Top critical review
8 people found this helpful
British Rail as a train operator
on 16 January 2014
This is the story of British Rail as a train operating company. The first chapter discusses railway organisations pre-BR and then the book settles in to talk about marketing and trains themselves. There is plenty of talk about `PEP's and `VEP's etc. However, stations, infrastructure engineering and signalling of trains (all the things that Network Rail does today) are dismissed with a few one liners such as `resignalling', `electrification' `standard rail clips, `continuously welded rail', `TOPS'. There is nothing at all about the development of large signalling control centres, the hugely innovative Solid State Interlocking' (SSI) and Integrated Electronic Control Centre' (IECC), nor of the stewardship of track, structures and electrified lines. So I'm afraid the book covers only half the story of British Rail!
In Chapter 12 the book suddenly changes tack and launches into brief discussions of train disasters. There is no consistent pattern as to why these particular accidents have been singled out for mention: Harrow (SPAD), Hither Green (broken rail), Tattenhall Jn (broken rail), Hixon (slow vehicle collision at AHB), Whiteball (fire aboard sleeper cars), Clapham (signal interlocking bare wire due to poor quality wiring work), Newton (SPAD).
The penultimate chapter covers privatisation which I found to be a most riveting and accurate assessment of the situation. The process was rightly denigrated, with suitable words such as `circus', `incompetence' and `scorched earth policy'. The book does not mention that in his report, McNulty has stated publicly that none of the objectives of privatisation have been achieved. However, the author does acknowledge that the fragmented industry costs substantially more than a unified BR. Also not mentioned, was that BR's final organisation `OfQ' had significant disadvantages in the way that signalling of trains, management of infrastructure maintenance was split up into the businesses including Inter-City and Regional Railways. Artificial boundaries were set up to divide up infrastructure. InterCity signallers at key junctions unreasonably gave total priority to their own early or late running trains. OfQ may have enabled the businesses to have visibility of the full cost of running their trains but the structure was deeply inefficient. Happily this was one thing that privatisation put right to a certain extent. The signalling of trains and overarching infrastructure management was bought back under the control of a single organisation known as Railtrack.
There are several little slip-ups. It is stated that `second' class was replaced by `standard' class by the BTC in 1987. However, BTC ceased to exist in 1963! In discussing the Thameslink project, the point is missed that the quadrupling of tracks through Borough Market facilitates segregation of Thameslink trains and those using Charing Cross, thereby substantially increasing capacity to the latter.
In the section on accidents it gets worse. We are told that the Automatic Warning System (AWS) provides a blank disc when approaching a green signal and warns the driver by a horn in the cab if he has passed a signal at red. This is incorrect. Next, the purpose of a double yellow isn't just for the attention of freight drivers. The `T' of `S&T' stands for Telecommunications not `telegraph'. Automatic Train Protection' (ATP) apparently warns a driver if he `goes through a yellow' whatever that means. The description of a single-lead junction is convoluted. A sketch would have explained the simple concept.
Finally, there are two sets of photographs. The first batch is in monochrome. This is disappointing as, in colour, there would have been a stunning contrast of train liveries such as the Glasgow Blue Train, Deltic in two-tone green and large BR logo Class 50 in blue. Both batches cover just trains and marketing. There are no stations, signal boxes, spectacular viaducts, tunnels etc.
Having worked in the industry since the mid-1960s it is clear to me that on a shoestring budget throughout its existence, BR presided over a cost effective and efficient railway. This didn't come over very strongly in the book probably because the sheer magnitude of what BR did has not been presented in a balanced way.