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Friday, 30 July 2010

When decision making changed for Britain's railways - The L&SWR's Decisions in the early 20th Century

In the late 1800s the railways were still dominant in the transportation market. If you wished to move yourself, your luggage or your goods, the railways were only way to do it quickly and efficiently. However, the railways’ profitability and performance was declining in this period. This was possibly for a number of reasons such as declining management quality, ingrained working patters, managerial empire building and intrusive and costly and governmen legislation. While I wouldn’t like to go into these factors in detail, it was clear that the railways weren’t doing as well financially as in their formative years. In short, something needed to be done to get the profitability back up, and the London and South Western Railway (L&SWR), who had suffered like most railways, set to work in the early 20th Century. In this blog entry I will describe briefly the reasons for two major decisions that the L&SWR took to attempt to secure the profitability of their passenger service between 1898 and 1922. These are the rebuilding of Waterloo station and the suburban Electrification project. I will show that the initiating factor for investment changed on the L&SWR, as it did within many companies in the early twentieth century, because of a change in the business environment.

But why should I just focus on the company’s passenger traffic? Despite having a booming goods business, the majority of the company’s revenue came from passenger services. Thus, if we take 1900 as an example, while the goods revenue of the company came to £1,356,209, the passenger revenue was £2,997,274 (or 68.8% of overall revenue). Thus any decisions regarding the company’s passenger services were vital to its profitability.

Waterloo Station

Has anyone ever read Jerome K. Jerome’s 1889 book Three Men in a Boat? In it he described the problem with Waterloo Station in the late 19th Century.

“We got to Waterloo at eleven, and asked where the eleven-five started from. Of course nobody knew; nobody at Waterloo ever does know where a train is going to start from, or where a train when it does start is going to, or anything about it. The porter who took our things thought it would go from number two platform, while another porter, with whom he discussed the question, had heard a rumour that it would go from number one. The station-master, on the other hand, was convinced it would start from the local.”

While I won’t go into great detail as to why the station was so difficult to navigate, in short, it had been built up bit by bit over the years since 1848. The L&SWR hadn’t conducted complete rebuilds of the station as more capacity was required to accommodate the traffic, but rather had just ‘bolted on’ new platforms, canopies and facilities every now and again. Thus, in 1898 Waterloo actually had three stations that were all connected; Central, which was the old 1848 structure, South, added in 1878 and North, dating from 1885. This was confused by the fact that the 18 lines running into the station only shared ten platform numbers.

In the 1890s the company was facing a capacity problem at Waterloo as passenger traffic had grown at a very rapid rate. The table below shows the growth in the number of passengers carried, the number of passenger train miles run and the revenue from passenger traffic between 1890 and 1900. Therefore, the rebuild it was a direct response to the fact that passenger traffic had grown at a very rapid rate in the 10 years and that more accommodation was required. Thus, the move to rebuild the station taken in 1898 was reactive to the physical constraints of the company’s infrastructure.

In a sense, this was the last of the L&SWR’s great projects that was reacting to the physical constraints of the company’s infrastructure. To look at any business decisions before 1900, the majority were made because the continually rising traffic meant that the company required extra facilities to deal with that fact. Thus, the company were never exceedingly worried that the expense would be unnecessary as in the long run the expected revenues from passenger growth would eventually cover the cost of construction. This was essentially because the railways were operating in a period when they had monopolies on transportation in most places and did not see any challenge to their unique position. Thus, the Waterloo rebuild was continuing this pattern of decision making, but, it was the last large-scale investment that adhered to it.

The station was completed in 1919 and on the 21st of March 1922 was officially opened by Queen Mary.

The Electrification Scheme

There were a number of things that affected the way that the L&SWR viewed their suburban passenger services in the early 20th century, most of which involved electricity. Firstly, the company opened its long-awaited extension to Bank Station via the Waterloo and City line. Electrically run, this was a good testing bed for electric trains within the L&SWR’s sphere of influence. Yet, at this point the L&SWR showed little interest in using the technology on its overground services. Further, up to 1905 the company cooperated with the Metropolitan District Railway Company when they electrified their lines to Richmond and Wimbledon. The Chairman of the L&SWR, Campbell, said he would watch how the new services did with interest. Indeed, the result was that passengers deserted the slow L&SWR steam hauled routes to the city in favour of the clean electric trains. The most important event came when the London United Tramways Company (LUT) started extending into the L&SWR’s suburban region. They reached Hounslow in 1901, Twickenham in 1902 and Hampton court in 1903. Further, in 1902 the LUT received permission to extend to Sunbury and Wimbledon and was looking at building lines to Staines. Finally, in 1906-07 the LUT extended to Kingston, Surbiton, New Malden and Wimbledon.

Thus, the L&SWR started to suffer in its suburban zone. According to Faulkner and Williams in 1902 the L&SWR lost 64% of its receipts on the Hounslow route because of the LUT’s activities. Indeed, if we consider the table above we can see that in the 10 years after 1900 the growth in the number of passengers, passenger train miles and passenger revenue slowed considerably in contrast with the 10 years before. Thus, there were worrying signs that underlying idea that had endured for decades, that the growth number of passengers would continue unabated, was probably doubted. Indeed, at the 1913 General Meeting, the investors were told that the company had lost £100,000 in revenue and the passenger numbers were by then falling by a million per year. Thus the company’s had, by that point, become a reality.

The first stage of the electrification plan was confirmed by the board in December 1912. The proposed routes to be electrified are shown in the picture. The move was therefore different from the rebuilding of Waterloo. Waterloo was rebuilt based on the assumption that Passenger traffic would continue to rise and that there would be no alteration in this fact. However, the Electrification scheme was adopted because of exactly the opposite reason, a fear that passenger traffic, and profits, would decline. Therefore, the attack on passenger traffic by the company’s first real competitors in the suburban passenger market must have been unexpected given the prior history of the L&SWR. Thus, they were made the decision because they were trying to protect their business.

