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A History of the British Railway

Part 4

Privatisation of the British railway network had to be rushed through in the 5 years between the 1992 and 1997 General Elections due to a Labour promise to end the process and a high liklihood that the ruling Conservatives would lose the latter election. Thus the programme began with the Railways Act of 1993 and the resultant cancellation of any project which hadn't started yet. The most convoluted, curious and bewildering act ever perpetrated by a British government was set in train.

Previous privatisations had simply divided up the industry being sold off, either based on geographical regions or so that aeroplanes were owned by different companies to the airports at which they were landing. Rail privatisation was perpetrated by a government department which hadn't expected the Tories to win the 1992 election and which had once been described as very transparent - so transparent that you could look straight through it and see the Treasury on the other side. It was the Treasury which had developed the scheme, with some strange idea that it would cut costs due to its basic simplicity - rather than using BR's ideas that, if privatisation was necessary, the organisation should be sold off as a block or the sectors should be flogged off individually. The Treasury also ignored the Prime Minister's idea that BR should be divided up into a version of the Big Four; what everyone did agree on was that a minimal number of "old railway" people should be retained and the 1st of April 1994 should be the beginning of a new Year 1 for the railway industry. The 1st of April 1994 was about a year from the passing of the legislation - remarkably fast for a modern rail project.

The track was to be completely separated from everything else and handed over to a group called Railtrack, headed by the former boss of British Petroleum. Maintenance, renewals and engineering expertise would not be handled by Railtrack but by a set of engineering contractors. Railtrack would charge track access fees in a complicated manner which divided their income between that supplied by the train operators and that supplied by the taxpayer, in a manner to be determined by the Rail Regulator (a lawyer employed from outside who specialised in regulatory, not transport, law). They would be responsible for maintaining and operating 17 mainline railway stations; the rest were the responsibility of individual train operators.

Freight operations were to be sold off as a set of individual blocks - Parcels became Rail Express Systems and what had been known in the 1980s as Railfreight had become Loadhaul, Transrail, Mainline, Freightliner and Railfreight Distribution. These organisations would each own their own set of depots, locomotives and stock and would operate without public subsidy, since railfreight was operating commercially in the UK and making a profit.

Passenger services were divided up between 25 Train Operating Companies (TOCs) who would operate the trains over various route based on geographical areas or the routes of mainlines - but not own either the track or the trains. The actual trains were to be hired from Rolling Stock Leasing Companies (ROSCOs), of which there were 3 - Angel Trains, Eversholt Leasing and Porterbrook - but it was imagined (among those who thought about it) that this would become a highly competitive industry with lots of new market entrants speculatively buying trains for leasing to operators. The ROSCOs were to permanently sold off; the TOCs were to be franchises of various lengths (7 years plus) which would be overseen by the Office of Passenger Rail Franchising (OPRAF). These TOCs would be represented by the Association of Train Operating Companies (ATOC); general oversight of the whole system would be from the Office of Rail Regulation (ORR).

By contrast, the Big Four had consisted of four railway companies which ran trains, owned trains, owned stations, maintained track and reaped the profits without the help of a regulatory body.

The sale got underway with Railtrack, which went live on the Stock Market on 1st April 1996 for considerably less than its market value. The three ROSCOs all departed fairly quickly for considerably less than their market value. Rail Express Services was sold at the end of 1995 to a conglomerate headed by the Wisconsin Central Railroad from the USA. Wisconsin also made the biggest bid for Loadhaul, Transrail and Mainline, which had only been created out of the organisation previously known as Trainload Freight in 1994 but were rapidly amalgamated into one body which, after some discussion, was named English, Welsh and Scottish Railway (EWS). An overview of the locomotive fleet - ranging between those built in 1954 to those built in 1991 - was carried out and it was decided to buy some new locomotives called Class 66s from General Motors and their works in the US. Freightliner went to a management buyout midway through 1996 and, as it had no money, began by re-engineering the fleet that it inherited, which has since proved to be quite a popular idea.

Railfreight Distribution was established to handle Channel Tunnel traffic and duly sliced out of the general Railfreight sector with the aim of flogging it and its largely new assets separately. In the event they were sold to Wisconsin and its EWS subsidiary like pretty much everything else on the freight front. EWS lost no time in not repainting Railfreight Distribution locomotives, most of which worked right through their EWS careers in their original "triple grey" livery. This was acheived by not giving them major overhauls.

The TOCs showed no particular hurry to trundle out of the door and OPRAF began to come under pressure in mid 1996 to get rid of the remainder before the increasingly imminent General Election. South West Trains and Great Western Trains were the first to go - the former to Stagecoach (who then announced that they'd just bought Porterbrook and essentially ruled themselves out of the running for further franchises) and the latter to a management buyout. Stagecoach did, however, also manage to obtain Island Line, while a group calling themselves Prism Rail took over franchises such as London, Tilbury and Southend and South Wales and West (soon shortened to Wales and West, although the wheelchair ramps on trains once operated by this company still proclaim that they are owned by the original company). National Express took Midland Mainline, Central Trains and Scotrail (the last to be let) while the US-based company Sea Containers took on the East Coast Mainline and branded it as the Great North Eastern Railway (GNER). After much publicity about how he would save the railways, Richard Branson arrived with his Virgin Group and took over West Coast and Cross Country - two run-down sections of the network which Intercity had wanted to overhaul - which he announced grand regeneration schemes for and began repainting the fleet in Virgin red - just in time for a collapse in fleet reliability. The London remains of the Great Central Railway went to Chiltern Trains, who immediately embarked on route modernisation for the run-down railway between London Marylebone and Birmingham Snow Hill.

The Tory party lost the 1997 General Election after finishing rail privatisation, being heavily punished for it at the ballot box. It soon became apparent, however, that the one concrete, no-renaging promise made by the victorious Labour Party - that rail privatisation would be reversed - was not very concrete and would soon be renaged upon. Railfreight Distribution was sold to EWS shortly before BR's fiftieth birthday, ending the dominance of the national rail operator - but not its career. BR still exists, in various forms, maintaining that stock of abandoned bits of railway which nobody wants - collapsing tunnels, Grade 1 listed viaducts and Waterloo International station.

Railtrack soon demonstrated to the public one basic issue with the railways - in the absence of any particular orders as to what they should do, they had become a massive engineering, historic building and real estate industry where train operating was merely an unprofitable sideline. Indeed, selling off "surplus" real estate was deemed to be a legitimate way of filling any funding gaps and so land set aside by the Big Four for capacity improvements was cheerily sold off and built on. Historic buildings were giving increasing grief having not been refurbished during the three years which it took the privatisation process to feed through. Engineering suffered when Railtrack moved over to "Project Destiny" whereby parts were not replaced until they broke. This isn't a bad policy when applied to general concepts or your garden fence. But it doesn't work on railways.

