Archive for the ‘rail policy’ Category


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.




First UK coalition government for 70 years

Wednesday, May 12 2010

Gordon Brown announcing his resignation,
Tuesday 11 May, 19:20.
Frame from BBC video.

(Click image to view the video on the BBC’s Election 2010 website.)

I’ve informed the Queen’s private secretary that it’s my intention to tender my resignation to the Queen. In the event that the queen accepts I shall advise her to ask the leader of the opposition to form a government…

David Cameron’s first speech as Prime Minister,
Tuesday 11 May, 20:44.
Frame from BBC video.

(Click image to view the video on the BBC’s Election 2010 website.)

Her Majesty the Queen’s has asked me to form a new government and I have accepted…

Nick Clegg speaking after receiving the go-ahead from senior Liberals to enter into a coalition government with the Conservatives.
Frame from BBC video.

(Click image to view the video on the BBC’s Election 2010 website.)

Tonight the Liberal Democrat Parliamentary Party and the Federal Executive of the Liberal Democrat Party have overwhelmingly accepted my recommendation that we should enter into a coalition government with the Conservative Party…


Gordon Brown saves world economy again!

Monday, March 29 2010

Admirals and Generals banned from first class carriages. World saved!

Standing room only. Glasgow to London train. Photo Moira.

(Click image to see original on Photos from I’ve sat on the floor of a Virgin Train because i could not get a seat… Facebook group.)

Scene a first floor room in No. 10 Downing Street.

Sitting by his desk: James Gordon Brown, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, First Lord of the Treasury, Minister for the Civil Service and Leader of the Labour Party.

Enter: Peter Benjamin Mandelson, Baron Mandelson PC, First Secretary of State, Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, President of the Board of Trade and Lord President of the Council.

PM: Your spells work well. Cameron’s camp is in disarray. His star is dimming.

Aside to audience

See how the necromancer now turns my way, no longer sinning.

Turns to BM

And yet I would have more. The love of the common people I greet,

I will scorn my car, and walk from Parliament to Downing Street.


Debts mount, the people become more common than before,

They want Britain’s Got Talent not Oh, What a Lovely War!

Cancel rail warrants. Make Admirals and Generals go second class

Show your authority is unchallenged, then your Bentley will surely pass.

PM: The army and navy top brass grumble and plot, so do your worst,

May your devilry tarnish their their medals till their fat egos burst.



George Bathurst battles tunnel vision

Sunday, February 21 2010

Windsor Link Railway route diagram. WLR Berkshire Ltd.

(Click image to see original on WLR website.)

Thanks to the proximity of Heathrow, Europe’s busiest airport, the area around the Thames Valley towns of Maidenhead, Windsor, Slough, West Drayton and Staines is a busy economic hub. The area’s importance to the UK economy is reflected by two major rail schemes. Heathrow Airport is targeted to have its own station connected to HS2, if and when, the UK’s high speed link to North is ever built. Maidenhead and Slough will be served by Crossrail, always supposing that the project is not mothballed by the Tories after the general election. While these big rail projects reflect the importance of the local economy since the IT boom of the 1980s, the area’s branch line’s are still saddled with the consequences of the Beeching Plan thinking of the 1960s: the Maidenhead – High Wycombe line is truncated at Bourne End; the West Drayton – Staines branch survives only as a ‘long siding’ to the Colnbrook incinerator; the West Drayton – Uxbridge branch has been built over; the west curve of the Slough triangle has now been incorporated into the roads of a housing estate.

Now, George Bathurst, a local businessman, has proposed ‘connecting the dots’ by reversing some of the cuts and plugging some of the missing gaps in the network. At the core of his proposals is a brand new station at Windsor which would link the ex GWR and ex LSWR branches and building a spur from Staines to Heathrow. The proposed links would connect rail-served locations to the West of Heathrow to the airport and save millions of car journeys each year. In addition the new links would strengthen the case for restoring the Maidenhead – High Wycombe link as recommended by ATOC last year.

Because abandoned rail routes have not been safeguarded from encroaching development, Mr Bathurst’s plans would be more expensive to realise than they need be. However, they are not prohibitively so and the financial case is strong. In addition the area which suffers from major traffic congestion and gridlocks completely if there is a major incident on the M$ or M25 motorways. Sadly, 50 years after the Beeching plan, so deeply is the inevitable demise of feeder rail services etched into the national psyche, that even rail sympathetic politicians have pronounced Mr Bathurst’s plans as unlikely to be realised. Here’s hoping that Mr Bathurst and his company, WLR Berkshire Ltd, will prove the sceptics wrong!



