A forum for the discussion of railway related topics
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Post by windsor_lad » Fri Apr 17, 2015 2:18 pm

Would railway history have been different if as originally proposed the railways were nationalised instead of being grouped in the aftermath of the First World War.
Would they have been privatised subsequently and when.
What would be the size of the network today?

Or did everything turn out for the best after all?

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Post by 6-6-66 » Fri Apr 24, 2015 11:25 am

The possibilities as to what might have happened if nationalisation had occurred in 1919 are endless.
For a start, whilst probably not as worn out as after WW2, all reports indicate that many of the companies, especially the smaller ones, were in a poor state, which would have had to be addressed in one way, or another, the outcome, of course being the 'grouping'.
What is more interesting, is how the railways, if nationalised, post-WW1, would have been seen by both parliament and the populace, in terms of what the perception of their purpose and function was to be. Whilst the grouping resulted in what might be described as a form of both consolidated privatisation (they were still, at least nominally 'profit-led') they were also still, to a large extent under the influence of government in such issues as the 'common carrier' policy, and being helped by low cost loans, to help support others, such as the steel industry.
Perhaps the most interesting point here is that one major difference, as compared to 1948 and the subsequent decade, was that the country relied far more heavily on the railway system, even allowing for the availability of ex-army lorries, which were not, and would not for as long time, be capable, or reliable enough to oust trains from the heavier and longer distance work. For this reason alone, it would have been far more difficult for the railways to have become the political football they were to become in the post-WW2 era, where the vested interests of the road lobby could bring pressure to bear, to the detriment of the railways.
If there was a mixed message in all of this, how would one square with the thoughts of one W. S. Churchill, who was all for nationalisation, as a Liberal in the post-WW1 government, but was vehemently opposed to it as a Conservative, when the Atlee government proposed it in the 1940s?
Quite how the inter-war governments would have viewed the railways in terms of the nationalisation/privatisation is a very open question. The Liberals were for nationalisation, as were Ramsey MacDonald's Labour government, whilst Baldwin (renowned for inertia) and Chamberlain, had the strictures of the Depression and its aftermath to cope with, so money for privatisation, if such a scheme was put forward, seems to have been most likely a non-starter.
The irony here, is that after the formation of the REC during WW1, followed by the interregnum from 1919 to 1922, the REC, which had worked very well the first time round, was rapidly resurrected in 1939, even if the Big Four were still nominally separate. The obvious questions are:- Would the country have benefitted from that period, from 1923 to 1939, if nationalisation, which, in truth was only an extension of the REC powers, had been applied? Also, would the inertia and waste that led up to Beeching have surfaced earlier, or would better control and costing have been applied earlier?

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