Nonetheless, it did help Railtrack find the funding for the West Coast Mainline Total Route Modernisation (WCRM). BR, aware that this principal route (one of the busiest in the world) would be the focus of some comparisons in later years, ensured that when it was handed over to Railtrack it was devoid of any temporary speed restrictions. This was achieved by nicking track from other renewal projects around the country and carrying out a certain amount of finger-crossing. Railtrack had now tied themselves into a contract to upgrade the world's first trunk railway to support express trains running at 140mph using a signalling system based on technology which didn't exist while simultaneously allowing for the operation of semi-fast trains (max. speed 100mph), stopping services (max. speed 75mph), container trains (max.speed 75mph) and heavy bulk freights (max. speed 60mph). Even with four running lines to play with, it was clear that this would be a considerable achievement, albeit one at which a lot of people reckoned Railtrack could succeed - not least Richard Branson.

Meanwhile Chiltern Trains's new DMUs were coming on stream - unit No. 168001 making it into the history books as the first train to be delivered to the privatised railway and the first train to be ordered after a record-breaking gap of 1,064 days since the latest Royal Mail trains and the dual-voltage electric locomotive fleet for trains from the North to the Channel Tunnel in 1994. Shortly afterwards the dual-voltage electrics were authorised to operate over the railways north of London and consequently were able to do some of their job - the hauling freight trains bit. They were also intended to haul sleeper trains through the Tunnel but that was cancelled before they arrived and after some discussion about scrapping the brand new (and entirely unused) sleeper stock it was decided to sell it cut-price to Canada. The 10 locomotives ordered for this purpose then spent 15 years in store, with weeds growing out of their roofs. They represented the world's most expensive rockeries. They are now being introduced to traffic, but since all their internal kit is obsolete one or two are expected to be cannibalised and scrapped to get the rest running.

Adtranz did rather well out of early train orders post-privatisation, scooping up requirements for trains which built on BR's Turbo and Networker designs. This is a brand new Midland Mainline Turbostar, seen at Derby - its place of construction - in 1999. Turbostars were very successful and Midland Mainline soon got rid of its fleet because passenger numbers had grown to more than the Turbostars could handle. Nowadays they work some of Cross Country's more provincial services.

One thing which was soon noted about privatisation was the death of standardisation, particularly in build products. British Rail Engineering Ltd. had become part of a company called Adtranz during privatisation. Metro-Cammel and the now rather less relevant English Electric had become part of GEC in the late 1980s; GEC had joined French company Alsthom to form GEC-Alsthom; this group had then decided to lose four surplus letters and by 1998 was simply Alstom. In the early years of privatisation Alstom and Adtranz were the standard train builders in the same way as BREL and Metro-Cammell had vied for the Sprinter orders in the 1980s. Adtranz produced the Turbostar for Midland Mainline's quiet stopping services into St. Pancras, which was so successful that passenger numbers soared, overcrowding became unacceptable and the Turbostars got the boot a few years later. They also attempted to persuade the Southern Region (as was once) to have the old Mk1 trains rebodied with Turbostar-like bodyshells. The Turbostar bodyshell was very successful, but the old Mk1 stock was deemed to be just too old and it was an all-new electric variety which got orders from two of the four TOCs on the Southern Region. The other two Southern TOCs - South West Trains and Gatwick Express - decided to go with an Alstom product which looked very nice in the order book.

Alstom got a lot of orders during this period but only that for Virgin West Coast's Pendolino fleet exceeded 40 sets and most were much smaller. South West Trains went for 30 Junipers and soon found that they needed 30 four-car sets to carry the fault-books around. Gatwick Express had slightly more luck with their 8 eight-car Junipers, apparently based on Darth Vader's mask, which only needed 5 years from delivery of the first set to eliminate the electro-diesel pushing or pulling seven Mk2 coaches which had preceded them. Scotrail's new Juniper fleet - 40 three-car sets - didn't quite create national headlines but nonetheless suffered some serious teething troubles as they attempted to replace Glasgow's Blue Trains from 1959 (although the problems were not as serious as those which afflicted the Blue Trains, which had all been withdrawn in 1960 for modification following a series of transformer explosions, some of which caused injuries). North Western Trains had ordered a mixed batch for replacing loco-hauled services on the North Welsh Coast from Crewe to Holyhead and for long-distance services from Manchester to London in competition with Virgin Trains. Twenty-seven of the former batch began deliveries in 1999 and would have taken over all workings in 2004 were it not for the fact that there was a franchise re-draw between the first set arriving and the fleet being reliable enough to boot the last loco-hauled service. The latter batch were yet to be built when First Group took over North Western Trains and Great Western Trains; the latter franchise was deemed to be more appropriate for 125mph DMUs and so they were moved there. From an operational point of view this "Adelante" fleet was remarkably unpopular, due to a habit of breaking down when not doing anything and catching fire when doing less.

A dark horse also entered the market rather insignificantly in 1996 when Siemens of Germany secured an order for a fleet of trains for the new Heathrow Express service from London Paddington to Heathrow Airport. They then got a follow-on order from Northern Spirit for a similar fleet to work between Leeds and Skipton on commuter trains. Both fleets are noted for their high-quality and good performance. Surprisingly, it was taken as a surprise when South West Trains dropped their buggy Junipers and ordered a full production fleet of around 200 four/five-car Mk1 replacement EMUs from Siemens's Desiro product range. Meanwhile, Adtranz had such a full order book that it became rather too attractive to outside investors and Bombardier of Canada, who specialise in aircraft parts, took over the company and the last surviving train-building workshop in Britain - which persisted in using the hammer-and-blowtorch build philosophy when it came to knocking Turbostars and Electrostars together.

What has this got to do with standardisation? Well, quite simply, TOPS was being cheerily filled up with mostly small fleets of trains from three different builders which all used different wiring specifications and coupling types. British Rail had considered various types of Modernisation Plan DMUs to be non-standard because they had differing braking systems and control wiring. But at least they all carried the same type of coupling and this coupling was always carried at the same height. Turbostars can mostly talk to Sprinters and Pacers (apart from the Chiltern Trains Turbostars, which can only talk to Chiltern Trains Turbos). That was as far as the agreement went.

The growing orderbooks, the advancing West Coast Route Modernisation (which looked like they might be going to do some work and get something for the billion or so pounds which had been spent) and the fact that everyone seemed to be making a profit once their subsidy cheques had arrived (with the perhaps inevitable exception of Virgin Cross Country) meant that the era seemed to be positive and the privatised railway could look forward to the future safe in the knowledge that the Labour party had no intention of renationalising it. Until the 17th of October 2000, when an Intercity 225 electric train set consisting of Class 91 No. 91023 and nine Mk4 coaches left the East Coast Mainline at Hatfield after passing over a broken rail.

