This week, it will not have escaped anyone’s notice that South West Trains was having a very bad time due to failures in their electrified services. Signalling failures, cable theft and bad customer care created a perfect storm where the company looked very bad, even though the problems were not their fault. The electrified network that SWT currently operate was established by their predecessors, the London and South Western and Southern Railway (L&SWR) in direct response to the tram threat. However, if the L&SWR had pursued a different strategic course, and had adopted more widespread use of the steam railcar, then the problems encountered this week may never have materialised.
Steam railcars were effectively carriages powered by a small steam engine in their front (shown). In the L&SWR’s case the General Manager, Charles Owens, felt that the railcars could be used where the level of traffic did not require the use of a locomotive and carriage. Indeed, the L&SWR were using them on 18 routes by 1912 (although 3 had been discontinued by that point). However, while not strictly a response to the tram threat, as many were used on small branch lines, some did migrate towards the suburban districts, and one service was run between Twickenham and Gunnersbury.
Yet, the L&SWR wasn’t the only company to build steam railcars. Indeed, after borrowing one of the L&SWR’s railcars for trials, and being suitably impressed, the Great Western Railway eventually ordered 99 to operate services on local lines. Furthermore, other companies also built them and 173 are known to have been constructed before 1923. Yet, the steam railcars could never effectively defend against the tram threat as they could only could carry limited numbers of passengers. Indeed, while some did have extra carriages attached to increase their capacities, one was always the maximum. Thus, while they looked like a more ‘modern’ way to travel, in reality they were a re-hash of old ideas.
Thus, some railway companies started to turn to electric traction to match the speed, comfort and cleanliness of the trams, and to make rail travel attractive again. Because of the large electrified network that existed on the southern suburban lines in the 1920s and 1930s, many authors have ignored the fact that initially electrification was a national movement. By 1890 there were a number of electric trains operating on piers, however, in the 1890s a number of standard-gauge suburban lines were opened including the City & South London Railway (1890), the Waterloo & City Railway (1898), the Central London Railways (1900) and the Liverpool Overhead Railway (1893). However, these were all new railways, built when the main line railway companies were still benefiting from rising passenger traffic figures and were not responses to any particular threat
Yet, with people deserting the trains to travel by tram, the railways started investigating electric traction. The Mersey Railway was electrified in 1903, the Lancashire and Yorkshire electrified its Liverpool to Southport route in 1904 and the North Tyneside Systems of the North Eastern Railway were also upgraded in 1904. Furthermore, in 1903 the Metropolitan District Railway started to electrify its lines, followed by the Metropolitan Railway in 1905. But these electrifications, that used a range of different electric systems, were unsuited for the long-distance services that many of the main line companies operated because of their low voltages.
Now, at this point most authors would direct your attention to the fact that the different mainline companies adopted different electrical systems, and indeed they did. The London, Brighton and South Coast Railway started electrifying its suburban network in 1909 using 6,700v ac current supplied from overhead cables. The North Eastern Railway started using 1500v dc current overhead systems on Teesside in 1913. The London and North Western Railway used the London underground’s 4-rail 630v dc system between Watford and Euston, and between Broad Street and Richmond from 1909. The Midland Railway tested 6600v dc systems between Lancashire and Heysham in 1908. Lastly, the L&SWR started to electrify its suburban network in 1912 using third rail 660v ac systems. Thus, by 1923 363 miles of standard gauge line in Britain was electrified using many different systems.
But in a way the minutiae is not important. The important question is why the multiple systems were adopted. By the 1900 most technical aspects of the British railway industry had been standardised through the railway Clearing House (RCH). So, train couplings were the same, accident prevention devices had been formalised, signalling was (mostly) uniform and the height of buffers were all identical. Yet, the railways did not come together to agree a uniform system of electrification. Indeed, this was despite companies having territories, for example those of the southern companies, where their issues regarding declining passenger numbers were almost identical. Indeed, years later the Southern railway, which took over the southern companies, converted all the London, Brighton and South Coast’s overhead electrified systems to the London and South Western’s third rail one.
The reason for this was that the companies, while unified in many respects through the RCH, acted independently in the face of the tram challenge. Because the vast majority of Britain’s railway managers and directors had been working with steam traction throughout their careers, a consensus on what was the best electric system to adopt did not develop within the industry. Therefore, because of their limited experiences and knowledge of electric traction, the result was the haphazard implementation of a hotch-potch of electric systems.
However, the most important question is whether the growth in suburban electric services worked in countering the tram threat before 1923? Nationally the impact cannot be discerned as the majority of passenger trains remained steam hauled. Furthermore, the First World War distorted the figures for the number of passengers conveyed as the railways had unnaturally high usage. Yet, specific figures have been detailed by Colin Chivers for the number of passengers using the L&SWR’ suburban network. Before electrification in 1915 the number of suburban passengers had fallen to 23.3 million. However, by 1920 this had risen to 52.6 million. As Chivers argues ‘an increase of 126% in those five years has to be judged a successful outcome.’
Whether this was repeated elsewhere is unknown, and nationally the number of passengers the railways carried did fall off in the post war period. However, there is clear evidence here that the electrification of commuter lines did improve passenger numbers in those districts. Indeed, after grouping in 1923 the newly formed Southern Railway, who progressively electrified more routes, had consistent passenger traffic growth until 1937. While the northern railway companies continued to be challenged by trams, buses and cars between 1923 and 1937, the number of passengers conveyed by the Southern Railways rose from 236 million to 379 million, a growth of 60.59%. Subsequently, where electrification was applied, the railways remained the dominant form of passenger conveyance until after Work War Two.
 The National Archives [TNA], RAIL 411/415, Personal collection of details of a varying nature covering costs, and information of a general character, p.89
 Boyes, Grahame, ‘Electrification,’ The Oxford Companion to British Railway History, (Oxford, 1997) p.143
 Boyes, ‘Electrification,’ p.143
 Chivers, 4 The Riverside Electric, p.164
 Munby, D.L. and Watson, A.H.(eds.), Inland Transport Statistics, Great Britain, 1900-1970, (Oxford, 1978) p.100
 Moody, G.T., Southern Electric: A history of the world’s greatest suburban electric system, (Shepperton, 1957) p.83-84