A trip down memory lane

Friday, May 8 2015

Cross-posted from Behind The Water Tower.

Dyspozytor takes a trip down memory lane to his school days and reflects on the UK elections.

Lost domain

A treasure trove of transport history. The River Thames (bottom right) has been a transport route since before the Romans invaded Britain. The Roman road from London to Bath (left bottom to mid right) was by-passed by the Great West Road which itself was superseded by the M4 motorway. The canalised River Brent (top left to bottom right) was opened in 1798 as part of the Grand Junction Canal. The area comprising both banks of the canal to the north of Brentford Locks was the canal company’s Brentford Dock. The last commercial traffic on this section of the canal ceased around 1980.

The London & South Western Railway’s line from Barnes to Hounslow (lower left to upper right) opened in 1849 and is still open for passenger services. The Great Western Railway’s Brentford Branch, opened in 1859, was the last commission of Brunel, the GWR’s chief engineer. The whole triangular built up area to the south of Thames Locks was the GWR’s Brentford Dock. The Dock closed in December 1964.

The Great West Road (mid left to top right) from Hounslow to Kew was opened around 1930. The remaining section from Kew in Middlesex to the Cromwell Road in London completed in the 1950s. The eastern section of the M4 motorway (top left to top right) from Slough to the Chiswick flyover was opened in 1965. The white oblong on the right is the Griffin Park ground of Brentford Football Club.

Satellite view courtesy Google Maps. Click the image to open an interactive map of this area on Google Maps.

Today, Parliamentary elections are being held in the United Kingdom. What have football and party politics got in common? Both are capable of generating enormous levels of passion, both – in spite of the media hype – seem to leave a large portion of the population stone cold. I first noted the similarities between the two as a schoolboy.

Let us start at the beginning. In the early 1960s, whenever I could get away from school, much of my time was spent on the Grand Union (formerly Grand Junction) canal at Brentford where – having made friends with the lock-keeper at Lock 99 – I became his unofficial deputy. I had discovered the canal, the lock and my friendly lock keeper while on a cycle ride to explore the ex Great Western Railway Brentford branch line.


Almost the entire section of the Brentford branch line that lies to the north-east of the Great West Road is visible in this photograph. It shows the area as it was in 1953. The Imperial Biscuit Works is the factory on the extreme left – it had its own siding as did Firestone Rubber Tyre factory in the foreground. This building with its iconic Art Deco frontage was demolished during the August 1980 bank holiday weekend before it could be listed.

Lock 99 of the Grand Union Canal is visible on the extreme right and Brentford Town Goods Depot is in the middle distance. Those with a keen eye will spot the Great Western main line and Wharncliffe Viaduct which carries the line over the River Brent valley. Photo ©Historic England.

(Click the image to see the original on the Historic England website and for details regarding reuse.)

At 07:00 each morning during the holidays, I would help to lock through 6 or 7 lighters (unpowered barges) that had been waiting below Lock 99 while their two-man crews (tractor driver and steerer) had breakfast at the café serving the Firestone Tyre factory.

Already the narrow boat pairs (motor boat and unpowered butty) heading for Birmingham had left the British Waterways Brentford Dock and locked through Lock 99, before the lock-keeper had come on duty. They were in a hurry to clear the 6 lock Hanwell Flight before the lighters began to move.

On Friday afternoons I was allowed to leave school early and as often as no cycling along the canal in the late afternoon, I would see a pannier tank haul a train of coal wagons along the branch where it ran parallel to the canal.

And so at an early age my life became linked with two transport routes that were on the way out: the railway to Brentford Docks and the Grand Union Canal. Meanwhile the M4 motorway was being cut through one of the lakes of Osterley Park and taken over Boston Manor Park on an ugly steel viaduct.

My lock keeper friend took me to see the run down Brentford Docks just before they closed in December 1964. The tractor-hauled lighters carried their loads up to Hanwell and Southall until the closure of London Docks. Long distance narrowboat carrying along the Grand Union continued on a small until the closure of Blisworth Tunnel for major engineering work in 1980.

It was easy to see even at my tender age that a tiny tractor pulling a barge loaded with 80 tons of cargo, or a pair of narrow boats carrying 50 tons between them with the motor boat powered by a single cylinder Bolinger engine, or an ex GWR 0-6-0PT 57xx class loco pulling 25 coal wagons, were all burning much less fossil fuel than if the same loads were being carried by heavy lorries. Likewise it did not require a Philosophy, Politics and Economics degree from Oxford to see connect the dots when a Minister of Transport called Ernest Marples was promoting a switch from rail to road while his wife’s company, Marples Ridgeway, was building motorways.

Biscuits and Firestone

The Great West Road, looking from Osterley towards the Brentford Dock branch line in 1931. The Imperial Biscuit Works is the first factory on the left and Firestone Rubber Tyre factory is far distance. Photo ©Historic England.

(Click on the image to see it on the Historic England website and for details of re-use.)

During the 1960s, a great deal of effort was expended explaining to the general public that railways make a loss and road transport is ‘more economic’ to justify the wholesale destruction of Britain’s railways. A great deal less was said then, and has been said since, about the way that this economic argument is slanted against railways which in the UK, as in Poland, are expected to bear their capital and maintenance costs – a charge which is not made on the balance sheet of road transport. If the environmental and health costs of unbridled road expansion are taken into account the case for investing in railways becomes even stranger.