91101 - the doyenne of the fleet, once known as 91001 and named Swallow - attempts to hide behind a catenary post as it draws out of York in 2004. By then GNER's reputation was recovering. Hatfield's catenary post had one leg rather than the two possessed by the post seen here.

Two fatal accidents had disrupted the peace of privatisation before this point - Southall had featured a Great Western Trains High Speed Train crashing into a stone train after managing to pass a signal at danger due to the HST driver's carelessness, killing 7, and Ladbroke Grove had seen a First Great Western High Speed Train get hit in the face by a Thames Turbo and catch fire due to lack of training on the part of the Turbo's driver, killing 31. A smaller accident where a West Coast express train ran over a Pacer unit which had ended up on the mainline by mistake and was duly dismembered by the Class 87 locomotive - appropriately called Wolf of Badenoch - completely failed to seriously affect the industry, despite the lack of fatalities being purely because the Pacer was running as empty coaching stock. Hatfield was the smallest of the early privatisation fatal accidents - it only killed 4 and had the East Coast Mainline catenary been as flimsy as it was made out to be it would have disintegrated when hit by the train's buffet car, rather than rip the vehicle apart like a tin can. It bore certain similarities to an accident featuring a Class 87 and a rake of Mk3 coaches which went over a broken rail at Bushey on the West Coast Mainline some twenty years previously. In both cases the locomotive remained on the rails, upright and undamaged; it was merely a mark of how times change that the 87 shrugged itself and proceded to Crewe for a check-up under its own power, while the Class 91 went to Crewe on a low-loader. In both cases the nearby station served an otherwise insignificant and unnoticed part of the London commuter belt, although Bushey took place within the actual confines of the station and Hatfield on a nearby curve. Bushey saw the coaches uncouple themselves and scatter themselves along the fast lines, while Hatfield saw the train remain remarkably intact. But while in the case of Hatfield the catenary post stood firm in the face of a coach hitting it at 120mph, at Bushey the lattice-girder support post - an over-engineered structure typical of those used on the West Coast Mainline's earlier electrification - collapsed when hit by coaches travelling at 100mph and so there were no fatalities.

However, despite the catenary post actually killing the people, it was the broken rail which had caused the train to hit the catenary post - although the Health and Safety Executive and British Transport Police had to close the East Coast Mainline for three weeks to confirm this. Meanwhile Railtrack went into panic mode when it realised that it couldn't honestly go out to face the press and say that this incident was a one-off which was not about to be duplicated. In order to establish that it was it was forced to impose emergency speed restrictions on every stretch of railway where the track might be due for renewal. Imposing the speed restrictions was quick and easy - unlike the procedure for removing them, which took weeks. A journey from Leeds to London took nine hours; it would, of course, be into St Pancras, which was briefly London's gateway to the North, since the West Coast Mainline was in bits and the southern part of the East Coast Mainline was shut. A string of floods finished off the network and left everyone in one of those positions where you want to throw in the towel and press the "restart" button.

However, things did improve and by February 2001 91023 was out of the workshops and racing south down the East Coast Mainline, pushing its train towards London with the driver in an unpowered driving vehicle (known as a DVT) at the south end of the train. It had managed to find one of the few stretches of railway in the country - that around Selby and Great Heck - which was not subjected to a 20mph speed restriction and thus was able to be doing around 100mph when the DVT ran over a Landrover which had been driven onto the railway by a tired car driver. The DVT derailed and passed over a set of points, causing it to slip to the right into the path of a brand new General Motors Class 66 (which Freightliner had taken delivery of about two months previously, having been impressed by how well they were doing for EWS) and the rake of six-week-old loaded coal hoppers which the 66 was hauling north at about 50mph. The collision threw the 66 to its left, almost knocking over a row of houses, and reduced the DVT to a small metal box which came to rest in an adjacent field. The coal hoppers derailed, lurched, discarded their loads and wrote each other off; the Mk4 coaches splayed out into the field after the DVT, mostly sans bogies and underslung equipment. 91023 was left sitting on the rails, undamaged (uniquely amongst the vehicles involved), gazing back up the line at the remains of the Landrover and trailer which had caused the accident and their absolutely horrified driver, still on the phone to the police and the only one of the three drivers involved to survive. The total death toll was 10. Merely annoying was the fact that Freightliner now had to replace a diesel locomotive which had barely been run-in and GNER had just lost an entire Mk4 set before the damage to their brand could recover from Hatfield. At the time the 91s and Mk4 sets were going through an extensive refurbishment programme which involved so many alterations that 100 was being added to all the 91s' numbers, so they were short of stock anyway. The chances of 91023 being involved in a third accident over the next few months were reduced by sending it straight for refurbishment; in a bid to remove any jinx which might have struck the loco, it is not now known as 91123 but 91132.

Following Hatfield and Great Heck work began to restructure the rail industry. Initially the main change was the growth in importance of the Strategic Rail Authority (which was regarded as being neither strategic, nor particularly interested in rail, nor an authority) and the adoption by it of the functions of the Office of Passenger Rail Franchising and certain powers held by the British Rail Residuary Body and the Rail Regulator. A new Rail Regulator had arrived in 1999 in the form of keen young Scot Tom Winsor, who had been making a point of shouting at Railtrack about their unacceptably long lists of broken rails and now made a point of shouting at it generally since it had too many failings for it to be worth being specific about them. Railtrack itself looked likely to survive, although there were murmurings within the Department for Transport...

Nothing could be done too soon, since the company might be massively unpopular but Labour didn't want to make the railways any more controversial at the approaching 2001 General Election than they already were. Once the election was over, with a record low turnout where "No longer interested" won over 40% of the popular vote, John Prescott was removed from his command of Transport for beating up voters and the task of being railway supremo passed to Stephen Byers.

Generally the railway industry is a peaceful beast which stirs occasionally and can kick rather hard in the boardroom. Its irritating points mostly consist of its good timing, such as a habit of announcing the closure of bits of railway just after massive amounts of the roads budget have been spent on providing them with bridges to get new road schemes around them. It is generally good and tries not to have major rail crashes in the run-up to elections. However, occasionally it goes through moods where it is best for the relevant Ministers and Secretaries of State to stand back and not even poke it with a big stick. 2001 was one of these moments, but Byers didn't quite catch the right mood and his department was lacking in tact. On 11th of September 2001 a rather infamous email was circulated by Byers's press officer, Jo Moore, asking if anyone had any bad news which needed burying. Possibly fortunately for Byers, who might have been lynched rather than merely sacked had he gone ahead with it then, his Big Plan was not yet ready and it had to wait until early October before he could call in the top brass of Railtrack late on Friday evening and tell them that the cheque they were expecting to cover them over for a few months was not actually coming. Instead he would be putting Railtrack into railway administration - a curious branch of bankruptcy law which recognises the statutory obligation of the company concerned to continue operating services with no threat of their assets being taken away from them.