The company completed the planned suburban electrification in the years after 1912, connecting to Wimbledon, Kingston, Hampton Court, Hounslow, Claygate and Shepperton by 1915-16. It was the Southern Railway that would continue the L&SWR’s work.


In the context of the profitability and performance problems of the British Railway industry in the late Victorian period, what could be said about these two events? Firstly, it is evident that despite the failing profitability of the period 1870 to 1900, it wasn’t substantial enough to change the company’s reaction to the increased passenger traffic and the need for greater facilities. Faced with capacity problems they did not try alternative ideas to solve them, for example reducing the number of trains running into Waterloo or closing stations to reduce the number of passengers carried. Instead, they continued with the long-standing pattern of rebuilding existing facilities so every passenger would be accommodated, confident in the knowledge that the cost would, eventually be covered. However, they were shocked into action when the passenger growth, that had always been expected, did not materialise because of new and unexpected competed forms of passenger transport. As such, they were forced into reacting to their business environment by trying to protect the traffic they did have.

Thus, what these two large L&SWR investments symbolise is an important moment in the history of Britain’s railways. The early 1900s were when companies stopped considering that Traffic would always continue to rise, but rather, tried to protect what they had because the business environment had changed. In essence, the period was when Britain’s railway’s would start their long decline towards Beeching.


Faulkner, J.N. and Williams, R.A. The LSWR in the Twentieth Century, (London, 1988)

Monday, 26 July 2010

Document of the Day - British Railways Magazine - 1959

Presented are some images from the November 1959 issue of British Railway's 'British Railways Magazine.' (BRM) What is interesting, having done some work on the first railway company magazine (the South Western Gazette) is that the BRM is both similar and different from its predecessor. On the one hand both the SWG and BRM had articles on sports events and social activities. However, what seems to me be to be different (and this is only a cursory view) is that the BRM seems to have little about the actual operation of the railways, whereas the Gazette frequently included such things. Possibly, this is because railway operating procedures by this point were far more established than in the 1880s when the Gazette started, and by the 1950s the information that staff to do their jobs was communicated to them through other means.

Sunday, 25 July 2010

Ticket Machines - Some people's thoughts....

On Wednesday it was plastered all over the news that ticket machines aren’t really that user friendly and as a result a third of queues at ticket offices had waiting times longer that the ‘industry standard’ of five minutes at peak times. This research was undertaken by Passenger Focus, an organisation that was set up to defend the rights of rail users, but who in reality are only listened to by the media. The Association of Train Operating Companies, Network Rail and anyone else in the industry rarely, if ever, take any notice of them. Now I could rant about ticket machines for ages, but in reality I have nothing to complain about. In all honesty I do not find them that confusing, but I acknowledge that it might just being a case of being well-versed in their operation to the point whereby it is second nature. My only gripe is when the touch-screens don’t work and I find myself repeatedly beating my finger against them like someone who needs a ticket to Narnia, but can’t find it. This said, I am also aware that my case is exceptional and many others do have problems.

Rather than discuss the results of the survey, which I felt was a highly imperfect one, I felt it would be far more interesting to get some views and experiences from my friends on the subject of ticket machines. Thus, I posted the BBC website’s article on Facebook and requested people’s opinions. However, what happened was that the discussion that started trailing off into lots of discussion about the quality of the railways generally and the various run-ins that a few of my friends have had with railway officials. Yet from amongst these I received some interesting comments.

Sarah said that she was “always paying over the odds” because she was “thick!” I think not Sarah. If anything has come out of the survey it is that ticket machines are confusing and sometimes do not show the cheapest price. However, this is what they are legally obliged to do. Simon followed this by saying that “I've picked up some very cheap tickets from the ticket office as opposed to the machines.” Therefore, as limited as this evidence is, my friends confirm that occasionally the ticket machines overprice which it seems from all prior pieces of evidence is not a new phenomenon.

But then again, Adrian recounted a story in which he was offered a ticket at the ticket office, as opposed to the machine which he was unable to use.

I normally buy off-peak returns to Manchester Piccadilly from Thames Ditton or Surbiton, which allow me to make the inward journey at any time within a month. This, with my 16-25 railcard, costs me £45.60. When approaching a ticket kiosk the member of staff offered me a return for somewhere in the region of £120, even though the machine offered me my usual £45 snatch minutes earlier (but it wouldn't take my card). I even had an old ticket for a previous journey, which I showed him, and he paused, shrugged and said that £120 something was the price he was being shown. I then persuaded him to sell me a travelcard. This way I travelled to Euston and bought my usual £45 ticket from there.”

Therefore, it seems that there is not just a problem of ticket pricing at machines or at the offices, there is a very real problem somewhere in the software. If machines and offices are out of sync with each other this amounts to a form of corruption. Indeed, unless people are willing to check both the machine and the office prices, then this put the railway companies’ operatives in a position of power. Who has the correct knowledge, or time in this case, to be able to question what prices are presented to them? Very people I’m sure. Therefore, the companies can effectively stop people from receiving the cheapest prices. They might try to deny they do this, but the evidence is plain to see in the cases recounted by my friends and others.

Only Simon talked about the actual quality of the interaction with the machines. While in no way representative of the nation’s experiences, the lack of commentary on how user-friendly they ticket machines were in the discussion I started, possibly shows that the quality of this interaction is secondary to people’s concerns over receiving the correct and cheapest price. Simon said:

I think the machines operated by South West Trains are okay. It's Southern's that are rubbish! You don't seem to be able to buy multiple tickets of a single type. However, Southern do provide Oyster services which SWT do not.”