Ever wondered why in countries such as Austria and Switzerland which do put their roads and railways on the same financial footing it still ‘pays’ to transport rail freight by the wagonload and also carry it over their extensive networks of narrow gauge railways.

In 1993, Britain’s railways were broken up into over 90 companies and privatised. Poland’s railways are undergoing a similar process and the privatisation of PKP Energytyka – responsible for supplying the traction current – and PKP Informatyka – responsible for PKP’s computer services – is being rushed through with indecent haste.

Not surprisingly the ‘reform’ pushed up costs and made long-distance ‘walk-on’ fares too expensive for ordinary people who switched coach services. Since those days the major political parties have produced a great deal of hot air – usually while in opposition – about making railway services more affordable for passengers and switching freight from road to rail. These promises are quickly forgotten as soon as the opposition party is elected to government.

Which brings me back to the football analogy at the start of today’s post. While the fans roar their support for one or other side, the real action is taking place off the pitch. Who will invest in the club? Which players should be bought? What will the sponsor want for his money?

As it is with football so it is with mainstream politics. If you share my concern for the destruction wrought by the UK’s pro road transport policy and have still not cast your vote, why not fire a shot across the bows of the mainstream political parties and cast a vote for the Green Party?

EPSON scanner image

The site of Brentford GWR station in 1961. Note the overhead wires for providing the traction current for trolleybuses. The footbridge to the British Waterways office at Lock 100 can just be discerned under the railway bridge, Photo ©Ben Brooksbank.

(Click on image for details of licensing.)



A chance to make a difference!

Wednesday, May 6 2015

The Difference A Green MP Can Make

All politicians are the same, or are they? In order to get to lead one of the old parties you need support, to get support you need to advertise, to advertise you need cash – plenty of it.

If are persuasive and work hard you will find people willing to back you. The problem comes if you get elected! Your sponsors will want you to deliver policies that support their interests. Ever wondered why actual the politics (what politicians deliver rather than what they promise to deliver) of the major parties are so similar.

The major parties have totally failed to deliver a rational transport policy in the UK – one based on the needs of the people rather than the oil, road, and motor manufacturer lobbies.

The policies of Green Party politicians have never been for sale, and for this reason they have never been offered the cash necessary to play political roulette at the top table. But now with the fragmentation of UK politics following the rise of the SNP and UKIP, the Green Party has a very real prospect of electing a team of MPs to support the pioneering work of Caroline Lucas at Westminster.

Transport is hugely important. It effects the health of our children, the quality of life in our cities and countryside, the mobility of all who cannot – or do not want to – drive a car. Have a look at this extract from the Green Party manifesto:

Like so much else, the UK has got transport upside down. The big picture is a world of finite resources, especially the type that runs much of our transport – petroleum. This is running out, and we know we need to leave much of what is left in the ground. We have to create a transport system based on sustainable alternatives.

We also have an increasingly car-dependent population because the cost of public transport has risen faster than wages and faster than the total cost of driving, and in many areas public transport is so scarce that people have little alternative but to get around by car. This has led to a public health crisis caused by rising levels of physical inactivity and health-damaging air

We also face an increasing toll of death and injury on the roads, particularly among pedestrians and cyclists who face unacceptable danger in our vehicle-dominated and congested towns, cities and villages.

Our privatised railways are fragmented and uncoordinated, ticket prices are high and unpredictable, and timetables do not connect seamlessly with buses at stations. This means rail fails to play its full part in delivering an effective alternative to the private car.

Long-distance travel by air is one of the most energy-intensive and polluting forms of transport and causes health-damaging local pollution near airports. Aviation fuel goes untaxed and there is no VAT on tickets, amounting to a £16 billion a year subsidy in the UK. We need a shift in priority, removing subsidies from air travel to invest in public transport that supports the common good.

In the long run we have to create a transport system that is socially just and addresses health inequality by prioritising affordable access to services by walking, cycling and public transport, by reducing road danger, by cleaning up our air and by minimising congestion. This transport system should use electricity, not oil, and make our towns, cities and villages into more liveable, socially inclusive places.

Against this backdrop, mainstream transport policy, which urges us to travel further and faster than ever before, is senseless, yet this is what all parties except the Green Party offer you.
The key to getting this right is to manage demand rather than increase it; that is, to reduce the need to travel in the first place.

We need to:

  • Reduce the distances travelled, reduce the number of journeys made by car and switch as many journeys as possible to walking, cycling and public transport;
  • Encourage alternatives to travel, such as video-conferencing;
  • Integrate different transport options and provide seamless door–to-door journeys;
  • Prioritise everyday access for everybody wherever they live to local facilities such as the shops, the doctors’ surgery, schools and workplaces; and
  • Enable more people to get to where they need to go while using a car less.

Green Party transport policy prioritises in this order:

  • walking and disabled access to all other forms of transport;
  • cycling;
  • public transport (trains, light rail/trams, buses and ferries) and rail- and water-borne freight;
  • light goods vehicles, taxis and low-powered motor cycles;
  • private motorised transport (cars and high-powered motor cycles);
  • heavy goods vehicles; and
  • aircraft.