Byers also rang up Tom Winsor and told him that if he did anything emergency powers would be rushed through Parliament to remove his power to save Railtrack. (Theoretically, if Railtrack was deemed to be unable to cover its bills Winsor could re-open the financial settlement and order the Treasury to give them more money.) Railtrack declined this, Winsor was left wondering what might have been and Railtrack's shareholders were told on Monday morning that the £2 shares which they owned were no longer actually worth anything. Suddenly Railtrack was a whole lot more popular. Byers managed to remain in post for a few more months but remains one of the shorter-lived Transport Secretaries.

The next stage was to find a replacement for Railtrack, which was a procedure which ultimately seemed to involve firing the Chief Executive, deeming that the company no longer had any shares, telling it to behave itself and act much more carefully and rebranding it as Network Rail. Railtrack, like British Rail, still carries a residuary body responsible for those bits and pieces which Network Rail (which technically bought the railways from Railtrack using money borrowed from somewhere) didn't really want. One does have to wonder why they might have wanted any of it. They had a new Strategic Rail Authority head (a man from Virgin Trains called Richard Bowker who attracted some comment by not wearing a tie) who was a bit of an unknown (but turned out to be a good talker, if poor at providing strategic vision) and a Rail Regulator who remained loud, vocal and opinionated. The Strategic Rail Authority did manage a couple of pieces of vision over the next few years - one was that it re-let Connex South Central and took Connex South Eastern back in-house for a bit and the other was that it moved the franchising process over to a model of "This is what we want - how much will you pay us to let you stick your logos on the trains while you do it?".

Meanwhile Tom Winsor got Network Rail to re-evaluate the West Coast Route Modernisation Project. It was agreed that it probably wasn't going to happen in its original form, much to the horror of Virgin Trains. 140mph was scrapped, rather too late to take the extra expense out of the trains and after several junctions had been relaid for 140mph running (several sets of points with this capability were subsequently removed and replaced with 125mph designs, which are cheaper to maintain - in some cases before anything had passed over them at 125). The Passenger UpGrade 2 (PUG2) contract which had set out the 140mph requirements, however, remained in force, since Virgin wouldn't let go of it. As a sort of compensation, Virgin got all the Pendolinos modified to nine-car sets - most had originally been 8-car but the loss of the extra 15mph was going to stretch the fleet more - and had both franchises taken away by the Strategic Rail Authority, who instead allowed Virgin to supply some basic management, brand their trains and keep a small percentage of the profits.

Virgin Trains in their glory days. The scene is Birmingham International station; on the left is a Pendolino and on the right is a Voyager. It's December 2006; routine loco-hauled services had ceased 18 months previously and the Cross Country franchise would pass to Arriva in less than a year.

This decision was partly reached due to the ongoing problems with Cross Country. In 1998 Virgin had let its Class 47 locomotive fleet decline so much that various freight locomotives (including other people's Class 47s) had been forced to work long-distance Cross Country trains, much to the delight of the trainspotters (but not of the passengers, who got 60-75mph locomotives working 95mph services - although some of the freight designs proved to have very good acceleration when the normal load of 35 coal hoppers vanished and was replaced by 7 Mk2 coaches). While by this stage it was agreed that the Class 47 was only still in traffic because there were too many to withdraw them, dirty grey diesels did not make a good advert for privatisation. Nor did replacing the 7 Mk2 coaches with more frequent 4 or 5 coach Voyagers, which attracted more passengers per train - and the old Cross Country services had been pretty crowded. Virgin was not stuck to using Class 47s however, since it also had a fleet of HSTs, some of which the Voyagers had been due to displace and which Virgin now wanted to keep. The Strategic Rail Authority ruled that providing extra capacity was a stupid idea and the HSTs were taken away. Some went to Midland Mainline, which used them under Strategic Rail Authority directions on hourly St Pancras to Manchester services while the West Coast Mainline was in bits. A couple went to GNER and a few power cars and coaches went to Network Rail for a new track measurement and recording train which they wanted. The remainder were stored at the end of the West Somerset Railway at Minehead, spoiling steam galas by leaving a large red-and-yellow nose sitting in the background of almost any otherwise authentic 1930s-style picture of a Great Western steam locomotive and rake of 1950s Mk1 coaches with genuine 1970s interiors.

Uses soon began to emerge, however, and First Group purchased most of the fleet outright, including a number which had been fitted with buffers and turned into a sort of DVT for use on the East Coast Mainline in the late 1980s after electrification while BR waited for the real DVT fleet to be delivered (it was a particularly strange story which ended up with 8 HST powercars losing their front-end skirts and having buffers and couplings fitted instead, which was useful after they'd moved to Cross Country and amused themselves breaking down in obscure places). The buffer-fitted examples then turned out to have extra DVT equipment fitted where First wanted to fit Automatic Train Protection for use on the Great Western mainline into Paddington, so were swapped for some standard examples. First began looking for someone to overhaul their powercars and the buffer-fitted powercars, after spending some more time at the seaside, moved to Plymouth for an overhaul and use with an open access operator on the East Coast mainline called Grand Central.

The whole point of privatisation was to encourage non-franchised passenger operators, but only one had been set up - Hull Trains, providing through trains between London and Hull - before the Strategic Rail Authority decided that they were taking money from franchised operators and thus costing the taxpayer money. The new owner of these power cars, Grand Central, was having problems with money, stock and organising overhauls and so arrived on the scene in 2002, ran its first train in 2007 and settled down to something approaching reliable service in late 2008. Freight operators, not being subsidised, were still encouraged to be open access and so the traffic held by EWS and Freightliner in 1998 was now being divided by four main operators - EWS (mostly coal, steel and some other bits), Freightliner (mostly containers with some coal), Direct Rail Services (nuclear waste) and GBRailfreight (whatever it could get, but London Underground maintenance company Metronet was a good customer) - plus anyone else who could get three clapped-out diesels, some wagons and an overgrown yard to store them all in.

Trouble at the Cross - a Driving Van Trailer in GNER blue with National Express branding (and 91101 at the other end of the train) stands next to a Hull Trains "Pioneer". The "Pioneers" have now been cascaded to Midland Mainline and replaced by Adelantes, which carry a First Group swirly livery. The DVT now has now been painted into a version of East Coast livery with "Flying Scotsman" vinyls and is supposed to be paired routinely with 91101 for this purpose. (It's a shame that opening one of the bodyside doors on the DVT moves the "F" clear of the rest of the branding, which is in highly prominent capitals.)

