This year sees the fiftieth anniversary of Richard Beeching’s ‘The Re-Shaping of British Railways’. Writes Colin Garratt

2013 also sees the thirtieth anniversary of the Serpell Report. These two events mirrored the tempestuous undertones of railway policy in the years following World War Two.

In this eight part series Colin Garratt, of Milepost 92½, outlines the turbulent events which led up to the privatisation of British Rail in 1993, concluding with an analysis of the current situation and where it might be heading.

Part 1: A Rough War

The mid 1930s saw Britain’s railways at their zenith, operating at a high level of efficiency. Safety, comfort, punctuality and speed were self imposed commitments of all true railwaymen. The network was dense and embraced everywhere that was anywhere. Closures were almost unheard of and unimagined.

The last main line to London, the Great Central, which had been built some thirty five years earlier was engineered to the continental loading gauge and it had been intended to link the industrial cities of northern Britain with those of the continent by means of the Great Central and Channel Tunnel on which work had begun as far back as the 1870s.

The blitz on London. William Barlow's arch at St Pancras received a direct hit from the Luftwaffe.

The blitz on London. William Barlow’s arch at St Pancras received a direct hit from the Luftwaffe.

Romantic and Exciting

In the 1930s railways were a widespread source of fascination and were considered to be both romantic and exciting. The LNER A4 Pacifics and the LMS Princess Coronations were the Concordes of their day and worked prestigious Anglo Scottish trains like the Silver Jubilee and the Coronation Scot.

Thousands of people would flock to the trackside to see these magnificent trains pass at speed. In 1932 one of the LMS’s Princess Royal Pacifics ran the 401 miles non-stop from Glasgow to London Euston in 5 hours 44 minutes, an average start to stop speed of 70 mph.

The LMS alone had 67 daily trains scheduled to run at speeds above 60 mph in 1938 whilst the Great Western proclaimed its Cheltenham Flyer to be ‘The Fastest Train in the World’ and on one occasion this express, headed by a Castle Class 4-6-0, ran the 77 miles from London Paddington to Swindon in 56½ minutes, an average start to stop speed of 90 mph.

The most intricate railway network in the world

Despite increasing competition from road transport, the 1930s saw the railway still carrying a vast diversity of freight and the Big Four companies, London Midland & Scottish, London & North Eastern, Great Western and Southern, all operated at a profit.

The system was impeccably maintained. It was the most intricate railway network in the world – a fact of enormous strategic importance in the war that was to come. To be a railwayman was a source of great personal pride. The railway was absolute; if the railway stopped, Britain stopped.

The advent of World War Two plunged the railway into deep crisis. Never again would it assume its rightful supremacy as the nation’s lifeline. The inevitability of war saw the government take control of the railway on September 1st 1939.

Inevitably the network would become a constant target for German bombers and locations such as railway works, running sheds, major stations and marshalling yards were all subjected to relentless bombing by a ruthless enemy, as the Germans attempted to smash the railway into inoperability and with it the nation’s morale.

Air attacks on important installations such as railways invariably wreaked a litany of problems as, apart from the severing of operations, came the risk of fire, which frequently spread to neighbouring buildings. Hundreds of tonnes of masonry could be left hanging in extremely hazardous conditions and not infrequently with people trapped beneath it.

LMS streamlined Princess Coronation Class 4-6-2 No.6220 'Coronation' at Euston with the Coronation Scot in 1937.

LMS streamlined Princess Coronation Class 4-6-2 No.6220 ‘Coronation’ at Euston with the Coronation Scot in 1937.

Damage to installations like electricity, gas and water all brought their special problems, invariably requiring specialist engineers who were in constant demand 24 hours a day.

A Leicester knitwear manufacturer, who got through to London St Pancras – having stood on a heavily laden train which crawled all the way – proceeded to see five clients in the city. She found only one of them in an undamaged building. The other four had all disappeared in an air attack earlier that week.

