Was British Rail really that awful? In a word, yes

Christian Wolmar is described by his editors as Britain’s foremost transport journalist, and he undoubtedly is. Transportation journalism is always of interest, whether it’s news that the people we hope to operate our trains will be on strike, or that a much-vaunted new service is running late, or that a new road is about to be concreted over a vast swathe of our countryside, but such things seldom improve spirits. No more, one might expect, than a history of British Rail as Wolmar wrote it; and we would be right.

To be fair to Wolmar, he knows his Deltics from his DMUs, and his book has a thesis, which is that British Rail (as it was when it was privatised; until 1965 it was British Railways) n Wasn’t as bad as we thought or (for those too young to remember – it was privatized nearly 30 years ago) as some have said. In fact what Wolmar is really saying is that at the end of his life the nationalized railway was not as bad as it had been, and was not as bad as the services privatized which replaced it. This, indeed, is debatable. However, at the end of his mildly obsessive tour through BR’s 46-year history, the reader finds himself thinking of his book as the sort of thing one might give as a Christmas present to someone one don’t like much.

Wolmar tells a depressing story of a depressing institution at a depressing time; of a nationalized industry in the era of cheap and dirty, of generations of managerial stupidity and worker stubbornness, of gratuitous destruction, both moral and aesthetic, and above all of crushing banality. By the time, according to Wolmar, things started to go well in the 1980s, the game was over. For 40 years, BR lost money – taxpayers’ money – in exchange for service that often smelt third world. So we had to try something else; the botched privatization for which we are still paying the price nearly 30 years later.

Wolmar never really wondered if nationalization on January 1, 1948 was the ideal solution. Maybe it’s for nothing: the Attlee government believed in nationalizing almost everything it could, causing our corporate culture to be stifled and massively subsidized industries to be interfered with by two classes of people who generally knew nothing about business (railway or otherwise): socialist politicians and civil servants.

The 20th century railway suffered from two serious problems: the rise of road transport thanks to the internal combustion engine and the collapse of rail services during two world wars, when strenuous use was accompanied by little or no investments. After the Great War, over 120 (mostly small) railway companies were grouped into four to give them the economies of scale needed to make them viable; and after the Big Four (the London and North Eastern Railway, the London, Midland and Scottish, the Great Western and the Southern Railway) had themselves been wiped out in 1945, nationalization seemed the only answer.