The refranchising of the East Anglian franchises as one block under SRA instructions led to some interesting positions. First, who had previously held the Great Eastern franchise with some success, now wanted the whole pie but was excluded during pre-qualification. However, the holder of the intercity Anglia franchise, a private company called GBRailways which also operated GBRailfreight and Hull Trains, was still in the bidding, so First bought them out. The new franchise was then awarded to National Express, who called it "one" (either "operated by national express" or "one franchise" or "we won!") and painted everything in an exciting livery which was compared to Dulux paint cards. First was left with an open access operation which it had never really wanted and a freight operator which didn't exactly fit into their portfolio, but they decided to keep both anyway.

Come 2005 and, two fatal accidents on, the Department for Transport decided that the system needed another reshuffle. It took over the functions of the Strategic Rail Authority, which was abolished. Its Chief Executive, Richard Bowker, was briefly moved to Education and then left to run National Express. Tom Winsor was leaving anyway, but the new Office of the Rail Regulator featured a team of Regulators, which eliminated the personality politics which had been very clearly visible during Winsor's tenure and instead left a collection of grey auditors whom nobody can name in charge of Network Rail's income. The new organisation also lost the "blank cheque" powers which Winsor had been able to deploy - responsibility for funding moved to the Department for Transport. The rulebook on closures was altered a bit, since closures had previously been impossible and the "safe pair of hands" who was in charge of the Department - Alistair Darling, whose brief was to cancel anything which might cost money - was of the opinion that the railways should not be employed to move fresh air around. Rumours began to circulate about branch lines being axed.

Virgin, meanwhile, amid some quiet celebration, got rid of their last examples of Class 87 soon after the 2005 General Election. The Pendolino fleet wasn't quite giving little enough grief to be able to manage alone, however - just well enough not to need a fleet of brightly-painted locomotives to be leased all the time for one or two workings a day - and so some Class 90s were leased on "spot-hire" from EWS to cover for a bit. One of these Class 90s became the first member of the class to explore North Wales when someone forgot to take it off before dropping a diesel on the front at Crewe to drag the train along the non-electrified line to Holyhead. It was noticed at Llandudno, removed and dumped in a siding until the paperwork was filled out authorising it to go back and explaining why it needed to go back in the first place. Meanwhile a faded, unbranded and unhealthy Class 87 was borrowed from GBRailfreight for the day to take the train back from Crewe to London, getting some brief attention before it got over-excited the following day and failed at Crewe. The Class 87s then had an interesting Christmas after GBRailfreight worked a large number of Royal Main trains (a service which EWS had once worked but lost due to arguments over the definition of "reliable") and two examples worked some final loco-hauled trains, to much enthusiast interest and several failures, for Virgin through the Summer 2006 timetable while the Pendolinos had some modifications carried out.

2005 and 2006 were a remarkable pair of years in that neither featured a fatal rail accident, so the rail network had to employ other methods to remain unpopular. 2006 saw First take on the wider Greater Western franchise, responsible for all of the former Great Western Railway apart from the bits which had been shut or passed to Arriva Trains Wales or Chiltern. This franchise was very tightly prescribed, with in-depth details as to how much money would be paid in premiums, what would be refurbished and how many trains the new franchise would be allowed to have. First remained happy until it came to the controversial December 2006 timetable change. This memorably saw East London train operator c2c rip up their new timetable after Christmas 2006 due to the almost universal condemnation which it obtained, instead reverting to the Summer 2006 timetable (which meant that the large wad of pages representing Table 1 in the National Rail Timetable were completely irrelevant for the next 6 months). First went further, with a quarter of their West of England fleet being placed into store at Eastleigh depot, near Southampton, and services on several increasingly successful branch lines slashed to post-Beeching levels. First blamed the Government, the Government blamed First, and First duly solved the problems of overcrowding around Bristol by withdrawing services from the Cornish branch lines so that they could use the trains elsewhere. This did not go down terribly well and created such a storm that the Government was eventually obliged to do something about it. This new timetable also slashed trains to the stations at each end of the Severn Tunnel - Severn Tunnel Junction, which was realised the next week to be a major rail interchange and unofficial parkway station rather than a wayside halt, and Pilning, which had once been a major rail interchange but was now a wayside halt that, from the timetable change, had one train each day per week, in line with statutory obligations. On the plus side, all of FGW's 117 power cars tottered off to Brush Loughborough over the first two years of the franchise and came back with a new coat of paint, better cab interiors and modern engines.

Things slowly improved through 2007 - particularly for Northern, who were given a large fleet of trains which had been left lying around at Eastleigh depot, near Southampton, and which nobody seemed to want. South West Trains decided to keep their Alstom-built Juniper fleet after some reliability modifications and decided that they didn't like the Wessex Electrics which they had on Waterloo-Weymouth services any more (although all the passengers did). Virgin lost a Pendolino in the Lambrigg derailment in February, forcing them to borrow a Class 90 and loco-hauled set again, and a franchise in June, when the new revised Cross Country franchise was awarded to Arriva. Arriva promised to refurbish their Turbostar fleet, remove the Shop from the Voyagers to increase luggage space and re-introduce HSTs, since there were still enough power cars sitting around doing nothing in fields. Fortunately for Arriva, the name "Cross Country", despite being an Intercity invention, is now tightly associated with the name "Virgin" and for most passengers every problem they encounter on the franchise remains the fault of Richard Branson.

Virgin did, however, get full control of the West Coast franchise back, sweetened by a large subsidy in exchange for not suing over the fact that the PUG2 contract hadn't been completed. It was a particularly curious subsidy when compared to the large premium which GNER had been asked to pay for the East Coast and over which it was now having to give up the franchise because it couldn't find the money (the premium was mostly based on Network Rail compensation payouts, but Network Rail was performing too well and so GNER wasn't getting the income). East Coast duly went to National Express for an even bigger premium. National Express also pledged to rebrand all its operations as "National Express Something" and so began to repaint everything on its East Anglia franchise, which had memorably been known as "one" (leading to suggestions that East Coast would become "two" and competitions being held as to who could suggest the best bacronym for this). Repainting eventually gathered pace and was done rather efficiently on c2c (which became National Express c2c), handled rather less efficiently on East Anglia and subsequently abandoned on East Coast. The other three new operators managed much better liveries and Eurostar moved into London St. Pancras amid much ceremony in November 2007 to complete a generally good year.

St Pancras station used to be a semi-derelict gargantuan space which BR stored freight locomotives in over the weekend. The gloomy Gothic architechture and high black roof saw it written into Douglas Adams's book The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul as Valhalla and a more appropriate place would be hard to imagine.

