Category Archives: railway history

Railways: £8bn investment but soaring prices

It’s been a strange couple of days for news regarding Britain’s rail network.

Yesterday we heard that fares will be going up yet again, and in an extremely complex pricing system, it is not immediately clear which fares will be going up, nor by how much. What is clear, is that the Government has little control and the franchise companies are free to exploit the passenger as much as they like. Prices are extortionate as it is. This is ridiculous in a time when we are supposed to be trying to encourage people to leave their cars at home.

And as if by magic, today – less than 24 hours after that bad news – the Government has announced that the rail network will be receiving £8bn of investment. This will include 2,000 new carriages to ease overcrowing, and improvements to some lines. But with such a creaking system, £8bn will not go very far. It is a drop in the ocean compared to the profits that the operating companies enjoy. Overall Rail journeys have dipped slightly in the last year, which is hardly surprising given the ever-increasing prices. The sad fact is, that thanks to Thatcherite free market ideology, the Government has next to no control over such a vital part of this country’s infrastructure.

As I have documented on this blog before, most European rail networks are run as a national operation, and are much more frequent, efficient, punctual, safer and cheaper than in Britain. But for some reason, flying in the face of all this evidence, the argument ran in Britain that the rail network needed private enterprise to work. Privatisation hasn’t unleashed a ‘golden age of investment’, rather a dark age of shareholder exploitation, laziness and contempt for the customer. The same argument also runs for local buses too.

The fares will go up in January (a matter of weeks), but passengers will have to wait years to see the improvements (if at all).



Filed under News, railway history

The Great Western Railway in the First World War by Sandra Gittins

The problem with Railway History, is that any mention of ‘railways’ or ‘trains’ always has people jumping to conclusion, frequently of the anorak-wearing type. But railways are just as much about social history as they are about technology, as Sandra Gittins has shown. And this social history really came to the fore in 1914.

I found this book a real eye-opener in more ways than one. I hadn’t realised just what an impact railways had had on the war, but also what an impact the war had on the railways. An iconic image in British military history is the eponymous train pulling away from the station loaded with waving troops. More humbling is the spectre of trains pulling back into the same station carrying scores of wounded men.

If the First World War was the first truly industrialised war, then the Railways seem to have been a real force multiplier. The combustion engine had not been developed quite enough to be as significant as it would later become. The German state had built – in a typically German fashion – a complex system of railways that would speed their armies to the western front to enact the Schlieffen Plan, and then across Germany to fight the Russians in the east. The French and British took much longer to perfect their rail networks nearer the front, and the immediate importance of the Great Western Railway was in ferrying troops around country – principally to the embarkation ports for France, and also to the training camps on Salisbury Plain.

Other aspects of the GWR’s war I was quite unaware of. It comes as something of a surprise to read that the GWR’s engineering works were making munitions and artillery pieces for the Army. The GWR was also crucial in transporting coal from the Welsh mining areas to coastal ports, from where it could be taken to fuel the Royal Navy, which was still overwhelmingly coal powered. The company’s ferries were also pressed into service. There were so many train services running on Government service, and so little rolling stock left, that passenger services were seriously curtailed.

As the western front stagnated into static warfare, so infrastructure grew up to service the men and materiel flowing towards the trenches. An important component of this was the rail network. Initially the GWR sent a number of engines and rolling stock, and then built more specificially for the Government for service abroad. Some of these were of completely new designs, to transport aircraft and tanks. Eventually, GWR men were sent to France to both operate the existing rail networks, and to build new ones.

As with most large companies (in 1914 GWR employed in the region of 80,000 people), many employeed joined the forces. Some of these were on an individual basis, but the GWR also contributed men and officers to several Royal Engineers Railway Companies, and also some volunteer infantry units. This was very much in keeping with the ‘Pals’ ethos; that men who worked together and joined up together would be allowed to fight together. The absence of young men to work the railways led to the employment of women in many roles, and also not a few retired GWR employees.

Sandra Gittins has also included a very impressively researched Roll of Honour, in which most names have been discovered in the CWGC database. I’m working on a similar project at the moment, and its very inspiring to see that someone has gone into such depth. There are also some gallant tales, such as the sergeant and the private who managed to take prisoner 250 Germans between them, form them into a column and march them back to the British lines.

Overall, we are left with a couple of impressions. Firstly, that Railways were such a huge part of life in early twentieth century Britain, and for a large and prominent company such as the GWR, this must have been even more so. Also, we are given a sense of community – not only did companies form the heartbeat of the community, but also that these communities suffered so much from the human cost of war.

The Great Western Railway in the First World War is published by The History Press


Filed under Book of the Week, railway history, social history, Uncategorized, western front, World War One

The Hyson Brothers?

An interesting little story has transpired from my WW1 dead research.