If you agree with the above, why not give the Green Party a bigger lever to change transport priorities with your vote tomorrow?


£53.1 million Network Rail fine

Tuesday, July 8 2014

Good governance… or Smoke and Mirrors?


Network Rail was fined £4 million after the Grayrigg derailment.
Photo Lawrence Clift. Licence CC BY-SA 3.0.

The papers today are all carrying the story that the Office of Rail Regulation (ORR to its friends) have fined Network Rail a whopping £53.1 million for causing trains to run late. At the same time the Treasury has kindly agreed to recycle some of the fine to improve WiFi access on commuter trains. So surely that’s a Good Thing isn’t it?

Well possibly not? Over the years Network Rail has been collected a large number of fines. Here are some examples of fines imposed by during the period 2011 – 2013:

In May 2011, St Albans Crown Court imposed a fine of £3 million on Network Rail following a prosecution brought by the ORR relating to the Potters Bar derailment in May 2002 which led to the death of 7 people and injuries to 76.

In March 2012, following another prosecution brought by ORR, Network Rail was fined £1 million pounds at Chelmsford Crown Court for contributing to the deaths of two schoolgirls who were killed by a train while trying to cross the railway line at a level crossing at Elsenham station in Essex in December 2005.

In April 2012, Network Rail was fined £4m for safety failings leading to the 2007 Grayrigg derailment that resulted in the death of 1 passenger and injuries to 86. There were similarities to the Potter’s Bar accident in that in both cases the condition of the facing point that caused each accident could not be satisfactorily accounted for.

In April 2013, Network Rail was fined £450,000 by Birmingham Crown Court when a driver was killed after her car she was in was hit by a train at Moreton-on-Lugg, Herefordshire, in January 2010.

At the end of these court cases representatives of the victims’ families regularly made the point that the railway executives responsible for the decisions (or lack of appropriate decisions) that caused the incidents are totally unaffected by such fines.

Network Rail is a not-for-profit company with its Directors appointed by the government. Though it has ‘members’ to perform a governance role akin to that usually performed by shareholders, in practice this mechanism is very weak.

Network Rail is financed from three sources: government grants, borrowings and track access charges. The ‘fines’ are simply cuts to the money that would be paid by the Treasury to support the railways. The shortfall is made up by extra borrowing with the tax payer picking up the bill for the extra interest charges. So in effect the people being fined are not Network Rail executives, but you and me.

Though these fines may reassure certain members of the public ‘that something is being done’, there is no evidence that the fines are helping to create a safer railway or to make the trains run on time. While solutions have been proposed by the train operating companies, so far their suggestions have been steadfastly ignored by the Department for Transport.

In February 2012 – a time of financial austerity brought on by the financial crisis – the Chairman of Network Rail, Sir David Higgins announced that he and his executive team were giving up the 60% bonuses that were due to them that year, but by July the same year Network Rail announced that senior executive pay would be topped up by a £2 million bonus scheme..

Surely there must be a better way to manage Britain’s railways?



UK railway cable thefts slashed!

Friday, January 10 2014


Cable thief caught in the act by Network Rail CCTV.

Joint action by Network Rail and the government has dramatically reduced cable theft on Britain’s railways. There were 285 incidents and 2,700 hours of train delays in the 12 months to April 2013, compared with 845 incidents and 5,740 hours of delays in the previous year. The cost to Network Rail, which includes compensation payments to train operating companies, fell from £18.3m to £12.7m. A year earlier, Network Rail suffered more than 1,000 thefts and 6,000 hours of delays.

Action taken by Network Rail included the more effective deployment of British Transport police, installation of CCTV at the worst trouble spots, and working with suppliers to make the cables, harder to steal and easier to identify.

Railway cable theft is part of wider problem which includes thieves stealing telecommunications cables, the lead from church roofs, metal sculptures and even metal tablets from cemeteries. The Association of British Insurers (ABI) stated that during 2012 its members were paying out more than £1m a week to victims. The Association said UK metal theft had doubled in the previous five years to about 1,000 reported incidents a week and the Police service estimated the damage to the UK economy to be around £770m a year.

Government action involved providing £5m funding for a Metal Theft Taskforce (led by British Transport Police), and introducing preliminary legislation in December 2012 giving police new powers of entry to metal yards.

The case for further legislation was strongly pursued by Network Rail, British Telecom and The Church of England. This lead directly to the Scrap Metal Dealers Act which received Royal Assent in February 2013. Its main provisions, which came into full force towards the end of 2013, gave local authorities new powers to inspect and licence scrap metal yards, obliged dealers to record all scrap metal transactions, and introduced major penalties for non-compliance.


“Bittern” marks a railway record, SouthWest Trains makes railway history

Sunday, June 30 2013

Bittern hauling The Ebor Streak London-York special at 90 mph on the East Coast Mainline. Film by Ryan Skinner.

Yesterday, two special trains, marked two major railway preservation milestones – events so extraordinary that they could probably only have occurred in Great Britain!