The overhaul of the station converted more of the roof to glass, painted the supports pale blue, rearranged and refurbished the platforms, found something to do with the undercroft, vastly expanded the site and rebuilt the hotel to give it a new heyday with greater luxury than that available there in the early 20th century. Kings Cross is now being refurbished to the same standard.

2008 ran smoothly - First started getting some more stock, in the form of the worst examples of Northern's Pacer fleet, which could at least provide extra capacity. Their HST fleet refurbishment was completed and the 14 Adelantes were duly despatched to what Great Western hoped would be the breaker's yard. In the event requests for the fleet flooded in with the Department for Transport finding enough work for 20 Adelantes, much to everyone's surprise, with offers coming in from all of First's other rail passenger operations. The Department for Transport also became very interested in electrification and got around to ordering some extra Pendolinos for Virgin. However, they weren't exactly talking to Virgin at that point and so it was decided that a shadow franchise would take delivery of the trains, test them and then park them alongside the Class 86 and 87 fleets in a field in Warwickshire until the West Coast franchise was put out for tender again in 2012 (Virgin had said that it would only take them if they got a franchise extension and the Department called their bluff, only to find that it was a commercial decision and not a bluff at all). When the name of the group who would be operating the shadow franchise was taken out of the envelope it turned out to be Virgin, so Virgin was signed up to spend 2011 testing trains for Virgin and then putting them to one side and not letting Virgin use them.

Also in 2008 came the environmental protestors, who had opinions on coal-fired power stations and wished to deny one of a coal delivery to make a point. They duly selected a power station, stood outside it with a red flag, stopped the EWS Class 66-hauled train, climbed onto the coal wagons and shovelled the coal out into a handy watercourse while proclaiming the horrible effects which coal has on the environment. The train driver, meanwhile, sat back, got out his paper and waited for permission to proceed while his locomotive spent the next few hours making the familiar "ying-ying-ying" noise which 66s make while idling as they slowly drain their fuel tank and dreamily emit things into the atmosphere. The protestors were in due course un-handcuffed from the train and taken away, the 66 went to find another tank of fuel and the power station eventually got its coal. Subsequently it turned out that the protestors were put up to it by an under-cover police officer who wanted them to be an interesting and effective bunch of eco-warriors, so they were all let off.

EWS was taken over by Deustche Bahn shortly afterwards. Deustche Bahn was mostly interested in EWS's operating licences for France, Spain and the UK, which are quite hard to come by, but was willing to look after EWS at the same time. Deustche Bahn in fact rapidly became a sizeable force in UK rail, as it bought out the Chiltern franchise and invested in new open-access group Wrexham, Shopshire and Marylebone Railway, which aimed to link Wrexham and Shrewsbury with London and its Marylebone station. Virgin, noticing this, suggested that it might operate its own Wrexham and Shrewsbury trains, which would be able to go much faster and head to London Euston. Arriva Trains Wales also expressed an interest in extending its own Aberystwyth to Birmingham trains to London Marylebone and it looked like Shrewsbury might, in a period of a few months, move from having no trains to the capital to having 9 per day (which would give it about the same service as Glasgow, except slightly quicker). However, in early 2009 Virgin pulled out, after a large amount of bad publicity of big bully Virgin picking on a plucky little open-access operator and its insignificant backers. It must have come as some surprise to Deustche Bahn that it was widely supported by the British press and insinuated to be fairly minor, given that it is also known as the German State Railway, is owned by the German Government and is one of the world's larger employers. It was also done in early 2009 for employing private detectives to spy on its employees.

In July 2009 National Express found itself in some financial difficulties and announced that it would not be giving any more money to the wholly-owned subsidiary company which operates the East Coast franchise. The new pro-railway Secretary of State for Transport Lord Adonis duly announced that when the franchise did go to the wall he would be taking it back in-house and it would be followed by National Express's other two franchises. Problems soon emerged. Firstly East Coast was not yet bankrupt and so was not taken back in-house for another six months; had the company found a way of getting enough money to meet its commitments (or if Adonis had accepted one of several friendly sweeteners of a hundred or so million pounds offered by National Express) it wouldn't have been re-nationalised. Secondly, East Anglia and c2c are operated by separate wholly-owned subsidiaries to East Coast and so the franchises are not technically owned by the same company. Consequently there is no legal basis for carrying out the old threat of "lose one, lose them all" which franchise holders have faced. Besides, if the economy dropped any further the DfT would be stuck with three franchises which nobody would have made it a decent offer for. Unfortunately for all concerned, the highly realistic and reasonable bids accepted by the DfT were impossible for the Government to match, so the taxpayer has lost some money.

Labour rather inconsiderately left organising electrification and a working rolling stock policy until the last year of their third term in office, so Adonis's grand schemes were only going to go through if the party won the 2010 election. They didn't - the Conservatives moved from holding 196 seats to 306 and took over the reins of Government. Cuts which Labour promised would never happen on their watch (it is much cheaper to let the country go bankrupt and wait for someone to bail it out) would appear to now be coming, nearly pushing electrification off the agenda. Eventually the new Government announced that the various wiring schemes would go ahead, although it has been decided to pursue the more expensive and less pleasant option of running trains from Cardiff to Swansea on diesel engines as dreamt up by someone in the last government. Labour's legacy is therefore essentially that nothing happened during the boom years other than the botched renationalisation of Railtrack and a few developments promised by franchise holders to the previous Conservative government, which is a shame really.

Political legacy - rail safety concerns in the aftermath of privatisation resulted in the decision to accelerate the disposal of the remaining Mark 1 electric multiple unit stock on the former Southern Region. By the time disposal was properly underway during 2004 and 2005 the trains ranged from some 30-year-old 4-VEP suburban units to the inter-urban and 50-year-old 4-CEPs. This unit, seen at Southampton Central in Connex livery and the last year of its life, is neither - it's a 40-year-old 4-CIG set. They smelt, rattled and had a poor safety record, but were loyal, capable and often incredibly reliable. Several sets were preserved.

However, the election campaign did see two franchises renationalised when DB bought out Arriva, bringing Arriva Trains Wales and Arriva CrossCountry under the control of the German taxpayer. Nobody paid any notice to this, even though it means that four of the franchises are now wholly owned by Government owned enterprises and a further three by a company in which the French national rail operator SNCF has a share. Questions were also raised by the Germans as to why they own a company whose purpose is to carry the people of Wrexham and Shropshire to London in very small numbers in considerable luxury. 2011 began with the decision that there was no very good reason for this and Wrexham and Shropshire gave a tearful farewell to its passengers after the plug was pulled with three days notice.

