Stewart Joy: The train that ran away
Began his railway career as a supernumerary clerk with the Victorian Railways in 1952. Doctoral Thesis at the London School of Economics on problem of railway track costs. Consultant to UK Ministry of Transport inperiod leading up to 1968 Transport Act. Then for threee years Chief Economist of British Railways Board. Also consultant on railway economics to US Dep[rtment of Transportation.
Some dreams were realised, however, at great cost to the nation and succeeding railway operating men. One supposed fruit of railway unification was the opportunity to standardise locomotive construction. In every sense but that of prolonging the romance of the steam locomotive, the way in which this was managed was a disaster of the first order. No one but the BTC seemed to notice this at the time, and they stood by impotent as the future was mortgaged. The apparent independence which Ministerial appointment imparted to the Railway Executive was to extract its greatest cost on this issue.
At the time of the grouping in 1923 the chief mechanical engineers of the constituent companies ranked second only to their general managers, and locomotive engineering had a very high standing indeed. Although there was a thriving commercial locomotive building industry in Britain, most of its production went for export because most railway companies constructed their own locomotives. This meant that in addition to designing the rolling stock, the chief mechanical engineer controlled a large manufacturing organisation. The reason for this particular form of vertical integration is difficult to understand. It placed the companies totally in the hands of their CME's designing skills and in practice denied them access to competitive bids for building. This practice continued in each of the four main line companies. Gradually each of them established standard locomotive policies, even though the financial stringency of the Thirties limited the amount of new locomotive building. Although coal and labour were cheap, each of the main line companies studied other forms of traction.
The Southern, with its particular London suburban problems, invested heavily in electrification. Of the others, the GWR introduced a number of diesel railcars from 1933 and carried out a study of total electrification of a main line in the West of England. The LMS had been pioneers in the use of diesel shunting locomotives, and had experimented with diesel railcars. The LNER had preferred steam railcars, and up to the outbreak of war its nearest brush with main line diesel traction had been Sir Nigel Gresley's comparison of the economics of the German 'Flying Hamburger' trains with his own, steam-hauled, East Coast main line expresses. His successors had increased the LNER's interest in the new form of traction, and at nationalisation 'schemes were maturing ... for a fairly large scale exercise on the East Coast Line with 2,000hp diesel units: There was more action elsewhere, for in the eight months before nationalisation the LMS had actually built a prototype main line diesel-electric locomotive, and had two more on the way, while the Southern Railway had already authorised the construction of prototypes. The Great Western Railway had commenced an experiment on different lines, ordering two gas turbine-electric locomotives of different powers and manufacturers.
All but one of the prototype diesel-electric locomotives which BR inherited from the LMS and Southern used the English Electric Company's generating and traction equipment, which was already being supplied to overseas railways in complete locomotives. Interest in the new form of traction in Britain had been sufficient for years to justify a specialist monthly journal Diesel Railway Traction, and at the end of 1947 the president of the Institution of Locomotive Engineers had devoted most of his presidential address to extolling its virtues.
The idea of using an internal combustion engine to develop electric power for rail traction was not new. Such locomotives had been in series production for shunting and transfer work in the USA since 1925, and by 1948 the US railroad industry was committed to complete dieselisation. In France, high-horsepower prototypes had been in service before the war. All of this was obvious to the BTC, and in April of 1948 Lord Hurcomb suggested the creation of an 'impartial committee' to consider the relative merits of diesel traction. The word 'impartial' was ominous; why should a committee of professionals be anything else? Either diesel traction was better than steam or it was not. The indications from North America were that it was far better, so why could not Hurcomb just ask the member of the Railway Executive for mechanical engineering matters, R.A.Riddles, to advise him? Did he not trust Riddles' judgement? Or was the committee a way of trying to circumvent Riddles' obsession with steam? Whatever were the machinations between the BTC and the RE, Hurcomb had not counted on the strength of the personal ambitions of the successor to Stephenson, Webb, Churchward, Gresley and Stainer, who wished to design his own fleet of steam locomotives.
So the prototype diesel-electrics were left to chug in splendid isolation, and the impartial committee finally managed to report in October 1951 after work was well underway on twelve classes of BR standard steam locomotives of Riddles' design. Not surprisingly, the committee's recommendation, after three and a half years' deliberation, was that there should be large scale experiments in diesel traction and main line electrification. This was after three years of large scale experimentation with an obsolete form of motive power: and of design and construction of new classes of locomotive on an extravagant scale not seen before or since. It is perhaps indicative of the gentlemanly leisure with which RE and BTC business was conducted that, although the committee reported in October 1951,11 the BTC 'received' the report three months later in January 1952. The BTC's difficulties with its railway 'experts' are disclosed by a paragraph in the 1952 Annual Report, more for the Railway Executive eyes than for the general public:I
'The object must be to provide or introduce on each section of British Railways those forms of motive power which by reason of their inherent compliance with fundamental operational requirements and their economic characteristic are likely to give the most efficient and economical service.'
There were two points at issue: whether BR should have been building steam locomotives at all, and whether the experimentation and construction of new classes was justified. Subsequent attempts to explain this waste have hinged upon the underlying preference for main line electrification, which was itself no more than a guess, and a desire to use indigenous fuels.
Concern, both from a private BR viewpoint and nationally, about the security of fuel supplies is quite understandable. Britain was only three years out of a war in which the supply of petroleum products had been a critical factor. But the diesel oil equivalent of BR's total 1948 coal consumption of 14 million tons was only 220 tanker loads with the small vessels then in use. In any case, the country was short of coal at the time.