In my own experience I have found that the difference between different companies’ ticket machines can make a very real difference in the quality of the buying experience. I agree with Simon that SWT’s ticket machines are okay, but they could be improved. The only other experience that comes to mind is East Coast’s machines which are very user friendly. I think, however, the report that Passenger Focus presented is quite poor because it was not a complete survey of ticket machine services across the nation. PF only looked at the machines operated by four companies (South West Trains, First Great Western, East Midlands Trains and SouthEastern). This is no way to run a survey and what is required is more data from which to draw conclusions. Indeed, if the Association of Train Operating Companies’ (ATOC) own figures show that ticket machine users are satisfied 7 out of 10 times, then there seems to be a discrepancy that can only put down to regional variations that haven’t been accounted for in PF’s work (even if ATOC’s figures can also be considered dubious).

Overall, I think that the process of purchasing tickets by all means, from machines, offices or online, needs to be looked at more carefully and using far better research. Perhaps there should be a standard machine or software? Or what about a poster with the prices of the most used tickets at each station? Of course, with such a fractured industry this is unlikely to happen. I think first we need to get the prices altered…oh dear, well, that’s another problem!

Document of the Day - SER Notice of Special Traffic

This is probably one of my most fragile documents because when I got it out of the packet it literally started to disintegrate. Indeed, I think in the year or so that I have had it I have never got it out and this is why I was unaware of its fragility. One of the questions that I think needs more research is how alike the operating procedures of Victorian Railway Companies were. If all the companies operated in similar or identical ways, this would mean that the room for new and innovative ideas regarding operating procedures and efficiencies would be reduced. If they operated in different ways information exchange and innovation may have been prevalent within the industry. This document from the South Eastern Railway in 1893 is interesting as it is almost identical in form, tone, appearance and procedure to those circulars regarding Special Traffic that were produced by the London and South Western Railway in the period. Therefore, this is a sign that many railway companies by the late Victorian period may have adopted similar, if not identical ways of of working, that may have meant that the industry was stagnating. Although, with just this one document as evidence, I can't make any conclusions really.

Saturday, 24 July 2010

Document of the Day - How to load a wagon

Above and below are two examples of the approach that the Southern Railway had to the loading of wagons in 1934. The documents can be found in an appendix to the working timetable dated 26th March 1934. Clearly, as the railways used many small wagons, rather than large ones, their loading was of vital importance to make the most efficient use of the rolling stock and reduce cost. Thus, the company prescribed the way in which wagons should be loaded. It is unknown how they worked these methods out, but there is no doubt that in large part the person or persons who put together the appendix were drawing on decades old knowledge.

Friday, 23 July 2010

Document of the Day - Communications Receipt

While a little dull as documents go, this communications receipt is of interest in some respects as it shows that by the 1900s railway companies had long-established formal methods of communications with their customers. As shown the receipt above was pre-printed, however there were spaces were the required information could be written. Thus, this sped up the time it took for officials to actually reply to an individual in an era when everything was hand-written and quite slow.

Thursday, 22 July 2010

Document of the Day - Urgent Train Messages

Above an below are two examples of 'urgent train messages' sent on the London and South Western Railway in 1911 and 1912 respectively. These were messages that were required to be sent quickly by a station master or official to any part of the line. They would be sent by handing them to the guard, who then in turn would make sure they would be delivered by their destination.

However, while the name of the documents are 'urgent' train messages, I think that our conception of 'urgent' is different from that of railway workers in the 1910s. We tend to think of an urgent message as something that can be conveyed immediately by phone, text or email. Yet, the railways worked on the principal of daily returns being sent from stations to HQ offices and officials once a day, and through the operation of many long-established working and trading arrangements. Thus, as the second UTM below details, 'urgent' may refer to changes in activities that may occur on the next day that there wasn't enough time to convey through the established channels. Therefore, 'Urgent' could refer to any change in operations that the station master or official became aware of after he had sent away his regular daily returns to the relevant office or individual; even if they had been sent up only 20 minutes beforehand,

Wednesday, 21 July 2010

Document of the Day - New and Altered Signals Circular

This document is one of many circulars issued by the London and South Western Railway (L&SWR) to all District Superintendents, Station Masters, Enginemen, Guards, Signalmen and 'all others concerned' that alerted them to upcoming changes in the company's signalling arrangements along the line. This one was issued on the 10th of April 1907 and featured changes in only three of the four company's districts (Metropolitan, Central and Main Line). Circulars were documents that were produced in the same vein as other 'documents of the month' that I have presented, namely to alter established working patterns and alert staff of changes to operations. Thus, many were produced each month. But did this system of constant alteration of established patterns of working mean that no one looked seriously at actual working procedures? I possibly think this may be the case and it may be a factor that contributed to the decline in efficiency in the the late Victorian period. I am particularly fond of this document as it has changes to signals at Kew Gardens and I work opposite Kew Gardens station! Again, click to enlarge.

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

'Big Society' and the railways...any options?

I was thinking how under David Cameron’s idea of a ‘Big Society’ (BS) the railways could be included. The only reason I was putting my mind to this was because in his launch speech mentioned transport as an area where volunteers could play a role. So I tried really hard to think how BS could be applied to the railways by screwing up my eyes and thinking with all my might; but, alas, little came forth and in total I only came up with one idea. I think that the reason I had a lack of ideas is because the railway industry is almost impenetrable for volunteers as there are a number of factors in the way.

This said, I’m sure that the Train Operating Companies would be more than willing to take on some volunteer ticket collectors. Oh, excuse me, I meant ‘Revenue Protection Officers’ (Thinks: “Protect the revenue men, it’s being attacked”). Or what about volunteer carriage cleaners, office staff or even drivers. There must be a veritable cornucopia of volunteering opportunities for the public. Alas, it will never happen. Firstly, quite rightfully the unions would kick up a fuss. They’d complain about an influx of volunteers taking over their members jobs, reducing safety and the general annoyance of having less than knowledgeable members of the public getting in their way. Indeed, I think the latter may be a particular problem when you think of the number of people who will want volunteer on the railway by simple virtue of the fact that they are interested in the industry and its history.