2011 was only going to get more fun. First decided not to take the three-year extension on the Great Western franchise and planned to target a much better deal on a new franchise; the chickens associated with the six HST sets which they own will now come home to roost. Deutsche Bahn found that being associated with British railways does not mean that your superior working practices will rub off on them but that your organisation will simply become more readily comparable to its British counterparts. It duly got into trouble with the German government for not being reliable enough. It did, however, initiate through freight services from China to France, which opens up all sorts of new possibilities for bankrupting intercontinental shipping lines and possibly improving Eurasian passenger rail links. High Speed 2 became controversial and the Government inadvertently awarded the Thameslink train contract to Siemens some two years after it was supposed to have been awarded to someone. Bombardier immediately began a massive lobbying programme which had been strangely absent when confronted with the opportunity to have IEP built here instead of Japan; that battle it might have won, whereas Siemens will almost certainly build the Thameslink fleet.

Meanwhile the first of the new batch of Pendolinos has actually entered traffic with Virgin after Virgin obtained permission from the DfT to allow Virgin to use it; Virgin (not that Virgin, the other Virgin) even got a franchise extension since the DfT delayed the refranchising process until after the McNulty report into railway costs came out. This was largely a damp squib; it recommended various things that had already been proposed and said nothing daring, partly because it had been proof-read by the DfT beforehand. The Virgin refranchising process then slipped even further because the DfT didn't get round to starting it. Quietly, behind the scenes and with little fuss (some rows over newspapers listening to people's voicemails took priority in the press) the modernisation of the Great Western mainline got underway in July and the 2000 plan to use the route to show the world how to operate a high speed diesel railway died peacefully.

Looking like any other power car, one of the 12 power cars that First owns rolls into Bodmin Parkway in March 2009 with a train for Penzance. With no electrification due to reach Cornwall for many years, a batch of HSTs are to be life-extended to take them and their coaches up to their 60th birthday. Whether this example, No.43122, will be among this batch remains to be seen.

(For reference, and so you can look out for them, the power cars which won't be available to the next franchise unless First feels generous are 43092/093/094/097/098/122/153/154/155/158/194 and 198 - the youngest of the bunch. 105 other power cars, including the four oldest, are leased to the franchise by Porterbrook Leasing and Angel Trains.)

Although the Germans may have found a new way of taking over Britain without having to go to all the expense of bombing Coventry Cathedral, they have not had a big impact on the way the British railway network works. In fact, nobody ever has. Even Beeching merely scratched at the surface, ripping parts of a bush which healed remarkably quickly. Few industries develop the insular nature of the rail network, although this is probably for the better.

The rail network is always convinced that it knows best - anyone who is parachuted in from outside is frowned upon and deemed not to know how the place works. Since privatisation there has been an immense desire for "old railwaymen" - people who might change the labels but won't get too extreme in changing working practices. Ideas suggested by people on the outside are generally ignored or sat on, with the standard argument for ignoring the airlines and the roads being that "We're the railways - we're different to them". It is never explained in what way.

The railways have maintained a class distinction on many trains, even when the trains are no longer fitted out so that this distinction provides confers any benefits on the passengers paying £10 more for permission to sit in the crumple zone (which is where first class passengers go on most modern suburban and semi-fast trains). Virgin even suggested three classes, along the lines of the old railway companies, and went through all the modern regulations of providing one disabled toilet per class before reducing the idea to two classes. When Arriva took over the Cross Country franchise they re-instated First Class on the Turbostar fleet, where the comfortable seating had been downgraded to standard. The fleet was being refurbished anyway, so the first class seats could have been removed, but it was a sign of how ingrained the two-class mentality was in the passengers that they refused to sit in the former first class accommodation in case it was still first class.

One big sign of the unchanging state of the railway industry is the rural stopping train. Beeching tried to kill them, saying that they lost money; certainly it is hard to see how many of them pay their fuel costs, serving fewer people over a 100 mile length of track than pass through Birmingham New Street station in one hour, with fewer trains each year than Clapham Junction sees in a week. Yet a trip on a late evening Taunton-Cardiff stopper (via everywhere) does not feel like much has changed since the first Swansea and Mumbles tram, barring the fact that the train is now diesel rather than horse powered and the passengers' clothing has changed a little. But the users of the all-stations via-everywhere stopper are still the ones who aren't in a position to use other forms of transport; they still have their heavy bags, their dogs, their food and drink; they are still a varied bunch, from those on a day out, through those on one leg of a long journey, to those who are commuting to or from work; they still range between the sleeping, the alert and the drunk.

The phraseology hasn't changed much either - trains are firmly measured in horsepower, they are "stabled" at the end of the day and they persist in going up to London and down to everywhere else. Branchlines are still worked on the basis of "one engine in steam" even though no branchlines have been worked by steam trains since the mid-1960s.

Other things never change either. A railway being built still attracts claims that it will put the chickens off laying, create vast amounts of noise and ruin the view. Yet this lack of change has come despite Beeching's desperate public relations exercise to make the public appreciate that their railway was not guaranteed to be a permanent way; while you will find those who will tell you that the landscape is not complete without a Great Western engine hustling through it with two coaches, going nowhere in an era when time was apparently unimportant (otherwise the eight passengers would have gone by road), you will also not have to look far for someone who will tell you that a single-car Class 153 clattering quietly across a marsh 10 times a day will drive the local population of Great Crested Newts to extinction.

A Class 150 "Sprinter" unit, now 25 years old (older than its predecessors were when they began to be replaced, but with no retirement plan) rolls peacefully around the hillside from Calstock in the Tamar Valley on the eastern edge of Cornwall. The railway from Plymouth to Calstock and Gunnislake clung on by the skin of its teeth through Beeching; the northern section was built by Colonel Stephens (until he was fired for being too busy) and is the sole light railway remaining on the modern rail network.

Light Railways come with speed limits and weight restrictions in exchange for lower construction quality. This train was therefore running at about 15 miles per hour.

It is also interesting to note that in the early days the railways wanted to run seven days per week to better serve their customers, get better value for money from their assets and because they saw no reason not to. However, a lot of people did see a reason for them not to and the railways were told that working on Sunday would be "desecration of the Sabbath". In the late 19th century an attempt to load fish at Stromferry on the Inverness to Kyle of Lochalsh line on a Sunday saw local residents turn up and try to throw the fish into the loch. Eventually the railways gave up in the face of the religious fevour and Sunday working was abandoned - most branchlines only had Monday to Saturday timetables. Even in Summer 2009, the National Rail Timetable for the Looe and Newquay branches in Cornwall finished with a threatening "No Sunday Service from 13th September". Since the 1960s, Sundays have started to become a normal part of the week for many but the idea that Sundays are inferior is now ingrained into the railway mindset. There are 29 trains each way daily along the Falmouth branch - except on Sundays, where the total is 10, with the first not leaving the junction until 10:45. The South Welsh Valleys had no Sunday trains until the late 1980s; BR managed to arrange trains on Sunday afternoons (once everyone has returned from chapel) and there are now trains all day, but at much increased and irregular intervals (except on the Maesteg branch, which is too far for trains to go on Sundays). This is, however, in an area where the pubs stay closed all day on Sunday. Central Trains organised a Sunday working agreement which led to regular cancellations and the union has been very keen to ensure that it is not withdrawn since the demise of that operator.

