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A History of the British Railway

Part 3

Definitive quote of the era?

Barry: Good news - all the trains are running normally.

Willie: Bad news - all the trains are running normally.

[Audience howls with laughter.]

From I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue 20th March 1982

The nationalisation of the British Railway network had been anticipated since the beginning of the 20th century, but it was not until the 1st of January 1948 that the scheme was actually implemented. The Great Western Railway, the London, Midland and Scottish Railway, the London and North Eastern Railway and the Southern Railway were the main consitituents of this grand scheme to create one national railway company, but various small independent concerns which had struggled through the war years without being noticed also slipped into the new company. The only two omissions of any note were the Talyllyn and Festiniog railways in Wales, of which the latter was dead and the former was doing good impressions of being slightly more dead, so the Ministry of Transport was quite happy to leave them out. Neither significantly features further in this article, being of more interest to railway preservation.

Nationalisation was therefore a simple step to take, although it was flawed in one detail - the money paid out to the railways went to the owners in compensation for taking their shares rather than to the industry to pay for repairs. Consequently the whole thing was entirely screwed from the start and several of the more tragic features of the following tale were largely inevitable.

The new company was called British Railways. It was tasked with taking the disintegrating network and persuading it to make money with no Government investment. Indeed, the only reasons for the Labour Government to buy out the shareholders of the Big Four were because they were ideologically opposed to the workers making money which they didn't get a fair share of and because they didn't want to pay the Big Four for their hard work keeping the country running during the Second World War (in some respects reasonable, since the bill was rather large and the country couldn't afford it, but a bit indecent all the same). They had no plans to spend money on the network, which they believed to be self-funding. It rapidly transpired that the workers hadn't been paid fairly because the railways couldn't afford it; consequently it would have been cheaper to give the money to the Big Four, who would have been quite happy to spend it on their various modernisation programmes.

Separately, these modernisation programmes could have worked out quite happily. The Southern dreamed of a massive network of railways across the south of England with three rails per track - two for running trains on and one carrying 660V DC electric current to power said trains with (a system which had been acknowleged as obsolete since 1900 and so was entirely suited to the Southern's ideals). Passenger trains were being worked by various successful, if basic, multiple units of two, three or four carriages coupled together to form sets of up to 12 cars long. Three new electric locomotives were arriving to handle freights on electrified metals; three new diesels were due to come on stream to test the internal combustion engine on express trains away from the extra rail and an all-new steam locomotive design called "Leader" - a steam locomotive in a box - was being tested to see if it could replace the wide variety of 19th century locomotives being used on branch trains (it couldn't).

The Great Western was devising ever-better designs of steam locomotive to haul its fastest trains, was looking with interest at the gas-turbine form of internal combustion to replace it (and had two prototypes on order) and had developed various diesel railcars for branch services, which moved from a single-car for short distance expresses to two-car designs for long-distance stoppers. Unfortunately this two-car internal combustion design was also very fond of external combustion and the only positive thing which can be said about the incidents which reduced three of the four vehicles to charred timbers is that they did not involve any loss of life. The Great Western had also turned Cornwall from a dark wilderness with some polluting industry into the perfect place for a family holiday (especially the bits served by the Great Western) and had turned lots of old carriages into caravans for parking at rural stations, allowing people to spend their entire holiday in a railway carriage. Said carriages had been confiscated by the Government at the beginning of the war and turned into a set of distinctly tatty and undesirable vehicles, most of which the Great Western had to scrap afterwards.

The London, Midland and Scottish Railway had tired of building bigger and better steam locomotives - anything bigger wouldn't fit under their bridges - and instead ordered three new diesels - two big and one little. The first of the big ones - No. 10000 - arrived just before nationalisation and has ever since offered opportunities for confusion with the London and North Eastern's No.10000 - which was a big experimental steam locomotive nicknamed Hush-Hush due to the conditions of extreme secrecy in which it was built in the mid-1930s. The LMS also indulged in 660V DC third rail electrification on suburban lines out of London Euston and London Broad Street, as well as on their successful network around Liverpool.

The London and North Eastern Railway had been musing over electrification in the days before it was the LNER, but with overhead wires charged with 1,500V DC - although they had also indulged in some 660V DC third rail around Newcastle. To this end the North Eastern Railway had built 13 electric locomotives - two shunters (Nos. 1 and 2), 10 mainline locomotives for hauling coal (Nos. 3-12) and a prototype express passenger machine (No. 13) - in the early 1900s. The whole idea had been more or less discarded after the First World War, mostly due to money problems, but was eventually revived when the LNER thought that it finally had the money to electrify the Woodhead route between Manchester and Sheffield - a decision which was reached just in time for the Second World War. The new prototype electric locomotive was stored and then sent to the Netherlands once the war was over. Meanwhile, the coal traffic near Durham worked by Nos. 3-12 disappeared and the locomotives were withdrawn. Following the war, the LNER began work on the Woodhead route, wired the commuter lines out of London Liverpool Street (which were worked by some very successful multiple units) and began ordering massive numbers of new, rather box-like electric locomotives.

All four companies had invested in a basic six-wheeled diesel locomotive from the English Electric Company, powered by a 350hp diesel engine and used for shunting purposes. It had originally been developed by the LMS, but was generally agreed to be a capable little animal and the design was perpetuated by British Railways, resulting in hundreds of little black diesels trundling around the railway network at 15mph going "gronk gronk".

Gronk gronk.

Until the beginning of the 20th century shunting was done by steam locos or horses. In the early 1900s electrics - generally of a squat design called the steeplecab - were added to the mix. Steeplecabs were the future of shunting until the LMS got involved; the Gronk was swiftly developed and then gently evolved through various orders into the now-familiar design. The power unit used is still basically the same as that installed in the 1930s examples; the general outline of a cab at one end, a short thin body containing the engine and radiator, outside boxes for the basic auxiliaries and spoked wheels with leaf springs and coupling rods hasn't changed much in 80 years either. Rugged and reliable, the Gronk eliminated all the competition and remains the leading design for UK shunting requirements.

The Talyllyn, by contrast, was umming and ahhing over whether or not it might be able to find the money to buy a spare engine after its No. 1 had been retired at the age of 80 with virtually no working parts left.

It may be noted that none of the Big Four had pursued exactly the same modernisation strategies, so when British Railways came along the only thing which had standardised was that everyone agreed that a little six-wheeled diesel which went "gronk gronk" was the solution to all the problems which were around when it came to shunting stuff, so they were ordered in large quantities. The Southern wanted to electrify as much as possible, very fast, with third rail. The LMS was happy to do this on suburban lines, but felt that diesels were more the answer when it came to the express routes. The LNER agreed with the Southern that electrification was the way forward, but felt that the power should be drawn from overhead with a higher voltage. The GWR wanted to dieselise its rural branch lines but seemed happy to build more of its ubiquitous "Castle" class locomotives for long-distance work, on the basis that they had been very good in 1918 and the prototype still worked so they might as well build some more - although, just to be different, they'd be happy to build gas turbine locomotives.

British Railways' locomotive policy was decided by its locomotive superintendent, Robert Riddles. He came from the LMS and so it was of little surprise to anyone when his new standard coaches and wagons turned out to owe more than a little to LMS practices. He also wanted to electrify madly, preferably with the LNER system on long-distance routes, but the railways didn't have the money and the Government was of the opinion that railways printed money and so needed no central investment. There was, therefore, no provision made in the Act which nationalised the network for the support of the railways.

Consequently, when it was deemed that modernisation was needed and no money was available to carry out the sort of mass electrification which the rest of the continent was indulging in, he simply announced that he was going to build more steam engines. This was fine by the Government, who admired the resultant job creation and the usage of home-produced fuel (coal and water). The Locomotive Exchanges saw examples of larger locomotives removed from the lines for which they had been built and sent to other railways which had once belonged to other people so that the best characteristics could be identified. It was rapidly noticed that the Southern's locomotives were not built to run long distances without stopping, so they were not fitted with equipment to allow them to pick up water on the move and thus had to stop to collect water every 150 miles or so. The Great Western had taken advantage of the legacy of Brunel's broad gauge and so their locos were six inches wider than everyone else's. They were also built to burn Welsh coal which, being vastly superior to that available elsewhere, resulted in smaller fireboxes and boilers, giving the locos problems when fired on cheaper coal elsewhere - where they fitted into the platforms, that is. LNER locos, built to go fast, were not very happy with the Devon Banks on the Great Western Railway. LMS locos, which were built to run on inferior coal and go up steep hills, were reckoned to be a fair compromise, which meant that Riddles didn't have to change the designs at the Crewe workshops, once owned by the LMS, too much before telling them to build more steam locos.