On Saturday 29 June 2013, Gresley A4 pacific 4464 Bittern hauled the first of three high speed passenger trains permitted to run at 90 mph. The temporary derogation to exceed the UK’s 75 mph national speed limit for large-wheeled (1) steam locomotives was granted as part of the Mallard 75 celebrations to commemorate sister A4, Mallard, setting a world speed record for steam of 126mph, 75 years ago on July 3 1938 – a record that has never been broken.

The Gresley Pacifics were superb locomotives capable, when properly maintained, of regular 90 mph running, but they did have a design weakness and suffered from cracked frames. Bittern was no exception in this regard and it is a tribute to the dedication of her owner Jeremy Hosking and all who have maintained the locomotive that she passed all of the stringent tests demanded by Network Rail prior to be allowed to stretch her legs once more at 90 mph.

Bittern on its high speed test run in May 2013. Seen here at Taplow, the loco and test train ran from Maidenhead to Slough at an average speed of 93 mph. Film by MrKnowwun

(1) with driving wheels of 6ft 2in diameter or larger

UK Railtours special The Purbeck Adventurer in the Swanage Station bat platform on 29 June 2013. Film KINGANDCASTLE.

Meanwhile, less prestigious perhaps than the high-speed streak of 4464 from London, King’s Cross to York that was commemorating a milestone from the past, another, rather more modest train, which ran from London on the same day was actually making railway history. Two SouthWest Trains 159 diesel units, nos. 159009 and 159006, ran from London, Waterloo to Swanage in Dorset.

41 years have passed since the start the project to restore a community rail service to the Isle of Purbeck. Under the banner of the Swanage Railway Society – a collaboration between environmental campaigners, railway enthusiasts and local activists – the objective was set of restoring an all-the-year-round community railway service linking to the main line at Wareham which would run over a railway track ‘subsidised’ by the operation of steam-hauled heritage trains during the holiday season.

At first progress on the project seemed to run in reverse – British Railways’ contractors were actually lifting the track when the project was launched to the local community in August 1972. It took three years to secure the future of the Swanage Railway Station, and eight years to persuade Dorset County Council not to build a Corfe Castle by-pass over the railway route.

Then the track had to be built and to a sufficiently high standard to allow main line locomotives to run over it. In 1979, demonstration trains ran over a short length of line re-opened. This was extended first to Herston Halt and then to Harman’s Cross in 1988. In 1995 the railway reopened from Swanage to Corfe Castle and the present terminus of the line at a “Park & Ride’ car park at Norden Park.

In January 2002 the track was relaid right up to (but not joined with) Railtrack’s Furzebrook freight line at Motala. The tracks were temporarily connected to allow a Virgin Trains “Voyager” Class 220 diesel multiple to travel (though without any passengers) to attend a naming ceremony in Swanage on 8 September 2002. The connection was then severed. It took 5 years of negotiation to establish a permanent connection between the Swanage Railway and the Furzebrook spur which by now belonged to Network Rail. Another 2 more years were to pass before the first passenger train originating from a station on Network Rail actually passed over the permanent connection to arrive at Swanage.

Since then a number of premium-priced specials, originating on the external railway network (both diesel and steam hauled) have made Swanage their destination. However, yesterday’s train was the first family-priced special and the first originating from Waterloo from where express trains with through coaches for Swanage ran in the line’s heyday.

[Ed. As I toast the achievement of all concerned with a glass of Zubrowka I hope that the day will not be much longer in coming when a through train from the outside world arriving at Swanage will be so common as to no longer be a news story.]



North Norfolk nostalgia

Monday, May 27 2013

The 4th of 7 videos posted by gruntyfluster celebrating the North Norfolk Railway’s Spring Steam Gala in March 2011.

There is a great deal of rubbish posted on YouTube: videos with shaky cameras zooming pointlessly in and out; the roar of wind noise; hopeless framing of shots; ugly captions; bad editing…  . I could go on.

It is therefore a joy to discover a film-maker who regularly posts videos that are: steady and beautifully framed; where the sound is part of the emotional experience and the camera movement and zooming  complements the action.

I first came across gruntyfluster by finding his (I hope that it is safe to assume that gruntyfluster is a he.) beautiful narrow gauge videos. He specialises in very short films, sometimes just a single shot.

His latest posting on YouTube is a compilation of shots taken on the North Norfolk Railway in March 2011. The beautiful colour and editing is a joy to behold. Just look at the way he hangs on to the last wisp of smoke after the passage of GWR 4-4-0. “City of Truro” before cutting to the next shot.

So watch the film, then click the link below and be prepared for a feast of very special railway videos. So here’s to you gruntyfluster [raises a quite decent glass of Australian Colombard Chardonnay, as alas the Moët & Chandon is all gone].



Reg Dawson – unsung hero

Friday, April 5 2013


EPSON scanner image

Fletcher Jennings 0-4-0T Talyllyn Railway No. 2 Dolgoch coasts down to Tywyn over track newly-relaid track in August 1951. By the time Reg was to join the TRPS in 1955 the hedges would have been trimmed back. Photo Ben Brooksbank.

(Click image for details of licensing.)