Before the widespread use of motor vehicles, Railways were used during the First World War to transport men an materiel quickly around to the front line, and then around the front quickly as threats arose. To operate these military railways a large specialist service sprang up within the Royal Engineers.

Sapper F.C. Hyson, from Portsmouth, was serving with 98th Light Train Crew Company Royal Engineers when he died on 31 December 1917. He is buried at Alexandria in Egypt. The train crew companies made up the drivers, fireman and other crew members of the trains.

Sergeant R.H. Hyson, a resident of 34 Gladstone Road, Mile End, was serving with 19th Railway Operating Company Royal Engineers when he died on 30 December 1917. He was 32. He is buried at Salonika in Greece. The Railway Operating Companies were responsible for operating the tracks, stations and signalling.

It seems a huge coincidence to find two men, with the same surname, from the same city, serving in the Railway units of the Royal Engineers. Is it possible that the men were brothers who worked on the Railways pre-war and volunteered or were conscripted for their skills and experience? Its not uncommon to find whole families who worked on the Railways. Lets see what we can find out!

Although we only know the mens intials, we do know that at least one of them lived at 34 Gladstone Road, Mile End.

One way to check whether the men were related is to find their birth records on FreeBMD, and see if they have the same parents. According to FreeBMD Frederick Chares Hyson was born in Portsea Island in either January, February or March 1894. This would make him 23 when he died. Sadly, his record has no mention of his parents. I can find no entry for R.H. Hyson.

According to the 1901 census, Frederick Charles Hyson was living in Portsmouth, and was 7. Robert Henry Hyson was 15, and an apprentice blacksmith – certainly the kind of skill that would come in handy working on the railways. Apparently he was born in Aldershot. The age fits exactly if he was 32 when he died in 1917, so back to FreeBMD to check for Hysons born in Aldershot!

According to FreeBMD Robert Henry Hyson was born in the Farnham registration district – which at that time included Aldershot – in either July, August or September 1885. Again, the dates match perfectly. But no clue as to his parents!

Its looking like I will have to check electoral rolls and street directories to see whether there is any connection between Frederick and Robert Hyson, but at this stage it is not impossible. It would be a huge quirk of fate indeed if two men from the same city with the same rare surname died within a day of each other, serving in the same specialist arm of the Royal Engineers.


Filed under Army, Family History, portsmouth heroes, railway history, World War One

High-speed rail plans announced

The Transport Secretary Lord Adonis today announced plans for a new high-speed rail network, featuring trains travelling at up to 250 miles per hour.

The recommended route for the new network will run from London to Birmingham, with a future possible expansion into Northern England and Scotland. A Y-shaped extension could take the network to Manchester on the one and and Sheffield and Leeds on the other. The London Terminus will be at Euston Station. The exact route will be subject to public consultation, and work is unlikely to start before 2017 at the earliest.

Lord Adonis said the project would create 10,000 jobs and yield £2 in benefits for every £1 spent, and that the first 120 miles between London and the West Midlands would cost between £15.8bn and £17.4bn. The cost per mile beyond Birmingham is then estimated to halve, taking the overall cost of the 335 mile Y-shaped network to about £30bn.

The real problems centre around party politics and the economic situation. Whilst the Government are announcing plans now, who knows who will be in Government in the years when difficult decisions will have to be taken over funding. Public Spending is under intense pressure as it is. I cannot help but think that it is a political ploy and a typical New Labour solution to a problem – throw money at it, and worry about the cost later.

Local Consultation over the route will also be a minefield. I can well imagine nimby’s along every part of the route protesting because it spoils their view, knocks a tiny bit off the value of their house, or there is a rare species of millipede living nearby.

Bob Crow, general secretary of the RMT union, said: “We welcome any move to expand the rail network and to bring more passengers on to the trains. However, development of HSR in the UK has been left in the slow lane because of our fragmented, privatised system which puts short-term profits first and long-term, strategic planning a very poor second.”

Wise words indeed from Mr Crow. It is very sad that Britain’s once fine railway network has been sacrificed on the altar of Thatcherism. If the rail system had been updated over the years when it should have been we wouldn’t need to be looking at a new-fangled High Speed network now. Even though the high-speed system will be a godsend for those travelling long-distance, it should not excuse the woeful neglect of the existing main and suburban lines. My other concern is the cost. It needs to be affordable and accesible to all, not an exclusive club for the well-off. It will need to compete with low-cost airlines and coach operators.

I still feel that the philosophy behind Britain’s rail network is fundamentally flawed. The Thatcherite idea of handing the railways over the private business hasn’t worked. No private company was ever going to invest a penny more than it had to, and shareholders were always going to be more important than the customer. Especially when the customers are relatively captive and can be taken for granted.

I cannot for the life of me see why countries such as Holland and Germany can run cheap, fast, efficient and reliable train services, as a public service, while Britain – the country that led the way with developing the Railways – flounders in the dark ages.


