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Book review: ‘British Rail: A New History’ by Christian Wolmar

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Politicians responsible for determining the future of Britain’s rail system could learn a lot from this thorough account of its previous ups and downs.

In the overall history of the railways, the life of the unified state-owned entity that became known as British Rail (BR) was relatively short – less than 50 years in total. But the wheel turns full circle and the ensuing decades of privatisation, fragmentation, consolidation and economic crises have brought the core business back into the government’s hands, so the publication of Christian Wolmar’s latest book is timely, offering a chance to review the lessons of the past.

Wolmar is an established and well-respected journalist and author on railway topics, so ‘British Rail – A New History’ (Michael Joseph, £30, ISBN 9780241456200) is based on sound knowledge with the added advantage of being easy to read.

When the newly nationalised industry came into being at the start of 1948 it was in a sorry state, run down after the demands of the war years and in dire need of investment and modernisation. The picture Wolmar paints is of a vast administrative behemoth dedicated to the activity of running trains, but initially lacking in unified direction or purpose. Internally, regional ‘barons’ protected their own fiefdoms at the expense of cooperation or efficiency, while at the highest levels there were conflicts of interest between rail and road lobbies, with government departments presented as consistently viewing the railways as merely a drain on resources.

It isn’t all a story of gloom, though. Despite the failings of the 1955 Modernisation Plan and the notorious Beeching Review, investment in electrification and new trains began to bring improvements in services, while a new focus on marketing demonstrated that passengers could indeed be persuaded to take the train. Wolmar highlights the role of canny managers like chairman Sir Peter Parker, who understood the importance of creating a good public image and commissioned a report that enabled him to present BR as "the most cost-effective major railway in Europe".

Parker was followed by Sir Robert Reid, remembered for the formation of business units with their own accounts which for the first time gave managers a clear view of both costs and revenues and therefore the ability to make commercial decisions. A notable example is the creation of Network SouthEast, where a focused programme of quality improvements to trains, stations and infrastructure was coupled with clear branding and a substantial marketing campaign to encourage off-peak travel, with the result that income and investment rose sharply as subsidies fell by more than a third.

Wolmar’s point is that an organisation often characterised as a hidebound leviathan did in fact prove capable of modernising and of running a greatly improved railway system that adapted to changing needs. He argues that it suffered from a “constant undermining of its efforts to provide a good railway service” and that its privatisation by John Major’s government was “chaotic” and “motivated purely by ideology”.

The book was written at a time when the privatised model of the industry was under severe scrutiny. The disastrous and undeliverable timetable change of 2018 had highlighted the lack of any overall "guiding mind", while the effects of Covid lockdowns and government messaging about the dangers of physical proximity were financially ruinous.

A new state-owned Great British Railways is on the horizon, though its nature and its degree of autonomy from the Department for Transport are still far from clear. Wolmar is concerned that the politicians pushing through these reforms have not learned the lesson of history; this book is his contribution to the discussion. I’m not sure that I agree with every aspect of his analysis, but time passes and most of the people making today’s decisions don’t remember what went before. They would do well to pay attention.

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