These days (see englishrail blog, March 30 2013) Dr Beeching’s cuts to Britain’s railway network are almost universally regarded as excessive. The operation was a crude hatchet job driven by a mistaken hypothesis – cutting the network back sufficiently would yield a ‘profitable railway’. The cuts were portrayed as a scientific exercise at a time when British Railways had little real information as to where its costs actually were being incurred and where its revenue was being generated.

Not surprisingly, the reduction in route mileage from 17,800 to 12,800 failed to achieve its objective. Much of BR’s costs lay outside the physical network – tied up in interest charges and the costs of running its bloated bureaucracy. What was urgently needed was some out-of-box thinking – how do you put the UK’s road and rail infrastructure on an equal financial footing and get long distance heavy freight traffic off the roads? Instead of new thinking, Britain’s transport civil servants came up with a programme of even more savage cuts to the railway.

What happened next is told in Richard Faulkner and Chris Austin’s, Holding the Line. A senior civil servant is quoted as saying, There was an extraordinary, anti-railway and pro-road culture at the time… I remember a seminar on public accountability at which a DofT under-secretary said the DofT was accountable to the Road Haulage Association.

Civil servants commissioned a Rail Policy Review which proposed reducing the UK railway network from its already reduced 12,800 by more than 50%. However, before the paper could do its worst in shaping future government policy its proposals were sensationally published by the Sunday Times. A map accompanying the article showed, no railways west of Plymouth, nothing in Scotland north and west of Perth and Aberdeen, only a single line to Yarmouth in East Anglia, with no services north of Cambridge, the whole of Wales would lose its railways apart from main lines to Holyhead and Fishguard, the direct Great Western line from Reading to Taunton would close, as would the Southern main line from Woking to Exeter… and much more of the same.

The Sunday Times article galvanised opposition to railway closures in a way that no previous newspaper story had ever done. It was to catalyse the creation of a number of pro-rail advocacy groups of which the most effective was to be Transport 2000 (today Campaign for Better Transport) and the beginning of the fightback by the railway community. It was also highly damaging to the reputation of the government, and Peter Walker, the Secretary of State for the Department of the Environment, ordered an inquiry. As whoever had leaked the document was potentially in breach of the Official Secrets Act, the police were called in.

Holding the Line skirts over who actually leaked the document, information whose premature publication could have led to the prosecution and jailing of the culprit, and until now a closely guarded secret known to only a handful of people. Now following the death of one of the principals, this extraordinary tale – with the Talyllyn Railway at the nexus of events – can at last be told.

The December edition of Talyllyn News, the magazine for members of the Talyllyn Railway Preservation Society, breaks the details of the story in the obituary of TRPS member Reginald Dawson, an unsung hero. Written by Richard Hope, who at the time these events took place was the secretary of the Talyllyn Railway Company and of the Talyllyn Railway Preservation Society, this amazing tale deserves a wider audience.

Pendre Works

Pendre works in April 1966. The Talylyn Railway was to be an unlikely nexus for events that were to determine the future size of Britain’s railway network. Photo BTWT archive.

Reg Dawson joined the TRPS in 1955 at a time when the the TR was a living piece of industrial archaeology. He was 33, working for the RAF, with no inkling of the role which fate had chosen for him to play in the battle for the future of the British railway network. In 1960, he moved to the Ministry of Transport as a Principal Civil Servant. In 1968, he was appointed to head the division responsible for allocating ‘social need’ grants to loss-making rail services.

Gradually, Reg became aware that there was a hard core of senior civil servants strongly opposed to rail and determined to thwart the efforts of any Minister who dared think otherwise. At their heart was the Permanent Secretary, David Serpell, who had originally recruited Dr Beeching to head British Rail, and who was to go on to write an infamous report on railway finances for Mrs Thatcher; a report which included an option to cut the railway network to a mere 1,630 miles.

In August 1968, Reg accompanied Stewart Joy, an Australian economist, on the latter’s trip on the Cambrian Coast line. Joy had been recruited as an adviser to the Ministry during the time that Barbara Castle, a pro-rail Minister was in charge of the Department. At first, Joy seemed genuinely interested in rail and Reg even arranged for him to travel on the footplate of one of the TR’s venerable steam engines. However, on their way back to London, Joy confided in Reg that there was no sound cost/benefit case for retaining the Cambrian Coast line and that once the Cambrian had closed, the resultant loss of traffic on the Shrewsbury – Aberystwyth line would be such that the latter would undoubtedly close as well.

4MT 75020 Towyn-00002350

B.R. Standard Class 4MT 4-6-0 No.75020 with double chimney about to haul a Warwickshire Railway Society special from Towyn to Shrewsbury along the Cambrian Coast line in April 1966. The locomotive was to survive until the very last day of steam on B.R. but sadly was not preserved. 80 members of this class were built. 6 still survive. Photo BTWT archive.

In what was to be the prelude to several such meetings in the future, Reg and Richard Hope met for lunch to discuss tactics. Subsequently, Reg arranged for British Railways to receive a small grant which allowed the reintroduction of Sunday services on the Cambrian Coast line. The result was a useful uplift in revenue for the TR and healthy increase in takings on the Cambrian Coast line itself.

Clearly no civil servant as sympathetic to railways as Reg could be allowed to have any responsibility for them and Reg was moved to pastures new. But before the move took place Reg met with Richard Hope and briefed him about a secret meeting of about twenty senior civil servants who agreed to prepare a case for drastically shrinking the railway network without telling the Transport Minister or any of his ministerial subordinates.

