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 921⁄2 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.

Serpell in Context

British Rail entered the 1970s under the personable chairmanship of Richard Marsh, a passionate advocate of the Channel Tunnel. The Tory administration, under Edward Heath, generally accepted that there was no financially viable network size for BR. Line and station closures virtually came to an end.

But there was still a battle to fight.The railway was seen as loss making. The residential, commercial and industrial belts of the country were being developed around the rapidly expanding road network, a situation which fueHST (1) [online]lled Lord Donald Stokes, chairman of British Leyland, to constantly argue for ever heavier lorries.

Everyone who was pro-rail needed to speak up in favour of the industry; there were many vested interests determined to destroy it, or at least to cripple it from ever again becoming the nation’s principal form of transport.

In 1974, Harold Wilson’s Labour Party was returned to power and the compelling case for railways continued to be recognised. This was borne out by the introduction two years later, of the world beating High Speed Train which became known as the InterCity 125. It had been designed by British Rail engineers at Derby and a total of 100 trains were built by British Rail Engineering Limited (BREL) at Crewe Works between 1976 and 1982.

Fastest diesel trains in the world

These trains had a high revving diesel locomotive at each end. On test a speed of 143 mph was reached and they were heralded as the fastest diesel trains in the world and put British rail technology into world class again.

These trains also introduced the superb Mk 3 coaches, renowned for their quiet spaciousness and highest degree of comfort – factors which enabled these thousand miles a day trains to capture both the business and leisure markets. They had all the modernity which BR sought.

The HSTs upgraded both East Coast Main Line and the Great Western Main Line, over which they put Bristol within seventy minutes of Paddington. They later revolutionised services on the Midland Main Line, linking the capital with the shire counties and continue to do so.

The introduction of the HSTs and the electrification of the West Coast Main Line brought a massive increase in rail travel. These new trains provided the basis for the InterCity marque, which was to become the sixth best known brand in Britain.

A sophisticated advertising campaign for peak time television was accepted on face value and people flocked to the railway – and for peak hour business travellers, the Great British Breakfast too. It was a success story which reverberated around the world and InterCity became one of Europe’s most profitable railways.

Another triumph, this one under the chairmanship of Peter Parker, was the electrification of the southern reaches of the Midland Main Line from Bedford to St Pancras and Farringdon. Under the brand name of Thameslink (Capital Connect today) this railway ran through the heart of London connecting the Midlands with Brighton.

The 100 mph 319 Class EMUs for this service were built in York and had dual voltage capacity for running over the 25 kV ac overhead on the Midland Main Line and the 750v dc third rail of the Southern network.

Margaret Thatcher

In 1979 the Conservative government under Margaret Thatcher came to power with a large majority. Their manifesto included widespread privatisations of state owned utilities such as telecom, water, gas, electricity and ideally railways and the Post Office. These last two would have been included but there was no clear proposal how this might be done and there were many MPs who regarded these as privatisations too far.

However, BR was directed to dispose of its non-rail interests. Sealink UK was formed out of the former BR shipping and international services division. The hotels were disposed of piecemeal and BR’s manufacturing capacity had already been reorganised to create British Rail Engineering Limited.Ribblehead Viaduct [online]

Also the selling off of huge amounts of railway land created a massive boost for BR’s coffers until the property market collapsed in the 1980s.

Ever keen for good relations with the government, Peter Parker asked David Howell, the Transport Secretary, to outline exactly what the government wanted from the railway and this gave rise to the Serpell Report commissioned in 1982. Parker had seen this as an opportunity to promote a programme of extensive modernisation but 1982 – the year of the report’s production – was bedevilled by strikes on the railway.

Serpell’s report proved to be far from the development programme the railway board had hoped for.

Instead it was an outline of what railway could be sustained for any given amount of tax payers’ money.

The report consisted of a number of optional plans featuring massive fare increases and a reduction of the national route mileage from 10,500 miles to an incredible 1,630 miles. Further reductions in costs were proposed by relaxing safety standards and leaving vast areas of the country with no railway at all.

As an example of the severity of this Somerset, Devon and Cornwall, Worcestershire and Northumberland would have no railways at all. Only 22 miles of railway would survive in Wales and little more in Scotland. Leicester and Derby would not be rail connected.

Not surprisingly many of the most bizarre aspects of Serpell were leaked to the press, creating widespread damnation before it was published. It created a furore across the nation and became an embarrassment to the government as the contents of the report were arguably treasonable.

The Serpell Report contained elements which were infamously worse than anything Beeching had produced. However, Beeching’s humbug was implemented whereas Serpell’s was not. His report was consigned to the dustbin where it belonged and great credit goes to David Howell and Norman Fowler in ensuring that it did.

It is against this frighteningly unstable background that Sir Alfred Sherman said, in a memo to Margaret Thatcher, ‘Rail is an anachronism and has been since the pneumatic tyre let alone the internal combustion engine.’ 1980 saw the deregulation of long distance coaches.

In spite of Sherman, who was obsessive about turning railways into roads, all rail closures had stopped. A milestone occurred in 1991 when British Rail announced that Ribblehead Viaduct on the Settle and Carlisle line was dangerous and the route would have to close.

This followed years of running the line down including closing stations and diverting traffic. It was built as part of the Midland Railway’s route from London to Scotland and the 72 mile section from Settle to Carlisle was brilliantly engineered through some of England’s wildest and most majestic terrain.

Its epic grandeur provided picturesque views. It had been a tortuous line to construct and resulted in many deaths but the line was a national heirloom which attracted visitors both from home and overseas.

With Beeching and Serpell in mind, preservation groups got together and ran a massive campaign to save the line. The Settle and Carlisle Railway Trust was formed by local authorities, along with the English Tourist Board. Support came from all over Britain and in 1989 the government agreed that the line should stay.Great British Breakfast (3) [online]

Stations were re-opened, engineering work was carried out with great success and today the route is a huge tourist attraction, an important freight artery and a permanent diversionary route for the West Coast Main Line.

Peter Parker stood down as BR chairman in 1983 to be replaced by career railwayman Sir Robert Reid who, within two years had secured authority to electrify the East Coast Main Line linking London with Edinburgh and Glasgow. This was to be a further triumph with the introduction of 140 mph InterCity 225 trains.

The miners strike of 1985 lost BR an enormous amount of revenue and it marked the decimation of the coal industry and with it a reduction in the railway’s core business. With a newly elected Tory government in office, still under Mrs Thatcher, the question of railway privatisation was inevitably raised.

In 1983 Reid had already broken up the regional structure of British Rail and developed the dramatic concept of Sectorisation. A new, colourful, way of operating the railways was revealed and he prepared a framework for the incredible industry we have today.

Photographs courtesy of Milepost 92 1/2