The argument about waiting for electrification is far less strong. If capital spending restrictions were going to defer electrification, it was argued, it would be better to have one more generation of steam locomotives in the interim. But even if electrification were the ultimate objective, the advantages of diesel traction made it preferable to steam even as an interim solution. As we now know, had diesels been chosen their relative advantages over main line electrification would probably have made them the permanent solution, because a large part of the case for main line electrification, even as late as 1968, rested on the 'unreliability' of diesels. Had diesels been developed at a deliberate pace from nationalisation, their reliability would have been much greater in later years. This was only an indirect effect of the determination of the Railway Executive to ignore diesel traction in 1948. The most costly effect was to defer for nearly ten years the most important single technological advance in railway history.
While BR was developing its obsolete fleet of standard steam locomotives, the only development work in progress on diesels was by the commercial locomotive builders, in conjunction with their export business. With no home market, the British locomotive builders found difficulty in competing with the American producers in export markets. Then, in 1954 when BR belatedly recognised the advantages of diesel traction, it found its own design staffs and the commercial locomotive building industry unable to meet its demands. Even the report of the 'impartial committee' in 1951 had not led to any experimentation in addition to the running of the five pre-nationalisation prototypes. This brings us back to the second question which was more immediate for the Railway Executive: whether new steam designs were justified for an admittedly interim requirement. After the 1923 grouping, the chief mechanical engineers of the new companies had met their locomotive needs in the early years by carrying on with construction of the best of the designs of the constituent companies. Even if they gave their personal designs the benefit of any doubts, it was at least a consistent and economical policy. By nationalisation, each company had developed its locomotives further, and one, the LMS, had announced a complete range of 11 standard types. Naturally, building to each company's design continued after nationalisation. In fact the last steam locomotive to a former company design was out-shopped as late as 1956. But the determination of The Last Steam Locomotive Engineer', as his biography was named, to leave his aesthetic imprint on the rails of Britain meant that four drawing offices were engaged on the design of a new range of locomotives, the maximum life of which was 17 years, and the minimum, a scandalous 7 years.
In another field of rail traction, diesel railcars, the story is only a little better. These had been in use in small numbers on the Great Western Railway since 1933, and both the LNER and the LMS had tried them. In heavy-weight (usually petrol-electric) form, such self-propelled passenger coaches had been in use on US railroads since before World War I, although their main success only came after about 1925. The attractions of the railcar were obvious: the two-man crew, obviating the need for a fireman, the economy of the lightweight diesel (bus type) engines over the steam locomotive, the faster turnrounds in terminals, and the ability to operate all day without refuelling, taking water, or cleaning grates. Britain was the world's biggest exporter of these machines. Even if some of the mechanical arrangements employed looked as If they were by Heath Robinson, it was clearly the solution for branch line passenger operation. But this potential economy did not attract the attention of the Railway Execut.ive until 1952, when a working party reported that the costs of operating lightweight diesel trains would be 26d/mile, compared with.87d/mile for steam. By then virtually all of the BR standard steam locomotives for branch line working were designed and under construction. It is pertinent to note that there was still no unseemly haste. Although the first LMS diesel-electric locomotive had been designed and built between April and December of 1947, it took two years to get the first trial DMUs on to the rails.
Two golden opportunities to carry out a major re-structuring of BR had been missed: one at the end of the war, and the other in 1954. At both these times it was open to the BTC to decide not to rebuild all of the railway system (a decision which had been taken by the Dutch railways at the end of the war). But, following nationalisation, the BTC (and the Railway Executive) took a course which gave Britain the worst of all possible worlds. The Government decided to help its own management of the economy by severely limiting investment in the transport sector and in particular in BR. Then the BTC used these limited funds to patch the whole railway system, instead of concentrating investment where its long run prospects were brightest. It took, for example, until the mid-Fifties to restore pre-war qualities of service on the main line passenger services, yet meanwhile funds were being squandered on steam locomotives and coaches for branch line services. Nothing in the 1948 Act had altered the economics of providing this type of service, and 'integration' must have meant transfer of much of this traffic to road. But the BTC persisted. Then, when the 1953 Act denationalised road haulage, it was obvious that BR freight traffic would come under new competitive pressures and be even less able to support loss-making activities. This was the second chance f
or a major restructuring. The 1953 Act expressly provided for BR to abandon loss-making activities and to cease trying to support them through inflated prices elsewhere. But apart from the modest proposals for passenger withdrawals mentioned above, and the closure of a number of goods depots, the modernisation plan set out to rebuild the existing railway, whether there was a demand for its services or not. It has been estimated that the net disinvestment in railway assets between 1937 and 1953 amounted to about £400 million (at 1948 prices). That was not necessarily a bad thing. Disinvestment on such a scale meant simply that the nation had been using up its railway assets faster than it replaced them. As it was generally conceded that, except in wartime, Britain had far more railway capacity than it needed, the disinvestment really meant that capacity had been reduced toward the level which could be supported commercially by the traffics carried. By 1953 it was widely accepted that BR had been run down too far, and that an increased rate of investment was necessary. To know how much investment was needed was the responsibility of the BTC, and this is where the waste began. For the proposals of the railway regions which were packaged into the modernisation plan provided for the restoration of virtually the whole of BR's assets at a time when the traffics carried quite clearly could not support renewals on this scale. The proposals looked innocuous enough at that time
Apart from the £125 million for main line diesel locomotives, which was to rectify the mistakes of the Railway Executive, all of the remainder looked eminently reasonable provided profits did not matter. In 1954, the year in which the plan was prepared, BR had a surplus, before interest, of only £15.8 million. Adding in the depreciation provision of £19 million meant that, even without paying interest on the capital debt, BR was unable to finance all of the £62 million it invested that year and that the remainder had to be borrowed. But the modernisation plan envisaged investment at more than double this rate, with no immediate improvement in the operating surplus. Then, almost before the plan was properly under way, BR had two successively worse years. At this stage, the Government called for a review off the modernisation plan.