There was a certain air, with all the overdone steps being taken to test the Standard steam locomotive idea (since the testing could have simply been organised by each Region sending two locomotives to a testing plant at Rugby and the results would have meant much more), that BR was making the whole idea look too difficult and too long-winded in the hope that the Government would realise that this was a silly idea and give them some money to build modern locomotives. In fact the Labour Government of 1945-51 did nothing with the railways other than nationalise them, so the Standard designs were allowed to reach fruition and a fruitless waste of money began.

The Standard steam locomotives had high running boards, big wheels, very similar appearances with virtually identical cabs, excellent pulling power and very short lives. The first rolled out in 1951 and the last in 1960; withdrawal began in earnest in 1958 and the last survivor went in 1968. Released shortly after Standard express loco No. 70000 Britannia was standard diesel shunter No. 13000. It too had a short life - it worked for BR until 1974 - but then went to the National Coal Board until 1988. Both are now preserved. No. 70000 and classmate 70013 are the only two examples of that type of Standard around today, but around 300 of the standard diesel shunters live on, either hard at work going "gronk gronk", looking battered in the corner of a yard or in preservation.

A Standard steam locomotive - 76079, one of the most hard-working preserved steam locos, is a Class 4 Mixed Traffic engine (4MT). The distinguishing features of the designs - the high running boards, big cylinders, common cab design and similar tenders - are all clearly visible here.

Taken with appropriate permission.

While the Standards rolled out across the network, the prototype diesels and gas turbines kept their heads down and - quietly, efficiently and capably - made their presence felt on what were now the London Midland Region and the Southern Region. The Southern's new electrics ambled around, unnoticed. Most distinctly noticed was the doyen of the five "Leader" prototypes, but unfortunately it was mostly noticed being difficult - generally refusing to move away from signals, stations and its shed, although it had a wide variety of other possible problems once it was persuaded to start moving - and so Riddles cancelled the project and the prototypes were quietly cut up.

Woodhead electrification was completed in 1954 with a new double-track tunnel to take the electrics under the Pennines rather than sending them through the older, small, smoky and collapsing bores built for the line 100 years previously. The prototype returned from the Netherlands with the nickname of "Tommy", which soon became its official name. 57 classmates - slightly modified with bigger cabs - handled most of the traffic, with support from 7 larger locos for express passenger traffic. Both designs had such mod-cons as regenerative braking, which pushed the energy given off as the train slowed back into the overhead wires to power other trains going uphill (which was very helpful for braking locos which were good at pulling but not so good at stopping). The smaller "EM1" design was capable of 65mph, while the larger "EM2" could achieve 90. This has always been a topic of some curiosity, since the maximum speed of the Woodhead route was 65 and so it is often suggested that the EM2 design was a prototype for locomotives which would be built if the electrification was extended from Sheffield to London Marylebone down the Great Central mainline. Whether or not they were, their arrival ensured that there was now no need for the old express passenger electric prototype and so the grand and imposing No. 13 was dismantled, having achieved a grand total of 0 miles on revenue-earning trains during its 45-year existance.

1955 saw the arrival of two new developments. The first was notable for its power, its noise and its nose; taken together, these three obtained it a very positive place in railway history as the most powerful single-unit diesel locomotive then developed. Painted blue with big cream "whiskers" and bodyside strips and equipped with a very high cab looking out along a massive nose, which was driven along by two Napier Deltic engines generating a total of 3,300hp, DELTIC was possibly the most imposing diesel locomotive ever built anywhere. Certainly the English Electric Company knew how to shock and the loco presented a very stark contrast alongside the black Gronks and mainline diesel locomotives which they had previously supplied power units for.

The second was the Modernisation Plan. It was either 7 years too late or 7 years too early, depending on how you wish to look at it; either way, with the railways having just slipped out of a narrow profit into the eternal ongoing losses which they have made ever since, it had not chosen a good time to be released. It recommended what was essentially like-for-like replacement of every steam locomotive in the country, mostly with some form of diesel, plus more new coaches and wagons, bigger marshalling yards and more centralisation for engine sheds and the like. The Southern Region was to continue electrifying with its third rail system. Meanwhile, the West Coast Mainline (once the LMS mainline from London to Scotland), the East Coast Mainline (once the LNER mainline from London to Scotland) and the Anglia mainline (from London to Norwich) were to be electrified with 25kV AC overhead live wires. The Woodhead electrification, launched with great ceremony less than a year previously, was deemed to be obsolete. A fleet of new diesels would be built to test out new diesel designs and 100 new AC electrics would help draw up the new standard electric locomotive.

Whole books can be dedicated to why the Modernisation Plan failed - whole books have been - but the basic issue was that before compiling it nobody had taken a step back and asked for an answer to the question of "Why do we need railways and what should they be doing?". Thus it was decided to try to make them to do what they were doing already for less money, without looking at whether they were doing the sorts of things which railways did in other countries or which might benefit the UK. The fact that ordering 400 new diesel locomotives of 1000hp or less for mainline work was a silly idea was highlighted by the fact that these had been reduced to 228 such locomotives 15 years later (all of a design built by English Electric and later called Class 20) and the survivors almost invariably worked in pairs. Yet had someone stepped back, looked at the work that these locos were to do (hauling short rakes of wagons going short or medium distances very slowly) and compared it with the work which the burgeoning road haulage industry was relieving the railways of (wagon-load traffic which was now going short or medium distances at a reasonable speed), they might have noticed that none of these 400 locomotives were strictly necessary. Although the 228 which survived 1970 proved to be fairly popular and reliable and 16 of them are still trying to be in traffic hauling nuclear flask trains, they were not exactly a good deal at the time.

A Class 20. The first two designs to emerge under the Modernisation Plan - later designated as Classes 20 and 31 - were fairly low-powered designs which were obsolete when they left the drawing board. The design of the Class 20 bears a passing resemblance to the Gronk, while the Class 31 was based on an overseas order that the builder organised in 1951. This had the benefit that they could be built quickly and there were few new bits to cause problems. The 31s still managed to cause trouble - eventually all 283 were given new engines - and the 20s soon lost their purpose. Examples from both fleets survive in daily use on the mainline today. Several dozen have also been preserved.

The Modernisation Plan basically assumed that a good bit of modernisation would bring the traffic flooding back. In some cases it did, and highlighted by doing so that there had never been much traffic there anyway. In other places it had no effect at all. Several developments only opened after the Plan had been abandoned and quite a few were launched after the traffic that they intended to deal with had gone altogether, never to return. However, several silly developments were beyond its control. The decision to order over 2500 diesel shunters between 1950 and 1960 was not a bright one, but deliveries were already underway by the time the Plan arrived. For some reason only 1000 of these were the ever-reliable Gronks; the balance was made up of about twenty other entirely new fleets from various builders, ranging between 1 and 200 examples each. By 1980 around 2000 of these shunters had been withdrawn and sold off, providing cheap locos for other nationalised industries, supporting other countries which wanted a handful of nearly-new shunters and providing scrap merchants with business. Many of these locos were sufficiently useful and rugged that the scrap merchants were still using them in 1985 to shunt other Modernisation Plan products around their yards for cutting up.

Also a bit of a problem was a strike in 1955, when most of the drivers walked out for nearly three weeks with the intention of bringing the economy to a halt and thus forcing BR to give them a pay rise. BR could not afford the pay rise before the strike and was rather less able to do so immediately afterwards, since it still had the same number of drivers but much of the freight traffic had mysteriously signed long-term contracts with local road haulage companies in exchange for remaining in business and never came back. The only things to really be affected were Trooping the Colour, which was cancelled for the only time to date during Queen Elizabeth II's reign, and BR's bottom line. The drivers got their sort of pay rise and several were then sacked when a number of now useless railways were closed down.