The second problem with introducing BS to the railways is that the TOCs operate across county and borough borders. Therefore if we take my local outfit, South West Trains (SWT), they operate in such diverse places as Greater London, Surrey, Hampshire, Berkshire, Dorset, Devon and West Sussex. Now if we expect all the ‘big society’ volunteers to group together across this wide area then that’s fine, I’m all for that. But someone is going to have to pay for it to be organised and the individuals to be transported, and that isn’t going to be Cameron, because he hasn’t any money and I suspect that the whole BS thing is to reduce cost. But let me get off my political hobby-horse and get on my railway one.

So what is my big idea for BS? How can I dodge the bullet of not annoying the unions while at the same time keeping things cheap and local? Some time ago on my last blog (which if you can find it it’d be a miracle, because I can’t) I wrote that local stations are things that communities can help improve. Of the railway infrastructure the public interact with two elements the most, the trains themselves and the stations. Now the trains are a ‘young’ piece of railway kit and unless you are lucky most rolling stock on the network today will be only up to 25 years old. It is also incredibly hard to get attached to a moving electric carriage which, at the end of the day for the general public, is really just boredom in railway form.

So that only leaves the station. The station is not just a replaceable piece of kit. In many places all around Britain (and indeed throughout the world) some railways stations are very old and part of the fabric of the local town or village. Take for example my local station Hampton Court. Built in 1849, it is now coming up to the ripe old age of 172 years old. It was designed by William Tite who was one of the most noted architects of the 19th in a style that was to match Hampton Court Palace. It is a magnificent building. However, years of neglect mean that it now looks like a disaster; boarded up windows, a skip outside and a funny smell lingers if you catch it on the right day. Thus, it is now a shadow of its former self.

It was Hampton Court that got my mind racing. The station is part of the fabric of any local community, and in some places is its main exit or entrance. Therefore, what if communities looked after and maintained the superficial fabric of their stations? Indeed, if Cameron really wants people to adopt BS then getting a number of them to ‘adopt’ a local railway station could actually be a useful and productive thing. Further, moves of this nature may have other longer-term benefits.

Firstly, it would generally improve the travelling experience for the general public. Nobody wants to turn up to start their journey at an unkempt grotty little station. In the old days (a dubious phrase at the best of times), nobody would. Even the smallest stations would be well turned out with wooden seats, flowerbeds, plant pots and regular painting. Since the 1960s, perhaps even since the 1950s, this standard has not been maintained anywhere but at odd little stations. But just think of the possibilities under BS. Imagine what it would be like to turn up at a station and be greeted by not just by the usual corporate décor, but by an environment which has been tended to by the local residents and reflects their community. The station would truly become the exit or entrance to a community because it would be the first thing visitors would see. This would also, I presume, reduce maintenance costs for the TOCs, reducing the burden on the taxpayer and therefore David Cameron will be satisfied because let’s face it that’s what BS is all about. (A side note: I really wish Cameron would just be honest with us and admit BS is all about cost-cutting, we’re not children!) Initiatives like this also wouldn’t attack union members’ jobs, as in many cases they maintain the superficial aspects of their stations on a voluntary basis anyway through sheer devotion (something truly admirable where it happens).

Secondly, I think that initiatives like this would bring the opportunity to re-establish a long-gone link between the railway staff and the railway users. While I think that in the past the relationship between railway employees and the communities they served was never as strong as collective memory would have us believe; I still think it was 10 times stronger than it is now. I have got sick to death of being treated like a sheep to be herded, which in turn forces me to see railway staff simply as shepherds. Of course there are rare cases where this isn’t the case. Recently a member of staff at Teddington station, Alan Hopgood, got an MBE for his devotion to the travelling public. But this is a unique example. Therefore, I think that if volunteers worked at stations it would create a better bond between the public and the staff which would increase understanding, improve relations and build mutual respect.

Lastly, it may also increase the numbers of people using the railways. If we are to take the above points into consideration, personal investment in the wellbeing of the station and a reconnection with the staff, it may incline more people to use the railway because they will have greater understanding and connections with it. Additionally, growing passenger numbers are always good, as they would increase the revenue for the TOCs and reduce the cost of running the railways. Again, this what I think BS is all about.

There is one problem to all this. What I have presented above is a rosy view of what could be done. There is still the TOCs to get round. Would they really want people clambering all over their stations? Possibly not. I suppose at the end of the day it depends on the ethos of the company concerned. South West Trains I doubt would want anyone ‘alien’ near their operations as their only goal is to have an easy life and make money. Additionally, health and safety legislation and bureaucracy would be a barrier and a deterrent to people getting involved. While I am a fervent advocate for H&S, I do feel that things do need to be simplified at times. Lastly, there is the issue that Cameron has brushed aside but is probably the most important; namely, the numbers of people that could be encouraged to help out. I suppose there are some obvious choices, residents associations, social clubs or even model railway clubs. But at the end of the day do these people really have the time? Well, we’ll see.

On a personal note, I would love to help maintain Hampton Court station, but I too have no time at the moment (and here I am writing a blog). I think that all I have described above is wishful thinking, something I feel is true of the whole BS project. There is one condition though if BS will win my support. You know those ‘community pubs’ Cameron talks about? If any group wants to set one up in the top of Hampton Court Station, I’m in. (NOTE: It must serve at least 5 real ales).

Document of the Day - Instructions to Drivers, Firemen and Guards

I thought that I'd share this document that I received through the post only today. As the title says it is a collection of rules and regulations regarding operation for Drivers, Firemen and Guards issued on the 18th February 1835, but which came into force on the the 31st March. Like the document presented yesterday I presume these were issued as supplementary to the rule book. As such I have posted below the contents which details what is contained in the document which is 49 pages long. I always love it when I get the name of the document's owner within it. While the document is water damaged, on the inside cover a simple pencil inscription of ownership can be read, 'S Butt, Driver, Nine Elms [depot].' The personal touch is always wonderful. (All pictures can be blown up by clicking on them)

Monday, 19 July 2010

Document of the Day...Suppliment to the Working Timetable and Rule Book

As I wish to get my Blog out there as much as possible I thought I'd introduce a new feature. Over the years I have accumulated a large collection of railway documents of interest from various sources and I thought I would share them. I'll will, if possible, try and post one a day, as well as my usual posts...All the documents I will present are scanned and so can be blown up if you click on enjoy.