As well as his offices on the TR, Richard Hope was editor of Railway Gazette, the premier journal for railway professionals. Hope had an extensive network of contacts in the national press – a network that he put to good use when the battle called for reinforcements, or turned ugly as it was shortly due to do.

Hope briefed Chapman Pincher and the story broke in the Daily Express in May 1970. But this was to be but a dress rehearsal for Reg’s coup de gras. In June 1972, Reg came across a blue document titled Railway Policy Review. It had a high security classification and every copy was numbered. Reg arranged for Richard Hope to read the document, but asked for him not to copy it.

Hope explains his dilemma, This was frustrating because I knew Reg wanted to expose what was going on, but without the document the story had no credibility. So I had a choice: copy it or forget it. So Hope copied the report and showed it to a number of select journalists. By October, Hope had persuaded the Sunday Times to treat the Policy Review as a major story. It was published on 8 October 1972, and the story was then picked up by other papers.

And as that brings us neatly back to the beginning of our story, that would have been that if not for one loose end – the leak enquiry ordered by the Minister, but we are getting ahead of ourselves. As part of their research, on 6 October, a Sunday Times journalist interviewed Richard Marsh, Chairman of the British Railways Board, and showed him a copy of the report. Marsh pooh-poohed the story claiming that the review was just a hypothetical study, but crucially refused hand back the copy of the report shown to him by the journalist.

The report was numbered and contained handwritten annotations so it was easy to trace back from which DoE office it had come from. It was also known that Richard Hope had been involved in some manner in the Sunday Times story. All that remained to do was to prove that Reg had given Hope the report. The net was closing around Reg. He was quizzed by DoE security staff and admitted that he knew Hope because of their joint interest in the Talyllyn Railway and that he had lunched with Hope on 2 October.

It was one thing to prove that Reg knew Hope, it was entirely another to proved that Reg had handed the report to Hope, who had then in turn handed a copy to the Sunday Times. The investigation appeared to have run its course without producing a result, but some sort of sixth sense had put Hope and Reg on the alert and they agreed that there should be absolutely no communication between them until some time after all the fuss had died down.

On 14 November, the Daily Telegraph ran a story to the effect that the Director of Public Prosecution had asked the police to track down the person or persons responsible for leaking the review paper. The news did not go down well in Fleet Street. This was not about the leaked plans of some top secret missile with a nuclear warhead, but about a project to destroy half of Britain’s remaining railway network – a plan which had been hatched behind the backs of the responsible ministers. Here was a clear case of a public interest defence if ever there was one.

On 29 November, two detectives from Scotland Yard visited the Railway Gazette offices on the South Bank of the Thames not far from Waterloo Station. Forewarned by the Telegraph article Hope had hidden the review paper. John Slater, the editor of The Railway Magazine, and also editor of Talyllyn News and a long-standing TRPS member showed the detectives around and helpfully pointed out which filing cabinets belonged to Railway Gazette, and were covered by the search warrant, and which filing cabinets belonged to the Railway Magazine and could not be touched! After 3 hours the detectives left empty handed.

The police did not give up so easily. On 7 December detectives visited Harold Evans, the editor of the Sunday Times, and in an effort to get him to divulge his source, threatened him and two of his journlists with prosecution under the Official Secrets Act if they did not cooperate. Evans did not enjoy being blackmailed and briefed his fellow Fleet Street editors about this attack on the freedom of the press.

Reg and Hope were in a sweat, both risked prosecution under the Official Secrets Act. Hope faced a jail sentence for contempt of court if a judge ordered him to reveal his source and Hope refused to betray Reg.

Worse was to come. Police officers visited one of the Railway Gazette journalists at home and threatened to expose the fact that he was a homosexual if he did not shop his boss. They told him that they had discovered this by listening to a telephone call to a friend. Hope concluded rightly that the Railway Gazette office phones were probably being tapped.

Hope called in the assistance of Post Office engineer, Phil Glazebrook, another Talyllyn volunteer who was able to obtain confirmation that that was indeed the case. Hope briefed another friendly journalist and on 18 December, the Sunday People broke the phone tapping story. The police were tapping people’s phones without the Ministerial approval that was a legal requirement. Fleet Street – its right to protect its sources under threat – went ballistic.

The fuss about illegal phone tapping broke the government’s nerve and on the 17 January 1973 the Attorney General announced that there was insufficient evidence to charge anyone. Both Reg and Hope were safe, both continued in post for many years to come and both were to enjoy a lengthy retirement.

The best moment was yet to come: thanks to all the fuss generated by the review paper in July 1973 the Minister of Transport, John Peyton, announced that draconian cuts of the kind at one time rumoured following the escape of a regrettably mobile document are not in the view of the government the answer to the industry’s or the nation’s problems. Thanks to Reg and Hope some 7,000 routes miles of Britain’s railways were saved!


The main source for this story is Richard Hope’s obituary of Reginald Dawson published in Talyllyn News, December 2012. A hat tip to Chris White for bringing the story to our attention. The other source is Richard Faulkner and Chris Austin’s admirable book, Holding the Line: How Britain’s railways were saved.