What really killed the Plan was that in early 1957, when deliveries of the new prototype locos were yet to take place, the Government said that the railways needed to accelerate the process of modernisation to stem increasing losses. Production orders were placed for vast quantities of untried locomotives. Several designs managed to slip through the net and remained as prototype fleets only, but several designs which proved to be absolutely atrocious were ordered in their dozens when all BR had seen of them was the drawing board.

So the massive investment of the Modernisation Plan continued to be cheerily poured down several very deep holes while BR experimented with stemming its losses by shutting railways instead. The 1958/59 round of closures removed the winding, hilly link between Abergavenny and Merthyr Tydfil, struck Monmouth off the passenger railway map and dismembered the Muddle and Get Nowhere network (once the Midland and Great Northern Joint Railway), which had once offered virtually every village in Norfolk four passenger trains a day heading somewhere in the direction of a rather minor station in Norwich. This procedure was slow and the railway got little benefit from each closure.

The Southern Region was continuing its electrification and cheerily buying new trains without employing designers - whether it be to improve the livery (all over dark green), the front end (which was invariably flat) or the interiors (which bore a striking resemblance to those used by the pre-Grouping companies in the area). Occasionally it shut a bit of railway due to the expense of electrifying it and steadily withdrew the locomotives supplied by the Southern Railway (from which the newer Region was impossible to distinguish). After the Leader debacle the idea of scrapping its sizeable fleet of 19th century locomotives had essentially been dropped, although occasionally three or four would be withdrawn because the branch line that they were working had been closed.

As the Modernisation Plan fleets rolled off the production line BR began looking at improvements and ordered some more locomotives to slightly different designs. English Electric got an order for some medium sized diesels of 1,750hp with handsome noses which proved to be quite reliable. The Southern ordered some more locomotives - mostly diesel, although some were both electric and diesel locomotives at once (all 49 of these engines were called "ED"). It also noted that the most difficult section of the network - the line between Hastings and Tunbridge Wells, which had a string of slightly too narrow double track tunnels - needed some new diesels and asked the builder to do the last dozen of their new diesel-only fleet to a narrower design. The builder obliged. It was eventually persuaded to carry the unexpected additional cost of fitting the equipment into a bodyshell which was six inches narrower than normal itself and went to the wall shortly afterwards.

Branch lines got diesel multiple units rather than locomotives. These cut costs impressively and increased passenger numbers. They were also liable to be uncomfortable and unreliable, although several fleets were very good indeed and were rewarded with long lives. This Metropolitan-Cammell Class 101 was one of several rather successful designs - other fleets which managed lengthy lives included Classes 108, 117 and 122. Three examples of Class 121 - a single-car suburban design - have been returned to passenger use and continue burbling around on the "mainline" to this day.

In the early 1960s the Government decided that it wanted the railways to keep modernising but concentrate more on turning in a profit. Thus in 1961 the old Euston station was completely demolished and replaced with a massive structure of concrete and steel, with one concourse and 18 platforms which were all roughly the same length. It presented a modern face for the modern railway - the West Coast Mainline had electrified Manchester to Crewe, Liverpool to Crewe and was now working the wires down to London. That was the modernisation section coming along nicely. Growing competition from the Government's new motorways and improved airports meant that the profit bit would be rather harder and to this end the Government appointed Dr. Richard Beeching, a financial brain from ICI, to make the railways profitable. Beeching arranged that the Government would continue to pay the £24,000 per year salary that he had been provided with by ICI (which was rather more than the Prime Minister got) and settled down to write a report based on the instruction that he was to produce a modern, streamlined, profitable railway. Beeching thereby began his entry into the history books by becoming the first person to go into the British public sector because it paid well rather than because it felt good. Until then the Prime Minister's pay had been accepted as an upper cap. (It should be noted that, after tax, Beeching got a little under £7,000 of this salary to take home with him; his predecessor had taken home nearly £5,000, so the difference was not actually all that extreme.)

The obvious way to make something profitable is to emphasise the bits which make money and get rid of the elements which lose money. Thus Beeching's report noticed that the railways were very good at moving large, heavy loads across long distances and suggested that they should do more of this with a big, heavy locomotive spending the entire day coupled to the same end of a long rake of easy-load, easy-unload wagons. To this end the railways maintained their position as the market leader for shifting stone, coal, oil and steel across the country with ever-bigger locos and ever-larger wagons. The Merry-Go-Round system for coal allowed coal trains to run from colliery to power station and back without stopping, which saved money. The railways also did well at long-distance intercity passenger traffic, which Beeching felt should be concentrated on a few routes serving as many people as possible. The commuter belt on the Southern was not entirely profitable, as lots of trains carried lots of people for two hours per day and virtually no-one for the other 22, and Beeching wanted to prune it, but reckoned that it was generally successful.

It was the loss-making bits which were more controversial. The marshalling yards opened under the Modernisation Plan allowed wagons to be concentrated into trains of lots of different loads going in something approaching the same direction, but even modern marshalling yards were slow and unsatisfactory. So Beeching said that they should be axed and replaced by container terminals, which would aim at heading for sea ports or the other end of the country rather than targeting local traffic. Then there were the little rural branch lines going very slowly to nowhere in particular, which Beeching felt would be better served by buses (which might actually go to the villages in question). The other loss-maker was the large array of late-night trains carrying hardly any people around obscure areas, which he sliced. This resulted in Appendix 2 of the report, which looks in-depth at line closures, how the facts and figures worked out and which stations were to lose their rail services. He believed that the public would accept his ideas better if they were only facts, not opinions; in fact the public were more concerned with what the ideas were, rather than how he obtained them, and a little imagination to make a few unprofitable lines work better might not have gone amiss. He also, for some curious reason, sliced lines based around who had owned them in 1923, so the Great Western line across Central Wales from Ruabon to Barmouth went while the much harder to work Cambrian Coast line (which ran along river estuaries and up cliff faces) survived.

Whole books can be dedicated to the pros and cons of the Beeching approach - whole books have been - and it is notable that most of them gloss over the failings of the Modernisation Plan and the benefits of Beeching to concentrate entirely on the infamous Appendix 2, its implications and how the figures were fiddled. It is hard to see how you can fiddle the figures for a station served by trains staffed by two people and attracting 3 passengers per day (several attracted more, but places like Trouble House Halt, Three Cocks Junction and Mow Cop and Scholar Green probably attracted considerably less) and the bulk of the lines would have drifted out anyway over the next few years. Locals often didn't actually use their railway, merely wanting to know that it was there and only turning out for closure specials; several protest groups ruined their pleas for the retention of services by arriving at the meetings to discuss closure by car. Equally, BR terminated branch line trains at obscure junction stations rather than running them through to the local large town and insisted that passengers re-book at the junction, which could then be used to suggest that if the line closed they would simply use their car in place of the branch line train (not that any of them did, generally choosing to find a motoway to replace the mainline train). Think of a tree and imagine how happy it would look if you chopped off everything which you think might qualify as a branch (would it have any leaves left? Would it still be alive?). Several stations on the list - Quintrel Downs, the only English one under Q, is a good example - remain open, while others - like Blackpool Central - are notable for their absence. Some have re-opened on heritage lines, like Pickering, while others have re-joined the national rail network, such as Aberdare. Almost as many stations in Wales were already slated for closure in 1963 as were recommended by Beeching as worth axing.

The local authority in Wadebridge was very sad to see its railway go. It was Cornwall's first proper railway, opening in 1834 and becoming part of what described itself as the mainline to Padstow in 1899. Passenger services ceased in 1967 and all traffic ceased in 1978. The main building and goods shed survive to the left, but the platforms are now this road and the engine shed has vanished beneath the houses to the left. This essentially cuts Padstow off the list of places which could get a railway back - a shame, since the line through Bodmin and Wadebridge to Padstow was held up as an example of the sort of line that was rather marginal and could be made worth keeping with a better schedule and some local encouragement.