Above is Number 1, a supplement to the Timetable and Rule Book which was issued by the Southern Railway to all staff on the 16th July 1945. Now companies issued large appendixes to the Working Timetable that updated the staff on changes in the rule book and general advice for operation. However, these were large publications which only came out approximately once a decade. So, when they needed changes in the rule book or procedures to become known to the staff in-between they issued supplements on them in pamphlet form. The one shown has 4 pages and covered a range of subjects. I'm having troubles with my only one image has come out well...sorry

Saturday, 17 July 2010

If a wagon label could talk

Did you know there is one major question that vexes me as a railway historian? Simply put, it is that I don't know how the railway companies organised the movement of freight wagons before 1914 (and it is vague right up until the 1950s also). Of course we know the logical things, the goods were loaded up in place 'A', were shipped to yard 'B' where they were unloaded. On the face of it, it is all quite simple really. However, knowing this seemingly logical sequence of events does not reveal the myriad of other questions that are still a mystery to me regarding freight's movement.

So, for example, if a wagon was going from Glasgow to Southampton which route did it take? Did it travel by the Great Western Railway (GWR) via Bristol, or make its way via the London and North Western (L&NWR) via London. Also, if in 1893 a wagon had come from the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway and was going onto Brighton via Birmingham and London, which company took it from Birmingham to London? After all, in this year the city was served by the Midland Railway, the GWR and the L&NWR. Essentially who decided which route it would take and why did they make their choice? There is also the underlying question that I don’t know how companies kept their costs down and whether train controllers naturally developed an awareness of what was the 'cheapest' option with regard to train movements. In all honesty railway historians haven't really had the information to determine the answers to these questions.

But why is this important? Well as I have stated in a number of blog posts before, historians, both past and present, have pointed out that in the period 1870 to 1914 the profitability and performance of the British railway industry declined. In the past historians such as Aldcroft and Cain argued that duplicate facilities, a failure to relate the cost of goods transportation to the rates charged, and managerial empire building caused these problems. More recently a number of econometricians have concluded that there were cost inefficiencies and that productivity within firms did not improve with time. These latter assertions have, however, been made by only using the company's financial returns and without reference to what actually went on within companies. Therefore, how the companies worked out the cheapest way to run their operations is of central importance to me.

It was on this background that I was musing about the wagon label. It occurred to me that the wagon label is the ‘forgotten’ piece of paper (well card actually) amongst the many varied bits of railway ephemera that survives from the period. Wagon labels were placed on wagons so that those marshalling them through their journeys could attach them to the correct train. Examples of labels are pictured. As you will see various pieces of information are on them, such as where the wagons started their journeys, where they ended them and any major places they went ‘via.’ I presume any location placed under the ‘via’ category was a large goods depot or marshalling yard. They also contain the date of the wagon’s movement.

The 1912 London and South Western Railway (L&SWR) Appendix to the Rules and Regulations stated: ‘Every Wagon or other vehicle (except Empty L.&S.W. Wagons worked on Special Trains consisting wholly of such vehicles running from starting point to destination without intermediate stoppage), whether empty or loaded, despatched by Goods Train must be properly labelled on both sides, and in cases where vehicles are labelled upon Private Sidings the Traders should be requested to conform to this Regulation.’ I think that says it all.

The wagon label is therefore a decision made by one individual at one point in time at one place on the network. As such my challenge is to determine the thinking of the people who wrote out the wagon labels. It should be noted here that this wasn’t actually a management decision. Of course, management would have established the framework for wagon movement and labelling (evidenced above by the quote from the L&SWR’s Appendix), but the actual act of deciding the route a wagon would take (especially when there were two options) was surely decided by an individual based on a range of as yet unknown factors.

For example, perhaps inter-company alliances and rivalries may have meant that certain companies sent wagons moving off their network by one company who was friendly to them, rather than by another company who was their rival. It also may show ingrained inefficiencies. For example, if one particular depot or yard got into the habit of sending rolling stock via one route, when the map clearly evidences that there was a quicker one, this would represent a severe problem of efficiency. So how will I utilise the wagon label?

I do have a plan. I have always been aware that wagon labels in turn up great volumes on ebay and are also held by private collectors. My idea is to gradually (over what I presume will be a very long period of time) gather the transit data off as many wagon labels from the pre-World War One period as I can. Their routes can then be plotted on a map of Britain’s railways from each decade that roughly represents the extent to which it grew. Hopefully, as the routes of more and more wagons are added the major thoroughfares of goods transit can be seen visually. Hopefully this will reveal the way that rail-freight was managed in this nation before 1914 and give a guide as to how the efficiency of the industry changed. The map, when completed, (if it ever will) will possibly show where the inefficiencies were found and some of the factors involved.

However, I do have to confess that in large part this is a bit of wishful thinking. I messaged one of my academic colleagues regarding this embryonic project and he wasn’t optimistic that I could find enough wagon labels to get accurate results. In truth I doubt I will also. But I am one of those insufferable types that likes to stay optimistic. So I will, in line with my PhD, be restricting this project to the L&SWR and using it as a test balloon. At the current time I have 6 wagon labels for the company and are looking for more. I will also still collect off ebay and from anywhere else the details of wagon labels from as many companies as possible so that if it is successful the data can be worked on. All I can say is wish me luck!)…I think I’ll need it. Also if you have any labels, or if you know anybody who does, please send me the details!