Beeching revisited

Saturday, March 30 2013


Britain’s railways before and after the Beeching cuts. Maps courtesy bildeberg.org, believed to have originally been prepared by the National Council on Inland Transport.

It cannot have escaped any of our UK-resident readers that Wednesday 27 March was the 50 anniversary of the publication of the infamous Beeching Report, The Reshaping of British Railways. There is little doubt, that Britain’s railways of the 1960s had to be reshaped – practices relating to the days of Stephenson’s Rocket needed streamlining, bureaucracy needed cutting, services – both passenger and freight – needed to be refocussed on the needs of the customer.


Woodford Halse in the 1940s, a major locomotive repair workshop on the former Great Central Railway. Great Britain once had the densest railway network in the world. Map courtesy Old OS Maps.

But instead of rolling out ‘best practice’, Beeching up the railway network. In this he was encouraged by a pro-road Minister of Transport – Ernest Marples – and his pro-road advisers – the Stedford Committee. The underlying objective was to prune the railway network back to ‘make the railways pay’.

Unfortunately, much of the British Railway’s deficit was made up of interest charges and, however hard the network was pruned, this ‘cost’ remained. Strangely enough few people at the time noticed that a completely different cost convention was being applied to the road network. Nobody was demanding that the road network be made to pay, or that lightly used, or duplicate, roads be closed.


Woodford Halse today. Trees and flooded ditches mark the route of former railways. Map courtesy Google Maps.

So half a century later how should the ‘Beeching Plan’ regarded today? Under the headline How Beeching got it wrong about Britain’s railways Robin McKie in The Observer has no doubts.

Today the makeup of UK transport looks very different from the one envisaged by Dr Beeching. Rail passenger figures have almost doubled over the past 10 years; commuter trains are crammed; young people are deserting the car for the train; and Britain’s railway bosses are struggling to meet soaring demands for seats.

The legacy of Beeching – dug-up lines, sold-off track beds and demolished bridges – has only hindered plans to revitalise the network, revealing the dangers of having a single, inflexible vision when planning infrastructure.

At the opposite end of the political spectrum, in his article, How Beeching is being reversed, David Millward, the Daily Telegraph’s Transport Editor, lists some of the closed lines that are being reinstated.

Trains are once more running on the Chase Line between Birmingham and Walsall, on the Robin Hood Line linking Nottingham, Mansfield and Worksop as well as the Ebbw Valley Line from Ebbw Vale to Cardiff.

Plans are in place for the re-opening of the Varsity Line between Oxford and Cambridge, with the first phase from Oxford to Milton Keynes and Bedford already agreed, while work is already under way on the Waverley route from Edinburgh to Galashiels.

In his on-line piece, Did Dr Beeching get it wrong with his railway cuts 50 years ago? BBC transport correspondent, Richard Westcott, casts Beeching in a more positive light. True, he has former Transport 2000 president, Michael Palin, waxing romantically.

“My father… travelled to London regularly on an express called the Master Cutler, which went from Sheffield to Marylebone, well that line suddenly disappeared.

“The line through from Sheffield to Manchester where we lived and grew up, which had the great Woodhead tunnel, one of the longest tunnels in the world, three miles long, the tunnel was closed while they built a motorway over the Pennines. It had very profound effects in our city,” …

However, Westcott then quotes Network Rail chairman, Sir David Higgins, approvingly:

“Beeching has had a really bad press… the reality is he made the tough decisions that anyone in that position would probably have had to make, the shame was it wasn’t followed on with investment in the subsequent decades after that.”

Is Sir David rolling the turf for possible further contraction of the network? In a possibly prescient piece, The ghost of Beeching still haunts rail, Andrew Gilligan argues in the Daily Telegraph:

…beneath the overall picture of revival lurk some cautionary facts. Railways are still extraordinarily expensive — for both tax and fare payers — while meeting only a tiny fraction of the country’s transport needs.

Public spending on the railways last year, including the Underground, was at least £7.6billion. That was 38 per cent of all public expenditure on transport even though the rail and tube networks account for just nine per cent of passenger journeys by distance, and only 4.5 per cent of goods journeys by tonnage lifted.

The peculiar British form of railway reform subsequently adopted – privatisation by fragmentation – has resulted in one of the most expensive railways in Europe.

While the Department for Environment shies away from radical measures, such as a fundamental reform of the franchising process, or a return to vertical integration, further network ‘optimisation’ might yet be seen as a politically attractive expedient.

An even more pro-Beeching position is presented by Sebastian Payne in his article, Fifty years on from Beeching and Britain’s railways are better than ever, in The Spectator.

Whatever happens, fifty years from today we’ll still be talking about Beeching. By then, the consensus will hopefully have shifted. Dr Beeching was unfairly targeted; instead, he did the right thing to save Britain’s railways.


Richard Beeching was a brilliant physicist with a keen eye for detail, but arguably in his plans for the future of the Britain’s railways he missed the bigger picture. Photo former British Railways Board archives.

Ultimately, Beeching failed, the closures failed to bring about their intended result: a profitable railway. Instead, deprived of the feeder traffic brought in by the axed feeder lines, traffic on the remaining trunk lines fell disastrously, and BR’s loss spiralled ever higher. Beeching’s solution – further closures.