In exchange for the closures, Beeching expected massive investment. It didn't really come to the level that might have been hoped for. New coaches and wagons were ordered but the only electrification programme was that extending the third rail from Southampton to Bournemouth in 1967, killing off the last express steam-hauled service in the country and bringing down the curtain on Southern steam. The Freightliner network originated with Beeching and Merry-Go-Round coal traffic still operates today. Also coming shortly after Beeching was the new British Rail blue and grey livery and the famous double arrow logo, which was soon the most widely recognised sign in the country and still means "railway station" to this day.

After closures took place, the Acts of Parliament authorising the lines closed to be built were repealed and so technically the railways involved had never existed in the first place. British Rail therefore had no right to the trackbeds, on which the local authority had first refusal. If a preservation group was knocking around the local authority would sometimes suggest that the trackbed should pass to them or take it on to lease to the preservationists. Occasionally local authorities had grand schemes - the rural Westerham branch on the Southern Region was retained to become the M25 - and on rare occasions requested that BR retain the trackbed for a few years to make re-opening easier (something which was pursued on the final two lines to Monmouth, although it never came to anything). Generally they simply recovered the route and sold rural bits to farmers and less rural bits to developers, with occasional incidents of using trackbeds for footpaths, linear parks and new roads. Most trackbeds are therefore broken up and hard to rebuild, but retaining derelict holes in town centres on the off-chance that a railway might return was not a very popular idea (although it was pursued at Birmingham Snow Hill, which the railway eventually returned to, and Wolverhampton Low Level, which it didn't). It was remarkable how many local authorities pleaded for the life of their railway one week and built things on it the next.

Viaducts and tunnels mostly remained the responsibility of British Rail. Some viaducts were demolished; others were preserved or left up because of the logistical problems of taking them down. Maintenance costs reduced slightly now that they were no longer being used by trains. Tunnels were more of an issue; filling in portals was no big deal and took place all over the country, but the actual bores could not be filled sufficiently solidly to allow maintenance to cease without some very expensive and dangerous work. The Canterbury and Whitstable Railway's Tyler Hill tunnel - the first railway tunnel in the world to be worked by steam locomotives - memorably fell in after 20 years of disuse in 1974 and took part of the University of Kent with it. (Since Glenfield Tunnel is buried beneath a housing estate at the east end and Nibley Hill has vanished, none of the first three tunnels intended for use by steam locomotives are now complete and walkable.) Nuclear waste and railway tunnels both present the issue that they remain unsafe after people have finished with them; however, while the nuclear waste will be safe in 1000 years time, around 500 railway tunnels ranging between 30 and 3000 yards in length will still need occasional maintenance to stop them falling in and destroying property. A rather simple collapse in 1953 saw a filled-in construction shaft in Clifton Hall Tunnel, near Manchester, empty its infill through the tunnel lining at the bottom of the shaft and suck a pair of houses in at the top, killing the occupants (although, it being 05:30, they probably never knew about it). The shaft had been filled in so well that it was invisible in the tunnel and on the surface; the deaths were arguably the last casualties of the Luftwaffe, who had bombed the building containing the documents detailing the interior geography of the tunnel. After failing to sell their stock of tunnels and viaducts in the 1960s or at privatisation, BR finally found a buyer at the beginning of the 21st century and sold the less unstable ones to a charity called Sustrans, which wants to use them for cycleways.

Beeching followed his initial report with a second one on how main lines could be reduced. He saw few benefits in retaining the East Coast Mainline north of Newcastle, reckoning that closure would upset only the citizens of Berwick-upon-Tweed (although it would leave BR with the task of maintaining the Royal Border Bridge there with no income from trains going over it). He was not a seriously controversial figure in the 1964 general election and closures continued at a similar speed under the new Government. The new Minister for Transport refused to reverse his predecessor's decisions and various lines closed despite the hopes of local voters - particularly those to Whitby, where the only survivor of three lines was the one which even today is felt to be entirely useless. However, the new Government allowed Beeching to become increasingly controversial and the entirely political reason of its going through excessive numbers of marginal constituencies was used when reprieving the Heart of Wales line from Llanelli to Craven Arms. In 1965, with Beeching still confident that he was right and the Government increasingly confident that it was politically sensible to say that he wasn't, the most infamous Chairman of British Railways resigned and returned to ICI, where he continued to quietly draw a £24,000 per year salary and eventually got a seat in the House of Lords.

Having got rid of Beeching, the Government found itself almost entirely in the firing line for subsequent closures, having divested itself of its protective outer garment. The subsequent closures were also the unpopular ones, beginning with the London and South Western Railway "Withered Arm" network beyond Exeter to Plymouth, Bude and Padstow, which mostly closed in 1966 (some bits - Plymouth to Gunnislake and Exeter to Barnstaple - survive to this day). The Great Central Railway went next, also in 1966, with cessation of long-distance trains between London Marylebone and Sheffield Victoria (although Marylebone to Aylsebury survives). Then the Waverley Route was removed in 1969 despite massive local protest from the citizens of Hawick, who were the only people who lived in any particular numbers along the route. Finally the Great Western line north of Birmingham Moor Street to Birmingham Snow Hill, Wolverhampton Low Level and points north shut in 1972, marking the end of the Beeching cuts.

There is something particularly tragic about a dead mainline; branch lines are a shame but mainlines had a purpose which justified particularly magnificent infrastructure. This is Shillamill Viaduct on the Exeter to Plymouth bit of the Withered Arm; while the line out of Plymouth survives to Bere Alston to link to the Gunnislake branch, the bit between Bere Alston, Tavistock and Okehampton closed after a set of bodged timetable changes made using the line slower than walking. Tavistock to Plymouth opened in 1890; the Salisbury derailment prompted the LSWR to give up on competing with the GWR in 1906 and the impressive mainline across Dartmoor withered away, leaving structures like this for posterity. There are plans to re-open it.

This left a rail network which has barely changed in size since - slight increases in passenger mileage being offset by losses of freight-only lines - with half a mainline electrified with high-voltage overhead live wires, a wide variety of diesel locomotives of varying degrees of reliability and a lot of long, heavy freight trains engaged in serving declining markets. It was the end of a distinctly crowded few years. The Woodhead route lost its passenger trains in 1967 and the EM2s were exported to Holland, while the excess EM1s - including Tommy - were withdrawn and scrapped. Newcastle had lost its electrification in 1964 and in that year North Eastern Railway locomotives Nos. 1 and 2 finally bit the dust at the age of 60 - No. 1 going to the National Railway Museum and No. 2 being dismantled. The 1,500V DC electrification from Liverpool Street had been converted to 25kV AC some years previously in one weekend, leaving Woodhead as a distinctly non-standard island. The Southern's electrification programme had more or less ceased, leaving them with some electric locomotives, a number of electro-diesel locomotives (the electrics with a little diesel engine fitted) and lots of multiple units (mostly electric with some diesel) - their loud views on wanting to replace steam with electrics on the Withered Arm had caused it to pass abruptly to Western control in 1963, which had done nothing for the network's long term prospects. The Western had abandoned their gas turbines for diesel-hydraulic locomotives, using delicate technology imported from Germany and a lot of locomotives built by burly Glaswegians with big hammers. The main thing which you need to know about diesel hydraulics is that they were lightweight and fairly reliable (barring a fleet of Glasgow-built examples which seemed to have some inbred grump complex which they relieved themselves of by trying to gas their drivers) but only around 400 had been built - as opposed to something more in the region of 2,000 diesel electrics, which use the diesel engine to generate electricity to drive the locomotive in a process involving electricians, whom the Western Region and its Swindon Works wished to disassociate themselves from.

