particular BR stuck with steam haulage when France, Germany etc were converting to diesel and then to the more complete solution of electrification. The eventual change of mode was, beyond denying, shambolic, and that was as far as many got in gaining an understanding of the matter. However it seems that there was a deep underlying cause, one that was due to the very fact that Britain was the cradle of the world’s railways. It appears that the great original engineers (Stephenson and co) had saddled Britain with a restrictive loading gauge that could not cope with the kind of diesel haulage that they used on the continent, and that engines of more modest capacity were simply not available at first; so steam it had to be, and apparently the steam locomotive designs did a good job. I owe this insight to this book, and it is an example of what I mean by its thoroughness and fairness.
Things all look different now, and the book extends its historical survey into the new post-BR regime. These days road congestion leaves many people with no effective choice other than between taking the train to work or working from home. As regards internal air transport, the strictness of security these days and the length of checkin-times have wiped out what started as air transport’s advantage in speed. These points are glaringly obvious, but for some reason the book does not make them; and that is an example of the book’s main shortcoming, namely a rather variable focus and some lack of organisation of the material. Even-handedness is all very well, but sometimes I wished that Tanya Jackson would make up her mind. Where I felt this lack was mostly in the contentious issue of the Beeching reorganisation in the 60’s with its large programme of closures. Beeching’s main argument, that most of the network mileage contributed nothing to profits and much to cost overheads, was quite true as far as it went. However it had staring at us the likelihood that large areas of rural Britain would be left without public transport. Beeching’s glib promise that buses would fill the gap struck me as risible then and still does – why would bus operators serve unprofitable routes either? They wouldn’t, and they don’t. However I would have liked Tanya Jackson to take a firmer and more definite stance, and maybe even to enter into the environmental and carbon-saving questions that are clear now even if they were not clear then.
The book has a preface by Chris Green, who gets a good deal of honourable mention as the story progresses. I suggest that after completing Jackson’s account you should go back and read what Chris has to say again. Tanya Jackson ends by telling us that Green ‘argues for the private railway’. With respect, what he actually says is that his career has spanned both the nationalised and the privatised eras, and that there are things to be said for both. This is more what I would have expected him to say. Years ago I used to know Chris very well as a friend, but my last encounter with him was about 20 years ago outside his HQ at London Euston. I was going for a train and he was with colleagues, so our conversation got no further than my complimenting him on the job he was doing at Network Southeast and his replying ‘You like red lamp-posts, do you?’ Sadly, the occasion did not allow for more insight into his thinking. Even more sadly we did not get the opportunity to experience him as Chairman of BR, something many wanted to see. This is due largely to the complete failure of Neil Kinnock and the Labour Party to oust John Major’s government (a real comic turn, as Jackson hilariously describes) in 1992, which would have stopped the privatisation from ever happening.
The book is one that I recommend unreservedly both for what can be learned from it and for its pleasant if slightly clumsy writing style (I longed for a blue pencil with which to delete the excessive occurrences of ‘though’). I endorse exactly what Jackson has to say in describing the privatisation exercise as a hodge-podge motivated by spite as much as anything else, without denying that it has brought some advantages, many of them accidental. I only wonder what stopped her from pointing out what is now well known, namely that whatever is to be said for public/private financing initiatives the real reason for them is to keep the figures off the government’s balance-sheet. They end up as the most expensive of all options, and many a hospital can confirm that, as can London Transport.
If ever you travel by train and have wondered why something is done the way it is you'll probably find the reason in here.
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