THE UNIFICATION OF BRITISH RAILWAYS, by Members of the Railway Executive, 1951, Modern Transport [ebook]


Booklet, paper covers, 9.5”x 7”, pp64, 33 B&W half-tone illustrations printed on poor quality paper. Organisation charts


One of the main features of interest, is the detailed description of the complex organisation needed to operate the steam age railway  effectively, safely and economically

The generally upbeat tone of this publication belies the fact that the transport organisation was not fit for purpose. The British Transport Commission sought to interfere in operational matters, the Railway Executive either watered down Commission policy decisions, or ignored them, and Chief Regional Officers  played one off against the other.

Within six months of this booklet being published, a Conservative Government won a General Election, and within18 months the Executive was abolished.

 For the full story of the weak management, political infighting and personal arrogance, which led to the disgraceful expenditure of tens of millions on largely unnecessary steam locomotives, see Terry Gourvish, British Railways, 1948-73: a business history. 1986. His book is an account untainted by the rose tinted spectacles of a steam locomotive enthusiast.

Briefly the organisation of Nationalised Transport was badly thought out, carried out in a rush on doctrinaire principles, ignoring the levels of co-ordination which already existed. . Transport was to be placed under the umbrella of a British Transport Commission charged with co-ordinating the various forms of transport (railways, road haulage, ports etc.)  each to be run by an “Executive”. The privately owned railways already owned ports (Southampton, Immingham, Hull etc.) road haulage companies (eg Pickfords) and  had substantial holdings in bus companies, particularly in Wales the North of England and Scotland – activities which, without outside interference they successfully and profitably integrated with a view to providing a “joined up” service. The first action of the government, partly as a result of Trades Union pressure was to destroy the measure of integration so far achieved by taking ports and road haulage away from the Railway Executive and forcing the disposal of bus company shares. The LNER for example, had earned a steady 4% from its bus investments – more than it was often able to pay as a dividend on its own preference shares. Worse, the hotels, station refreshment rooms, and on-train catering were transferred to the Hotels Executive, depriving the railways of a useful revenue stream and of control over one of the most important factors affecting the quality of a passenger’s journey.

I met Lord Inman, first chairman of the Hotels Executive on two or three occasions in the 1960’s when he was President of the Knaresborough Civic Society and I was Chairman. I asked him why on earth such a bad decision had been taken. At first he was reluctant to say anything but eventually after explaining that everything had to be done in a rush, he admitted that there was “an element of class hatred and envy” in the decision. The rail unions claimed that the hotels were an expensive “perk” run largely for the benefit of railway managers and officers who enjoyed substantial discounts. “Old Labour” held that in an age of austerity a state owned railway had no business running luxury hotels That they were sharing food depots, wine and beer cellars  bakeries and even laundries with station and on train catering was not realized until too late and there was no time to do anything about it. Passengers would pay the price for years in poor service and high prices.

Similar stupidities pervaded the Nationalisation project from the start. In two World Wars, the Railway Executive Committee under the leadership of two outstandingly talented railway men (Sir Herbert Walker in the Great War, Sir Ralph Wedgwood in WWII) had run the countries railways supremely well with no interference from above. If the formula could be repeated in peace time, all would be well. Sadly failure was inbuilt from the start with the imposition of the Transport Commission, essentially the “Enforcer” for the Civil Service and government policy  placed above the Executive charged with actually running the railway.  The result was to be an interminable series of “Turf Wars.”   Riddles effectively Chief Mechanical Engineer of British Railways was quite dogmatic in his contentions that the capital cost of mainline electrification would never be met in his working lifetime, diesel-electric locomotives were too heavy with currently available power plant, too expensive and reliant on imported fuel and too expensive at first cost compared with steam.  The LNER had invited tenders from the private locomotive builders for the supply of 22 main line diesel-electric locomotives for use between King’s Cross and Edinburgh.  Riddles got the railway executive to cancel the invitation to tender. His policy would be to equip British Railways with a modern fleet of12 standard classes of steam locomotive with a life expectancy of around 30 years. A policy loudly applauded by the National Union of Miners, who put pressure in the government to approve the plan. Many of the designs were misconceived, there being perfectly adequate and cheaper alternatives amongst recent builds from the LMS and the LNER. The desired objective of all-system availability, and interchangeability of spare parts proved largely illusory and  the “12 standard classes” required no less than 28 diagrams by 1960 to cover the variations to date. Riddles was unrepentant. The very week that the Commission ordered the first of the “Derby Lightweight” DMUs, he was demanding additional funding to develop a “modern” system of steam push-pull operation. Many of the Riddles “standard” locomotives were scrapped BEFORE the wartime “Austerity” 2-8-0s which had made his reputation, (so cheap he claimed that at the end of the war it would not be worth bringing them home and they could be dumped in the sea).

“ As Riddles has observed, ‘fortunately for me those other boys were so engaged on their own jobs that I could simply say to the Executive, “I’m going to do this” and I did it . . . I think we were left a lot to our own devices’”  -Gourvish  p.54.

It is perhaps not without significance, that Elliot, Barrington -Ward and Train were knighted. Riddles was not.



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