Monday, 12 July 2010

Beeching, Serpell, McNulty and the Future of Britain's Railways

Apparently, and I am not entirely sure how this passed me by, there is a ‘value for money’ review being undertaken on Britain’s railways. The man at the helm is Sir Roy McNulty (shown) who apparently is an air transport specialist and was the former head of the Civil Aviation Authority. Exactly, therefore, how worrying his appointment is, is uncertain, as McNulty’s career history includes both public and private activities. The reason for my confusion stems from the fact that those who have previously tried to get more ‘value for money’ out of the railways, namely Sir Richard Beeching (the Railway Satan as he has been called) and the more forgotten Sir David Serpell, had two different backgrounds that clearly shaped the way they conducted their reviews of the costs of the network. Therefore McNulty’s mixed career history means that his report could be anything from fair and even handed to a massive axe-swing in the direction of Britain’s railways.

So how should Beeching and Serpell’s reports be judged in light of their career histories? First, let us turn to Beeching. Beeching, who came to British Railways from ICI, doesn’t really have a good reputation amongst the public. But then again I have always felt that the man has been treated unfairly in that he was brought in to do a job and he did it. In 1963 he wrote his famous report, The Reshaping of British Railways. His proposals rather cheesed people off as he proposed closing 6000 miles of railway (out of 18,000) and shutting 7000 stations. This would make it possible for British Railways to lose 70,000 employees over three years. But then again it was the Secretary of State for Transport, Ernest Marples, who brought Beeching in, and Marples was the one who actually implemented the report’s recommendations. Additionally, Marples was a fan of road transport given he had owned road-building company (Marples-Ridgeway) who had just got the contract for the M1. Therefore, it is clear that the prism through which Marples saw the railways was simply as a wasteful, inefficient business, and it is unlikely that he acknowledged its social or economic benefits to the nation, especially as he was so married to road transportation. Simply put, the railways were only a drain on the nation’s finances. Therefore, in response to the profitability problems of British Railways, he brought in a businessman (Beeching) to solve a business problem and once his recommendations were implemented they did irreparable damage to the network. Beeching was, however, not a railway professional and didn’t have experience in network industries. As such he simply looked at the railways as a business and not its social or economic benefits. Therefore, was the outcome really that surprising? I think not.

While the Beeching cuts are well known about because they actually occurred, the Serpell report, released in March 1983 has largely sunk into the bog of history because none of it got implemented. On a backdrop of a suffering economy, British Rail’s revenues decreasing and the lowest number of passenger journeys taking place in the network’s history, it was ordered by the Thatcher Government to look at the long-term role of Britain’s railways and make British Rail pay. After much work Sir David Serpell, a long-term civil servant, recommended a range of ‘options’ to change the network. The first, Option A, would reduce the rail network by 86% and the passenger train miles by 56%. In short, all that would be left would be the East, West, Great Western and Great Easter main lines, as well as a number of main lines to the south coast (the plan is shown). Yet, while everyone has focussed on this option, principally I presume because it looks so horrible, people forget that he presented three others. In Option B the cuts proposed in Option A would be implemented, but with the suburban network remaining. Option C kept much of the network in place, but with the removal of loss-making services (however there were three sub-options that can be looked at on Wikipedia if you so wish). Lastly, option D ignored the main goal to make the railways profitable and retained lines to populated areas with over 25,000 people. However, many small stations would be closed.

Serpell I think has also got a bad reputation, however I think he was a better man for the job he was asked to do than Beeching was for his. If I listed his civil service career between 1937 and 1982 it would take a whole paragraph. However, some of the major departments he had worked in were the Ministries of Food, Fuel and Power and Trade, the Treasury, the Department of Education and the Board of Trade. He also had worked for National Conservancy Council, the Ordinance Survey Review Committee and had been a member of the British Railways Board (BRB) between 1974 and 1982. In sum, Serpell had had a varied career that brought him a lot of experience in many government departments and plenty of these dealt with social, rather than economic, issues. He also had some (unquantifiable) experience of railways being on the BRB. Therefore, given the cost cutting nature of the Tory Government of the early 1980s and the tremendous economic constraints that government put the nation under, I feel that perhaps Serpell did well given his circumstances. Everyone screams and shouts about the first option, however the range of options that he presented does suggest that he was thinking more deeply than Beeching about the rail network. Firstly, in the age of austerity of the early 1980s he satisfied his brief of presenting different options to make Britain’s railway network pay. Fair enough, that’s what he was asked to do. However, the mere fact that he presented Option D, that defied his brief, suggests that despite being constrained by his environment of economic stringency and a cost-cutting Conservative Government, he did have an eye on the social and economic implications of rail transport. This, I would suggest, may have in part stemmed from his varied civil service background that showed him that how a range of different government agencies added to the nation’s health indirectly. I think, for Serpell, he had to show that railways were not just about the ‘bottom line’ as they were for Beeching, Marples and many in the Thatcher Government.

Thankfully, the Serpell report was dropped quietly because of the outcry. Indeed, throughout the mid and late 1980s passenger numbers rose and the issues confronting the network seeped away. However in the current climate we face new challenges and the coalition has deemed it necessary to commission another report looking at the ‘value for money’ of the rail network. As stated this will be under Sir Roy McNulty, the former head of the Civil Aviation Authority. He will also be assisted by some unspecified ‘rail professionals.’ Considering his background alone, McNulty has some of the attributes of both Beeching and Serpell. Firstly, like Beeching, he has had an extensive career in business, working at Chrysler UK, Harland & Wolff, Peat Marwick Mitchell & Co., Short, Bombardier Aerospace, Norbrook Laboratories Ltd, and the Ulster Bank Ltd (amongst other things.) Yet, in his more recent years, like Serpell, he has worked for the government on the Olympic Delivery Authority, the Steering Group for UK Foresight Programme, the Northern Ireland Growth Challenge, the Technology Foresight Defence and Aerospace Panel and the Department for Trade and Industry’s Aviation Committee. Admittedly, these were consultancy and committee posts, and not like Serpell’s career in the Civil Service, yet, it does mean he was engaging with governmental activities of a social and economic nature. Lastly, very much like Serpell, he had his spell on a high-profile transport body as he was head of the Civil Aviation Authority.