What Britain’s railways would have looked like had the second phase of closures proposed by Beeching gone ahead. Map by Cronholm144.

(Click map for details of licensing.)

This was too radical even for the government, Beeching returned to his previous employers, ICI, and a more gradual timetable for rail closures was rolled out. By the early 1970s, the railway community brought out their big guns.

The railway unions, under the leadership of National Union of Railwaymen, Assistant General Secretary, Sidney Weighell launched Transport 2000 (today Campaign for Better Transport). British Railways Board Chairman, Peter Parker, backed the campaign, Richard Faulkner (now Lord Faulkner) became chairman and brought on board national TV personality, Michael Palin, as President. Palin went on to become a powerful ambassador for rail transport.

A few more closures took place during the 1970s. Then the tide turned, but that as they say is another story.

Perhaps the last word on Beeching should be given to Lord Faulkner, quoted by Robin McKie at the end of his article in The Observer.

“Beeching had only one recipe for saving Britain’s loss-making railways and that was to make the network smaller and smaller. He lacked vision and we are paying for that today. Of course, he was not the only public figure who completely misunderstood railways but he was certainly the most prominent.”

Further research

We have gathered together a number of books about the Beeching cuts and their aftermath.

For serious students of transport policy the National Archive provides access the relevant Cabinet papers and other government documents.

  • National Archive, Cabinet Papers – Railways

The Ecologics website offers a scholarly analysis of the events leading up to the publication of the Beeching Report.


To learn how one European government still thinks that it can prune back its rail network to come up with ‘a profitable railway’ see Poland’s railways – Cinderella of Europe on our sister blog, Behind The Water Tower.


From top engineering exporter…

Sunday, December 23 2012

…to housing estate!


Portrait of an Engineer, a day in the life of Vulcan Foundry production engineer Ted Wilson. Film Central Office of Information, 1954.

Anyone still wondering when and where everything went belly up should look at these two videos. For over 150 years, the Vulcan Foundry at Newton Le Willows was one of the pearls of Britain’s export industry.

It was accepted wisdom that before you could import things you had to sell enough goods abroad to pay for them. If a country had large foreign debts – as the UK had to the USA after WWII – you restricted domestic consumption and  tried all that much harder to export.

The storyline of that classic Ealing comedy Passport to Pimlico resolves around this fact. At the same time, if something was being made much cheaper in part of the world where the welfare of citizens and workers was much lower than in the UK, there were substantial import tariffs to protect UK jobs.

At some point ‘import tariffs’ became dirty words, a little later it became unfashionable for governments to restrict the behaviour of banks. But amazingly, although banks were allowed to gamble with their client’s funds, when the chickens came home to roost, national governments were still expected to bale them out.

This seems jolly unfair!

These days the government no longer wants people to make things and sell them abroad, instead it just prints more money, devalues our pensions and savings, and gives the money to the banks.

This seems plain daft!

The trouble is that no one seems to be offering any alternative. No wonder we will all be escaping to watch The Hobbit this Christmas.

Vulcan Foundry, the end. Video author unknown, 2002.

More on Vulcan Foundry:


Branson is back…

Thursday, October 4 2012

And so are we!

Readers may be forgiven for thinking that English Rail had died a slow death from some nasty disease and that our sister blog Behind the Water Tower – which has become rather erratic of late – has also caught the bug. They would be entitled to thing this – the last English Rail post was in March, but they would be wrong!

What has happened is that Dyspozytor has become very cross about what is happening to Poland’s railways and rather than just write about what is going wrong he has decided to DO something about it. This doing business eats time like an ex-works top link steam locomotive eats up the miles hauling an express making up after running late, and unfortunately both blogs have suffered.

The good news is that English Rail is coming back, not as a nearly-every-day blog, but initially on a once a fortnight basis. John Savery has promised to keep an eye on things here to make sure that this time we keep our promises to readers. He will also be contributing his own brilliant photography and pithy editorial. He has commissioned a comment about the West Coast main line fiasco, so here goes!

BBC TV News interview with Sir Richard Branson, Oct 3

I have two things in common with Sir Richard Branson. One, I have been celebrating yesterday’s announcement by Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin not to proceed to award a franchise contract to run the West Coast Mail Line to First Group. Two, I once took on the Department for Transport (though it was called the Department OF Transport then) and won!

Not only was the original decision to award the WCML to First Group flawed, the whole process whereby the DfT awards ‘franchises’ for Britain’s railways is deeply flawed. The tender process is reported to have cost the railway companies some £40 million pounds – money that would have been better spent improving services to customers and reducing fares.

BBC TV News report on original decision to award WCML to First Group on Aug 15

Patrick McLoughlin has suspended three officials at the DfT and ordered two reviews: the first into what went wrong with the West Coast competition and the lessons to be learned, the second into the wider DfT rail franchise programme.

However, what is really needed is a much more comprehensive ‘root and branch’ review how the ‘privatisation by fragmentation’ has driven up the costs of Britain’s railways way and what degree of re-integration is needed to drive down unit costs, if not to those achieved by BR, then – at the very least – to European benchmark levels.