Filed under debate, News, railway history

Tansport Secretary hails 2010 ‘year of high-speed rail in the UK’

Transport Secretary Lord Adonis has said that 2010 will be the year of “year of high-speed rail in the UK”, according to BBC News.

Lord Adonis’s words come as plans are announced for a new 250mph line linking London and the West Midlands, and proposals for routes further north.

Lord Adonis said: “I want Britain to be a pioneer in low-cost, mass-market high-speed rail. I want to see not just ‘Easyjet’ but ‘Easytrain’ – high-speed trains with airline-style pricing and mass market appeal so that HSR is for all and not just the wealthy.”

I wonder when Lord Adonis last got on a train. I wonder if 2010 will be a year of high speed rail for commuters stood like sardines on Clapham station on a dark January evening. And Lord Adonis will more than likely retire to the Lords opposition benches after the next General Election in any case.

As I have often written before, Britain has been left far behind in rail transport, indeed in other types of public transport too. For Lord Adonis to want Britain to become a pioneer is admirable but rather late. Practically every country in Europe runs cheaper, more frequent and faster trains than Britain.

To hope that it might be affordable for all is pie in the sky. The project will be handed over to a private company, who will be answerable to shareholders and will have dividends to protect. Has nothing been learnt of the folly of privatising rail and bus transport? Companies that have no accountability always revert to type and put profit before people. The reason they are so behind is because they have been neglected, once our rail network was the envy of the world. But we have lost that ‘can-do’ spirit of British engineering. Now in its place the Governments new policy is to throw money at problems, appoint a new manager or form a new quango.

New lines, trains and schemes are positive, but glossy new flagship projects do not make up for the dire inadequacies elsewhere. A shiny new proposals for a line from London to Birmingham does not benefit be in Portsmouth. Why not sort out the problems with the networks that we already have?

(Just a final though…. if Lord Adonis goes on holiday and comes back tanned, does that make him a bronzed Adonis?)


Filed under debate, News, railway history, social history

Britain’s first £1,000 rail fare

worst public transport in Western Europe?

worst public transport in Western Europe?

Apparently Britain now has its first £1,000 rail fare. This is now the cost of travelling from Newquay in Cornwall to somewhere in Northern Scotland.

Its a traversty that our rail transport system has got to the point where ANY journey can cost anywhere near that much. But then our public transport in this country, when compared to countries such as Germany and Holland, is a traversty all over. Not only is it expensive, it is also unreliable and slow. As the country which gave steam engines to the world, and did probably more than any country to introduce trains and steam technology to the four corners of the globe, its very sad the state our trains are in. Its been happening since the end of the war, when Dr. Beeching closed most of the branch lines. Lines which would be ideal nowadays for commuters in certain areas, or could have been run as heritage steam railways lines.

I think anyone would have a hard time arguing that privatisation was a good thing. It was the equivalent of selling the family silver with no regard for how it was going to be looked after. Any naive ideas that making the railways into a business would mean extra investment were just pie in the sky. The priority of any business is to make money for the shareholders, and that is what has happened. All the time they put up fares and under-invest. People will never ever leave their cars all the time getting on a train is just so unfeasible.

Germany’s rail system is a great comparison. You can travel from Munich to Hamburg in something ridiculous like 4 hours. Their trains travel at ridiculous speeds, are excellent value for money, and are very often on time to the nearest minute. The service you get from Deutsche Bahn is incredible. And in Holland, you can travel from Schipol airport to Oosterbeek near Arnhem for something like £8. The equivalent journey in England, Portchester to Gatwick, costs over £20. And its slower, less comfortable and less reliable. I definitely feel that the reason behind these differences are cultural, not economic.

Something as vitally important as rail transport should never be in the hands of people who can squeeze it for all its worth with no regard for providing a service. Plenty of countries have state control of public transport and make it work. Solving problems in tranport are not even about throwing money at them, but about a change in ethos, banging peoples heads together. There are too many franchises split up around the country, when having save five or six would be much easier. The same companies own all the franchises anyway, just under different names. And they are always far too quick to put up prices – £50 for a return from Portsmouth to London is just not on. You cannot run a service as a business, you can incorporate sound business practice, but you should not foregoe the crucial customer service aspect for the sake of money. The same thing has happened with the commercialisation of University Education.

I mean, we must be the only country in the world who think a cycle lane is a piece of tarmac painted red. In Portsmouth they randomly stop and start all over the place. What are you supposed to do when it stops, get off and walk with it? In Europe, cycle lanes are separate parts of the road, kerbed off with a small reservation in between, and only cyclists can use them. Thats why people dont cycle in this country, because its so unsafe.

Maybe its a cultural thing, but we just dont really do public transport like we should and could. Its a shame because there are long traditions of British railways and bus services, that seem a thing of the past. People like Brunel and Stephenson would be very disappointed I fear.


Filed under debate, News, politics, railway history