The London Midland Region, having failed to electrify the mainline north of Crewe, was persuaded to withdraw its last steam locomotives in 1968 in exchange for some lovely new complex English Electric 2,500hp diesels and some additional rather more basic English Electric 1,000hp diesels (as last seen being introduced in 1957). The LMR's electric locomotive fleet had not gone entirely well. They came in six varieties called AC Locomotives or ALs - the first five designs (AL1-AL5) totalled 100 machines and more or less counted as prototypes, while the 100-strong class of AL6s constituted the production fleet. Between them they worked the West Coast Mainline's southern half while the nice new diesels worked the northern half from Crewe to Glasgow, locos being swapped at Crewe. The AL3s and AL4s were unreliable and so spent most of their time in a shed at Bury or on the Open Day circuit. The AL1s and AL2s were reliable but had displayed a certain tendency to catch fire, which was being suppressed. The AL5s sort of worked and the AL6s created extra work for maintenance gangs by bashing the track to pieces with their terrible suspension. While the former London and North Western busied itself with resolving the issues introduced by new technology, the former Midland Railway had returned to its roots and ordered 300 small, lightweight diesel locomotives, pairing them up when necessary for heavier trains. It had also introduced the "Peak" class of diesels - so named because the 10 prototypes were all named after large mountains - which tipped the scales at 138tons and proved to be very good at straightening track and hauling big loads, even if most of their 2,500hp had to be invested in moving themselves around.

The Eastern Region had eventually been told that it couldn't have electrification and so, after much argument, resisted the suggestions of the London Midland Region that the Eastern should invest in one of the LMR's many varieties of not terribly reliable new types of diesel and ordered itself a production fleet of 22 "Deltic" locomotives in 1962. With a two-tone green livery which was rather toned down compared to the prototype, the new locos quickly made their mark and command respect across the entire railway spectrum, having directly replaced just over a quarter of the 200 express steam locomotives which had worked the route in the 1950s. The arrival of the Deltics marked the appearance of Britain's first locomotives intended to routinely do 100mph and so the locomotives were extensively used to test the effect such speeds had on bad British track. Even in the 1990s, they were still the industry standard on this matter. The 10 examples of the "Baby Deltic" variety mysteriously disappeared at the age of 4 as the grown up design came on stream, only to reappear a few years later when BR came to the conclusion that they might have solved the problems experienced with this small, underpowered, overweight and unreliable fleet. They hadn't.

A Deltic.

The 17th example of the production fleet - D9016 Gordon Highlander - is seen here at Rowsley on the former Matlock to Buxton line, closed in the aftermath of the Beeching cuts. Careful design allows them to present a tall, dominating air. They are in fact no taller than anything else on the British rail network.

1968 saw the end of BR steam and the arrival of HS4000 - a 4000hp diesel locomotive built by the Hawker Siddely company, whose subsidary company the Brush Traction Company had built a wide variety of locomotives for British Rail in the years after the Modernisation Plan, most of which eventually worked. Brush's efforts had included the second Modernisation Plan design to be delivered - an overweight, solid, low-powered locomotive capable of some quite remarkable efforts for a design which was obsolete when Brush tendered it to BR and which could continue running after half its bodyshell had rusted away through lack of maintenance. However, perhaps most most notably, Brush was responsible for the 512 standard locomotives which obviously had the words "standard diesel locomotive" in the specification somewhere. That fleet had been a generally reliable, generally capable, vaguely handsome mixed traffic design which wasn't brilliant at anything in particular but seemed to work quite well in most areas. It is mostly notable in design terms for consisting of a box with some styling around the cab (but not too much) which looked quite nice in the original two-tone green livery and like a box in the subsequent all-over blue.

HS4000 suffered from a certain lack of interest from British Rail and was eventually invited to make a brief appearance at a trade fair in Moscow. Hawker Siddely sniffed an opportunity and asked the Soviets if they'd like to buy the imposing locomotive rather than just have it drop in for the weekend. The Soviets, delighted, bought it, exported it to the other side of the Iron Curtain and extensively examined it to work out the technology inside it. HS4000 is believed to have survived into 1993 before scrapping. Sadly a production version has never been seen in the UK, which might have built the most powerful diesel in the world but has never benefitted from it. Suggestions have been made that the Soviets may have actually been after a really avant-guarde prototype which Brush was working on at the time, since they already had most of the kit which was contained in HS4000, but the avant-guarde prototype stayed in this country and was scrapped here in 1973.

To be fair to BR, when HS4000 came on the scene they were more interested in reducing their stock of locomotive fleets. A series of unreliable, underpowered or insignificant fleets disappeared with remarkable speed and almost no survivors between 1968 and 1971. The last orders for Mk.1-based stock were made at this point, co-inciding nicely with the decision that a more futuristic train was needed and that what BR really wanted to improve efficiency was a computer.

Thus came the age of acronyms. The Railway Technical Centre at Derby - the RTC - provided lots of clever engineers with an opportunity to be paid to come up with new ideas, with lots of bits of railway being made available to test these ideas on - resulting in great schemes like a nuclear-powered flying saucer (which mostly proved that it can't be done). Their experimentation included putting a bulbous fibreglass front onto an AL6 to test the benefits of streamlining on performance (wind tunnels, which the Grouping companies had used for this purpose, were so passé); the AL6 duly performed and shoved Mallard's record as the UK's fastest locomotive out of the way with runs at 129mph.

BR seems to have been keen to avoid overshadowing the purpose-built test trains that were being developed at the time, since the collapse of Mallard's record to an anonymous E3173 was not advertised; the loco never received any acknowledgement for this and has since been scrapped. Instead media concentration was focused on one of the RTC's more successful ideas, the Advanced Passenger Train - Experimental (or APT-E). This was intended to go around curves much more quickly by tilting into them like someone on a bicycle. It also provided a nice testing ground for some new gas-turbine power units. It never carried passengers. Design began in 1968 and the prototype was rolled out in 1972.

Delays were built into the APT project from the start and so a stand-in futuristic train was designed on a beer-mat by some other engineers who wanted to get something out quickly. The High Speed Diesel Train, or HSDT, was a rather imposing design which seemed to be ready for a few tests before going into service soon after its appearance just after APT-E in 1972. However, both trains were blacked by the unions, who felt that the cabs of the two designs needed to have side windows, air conditioning (as they lacked the holes which earlier diesels had in the front of their cabs to provide air-con) and two driving positions if they were to routinely travel at over 100mph. Had this argument arisen in 1904 and the designer been the Taff Vale Railway the solution would have been to simply apply to the local law court for an injunction to shut up the unions and proceed as planned. Instead BR was now expected to respect their train crews, so a year of testing was lost as the two sides wrangled over new cab designs, eventually dropping the 1960s front ends for further builds and going for a rather 1970s wedge for the next APT and a much more timeless nose for the production version of HSDT.

Going rather more smoothly was the new computer. The Total Operations Processing System shows off its age with the very 1960s slang word of TOPS for an acronym. This machine, which was absolutely tops, was mostly intended to keep track of BR's two million wagons, which had previously simply trundled around the network and vanished without trace when they came into contact with accidents, sidings, loops, remote branchlines, maintenance workshops and busy marshalling yards. At Grouping the Great Western had memorably inherited 37 brake vans from the Cambrian Railway but only ever found 34 of them (on a rather small and simple network). TOPS gave an instant location for every wagon and details of where it was based, which trains it was allocated to and what its maintenance history was. It was quickly extended to provide class numbers for every type of locomotive in the country, so the Gronks became Classes 08, 09 and 10 (of which 08 isn't doing too badly, 09 is more or less intact and 10 was completely withdrawn before they could start getting five-digit numbers beginning with 10 to denote that they were Class 10s). The four locomotive designs of less than 1000hp became Classes 15, 16, 17 and 20 (of which 16 was withdrawn almost before it could become Class 16, the 15s and 17s soon followed suit and a few 20s are still in traffic). Brush's smaller design became Class 31; the English Electric things with nice noses became Class 37; the Peaks became Classes 44, 45 and 46 (which have all been withdrawn), the 500 or so survivors of the "standard" design became Class 47, the Deltics became Class 55 (which doesn't sound nearly as impressive), the EM1s and EM2s became Classes 76 and 77 (just before the EM2s vacated Class 77 and left for Holland) and the various AL classes became classes 81-86. BR also owned three steam locomotives on the Welsh Vale of Rheidol Railway (about 2ft gauge) which became Class 98, and operated 14 ships capable of carrying railway wagons, which therefore counted as locomotives in the twisted logic of 1960s mainframe computers and so became Class 99. Some of the late 1940s prototypes got TOPS classes although most just didn't last long enough; either way, they were all scrapped, barring the first of the GWR's gas turbines and DELTIC.

