Railways During the World Wars
“The Return from the Front: Victoria Railway Station” by Richard Jack, ARA.
THE Great War of 1914-
The wartime tasks imposed on the British railway system were immense. The flow of traffic was greatly intensified at the very time that 30 per cent of the railway labour force was recruited into the army and the diversion of railway manufacturing capacity to munitions production made it almost impossible to obtain new rolling stock. Maintenance and investment were seriously neglected, with significant consequences in the post-
To grasp the overall picture is difficult and a more accurate impression may be gained by looking at the work of one or two vital lines. Consider, for example, the strains imposed on the London & South Western Railway, the main supply-
No less remarkable was the achievement of the Highland Railway, for it was peculiarly ill-
In the autumn of 1914 the generals, and the public, had anticipated a “war of movement” which would be “over by Christmas”. It was expected that the pattern of the Franco-
Coach number 2419 in which the Armistice which concluded the war of 1914-
According to the official war history the decision of Marshal Foch, the supreme coordinator of the Allied counter-
Railways were, of course, important in other theatres of war, and especially in the Middle East, where Colonel T. E. Lawrence’s train-
State control of Britain’s railways, which had been debated and dismissed as far back as the 1840s, had now been vindicated by the test of war. It had not only enabled the railways to meet the extraordinary demands made upon them, it had also enabled them to achieve a number of striking economies in operation through such schemes as the pooling of wagons or arrangements to eliminate unnecessary haulage of coal. The coal distribution rationalisation alone saved 700 million ton-
Sir Herbert Walker, general manager of the London and South Western and de facto head of the Railway Executive stated publicly that he did not “think that our railways will ever again revert to the independent and foolish competitive system” of the pre-
No. 1718, a Railway Operating Division 2-
In 1919 a Bill was introduced to establish a Ministry of Ways and Communications with powers of compulsory purchase which would enable the state to acquire railways, docks and canals by Order in Council. But the times were not propitious for such a momentous step, despite the success of the wartime experiment. The spectre of Bolshevism was abroad; there was a general resentment against the continuation in time of peace of war controls and a desire to “get back to normal” which swept away the whole apparatus of state control of industry, agriculture, finance and transport which had been constructed piecemeal in the course of the war. By the time the Bill emerged from Parliament the purchase clauses had been cut away and the proposed all-
The 1921 Act was to play a major part in determining the future development of the railways. The 120 companies of the pre-
Unfortunately the amalgamation scheme, though it looked like a step towards greater efficiency, had been determined largely by political pressures and according to political principles. The economic aspects of the problem had been pretty well ignored or were assumed to require no detailed examination. There was, therefore, no study made of the optimum or viable size for a railway unit and the maintenance of the shibboleth of private ownership, which blocked the dismantling of former companies, led to the creation of four groups which were extremely unequal in their size and capacities. The London & North Eastern, for instance, struggled with an unhappy legacy of uneconomic country branch lines and was to find itself dependent for most of its custom on a Tyneside plunged in the depths of industrial depression. The Southern, which had borne the brunt of the strain imposed by war, found itself faced with the need to accommodate a massive and expanding commuter belt around London. Thanks to the energy and vision of the indefatigable Sir Herbert Walker it found its salvation in a programme of electrification which brought Portsmouth, Brighton and Chatham virtually into London’s backyard.
The 1921 Railways Act imposed on the railway companies a new outlook which required great organisational and psychological readjustments, while regrettably maintaining a tradition of Parliamentary regulation that hamstrung the railways when they attempted to meet the challenge of motor transport, which had developed rapidly as a result of the war. Large-
War poster published on behalf of the four main-
The outbreak of war in 1939 precluded any possibility of salvaging the lost fortunes of the railways and once again imposed upon them the massive strains of total war. In an age of air and motor transport and after nearly a quarter century of under -
Bombing was, of course, a new hazard to be overcome. It was particularly severe in the summer and autumn of 1940, when more than half of all the stoppages and delays caused by aerial action occurred, and again during the V2 attacks of 1944. The most concentrated damage was inflicted by saturation raids on dock areas, but direct hits on bridges also caused long delays and throughout the war unprotected trains seem to have been a temptation which few lone raiders could resist.
A4 Pacific “Sir Ralph Wedgwood” badly damaged by a German bomb at York locomotive depot in 1942.
Stations suffered mixed fortunes. Dover naturally received considerable punishment while, far away, Middlesbrough was smashed by a stick of bombs. In London, St Pancras was badly damaged and nearby King’s Cross had part of Cubitt’s famous roof blown away. Locomotives seem to have been remarkably tough; of the 484 which were hit only eight were a total write-
Total war meant a total mobilisation of national resources and the mobilisation of the whole population. It meant diverting more than 100 locomotives, converted at Swindon from steam to diesel, to distant Persia to serve the Allied lifeline to Russia. It meant an LNER driver and fireman earning a George Cross apiece for driving an exploding ammunition train out of Soham station into open country. It meant shuttling 100,000 men through Southampton in the six days after D-
Twice in the twentieth century Britain’s railways have been called upon to make heroic efforts and great sacrifices in the nation’s defence. Many of their problems have been the direct result of the loyalty and devotion with which the call of duty was answered. An honoured place in Britain’s transport system is the only fitting epitaph for such a record.
Stanier 8F 2-