Unprecedented demands

World War Two was to kill forty five million people, the sheer horror of which was caused primarily by one man. The six year war put unprecedented demands on Britain’s railway network and by the end of hostilities in 1945, the railway was physically and mentally worn out.

It had been the willing workhorse of both the civilian population and the allied forces and the adversities faced were legion, not least the loss of the major workshops, which were given over to the building of munitions.

Railway works the length and breadth of the country were largely engaged in manufacturing armaments and military equipment: tank manufacture at Crewe; guns and gun mountings at Doncaster; shells, bridges and landing craft at Eastleigh and Swindon and aircraft wings at Wolverton.

Repairs to aircraft were also carried out in railway workshops. In addition, the railway had to cede 110,000 staff for military service and whilst outside people were brought in to help relieve the deficiency, including many women, they were inexperienced; a railwayman is not made in a day.

The demands on the system were hard to imagine in today’s context. Many factories went on twenty four hour, seven days a week operation. Raw materials had to be delivered to the places of manufacture and finished products taken out and delivered.

A centralised wagon control centre was established to co-ordinate the availability of one and a half million wagons. The War Office had stores throughout the country necessitating movements from the factory to depots and depots to ports.

Hell on earth

The Black Out, which was strictly enforced, created a hell on earth. One errant fire glow from a locomotive could release a hail of bombs from Hitler’s Luftwaffe, causing untold damage.

The needs of a country at war brought an immense increase in freight traffic.

The needs of a country at war brought an immense increase in freight traffic.

In addition, the war years were characterised by some of the worst weather conditions of the century with frosts and heavy snow for three consecutive seasons. Lines were blocked whilst everything that could freeze froze – points, the brake gear on freight wagons, signal wires snapped, locomotive injectors iced up and grease in the axles of wagons solidified.

In the early days of the conflict, evacuation specials took vast numbers of children from cities to safe residences in the countryside and in 1939, half a million school children were evacuated in four days. Ambulance trains ran throughout the nation and troop trains, each averaging up to five hundred personnel, were a common sight. During the evacuation of Dunkirk over 300,000 military personnel were carried by rail.

A gentler manifestation of war was the ‘Dig for Victory’ campaign whereupon many railway embankments were turned into allotments to help with the ever present risk of food shortages as the Nazis had a plan to starve Britain into submission.

Infrastructure and rolling stock became increasingly run down, as did the locomotives, but the steam locomotive is a simple robust machine of rugged construction, characteristics which enabled it to take inordinate punishment without actually breaking down.

‘The engines which won  the war’

The phenomenal loads carried by such types as Gresley’s V2s on the LNER and Stanier’s Black 5s on the LMS gave rise to these locomotives being known as ‘the engines which won the war’, an appropriate description, especially when one considers the many situations when locomotives were more important than guns. It will ever be remembered that virtually all of Britain’s wartime railway was powered by steam.

And the railway fought back. Fully manned emergency permanent way trains were stabled at strategic junctions throughout the country ready, by day and night to repair bomb damage. Accident wreckage, which today might take three days or more to repair, would often be cleared in a matter of hours with little more shortcoming than a speed restriction.

Throughout the agony of the war years, Britons had one constant thought, D Day, to get back once more across the channel and rid Europe of the Nazi menace. And when that day finally arrived train load after train load of equipment, supplies and men were taken from all over Britain to the eastern ports from which this unparalleled operation would begin.

As George Nash wrote in his magnificent book ‘The LMS at War’; “What about the movement of equipment, munitions, armour and food for the fighting men?

There was porridge for his breakfast, shells for his guns and boots for his feet – beer to bulldozers, pencils to purgatives, saucepans to cement, together with special equipment for service anywhere from the Arctic Circle to the tropical jungles or from the near stratosphere to the depths of the sea.”

So far as the railways were concerned these had to be drawn to or from the ports and also from place to place within the country to keep Britain’s mighty military machine in operation. As Winston Churchill proudly proclaimed, “This was their finest hour”.

Photographs supplied by Milepost 92 1/2