Operational requirements - a fairly flat route, nicely fenced off with well-laid track - have changed little over the years, although the modern obligation is for a straight line and flat is becoming a nice-to-have.

Possibly most notable is the natural inclination towards profitable traffic. Naturally a short, well-loaded train is cheaper to build, cheaper to run and more profitable than its long, lightly loaded equivalent and so the railways have always aimed to run trains with as many fare-paying items on board as possible. The railways, with their differing classes of transport, varying loads and strange sense of sameness, reflect the society in which they live. When it was big industry, not people, that built the world, big industry was concentrated on and passenger traffic suffered. Now the industry is gone and the economy is based on people; they are the new product to be carried long distances in bulk and they look surprised when the railway follows its old habits, overloading the wagons, supplying less capacity than is really needed for the quantities being carried and being unaware that prices should really be lowered when "reliable service" falls off the "things to offer" list, despite being remarkably astute when it comes to the reverse and noting that a better-quality service should cost much more. The basic Sprinter and Express Sprinter varieties would have been better branded as Tardis and Express Tardis, being capable of carrying more people than the adjacent piece of platform and leading to the interesting sight of such a train rolling into a station looking small and insignificant, opening its doors and disgorging more passengers than alight from the intercity train alongside.

Profitability also means encouraging safety - although not where it cuts into profits too much, just where if safety isn't imposed it will cut profits. Railtrack saw no incentive to go in for safety, since they had a fixed income. Network Rail's Board is motivated by bonuses (which, to be fair, they mostly surrendered after the Lambrigg accident), the views of the toothless, declawed and blind watchdog called its "Public Members" (the equivalent of shareholders to make up for the loony way in which the company is structured) and the fact that if an accident can be traced back to the Board they will all be hauled up on corporate manslaughter charges (which tend to damage the prospects of future profitable careers or knighthoods, even if acquitted). Various safety systems introduced over the years have helped ensure that it is now nearly 11 years since there was last a two-train crash involving fatalities which was the fault of the railways. Ever-increasing bodyshell strength helps to protect passengers from the worst excesses of hitting cows, trees and the ground, although when Mk1s were introduced they were praised for their safety and the risks only became apparent once there were enough of them around to start hitting each other rather than the timber-bodied Grouping coaches. It is debatable what would happen if two Pendolinos hit each other at speed. But we will probably never find out. Six Class 87s were involved in accidents during their West Coast Mainline careers, none involving fatalities - increasing safety and the fact that one of these accidents involved three examples of the fleet means that the odds are that the Pendolinos will never be involved in another.

Your modern rail accident is often more inconvenient than anything else. Diesel trains occasionally mildly self-combust while parked outside their shed, trains sustain superficial damage from bumping other trains in yards and freight wagons engage in small-scale derailments on minor railways. A china clay wagon sits in the ballast in St Blazey yard, near Par (Cornwall), in June 2010 after it derailed on a set of points, knocking over a rather attractive signal.

Noticably, while the attitudes and structure of the network are not entirely dissimilar to those in force in the 1840s, the country which they serve has changed entirely and this is largely their fault. The 19th Century dawned on a country which had not changed remarkably since the Middle Ages. There had been certain political alterations, women had fewer rights and men wore silly wigs rather than armour, but it was a nation with a very distinct and immobile class structure where the leaders generally had peerages, where you stayed in one place for your entire life and rarely went far enough for your village to disappear over the horizon, where there was no unified time (Birmingham was eight minutes behind the capital) and where the ten sheep which lived on a windswept hilltop called Old Sarum sent two men to Parliament every seven years and this was treated as perfectly normal. By the beginning of the 20th Century, Britain was a very different nation - women's rights were becoming a serious issue, the silly wigs had gone and the last Prime Minister to serve his entire premiership from the House of Lords was seen as an anachronism. The railways had brought the nation together with speed and good-quality transport links, with whole families leaving their ancestoral home and moving to the capital, while people mixed and mingled more freely and the nation had one unified time zone, set from Greenwich on the eastern edge of London. Villages had grown into cities; farmsteads like Swindon and Crewe had become towns; it had become normal for ordinary people to go on holiday; fish and chips had become a national dish with seafood being brought to people who could have walked for days from their homes without seeing the sea. British industry could serve the world with the high-quality transport links that the railways had provided, where busy routes got multiple railways to ease the congestion. News could travel from London to Glasgow and Penzance to Dover in under a day. It was a revolution in social and personal mobility outmatching even the invention of the Internet. Perhaps most notably, Old Sarum had been stripped of its representatives in Parliament.

Now the railways form a network which is not naturally inclined towards publicity and demonstrated this very well when in 2008 they made no effort to celebrate the 250th birthday of the first railway opened under an Act of Parliament. But people know that they are there and the lack of advertising since privatisation has not stopped passenger numbers from increasing rapidly. The old British Rail double arrow logo still stands over every station in the country in a rather prominent manner - it is nationally recognised as the symbol for a railway station and too good to be allowed to go, even during privatisation.

It is hard to see the railways ever getting up and changing. They are a remarkably complacent bunch. But, given the punch, political force and budget which they have for carrying around 6% of passenger journeys and 5% of freight tonne/kilometres, one feels that they have never been given a reason not to be pleased with themselves. It was noted by Beeching in the 1970s that the then Chairman of British Railways, Richard Marsh, had a remarkably easy job because he didn't have the money to open new lines or the political backing to close old ones, so he was being paid large sums of money to do nothing. (It should be noted that Marsh did not share this view and said that Sisyphus, the chap who had to push a downwards-inclined rock up a hill, was the only person who would run the railways for two five-year terms.) Given how little commuting patterns and transport infrastructure have really changed over the last 40 years, it is surprising that they ever bother to do more than carry out the odd route modernisation every decade or so.

Privatisation or not, this industry and its strange idea of the world will continue for a long time to come.

End of Part 4

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The content for this section is largely derived from magazine reports around the time of the events in question - variously The Railway Magazine, Modern Railways and Rail. Some details have also been drawn from the websites of the BBC (particularly on Great Heck and Jo Moore) and WNXX (particularly for IC125 powercar numbers).

Last modified 20/07/11

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