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Sunday, 7 March 2010

Railway Evolution

Well first off, I come bearing good news. My paper, loosely titled, 'Managing the 'Royal Road': The Development and Failings of Managerial Structure on the London and South Western Railway 1836-1900' will now be presented twice. Terry Gourvish at the London School of Economics has asked me to do a re-run of it in the Summer Term, so I am very excited and nervous about that!

In that vein I thought that I would give a little preview of part of the paper, namely the evolution of train control. One aspect that has interested me is the way that companies controlled the trains and those administrative structures that they put in place to do this. No of course this isn't the most interesting subject at first glance, but what I want to do is re-frame it in the context of idea replication within organisations and societies, something that has increasingly come to be referred to as a meme. The meme was the brainchild of the evolutionary biologist, Richard Dawkins, in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene. He described the meme as a noun that, 'conveys the idea of a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation' (Dawkins, p.192) and positions it as a natural extension of evolution. Therefore anything can be a meme such as idea, a concept or a system, and these can be passed on and replicated.

Now I won't be using memes in my PhD as there is no need. However I do think that memetics is an area of study that has the potential to become more prevalent in many academic fields. Therefore I want to apply it here (and no I won't be doing this in the paper) to something that I am working on, train control on the L&SWR.

Firstly on its opening in 1840 the L&SWR operated a system on its original main line between London and Southampton that placed train control in the hands of the Station Agents (at that time called Station Clerks). They were to control the trains through the monitoring of the signals and signalmen on their stretch of line, while at the same time informing engine drivers who stopped at the stations of the time of last train to leave and the next train due, to stop goods trains in a siding if a passenger train needed to pass, and lastly allowing the trains to leave at the correct time. This was a system that made sense for the early railway, especially as there was no telegraph and managers couldn't be in all places all the time to monitor train movements. The Station Clerks were therefore superintendents of their own particular patch. Most importantly they were under the charge of the Superintendent of the Line in all train control matters. This system of train control was easy to implement on the single route main line. The system is however the meme I will be dealing with.

In 1849 the company purchased the Southampton and Dorchester Railway company, which was being built with their support and which was known as Castleman's Corkscrew after the promoter, Charles Castleman, a Wimborne lawyer. On the line's opening, which came after its purchase, the company simply instituted the same system that they had on the Main Line under a separate superintendent, John Bass, the resident engineer, who was subservient to the Superintendent of the Line. Therefore they were replicating the meme of train control in a new place.

Further similar train control superintendencies were established on the company's various lines later on, especially when they where opened. In 1857 a Mr Madigan was made Superintendent of the Windsor line and then later in 1863 superintendent of the Stokes Bay line, in 1859 Mr Scott (the General Manager) suggested a superintendent be appointed between Basingstoke and Gillingham because of the single line working, in 1860 a Mr Williams was made superintendent of the Exeter, Yeovil and Salisbury lines and lastly in 1863 Mr Verrinder was made Superintendent of the North Devon Line. As far as can be extrapolated these superintendencies did not change the established pattern of how train control was conducted. Indeed even when the company revised its organisational structures in 1864, 1881, 1884, 1893, 1899 and 1912, the role of the station master in marshalling the trains did not change significantly (however some aspects of the system did evolve and change in small ways). This is of course despite the fact that the L&SWR was an early user of telegraph, despite technological advancements over the period and despite the increased workload of the railway company with the expansion of traffic. It wasn't until the 1930s that this basic principal of train movements were changed on the Southern Railway.

Now I'm not saying that I know that there were alternative systems available to the railway companies at the time for controlling the movement of trains, and I haven't looked into it. The main thrust of what I want to say is that once the meme had been established and replicated throughout the lines of the railway company, it became very difficult to dislodge (alternatively this is known as path-dependency) as it was the accepted way that trains were controlled. Therefore viewing elements of management history through the mimetic lense may be a further tool in the understanding of the way that elements within company systems became established.

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