The destination for history

The birth of British Railways


“Happy New Year, sir!”

Sir Cyril Hurcomb may not have been so sure of the groundsman’s greeting as he walked through the morning cold and mist of St James’s Park. He was on his way to the office, for the first day of his job as Chairman of the newly-formed British Transport Commission (BTC) - a body of monstrous proportion and with only a vague remit.

It was 1 January, 1948. The Labour government had taken the nation’s railways into state ownership, along with road haulage and canals. Enginemen all over the country sounded their whistles at midnight. No time for Auld Lang Syne for Sir Cyril though, and neither was 1 January a Bank Holiday for him. Or for the groundsman - or for anyone else, for that matter. And the keen bird lover probably had too many things on his mind to bother with feeding the ducks, who otherwise were probably exempt from the prevailing post-war food rationing and the general austere greyness of the time.

55 Broadway was the destination of his determined stride, but the path for the new ‘British Railways’ was less certain. Although superficially it had a strong and unifying image in the ‘lion and wheel’ symbol, in practice it was to be run by a disparate group of feuding managers who formed the BTC’s Railway Executive. Some politicians and observers hoped that state ownership under the vast BTC umbrella would be the panacea for the problems wrought by financial woes, war damage, unnecessary competition and duplication, increasing car and lorry use and years of neglect. Others thought it smacked of excessive state power and would tie the industry in knots, simply making transport a political football to be kicked around by successive governments. Between 1948 and 1953 the BTC lumbered from crisis to crisis, although the fortunes of British Railways actually improved. And certainly, being a political football didn’t help - any more than did the scoring of a few own goals along the way. Within four years of nationalisation the Conservatives were in power and the concepts of integration and centralisation were scrapped. Sir Cyril was out of a job and could devote his time to supporting the passing of the 1954 Protection of Birds Act.

So - lots of politically-motivated changes and organisational challenges within a few years, and in an industry that has always needed long lead times to get investment funded and improvements made. Sounds familiar? Yes, seventy years after Sir Cyril’s New Year’s Day walk through a misty park the UK railway industry continues to be caught up in a fog of political, social and ideological tussles.

“Plus ça change,” as the St James’s Park groundsman would probably not have said.

By Stephen Poole

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