TOPS got its first all-new class with the electrification of the northern section of the West Coast Mainline, when the 86s were evolved into a new type of 5000hp electric locomotive which would have been known as the AL7, but instead became Class 87. The 35 new locomotives proved to be entirely reliable and had no problems with the unions, which was quite remarkable for a new high-speed fleet and was probably helped by BR not having the time or the money to produce an all-new design which would upset anyone. These displaced the diesels which had previously worked the route and abolished locomotive changeovers at Crewe. The diesels, being new, went to the Western Region to replace the hydraulic designs which BR wanted to exterminate and made a bit of a dent into fleet sizes, despite being far less handsome and rather less reliable. Hydraulics were cleared out by the redesigned HSDT, which had abandoned the reference to diesel power to become the far more sleek (and handsome) HST, which was finally introduced into squadron 125mph service in 1976.

Liveries change, but that cab remains distinctive. A 40-year career on the Western Region gives the HST fleet a lifespan on long distance express workings virtually unmatched by anything else in the world (with the possible exception of the LSWR's T9 "Greyhound" locomotives, which lasted from 1899 to 1961, though they weren't hauling express trains by then). With their original light clusters and smokey engines still fitted, three power cars are seen here lined up preparing to depart from Swansea in 2003.

All of a sudden BR moved from being the weak part of the Western European railway network to having the second-fastest fleet of trains in the world (only Japan ran services faster, on dedicated high-speed railways built for their new wonder trains achieving a whopping 130mph). For 10 years various internal combustion designs held records for the fastest train ever to run in Britain, starting with 143mph from the HSDT, rising to 148mph with a standard HST and then being taken by APT-E with 152mph. A final record run by a HST a few years later left the world's fastest diesel train record at 148mph - APT-E does not qualify for this, being a gas-turbine. The French have the gas-turbine record. But that doesn't take away from it the fact that it looked very nice slicing through Didcot station at 2½miles per minute.

Heavy freights were now in line for investment, since the current locomotives were underpowered and not suited to big block trains while the rickety wagons frequently parted company from the new smooth track. New wagons were no big deal, with lots of useful things having been learnt about suspension during the APT project. An evolved version of a rather popular mixed-traffic diesel from Brush was drawn up and Brush won the contract to build 30 of the 150 locos planned. Brush said they wanted more. BR said no; the rest were going to be built in-house at Doncaster. Brush was not set up to build locos at the time and had no intention of carrying out a conversion course for 30 locos, so they asked if they could subcontract the design to sister company Electroputere in Romania. The Government noted that it was selling stuff to Romania but not buying anything off them, which was upsetting the "balance of payments", so they approved the deal. The first two examples of the new locomotives, designated Class 56, arrived in 1976, were tested, were found to be badly built out of a mixture of cardboard and cheap steel and were promptly stored pending modifications.

The engineers who had overseen the build came back with a wide range of exciting stories: about workers who were all equal and so all did the same jobs equally ineptly; the dictator turned up at the factory and threatened to execute staff for painting a capitalist locomotive in glorious Romanian Railways purple to impress him; secret security staff had trailed the British engineers to make sure that they didn't do anything naughty; test drivers had taken locomotives out late at night with half-fitted out cabs and experimented with how fast they could make them go on barely-maintained track; a lorry driver bringing a highly-expensive diesel engine into Romania had got stuck on a mountain road and simply abandoned it in the snow; locomotives arrived in Holland after the trek across Europe with chimneys sticking out of the cabs after the Romanians who had accompanied them (all of whom were being carefully watched to make sure that they didn't stay in the West with the locos) had lit fires in the cabs to keep warm. The 30 locomotives did not quite make it into traffic before the first examples from Doncaster and the British Government soon understood why it didn't buy things from Romania. Still, at least British Rail was turning out marginally more reliable examples (although they were still cramped and hard to maintain) and the APT project was entering its next phase with good prospects.

The single experimental APT set was donated to the National Railway Museum when testing was held to be complete in 1976; the NRM duly took the sleek set with its immense history as the world's first tilting train and placed most of the set on public display in a part of the Museum where everyone could look at it and it would retain a condition reflecting the status of the project - a part called Outdoors. The result was that the set steadily decayed and by the 1990s was looking pretty rubbish - rather like the rest of the project. The prototype APT - also known as APT-P - was powered by electricity (Leyland having given up on supplying the gas-guzzling turbines, since nobody else wanted them), with the three prototype sets being deployed on the West Coast Mainline alongside the rather less modern-looking fleet of 230 electric locomotives, which did impressions of being big blue bricks with yellow ends. The sets soon began notching up impressive runs and impressive failures, which did not look very good compared to the reliable locomotives (but looked very good compared to the 84s/ AL4s, which BR gave up on in 1978 and disposed of. The NRM was kind enough to borrow one for the weekend and it is now happily preserved). However, by the time APT-P came up to its fifth birthday in 1981, it still had not carried any passengers and the Government was beginning to regard this as a waste of money. BR was instructed to get it into service as soon as possible.

Also on the list of things to regard as a waste of money was the Woodhead route. It was increasingly decrepit, its locos were obsolete and non-standard and traffic was declining. 1981 saw the former showpiece shut down and the massive double-track concrete-lined bore through the Pennines fell silent after 27 years of use - the same period as the Class 76/ EM1 locomotives, which failed to find a Dutch buyer and instead went for scrap at C.F. Booths of Rotherham. A short stub at the Manchester end is still used for commuter trains and was converted to the standard 25kV AC for this purpose. The closure of the Woodhead route remains controversial, not helped by the Department for Transport's next great idea being to run a motorway through the tunnel.

Indeed, things might have been trying to boom for BR through the 1970s but they were not going very well at all at the beginning of the 1980s. APT entered service with much pomp and circumstance on a bitterly cold December day. BR wined and dined the journalists come to report on the trip at Glasgow Central and they duly indulged heartily. Normally this would cover up other defects in the fleet, but the very nature of APT combined with the switchback nature of the line resulted in some very unwell journalists getting off the train at London Euston and filing some very critical reports about the fleet. APT might have survived this were it not for the fact that the cold weather froze up the tilt mechanisms and caused a spate of serious failures in what was then a very complex train. The result was something of a dead parrot of a project - a metaphor which is particularly appropriate as the railway-related people kept on assuring everyone that it wasn't dead - just resting.

At the end of 1981 the East Coast Mainline express services switched to all-HST operation and the last Deltics were withdrawn in the early days of 1982 to scenes of grief at Kings Cross which had never been seen before or since. ITV sent a reporter and a camera along to cover it and got shots of a twelve-year-old explaining why Deltics are brilliant and a grown man collapsing against the side of the last Deltic into Kings Cross and kissing it. The doyenne of the production fleet, 55022 Royal Scots Grey, did the honours and broadly maintained her dignity. Six of the fleet were preserved over the following months, all of which have subsequently run on the mainline (unlike the prototype, which might have been given a TOPS number to allow it to be moved on the mainline but hasn't run under its own power since 1962). Several pilot scheme fleets began to disappear and the least powerful locomotives on TOPS, Nos. 01001 and 01002, ended their careers on an isolated bit of track on the Holyhead Breakwater and were cut up there in 1982.

Rumours also began to circulate about a further round of closures, with Sir David Serpell (a man whose views about railways essentially consisted of an opinion that the route mileage should, if possible, be somewhere below zero) producing a report in 1982 showing various possibilities for the network, ranging from almost total closure to slight expansion. Close examination of the map for his most generous option, Option C1, seems to only produce seven notable missing lengths of railway. This list would therefore have axed (bottom left to top right) St Erth to St Ives (which had only just dodged Beeching anyway), Truro to Falmouth, Yeovil to Dorchester, the Weston-Super-Mare avoiding line from Worle to Bleadon, Marks Tey to Sudbury in East Anglia, Newcastle to Carlisle and Georgemas Junction to Thurso (another narrow escape from Beeching), thus removing both the most southerly and most northerly branch lines from the network. There would also have been various minor freight-only lines removed (the three remaining miles of Monmouth's rail network, for example, are missing from the map). Serpell said that these amputations would total about 80 route miles; Newcastle to Carlisle is 61½ miles, Georgemas to Thurso is 5½ and Truro to Falmouth is 12½ so this looks a little queasy.

