In a regular series of posts ANDY FLEMING takes a look at our non-integrated and not fit for purpose public transport system. He starts by taking a recent historical look at the UK’s railway system, one of the most expensive in Western Europe for both passengers and taxpayers. It isn’t long before corrupt politicians are seen to be taking the public for a ride along the rails.
They say that travel broadens the mind, and foreign travel especially. I was a late starter in getting “the bug” for it. In fact it was on our honeymoon in August 1989 in Paris that I first set foot on foreign soil. And as a graduate student of sociology with modules in transport and planning what a shock it was.
We arrived in Paris via train, to me the most civilised form of mass transport, at Gare du Nord. The journey had been a real eye opener. We had travelled all of the way by train from Darlington, enjoying an overnight stay in central London and then using the ferry for the short crossing to Boulogne (this was before the Channel Tunnel of course).
Nothing remarkable in this, but on a personal level, visiting France for the first time was a big event in my life. At the age of twenty nine I had previously developed the view that everything about our country was best. Its education, health care, welfare, and other state systems and infrastructure were at the apex of civilisation.
My first footsteps on to the Société Nationale des Chemins de fer Français (SNCF) express train shattered this UK-centric worldview. Clearly, before I had even tested a word of my pigeon French out on an unsuspecting local person, this wasn’t just a journey of discovery in terms of culture, society and country; it was a tale of two completely different national railway systems, and it would be a comparison in which Britain would inevitably come out a very poor loser. Bear in mind too our journey was at the time TransManche Link (TML) were still excavating the Channel Tunnel, Eurostar trains were still a couple of years in the future.
On time we left Boulogne and travelled through the beautiful countryside of northern France at high speed on our way to the nation’s capital. We were seated inside a second class compartment, but it appeared to both my wife Gill and myself to be perfect luxury. In fact, we had initially inadvertently mistaken our coach as being first class and we might be reprimanded for sitting there. Our worries soon abated on a walk down the train to enjoy the delights and service of a fully stocked restaurant and buffet car. That’s because first class was even more luxurious. This was first class travel with a second class ticket. Through Amiens and on to Paris we were whisked to pull into Gare du Nord on time to the second. This was how rail travel should be, I thought.
My mind inevitably returned to the previous day’s journey courtesy of British Rail (BR). Britain was enduring the dying days of the premiership of Margaret Thatcher and her laissez-faire free market economic policies in which anything owned by the state equalled bad and anything in private hands was good. And she had a distinct dislike for nationalised industries, and railways in particular.
Indeed Tom King, her Minister for Transport in the early eighties had wanted to turn Marylebone Station in London into a bus and coach terminus. The Serpell Report of 1982 that he commissioned saw railways as an anachronism; a Victorian mode of socialised transport as far away from their utopian vision of free market motoring as one can get. Viewed by many transport analysts as “Beeching on steroids” its main outrageous proposals were for a future where Britain would have virtually no railway system at all. With the lowest passenger numbers of any year in the second half of the twentieth century, 1982 in some represented the nadir for Britain’s railway system.
Serpell was rejected; he went too far even for the right wing Thatcher cabinet, but his philosophy was still alive: BR was being run down and starved of investment. Our railway network’s vital infrastructure was disintegrating after decades of neglect by governments of all colours. BR under instruction from the Department of Transport was using underhand tactics to close strategic main lines such as the Woodhead Route between Manchester and Sheffield and was operating a closure by stealth policy in order to justify closures. They undertook this by the use of carefully manipulated passenger and transport surveys, diverting services away from lines they wanted to close and finally by inflating repair figures for the infrastructure of doomed lines.
BR under encouragement from the Tory government could present an overwhelming case for line closure. The whole fraudulent politically inspired policy was epitomised and finally exposed in the successful fight by people power to save the main line between Settle and Carlisle. It’s now a vital strategic freight artery and popular passenger route.
From what I had seen so far as I stood on the Parisian station platform, SNCF, unlike BR was a nationalised industry of which the French were rightfully proud. Public transport especially rail travel was in many respects a way of life to them, and their belief in the strategic and economic importance of a well-funded railway network was there for everybody to see. It was apparent straight away to even a casual visitor that railways in France were clearly something that should be prioritised and receive substantial public investment. They were, and still are relatively cheap, reliable, punctual and safe. Regarding integration with other modes of transport, well, the French must have invented that phrase “integrated transport”.
This was in stark contrast to the British view with which I had grown up: that railways were, and still are, a drain on taxpayers’ funds. My first journey abroad including as it did rail, Parisian Metro and bus travel illustrated well that it wasn’t railways or public transport that were the anachronisms. No, the true anachronisms were the British politicians who, being in the pockets of the road lobby, the motorway construction and oil industries, had been systematically dismantling one of our vital national assets.
Subsequent visits over the years to Rome, Amsterdam, Brussels, Innsbruck and Barcelona confirmed that it was indeed the UK that was out of synchronisation with other major western economies when it came to transport policy. Successive governments have consistently placed one of the chief purveyors of social inequality and environmental degradation on a pedestal: the motor car.
In the years to come my views were vindicated: the virtual sole reliance on road transport for freight in particular and the inevitable congestion from mass car ownership and the loss of a substantial portion of our railway infrastructure means that our small and densely populated country’s economy is now in a poor position to distribute what few goods it still makes to both domestic and international markets.
The Beeching Report of 1963 which closed nearly half of the UK’s railway route miles is still regarded as one of the most significant acts of political and corporate vandalism ever wreaked on the British economy. Richard Beeching was head-hunted from ICI at the behest of Tory Transport Minister Ernest Marples, to instil a private sector philosophy in an organisation that should have been concentrating on public service. As a director of Marples-Ridgeway Construction, Marples was simultaneously allowing his henchman to decimate our railway network while trousering a fortune, as Marples-Ridgeway benefitted from lucrative Government contracts to build Britain’s burgeoning motorway network. Rumours of corruption and scandal rightly engulfed his department during his tenure at the top, but nothing was ever done.
And yet it was Wilson’s Labour Government that enacted most of Beeching’s proposals, and his Transport Secretary Barbara Castle was still closing now much-need railways to Keswick and Alston as late as 1976.
The British have railways in their blood. We were after all the nation of their very birth, the north east of England where I live, was their cradle. The people of our country have always loved railways. They have always hated the individuals and politicians who are supposed to manage them on our behalf. That’s because most of them are, and have been corrupt. We deserve much better.
Beeching R., The Reshaping of British Railways, 1963, British Railways Board, HMSO.
Whitehouse, A., 1990, The Settle and Carlisle Railway: The line that refused to dieHenshaw, D., 1994, The Great Railway Conspiracy.