6.9.06

LESSONS LEARNED. After World War II a combination of wartime damage, insufficient return on capital, and ideology led to the creation of British Railways as a nationalization of the four investor-owned railways. The transition era is the subject of Robert Hendry's The Changing Face of Britain's Railways 1938-1953: The Railway Companies Bow Out. The book is a well illustrated history of the era, providing sufficient content for a proper Book Review No. 29.

A disclaimer: I am acquainted with Mr Hendry, whose Hillside Films might be of interest to the Russophile and whose Russian Railways Group is helpful for projects of the 4-14-4 kind.

Let's go to the lessons learned first (p. 185.)
It is popular to portray 'The Railway Executive' years from 1948 to 1953 as a period when Britain's railways lurched into crisis, due to inept management from the RE. Generations of writers have accepted this unquestioningly, and a 'fact' once it is in print, takes on a life of its own. Whether it is true or not, becomes irrelevant. When I started researching this book, I shared some of those prejudices, though a background knowledge of what was happening on other railway systems in the British Isles meant that I was not wholly convinced that railway officers who had done a good job in the traumatic years of World War Two, suddenly deteriorated into the buffoons that some writers would have us believe. As facts started to emerge, they had an inconvenient habit of not supporting the popular version of events. If one fact could not support the approved story, it could be disregarded as an aberration. If two were out of line, then there were two aberrations. If virtually every fact was an aberration, I had to ask if the story I had accepted all my life was right or wrong?
To be specific, the government railway maintained an operating ratio of around 92% throughout the 1948-1953 Railway Executive era. The net operating surplus appears to have been sufficient to meet the fixed charges of the investor-owned companies, although there are some ceteris paribus problems inherent in comparing the consolidations and abandonments of the government railway with what investor-owned railways might have done. One thing that did change was the capital structure, which under investor ownership offered a portfolio of common stock for risk takers and debentures for risk averters. (In the United States, railroads never had any trouble financing new rolling stock during the most troubled years of the 1960s as the locomotives and cars were sufficient collateral.) British Railway borrowing took the form of government bonds, which were used to buy out all the various claims share- and bondholders held to the investor-owned lines. That capital structure might have been suboptimal as well as inconsistent with the "operated in the public interest" objective claimed for nationalization.

The sections I found most instructive were the chapters on Ireland and the discussion of reconstruction. At nationalization, the investor-owned railways of Ulster presumably became part of British Railways. (Those details are not spelled out in the book. The Ulster schedules appear in the successor to Bradshaw's; the track gauge is different, and there is international interchange with Eire's railroad.) In Ireland, an observer could summarize in microcosm the effects of road competition, deferred maintenance, and war wear that later afflicted the larger systems on Britain proper. Reconstruction involved continuation of some locomotive-building programs in progress on the investor-owned lines. The Railway Executive did not see fit to hold those projects in abeyance pending the creation of the go-anywhere British Railways Standard steam locomotives, most of which, with running boards above the drivers and external motion, would not look out of place on Canadian Pacific. Mr Hendry is sympathetic to the Railway Executive's decision to continue the steam locomotive programs and develop diesel and electric locomotives domestically rather than come up with foreign exchange for oil and for North American diesel technologies. I'm inclined to disagree, with the advantage of a hindsight that has some forty years later seen the introduction of reliable Electro-Motive Division diesels (the Classes 59 and 66) and the equivalent of a Silvis rebuild with Electro-Motive prime movers dropped into Class 47s. There might be a Master's paper in quantifying the losses of the domestic development policy, particularly as it evolved after the crash modernizations of the 1960s (anybody remember Pennsy's haphazard rush to buy any diesel it could and junk the ill-advised T1 duplexes after five years? Compare and contrast.)

Changing Face offers food for thought for students of Penn Central, Conrail, and deregulation. Pennsy and New York Central were also affected by road competition, difficulties maintaining the common and preferred dividends (Pennsy's uninterrupted common dividend being a slow liquidation) and war wear, admittedly less severe in light of the German inability to develop an intercontinental bomber. The merger: grouping. Conrail: nationalization. Deregulation and privatization? It seems to have gone better than the fragmentation of British Rail, but other circumstances were at work. More about that anon.

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