More interesting are the lines which were deemed to be covering half of their operating costs, including Bodmin Road to Wenford (closed a couple of years later), Settle to Carlisle (two trains each way each day going slowly stopping nowhere - probably profitable because BR had stopped maintaining it) and Aberystwyth to Devil's Bridge (1ft11½inch gauge, worked by steam locos - which was even proposed for survival even if the Cambrian network from Shrewsbury to Aberystwyth and Pwllheli got the chop). Since there is no mention in the introduction to the map of taking social necessity into account, it is also intriguing that Plymouth to Gunnislake, the Isle of Wight line, Llanelli to Craven Arms, Machynlleth to Pwllheli and Inverness to Kyle of Lochalsh - all reprieved from Beeching only because they were either socially necessary or political hot potatoes - also all covered half their operating costs.

Apparently almost profitable enough to be worth keeping, the line between Aberystwyth and Devil's Bridge was built in the early 20th century for the slate. Passenger traffic swiftly became more remunerative. The original two locomotives were scrapped by the Great Western and replaced by three similar machines, which were interestingly numbered 7, 8 and 9; for accountancy purposes, No. 9 was declared to be a rebuild of No. 2, although they had no common parts. The three newer locomotives were much noted in the '70s and '80s for being the only steam locos carrying full BR blue livery with double-arrow logos, though no yellow warning panels were applied.

The Serpell Report was a nadir for the rail network, but it had the benefit that it held up a mirror to the Government and showed them the ultimate result of pursuing their rail strategy of the time. If they wanted a profitable BR, it said, then mass closures were the only option. It was such a terrible shame that the first section to hit the press was the leaked Option A, which was the one suggesting that the WCML, the ECML as far as Newcastle, the Great Western lines to Bristol and Cardiff, the Great Eastern line to Norwich and four and a half lines on the Southern Region should represent the entire rail network. Suddenly it turned out that the railways had some friends and people would shout very loudly in times of serious crisis. The Falklands War was yet to have its full effect on the Prime Minister; the economy was in a mess; there was an election due in the middle of the proposed closure period; the last two Tory Prime Ministers to indulge in rail closures had lost the following elections (by narrow margins) and the Liberal-Social Democratic Party Alliance was already riding high in the opinion polls. It was thus deemed to be politically expedient to bundle Sir David off somewhere, disown his report and carry out some cheap investments, though more HSTs were ruled out and production finished with power car 43198 in 1983.

Thus, while BR commented "But you wanted closures" and offered up the Settle-Carlisle line as a peace offering (72 miles of track with collapsing viaducts, elderly tunnels and low resident population, although not suggested for closure under Option C1), work began on organising replacements for the Modernisation Plan's fleet of DMUs. Several of these fleets had already had to be withdrawn from traffic and so various overweight underpowered Modernisation Plan diesel locomotives were lumbering around hauling tatty Mk1 coaches along routes like that between Manchester and Leeds which had previously been worked by super-DMUs. Now BR had produced an upgraded version of the Southern's diesel-electric multiple units for longer-distance traffic and a string of nice cheap railbuses (bus body on a wagon chassis) in association with British Leyland. The prototype railbus was unacceptable because it was terrible and the prototype DEMU was unacceptable because it cost £1,000,000 per four-car set, so an order was placed for a particularly unsightly version of the railbus (most of which were eventually sold to Iran just before Iran broke off relations with the UK) and some experimental new DMUs were built.

For some time now British Rail Engineering Ltd (BREL) had been building standard EMUs for the Southern, London Midland and Eastern Regions, so it was no big deal to fit out some bodyshells with diesel engines and a modified front end to produce two three-car Sprinter units. Metropolitan-Cammell, a West Midlands bus and Tube train builder who had constructed some of the more successful Modernisation Plan DMUs, was commissioned to build a competing set. Met-Cam produced an all-new design with new parts and a small cab, which the unions delayed for six months after the sets were finished on time and which then went on to suffer occasional reliability problems. BREL's set, being fairly bog-standard, arrived six months early with an acceptable cab and bits which worked, so it went straight into traffic and rapidly received production orders. The clear success of the three-car design meant that it was a no-brainer for the production fleet to only have two cars.

Meanwhile someone had told Leyland that their railbuses could a) be somewhat wider than they were, b) should have a more handsome front end and c) needed a snappier and more upbeat brand name. Thus the following three fleets, with two front end designs (one acceptable and the other quite attractive) were known by the name of Pacer. They had a brief period of being shunted around while BR found places where they could be deployed where their four-wheeled fixed underframes could get around curves, where the doors wouldn't be sucked open by passing trains and where the passengers wouldn't immediately start voting Labour upon being confronted with the things. A brief experiment with them on branch lines west of Exeter failed and the fleets have now gravitated to the North West, Yorkshire and South Wales, with a smaller fleet which has found its way back to Exeter.

A Class 142 "Pacer" unit. Note the bus-type doors, lightweight body, fixed wheelsets, the fact that it only has 4 wheels, the heavy frame and all-round basic appearance. On certain units the destination display takes up the whole black area above the cab rather than one small sliver. Designed by British Leyland, the units have outlived everything else Leyland built, Leyland, most of its subsidiary companies and all expectations. They retain their Leyland engines and are remarkably personable things all in all.

While the Pacers attempted to put the passengers off rail travel, Greenpeace attempted to put nuclear waste off the trains - preferably shutting down the nuclear power stations which produced it rather than deploying a fleet of lorries to carry the waste away for reprocessing at Sellafield in Cumbria. In a bid to get rid of this irritation, the Central Electricity Generating Body (CEGB) went through a string of tests of the nuclear flasks used to carry the waste, starting with scale models and proceeding through to dropping a full-size flask from great heights. When this didn't work, the CEGB took the undamaged flask and one of the wagons used for carrying such flasks and placed them across British Rail's test track at Old Dalby in Nottinghamshire, with a suitable corner pointing up the line at any approaching trains. They then borrowed a suitable train from BR consisting of one 'Peak' plus three Mk1 coaches (all of which were doomed to be scrapped anyway), took it to the end of the test track and set it in motion towards the flask.

The 'Peak' - No. 46009 - experienced a brief period of liberation as, sans driver, it hurtled off down the line at speeds touching 100mph, its nose looking hopefully down the track ahead. Sweeping round its final corner, it shot down a short straight stretch past the watching journalists and clearly demonstrated to locomotives everywhere why they should never leave their driver behind. Twisting its nose out of joint, the heavy diesel threw the flask and its wagon out of the way, gave off a most exciting black cloud and a brief burst of flame and came to rest across the trackbed beyond, its Mk1 coaches resting across shreds of metal and tangled track with their toilets and vestibles providing a most effective crumple zone. The wagon was written off, but the flask was undamaged; the video can be found on Youtube. Greenpeace duly accused the CEGB of faking the test by using a lightweight engine, the CEGB denied it and the railways continued to carry nuclear flasks without incident. A few years later BR and the CEGB received protests from a Town Council about these trains being due to pass through the town during the next timetable and cheerily reassured them that the services had been running through said town for years.

1984 also saw BR flog off Sealink and the Class 99s (four of which still exist somewhere on the big wide oceans) and the announcement of the end of the line for APT. Decreasing confidence in the fleet had led to pretty much everybody feeling that, 15 years after the project began, it was time to drop it. All that really went was the brand name and the fleet of demonstrator trains; most of the technology developed and extra knowledge of track physics obtained (plus some handy facts on how people's sense of balance works) could be used elsewhere. Pretty much every train built in Britain since owes something to APT and quite a lot of the information was useful in other countries as well (particularly that pertaining to ride quality and tilt). As the fastest electric design running in Britain, Class 87 theoretically became the top dog of Britain's motive power fleet, despite its streamlining leaving something to be desired (so the HST tends to be regarded as the best, since it actually looked like a fast train and went 15mph faster). The opportunity was taken to do some work on the West Coast Mainline and 110mph trains became common along the route, with locomotives and stock gaining a version of Intercity livery.