Therefore, with this résumé it seems that the impending report could go one of two ways. He possibly may do a Beeching and recommend cuts to services, lines and the suspension any new developments. However, he could, and I think this is more feasible given the record rail usage at the moment, recommend cuts and efficiencies within Network Rail (which has infrastructure costs 30-50% higher than those on the continent), the suspension of any large capital investment, changes to the franchise structure and the cutting of some of the most unremunerative services. Thus, this would in part be like of some of the less violent options put forward by Serpell. One thing is for certain, the cost of maintaining and running the British railway network has to come down, and McNulty’s background and experiences will in some part shape the outcome of the review like those of who were tasked with the same job before. On the flip side, we don’t know what part of his past will have the greatest effect on the report and therefore we wait…biting our nails.

Wednesday, 7 July 2010

Parcels Costing on the West London Extension Railway (Let's Go Wild)

Now I won't bore you with a long history of the West London Extension Railway (WLER). Simply put it, was built, owned and operated by four railway companies, the Great Western Railway (GWR), London & North Western Railway (L&NWR), London, Brighton and South Coast Railway (LB&SCR) and my own, beloved, London and South Western Railway (L&SWR). It ran from Clapham Junction to Kensington (now Kensington Olympia) where it connected with the L&NWR and GWR's West London Railway and opened on the 2nd March 1863. Therefore, it can only be considered a fill-in company of little significance in the grand history of Britain's railways. However, with the South Western's involvement it did peak my interest. What, I mused, could the WLER's company files tell me about how the South Western's management? And so, I spent a day photographing the WLER company's files at the National Archives. Sometimes research doesn't go as planned and in the end I found very little of use. But, what I did find regarding the company itself was of more general interest to me (and others). I may not be able to use the information in my PhD, but it is worth relating the findings, small as they are, as they may be of a more general interest.

Ok, don't go to sleep, but it is all a matter of cost accounting. In layman's terms we don't know a great deal about how the Victorian railway companies made small everyday decisions. Large-scale decisions, those involving large capital investment, are broadly understood. When the railway companies built an engine shed, constructed a new type of locomotive or remodelled a station we roughly know why they did because of the large-scale nature of these projects. The rationale behind them are there to be seen in blaring neon lights. But then the history of Britain's Railways isn't made up solely of large decisions made by the directors and managers, it is made up of a mix of the big and the small. In fact one of the goals of my PhD is to try and create links between corporate thinking on the 'big' and the 'small' decisions and how both were formulated. Anyone wishing me luck?...I hope so. The way that small decisions were made is a very large mystery that noone has really approached up to this point because of a lack of information.

Further to this, the actual statistics railway companies used to inform decisions are also a bit illusive. We know that Locomotive Departments used a range of measures to monitor cost such as Locomotive Miles (the cost of locomotive operation divided by miles run by the locomotives), Carriage Miles (same as before but for carriages) and Wagon Miles (well, you get the gist). Yet, except in special cases (such as Terry Gourvish's study of Mark Huish's innovations on the L&NWR in measuring the cost of moving one ton or passenger, one mile) there is significant uncertainty as to how the non-Locomotive departments within most railway companies costed their operations. Indeed, in the case of the L&SWR the most I have found with regard to cost accounting (under which falls all figures such as ton mile) in the Traffic department was the cost of feeding horses in 1887 using the 'fodder per horse' measure. No doubt the horses were happy, but I am not.

It was therefore with some sense of wonder that I came across one decision on the WLER regarding parcels delivery using a completely a type of costing that I hadn't seen before. When the line was opened the board of the WLER formed an officers committee which was made up of the chief officers of the four companies that owned the company, as well as the superintendent of the line. The minute books of this committee are joyful files on two counts. Firstly, most minutes of railway companies' officers' committees have been lost as these committees did not discuss the 'higher matters' of company operation. This means that a lot of information on the day-to-day running of railway companies in the Victorian period has been lost. Secondly, the document is printed and for any pre-1900 historian (of any subject) not dealing with the handwriting of a possibly cranky or tired clerk is always a dream. Anyway, I digress.

From 1863 when the line opened the company collected costing data on the parcels delivery service at Kensington station. Indeed, as far as I can tell this all they collected costing data on. Why, I hear you ask? Well, I'm not precisely sure, but I will suggest a number of points that may explain things. Firstly, while costing data on parcels services hasn't been shown up in research on any other railways yet, this may suggest that the four companies involved may have actually collected this form of data and the only fact that I have found them in the case of the WLER is that the minutes of the officer's committee survived. However, a counter-argument may be that it was because the service was administered by the four companies that they felt it needed to be monitored more closely so that the expenditure incurred could apportioned to each company more accurately. While both positions have their merits, I will go with the former. This is because the costing that they worked out, the cost of delivery per parcel' was for the whole service. They did not divide the data up between the four companies, i.e. the cost of delivering a GWR parcel, the cost of delivering a LB&SC parcel and so on. Therefore, the evidence suggests that all the companies involved may have engaged in this type of costing and applied it to the management of the WLER. This, believe it or not, is possibly an important finding (everybody dance now).

So where did they apply this costing to decision making? On the 4th January 1864 the company set up the delivery arrangements for parcels at Kensington station. The rule they applied to the service was that any delivery that was within a mile of the station would be free, where as any delivery over that distance would be charged (at a rate I have yet to find yet). Initially there were three deliveries daily to the local area. In working out how the cost of operating the service would be apportioned between the four companies the company firstly credited the delivery account with the revenue generated. Then the companies each paid a portion of the cost dependent on what percentage of the parcels had originated on each of their networks.1 It was after this that the company worked out two cost measures, the gross cost of delivery per parcel (total cost of delivery service divided by the number of parcels) and the net cost per parcel (the cost of delivery after revenue had been factored in, divided by the number of parcels delivered). These figures were presented every half year to the committee. The gross and net cost of delivery are presented below for the period between the December 1864 and December 1870 half years. Please click on the picture to blow it up and get a better look.

