University challenge [Guest Editorial Backtrack]

In a guest editorial DAVID TURNER from the Centre for Lifelong Learning at the University of York introduces the Postgraduate Diploma course in Railway Studies which was advertised in the magazine last month. It is impossible to accurately measure the magnitude of the railways' influence on British history. Yet over the last 80 years scholars within academic communities have asked penetrating questions of how railways instigated, influenced and were affected by historical events and change. They have adjudged that the railways have had many social, economic, cultural and political 'ripple effects' within the nation, a considerable number of which are explored by students on the Postgraduate Diploma in Railway Studies run by the University of York's Centre for Lifelong Learning.
Examining even just one area of railway activity can demonstrate how powerful these ripple effects were. The relationship between the railways and Whitbread, one of London's great breweries before 1914, might not be the first thing that comes to mind when considering the relationship between the industry and the railways. Even when considering the relationship between the railways and brewers, the vaults under St. Pancras which were filled daily by the barrels of Bass, Ratcliff and Gretton, are likelier to come to mind. Yet Whitbread's experience is a useful prism through which one can consider the broader influence the railways had on the nation's economic development after 1870. In the face of declining beer consumption from 1880, Whitbread sought to extend its business beyond its London tied house and create a bottling operation to tap the home drinker market. The barrier to this was that rates for rail conveyance were too high. Only after 1892, when various agreements with the railways were struck, did expansion proceed. By 1914 the company had around 39 depots nationally and 427,455 barrels of beer — 51 % of its output — going into bottles. Whilst Whitbread continued to send considerable volumes of beer by ship after 1892, the railways to some extent had constituted a gatekeeper to its expansion.
But clearly the ripple effect of the railways on the nation goes further than just the interface between the industry and one brewer, as students will find out. Whitbread's inability before 1892 to get favourable rates was just one constituent part in a general feeling that the railways did more harm than good in the nation. For example, it was argued they did not ensure the travelling public's safety. Since the 1860s many had decried the industry's failure to invest in block working, continuous automatic brakes and interlocking points and signals, even when the technologies were still developing.
It was also alleged that the railways in pursuit of profit used their monopoly positions to keep goods rates excessively high, depressing the margins of businesses and making them anti-competitive on the world stage. Under most pressure was British agriculture which, after 1876, was suffering from an agricultural depression. Whilst there were complex factors behind this, farmers argued that they could not access the preferential rates given to imported bulk agricultural produce, putting them at a competitive disadvantage. Whether the accusations of the farmers and other industrial producers were accurate is a matter for future research, but the ripple effect of the railways' actions continued onwards into the political sphere.
Public and political perception of railway rates policy, combined with safety concerns and railway directors' and managers' frequent arrogance in the face of criticism, meant that increasingly the railways' independence was chipped away. Safety was one area. In 1889, after the Armagh accident in which 80 people died because of the absence of continuous automatic brakes and block working, these devices and interlocking became mandatory in response to renewed public outcry. Most seriously for the railways' financial position, the Government tightened its control over railways' charging powers. In an age when there was anxiety over British economic might being in decline, especially considerlnq the strides forward made by the economies of the United States and Germany, many argued the railways should be made to work in the national interest. To this effect in the late1 880s the Government ordered that all rates be revised. Then in 1894 — after the railways raised all rates to the maximum permitted level from 1 st January 1893, a stunning strategic failure — the companies were forced justify every rate increase thereafter.
The ripple effect of the railways' actions did not stop there either. In the 1890s some argued that politicians had not gone far enough. Since William Gait's 1844 pamphlet Railway Reform, nationalisation had been part of the political discourse. The debates over the railways' economic and social role after 1880 cemented the idea in the public consciousness and led to more regular and vociferous calls for it. Whilst it would not occur until 1948, this situation, some have argued, made nationalisation an inevitability.
Overall, this snapshot demonstrates how the activities of British railways after 1870 had ripple effects through time into Britain's economic, industrial, social and political history. Yet students on the Postgraduate Diploma in Railway Studies will examine so much more. Taught wholly online over two years, part-time, they will encounter the latest scholarly debates on a host of subjects. They will be encouraged to form their own views on how between 1825 and 2002 the railways' social and economic role changed, how their management and employment practices developed, how they were treated politically, their representation in culture and, ultimately, how all these things were interlinked. The course therefore offers an exciting opportunity to explore the diversity of railway history beyond the railhead. For more information, please email
David Turner