The year ended with BR getting into the record books. On the 20th of December a 13-wagon fuel train proceeded into George Stephenson's Summit Tunnel - an impressively lengthy double-track brick-lined affair through the Pennines which he had promised "would never fail so as to injure any human life" - and succeeded in catching fire about halfway through. The traincrew legged it, called the fire brigade and were then persuaded to return to save the locomotive (No. 47125, scrapped in 2002) and the first three wagons. The remainder of the train disappeared into what is probably the hottest fire in transport history, with air being drawn in from both portals and blasted out of the ventilation shafts together with the molten remains of the tunnel lining. The columns of flame rising from the ten-foot-high walls around the tops of the shafts look rather reminiscent of volcanoes and two local settlements were evacuated.

The firecrews left the scene early in 1985, once they were confident that the almost a million litres of fuel had burned out; BR then took over the tunnel and re-opened it to traffic after an eight-month closure and a charity walk. Although much of the lining in the affected section had melted, it was easy to repair; work therefore mostly concentrated on replacing the track and signalling cables together with some work on the two shafts that the flames had roared up on their way to the surface. The surrounding mountains were also somewhat singed and the A6033 road had temporarily closed. (Cars tend not to appreciate being hit with burning lumps of brickwork flying through the air at over 100mph.)

Once Summit Tunnel was tidied up BR could turn their attention to some more modernisation and began building a batch of 50 heavy freight locomotives called Class 58 - a fleet which BR was keen to use as a stepping stone for export orders. Most of the fleet has now been exported, although BR had no success at the time. They had more success with organsing electrification of the East Coast Mainline, although a change of policy half way through (moving from loco-hauled coaches to push-pull with what might pass as a production APT) lumbered them with a one-off demonstrator from Brush Traction. Brush also built Class 60, intended to be the ultimate heavy-haul diesel but nearly cancelled after reliability problems, which were eventually cured to set the fleet off on a happy career which lasted about a decade. New electric locomotives arrived to help out on the West Coast Mainline, displacing the remains of the original fleets (by this point consisting of the Class 81s which hadn't incinerated and most of the 85s - both fleets eventually withdrew themselves through fire damage and disappeared in 1991). The Vale of Rheidol Railway was sold in 1988 and was soon followed by the Clapham Junction crash, which was a low point but had the bright side that there was now some pressure to get rid of the increasingly old, creaky, smelly and drafty Mk1 carriage fleet.

The Settle-Carlisle route was given an overhaul and closure was rejected in 1989, co-inciding nicely with the introduction of the 90mph, carefully styled Express Sprinter fleet (still one of the premier long-distance DMUs in the UK and so good that it obtained an export order - Thailand thought they were worth having anyway). Regional Railways soon came to the conclusion that, with the drop in traffic brought on by the recession, they might have inadvertantly ordered too many of the things, whereupon Network SouthEast decided that it wanted them for the Waterloo-Exeter route (as the Southern Region never had managed to add a third rail before Network SouthEast took over London commuter services in 1987). Twenty-two three-car Express Sprinter sets were duly taken away, overhauled and made the first cross-country trains to be fitted with retention toilets (all previous fleets emptied the toilets onto the track). This modified variety is now the most reliable DMU fleet in the UK. There is also a widely-acknowledged dire shortage of Express Sprinters which would have been partially remedied had these twenty-two sets stayed with Regional Railways and Network SouthEast built their own sleek diesel trains.

A Class 158 "Express Sprinter" in broadly original condition (a sticker has been stuck over the "Express" branding). Smooth and sleek, the design is straight out of the book that was used to design the Deltics - at least in so far as to make your vehicle look long, tall and superior. They lack the generally inspiring qualities of Deltics, but have lasted much longer.

The regions had essentially been replaced by the sectors - Intercity, Network SouthEast, Regional Railways, Railfreight and Parcels. Each of these was responsible for the maintenance of the bits of railway of which they were supposed to be the primary user. The freight sectors only handled a small number of lines and so could easily be pushed into profitability. Intercity was persuaded to make a profit by the simple expedient of moving all the expensive stretches of track from it to Regional Railways, whom everyone expected to make a loss so it could easily ask for Government support on the basis of social necessity (making the Government look generous) while Intercity lorded it as the only profitable rail passenger company in Europe (making it look like Government policies had worked). The 1990s were looking positive. Now Intercity was making money it could suggest dangerous ideas, like upgrading the West Coast Mainline and getting rid of the obsolete locomotives, disintegrating stations and collapsing LNWR signal boxes. They also wanted to electrify the Great Western and Midland Mainlines, having finally finished the Modernisation Plan's ideas to electrify from London to Glasgow, Edinburgh and Norwich. Network SouthEast were looking at refurbishing the open bits of the Withered Arm and reopening other bits, along with a programme to electrify their surviving diesel routes. Regional Railways wanted some more trains (the Sprinters had been too successful for their own good) and was producing great long lists of possible rail re-openings. Parcels wanted new vans and Railfreight was looking very healthy, particularly with the opening of the Channel Tunnel coming up and some lovely new dual-voltage electric locomotives - Class 92 - being delivered by Brush, who had a prosperous future building lots of lovely new pieces of kit for a booming rail network.

The Government could only see one way around this aggressively expanding network, which was to privatise it. This they did, splitting Intercity up into six chunks, Network SouthEast into another six and Regional Railways into as many pieces as possible. These were placed on the market as franchises available for hire to the most attractive bidder (which was done on the basis of "what do you want to do and how much will you demand we pay you for you to do it?"). Railfreight became Loadhaul, Mainline, Transrail, Railfreight Distribution and Freightliner. Parcels became Rail Express Services. The trains were divided up between rolling stock leasing companies Angel, Porterbrook and Eversholt. The track itself was handed over to Railtrack. It was all blamed on a European directive that track and trains should be accounted for separately (which made it easier for open-access operators to be charged fairly) - a directive which BR was essentially complying with.

Never mind. BR was a crusty old inefficient dinosaur and so obviously deserved to go. To be fair to the Government, they sold off an industry which some more investment over the rest of the decade could have pulled into profit so that the private sector could benefit from the profits again. They also sold it off for about a tenth of its market value. Privatisation has been the subject of whole books - all with titles which seem to have the idea that it was a mistake - yet the basic idea was sound. The original private companies had built lines wherever they were profitable, built new trains and fitted them out with all mod-cons, been exceedingly fussy about their reputation and put two fingers up to the Government and its political intrusions. If the unprofitable bits were still Government-subsidised and the profitable bits could fund their own upgrades without the ECML's profits being taken to subsidise Sunday travel on the Looe branch then the network would do much better. Great Western electrification could theoretically be sorted without the Treasury slowing things down by disagreeing with figures showing traffic increases and then refusing extra funding after a traffic increase. Likewise, if private industry took on the burgeoning freight sectors then they would have much better futures than if BR continued running around 1950s diesels and 1970s coal wagons while showing fairly minimal interest in taking on the roads. Finally, ever since nationalisation in 1948 BR had been the centre of every complaint going and after the boom years at the end of the 1980s it was looking suspiciously like the problem was not so much the service but the branding - a problem which the Tories would soon go on to suffer from themselves.

The alternative was quite likely that the Treasury would point out that it had little money and there were distinct signs that BR now had a firmly profitable core which could be made into a highly profitably nationalised industry by the simple expedient of closing down Regional Railways. It would probably then have been privatised anyway. Fare increases were still perfectly routine with BR; privatisation is more notable for what it didn't change than what it did.

Each bit of privatisation had a reason and, if looked at positively, then the whole thing can be made to make some sort of sense. It was the flagship policy of the 1992-1997 Tory Government and theoretically, if allowed to get on with life, it should have worked. Unfortunately we will never know, because the Tories lost in 1997 to the party which began this chapter by nationalising the railways. They had no intention of openly re-nationalising them - but they managed to do something which led to things being far, far worse...

End of Part 3

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>>>History of the British Railway Part 5>>>

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Last modified 20/07/11

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