NR’s New Non-threatening Non-execs

Tuesday, January 12 2010

Straws in the wind…

Janis Kong and Lawrie Haynes. Photos Network Rail.

Network Rail announced the appointment of two new non-executive directors today, Janis Kong and Lawrie Hayes. Rick Haythornthwaite, Network Rail’s chairman, is barely 6 months in post and the appointment of the first new directors under his regime is the first indication of the strategic direction in which he wants the ‘not-for-profit’ infrastructure company to go.

Janis Kong (59) has held senior positions in Britain’s airport industry: former main board director of BAA plc (2002- 2006), former chairman Heathrow Express 2005 to 2006, former chairman of Heathrow Airport (2001-2006), managing director of Gatwick airport (1997-2001). Her main claim to fame is that she was a member of the Royal Bank of Scotland’s Remuneration Committee, which approved at £20m pension deal for disgraced RBS ex-chairman Sir Fred Goodwin.

Lawrie Haynes (57) was appointed President of Nuclear at Rolls-Royce Group Plc earlier this year. After a 5 year stint as the first ever chief executive of the Highways Agency (1994-1999), he was a main board director and former chief executive of BNFL plc (2003-2007), and then became chief executive of the consultancy, White Young Green plc (2007-2009). Haynes has adapted the organisations he leads to comply with the political whims of his masters while at the same time being prepared to lead the employees that work from him ‘from the front’.

Cynics will conclude that both Kong and Haynes offer Network Rail a ‘safe pair of hands’ who will not upset NR’s senior executives by relating their remuneration to real performance, or try to challenge the government by pointing out some of the absurdities that arise from the way the Department for Transport attempts to run Britain’s railways.



Too Sensible to lobby for rail

Sunday, November 15 2009

Captain Sensible

The Captain’s diesel locomotive. Photo ©The Quietus.

(Click on picture to read the full interview by Luke Turner with Captain Sensible.)

The Quietus, which targets the intelligent music fan between the age of 21 and 73 has published an interesting interview with Captain Sensible. Captain Sensible was born in London just a few years after Dyspozytor. He is a singer, songwriter, guitarist and co-founder of the punk rock band The Damned in 1976. He left the band in the 1980s to concentrate on his own career, but rejoined in 1996. He still tours with the band today.

Given the Captain’s unusual career path his views on the fate of Britain’s railways are remarkable close to Dyspozytor’s own. However, the Captain expresses himself in rather stronger language than most of today’s railway pundits:

That was Thatcher’s whole thing wasn’t it? The car economy. She never travelled in a train when she was Prime Minister. Another reason to dance on her grave when she goes – her hating trains, and that’s apart from all the other stuff like making the miners unemployed. We’re reaping the benefits of her Premiership now aren’t we, because just when we need people making stuff in Britain we don’t make anything at all. We’re importing everything from South America and China. It’s sickening that we don’t make engines in Crewe, Didcot and Swindon any more. All those technical skills have gone.

Maybe that’s where we have gone wrong. During the last 50 years most of Britain’s railway enthusiasts have been patient and polite. During this time: the country has been robbed of 2/3 of its railway network; wagon load and part wagon load freight has gone; the Railway Research and Development Centre has been closed; Britain’s great indigenous railway manufacturing works have been demolished; the Channel Tunnel, which was supposed to be a link between the railways of Britain and the continent, is being operated in the manner of a ferry for heavy lorries and a self-contained ‘tube’ service between London, Paris and Brussels; essential maintenance has been skimped; trains have crashed and our fragmented railway has become the most expensive in the world. Need I go on? Meanwhile road building has continued unabated and health problems, associated with petrol and diesel engine pollution, are soaring.

Perhaps, we have been too sensible. When Dyspozytor fought to save a railway line in the 1970s, he played dirty. There was a ‘sit-in’ on the railway track as the contractors were lifting it. Articles appeared in the local and national press. Sir John Betjeman was recruited as a patron. Local residents sent telegrams and hundreds of letters. It was a tough fight but we won.1

Read the interview with the Captain, let your anger rise…  And the next time your fare rises above the rate of inflation, or your train is cancelled, or you suffer appalling passenger service… let the decision makers, from the prime minister downwards, know how you feel.

1This was the occasion that John Snell writing in the Trains and Railways magazine, and objecting to my methods, described me as a ‘political huckster’.


Getting the message across…

Sunday, October 25 2009


Celia Johnson as Laura Jesson and Trevor Howard as Dr. Alec Harvey in a scene from David Lean’s 1945 classic film Brief Encounter . Still via

Sometimes the Fact Compiler hits the spot so well that any further comment would be superfluous: