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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!

Sources

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.

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2 comments

  1. As you say, this story needs to be widely told, as it shows a lot about the murky relations between the civil service, government and the press (not only the national press but also specialist press). Could such things still be happening to-day… in the UK, in Poland, and not only as regards transport matters?


  2. Very interesting story, definitely should be widely told, are there any copies of the newspapers mentioned in this article? I would be interested to see them.



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