Ever since the first steam locomotives of the early 19th century, the UK railway network benefitted from extensive expansion. By 1923 most of the railways were grouped together to form the ‘Big Four’ – namely, the Great Western, the London and North Eastern, the London, Midland and Scottish, and the Southern Railway companies. Other smaller companies operated, such as the Somerset and Dorset, and the Midland and Great Northern, but it was the Big Four that were public companies, eventually becoming part of ‘British Railways’ when nationalisation took place on 1 January 1948.
During the Second World War the railways played a key role. It made sense that railway workers were a ‘restricted occupation’ and not required to join up. They were more than busy ferrying vital military supplies and personnel, and supporting the evacuation of children from bombed out cities.
In the first few years of post-war Britain the railways continued with another responsibility – carrying freight. Commuting was, in the main, something for the middle-classes, with the majority of blue and white-collar workers travelling on foot, bus or bicycle to their workplace. But commodities of every kind – including beer and milk – were transported in significant quantities, as was our mail. ‘Travelling Post Offices’ (TPOs) – or sorting carriages – meant that letters could be sorted as the train travelled to its various destinations. Sometimes railway workers would pick up the mailbags without the trains even stopping, snatching mailbags hanging from trackside posts and simultaneously dropping bags from the train into nets beside the railway line.
Although the transportation of goods was a vital requirement for the rail network, the beginnings of road haulage, starting in the 1920s, soon overtook rail as the favoured method to move goods from one end of the country to another.
And what about the railway workers? On the one hand it provided a secure job for life – or at least until compulsory retirement at the age of 65. On the other hand it involved up to a dozen shift patterns, long hours and low pay, causing many railwaymen to have no choice but to work their days off and weekends to achieve a living wage.
By the time of nationalisation in 1948 it was evident that the railway network needed massive investment, in freight as well as passenger services. Converting the rolling stock and the rail system from steam power to diesel and electric would take time and money, neither of which was readily available in those difficult post-war years. Shortly after nationalising the railways the newly appointed Railway Executive began to implement a series of cuts to certain lines, deemed to be ‘unprofitable’.
Sadly the writing was on the wall for British Railways, leading to the significant overhaul that resulted from the two reports published in the early 1960s, known as the Beeching reports – of which more in a later post!