on 1 October 2012
I`ve long been a fan of Shire Books - the slim paperbacks, mostly in A5 format, which are to be found on display in countless museums and other visitor attractions, though they can also be found on the high street (if you still have one) and, of course, on Amazon. There are, quite literally, hundreds of titles covering a wide spectrum of interests. The Shire approach is to engage a knowledgeable writer to write a brief but detailed summary of the selected topic, well-illustrated and in sufficient depth to provide the interested reader with a clear basic grounding in the subject. Most Shire books are very good, though inevitably some are better than others, but without doubt this is - on all fronts - the best I have had the pleasure of reading.
The title may not be particularly inspiring to anyone who is not a rail enthusiast, but don't let that put you off. There is much more than railway nostalgia here; this is cutting-edge social history, offering an extremely perceptive and well-balanced analysis of the difference (or, in some cases, the gulf) between the changing popular and political perceptions of the place of rail transport in Britain. The author, Greg Morse, is a professional in the rail industry, specialising in operational safety. He is also a fine writer. The introduction is a superb evocation of the `feel' of the railway in 1950 and in 1969, beautifully written, though with a worrying tendency to induce tears of nostalgia. The technical and historical material which follows is presented with impeccable clarity, accuracy and logic.
In just 56 pages, the book comprises the introduction already mentioned, followed by five chronological chapters, broadly covering the impact of nationalisation, the 1950s modernisation plan, the Beeching years, the end of steam traction and a vision of the future as seen from 1969. There are more than 60 illustrations, two-thirds of which are in colour; many of the latter are of excellent quality, including several sharp and accurately colour-balanced images from the early 1950s. There are two appendices, the first a bibliography which includes a selection of filmed material, the second a list of places to visit, including museums and a selection of heritage railways with an appropriate period ambience. The book is rounded off by a brief but useful index.
This period in the history of the British railway system is deeply controversial, and much of the published material relevant to the era is significantly skewed, either by overly traditional attitudes owing more to nostalgia than to serious economic analysis, or by unquestioning political allegiance. Greg Morse puts the unadorned facts before the reader; there is no bias, but the consequences which flowed from decisions made or action taken are clearly illustrated.
In essence, the problem was - and to some extent still is - a severe lack of long-term planning consequent upon the polarised objectives which are a characteristic of our confrontational two-party political system. The difficulty was exacerbated both by the self-serving political expediency of successive governments and by the misguided actions of over-powerful unions seeking short-term financial benefits at the cost of significant erosion of long-term job security. Of course, the second decade of our period covered the controversial reign of Dr. Richard Beeching, but Beeching simply did what he was asked to do. Admittedly, some of his data-gathering techniques would never be contemplated today, a good example being his reliance on the point of income receipt rather than the actual traffic flow. This crude measurement seriously misrepresented the contribution of branch feeders, especially those terminating at popular holiday destinations - the good people of places like Ventnor will never forgive him! But he was not the real villain of the piece - that distinction belongs to Ernest Marples, the Minister of Transport who appointed Dr. Beeching. Marples Ridgway was a major road construction company, so `to avoid any conflict of interest' Marples was required to divest himself of his shareholding in the company. He duly did so, but it ultimately transpired that the shares were effectively transferred to his wife. There undoubtedly WAS a conflict of interest; under Marples' stewardship the railway was seen not as a public service, but merely as a competitor in the field of transport. However, another change of government in 1964 heralded another new approach. To Beeching's acerbic successor, Sir Stanley Raymond, tradition was anathema, and modernisation again became the order of the day. Raymond's tenure was short, but he was responsible for a number of innovations which came to fruition under his successors. The 1968 Transport Act had wiped out BR's accumulated debt of £153 million, and the future looked distinctly brighter.
So, over two decades, the scale of change was truly amazing. In 1950, British Railways was building new steam locomotives - the last not completed until 1960. The basic infrastructure had changed relatively little in the preceding half-century; progress had been achieved on many fronts, but tended to be piecemeal rather than in pursuit of any comprehensive plan. The liveries of the Big Four companies had largely disappeared, replaced by the new BR livery, with its `blood and custard' coaching stock, but on the whole the status quo seemed destined to last forever. By 1969, steam had gone completely; diesels reigned supreme, though there was some progress with electrification. too. British Rail had adopted a new livery of blue and grey, the `Inter-City' brand had been adopted and the Inter-City 125 was on the drawing board. A new age was beckoning, but in the course of the 20-year period then ending, the amount of public money utterly wasted - largely because of the absence of any sort of long-term strategy attracting cross-party support - was truly staggering. Find out much more by buying the book - at the current (September 2012) Amazon price of £5.24 it's the bargain of the century!