Clearly, the cost was rising up until December 1867, but after that point the cost dropped to levels far below any cost before it. So what changed? At the March 1867 meeting of the Officers Committee the December 1866 figures were presented and 'attention was called to the Gross charge of 4 ½d per parcel being very high.'2 But, no action was taken at this point. However, roughly one year later at the February 1867 meeting, the costs were presented and they had risen even more sharply. The officers requested that the Superintendent of the Line, Mr Grew, investigate whether the delivery agents, Messrs Horne and Chaplin, would 'reduce their charges if only two deliveries were made daily, instead of three; and if satisfactory terms are offered, to then make only the two deliveries.'3 The new proposal was agreed to by Horne and Chaplin and the two deliveries saved the company 20s a week (or approximately £52 per year.)4 This started on the 1st of April and while 'it was apprehended that many complaints would be made...after the first few days, they entirely ceased.5 As such the cost of delivery dropped significantly.

A number of observations should be made about this service. A report for the officers committee written by Grew after the service had started on the 4th of April 1864 noted that 'the number of parcels sent for delivery is increasing, but at present the receipts from them will not cover the expenses.'6 Indeed, the parcels delivery service never made any profit throughout its observed history. Despite revenue increasing, between the December 1864 and December 1870 half years it never made up more than two thirds of the costs that the four companies had to pay. Therefore, why did they continue the service?

I would suggest that even at this early stage of railway development there was an expectation that the company would provide a parcels delivery service in a certain way, and that the WLER was conforming to established industry paradigms. This assertion is confirmed by the actions that the company took, or did not take, in response to the figures presented of the cost of delivery per parcel and the overall cost of the service. Firstly, they did not change the charging structure for deliveries. For example they did not remove the 'free' service and consider charging for all deliveries irrespective of distance. Secondly, they did not cancel the service when it was not profitable. Thirdly, they made the simplest change possible by reducing the number of deliveries, doing nothing to radically alter the way they operated the delivery service. Fourthly, they did not change, as far as I am aware, the rates or those deliveries they charging for, a factor possibly influenced by charges agreed to by the different companies individually or through the Railway Clearing House (RCH). Lastly, they noted the public response to the changes that they made and were worried about the reaction. Therefore, the WLER's controlling officers, seem to have been constrained within pre-existing industry ways of working and the expectation that they would offer a parcels delivery service.

Therefore, while this blog entry has only focussed on one station, within one small company, it does suggest a number of interesting points. It has shown that more detailed costing of railway operations was being used within the industry to make decisions on company activities. However, these decisions were constrained by what were considered industry norms that were conditioned by the expectations that the public possibly had regarding the services that they would receive from a railway company. This also may suggest (exceedingly tentatively) that many of the problems of railway company profitability in the late 19th century that has been discussed by historians (Gourvish, Leunig, Aldcrodt may have been in part caused by those companies that were established later conforming to 'industry norms.' This may have in turn re-enforced these norms within the older companies who couldn't make radical changes to their services as the industry was built up around them. I can't however assert these last points on this data alone at all, but I hope with further research to discuss these issues in more detail in the future.

Vastly more research needs to be done on these WLER papers and I hope that you have enjoyed this delve into the more academic side of my work. Oh and another thing – I am not in any way studying the WLER, I looked at them for fun and interest. Sometimes I wonder about my life...nah, I kinda like it.


1The National Archives [TNA], RAIL 731/11, West London Extension Railway Company: Records, Principal Officers' Minutes (printed), Minute No. 20, 7th December 1863, Minute No. 28, 4th January 1864 and Minute No. 36, 1st February 1864.

2TNA, RAIL 731/11, West London Extension Railway Company: Records, Principal Officers' Minutes (printed), Minute No. 412, 7th March 1867

3TNA, RAIL 731/11, West London Extension Railway Company: Records, Principal Officers' Minutes (printed), Minute No. 509, 10th February 1868

4TNA, RAIL 731/11, West London Extension Railway Company: Records, Principal Officers' Minutes (printed), Minute No. 525, 26th May 1868

5TNA, RAIL 731/11, West London Extension Railway Company: Records, Principal Officers' Minutes (printed), Minute No. 547, 6th July 1868

6TNA, RAIL 731/11, West London Extension Railway Company: Records, Principal Officers' Minutes (printed), Report written by Superintendent Grew to the Principal Officers, 4th April 1864.

Saturday, 3 July 2010

Conferences, Academics and Railways...a busy week

Well I has been a very busy week. I attended an academic conference on Tuesday and Wednesday, at which I talked about railways, and then on Thursday I took a trip to York to see my supervisor who is based at the National Railway Museum. In these few days of activity I used, touched, caressed and talked about Britain's railways almost constantly. In fact, everywhere I have gone has meant that I have been in contact with railways in some way, shape or form. While far from a terrible thing, I suppose this is my own fault having supplemented my 'enthusiast' interest in railways with an academic one. Indeed, I find increasingly that my academic interest has usurped the enthusiast perspectives I used to take. This hasn't however diminished how the railways have affected my life and I find that they consume my mind in even more ways than I could have ever thought possible.

Predictably the story always starts with a journey 'riding the rails.' Interestingly, this week I have travelled the Hampton Court to London Waterloo journey on three occasions at different times of the day, early morning, rush hour and late morning. On the flip side I have got the exact same train back home each time. Thinking about the outward journey it is not really surprising that you get a different breed of traveller on each of the different trains. The 6.24 train from Hampton Court on day 3 of 3 was not, as may be expected, completely filled with business people. They made up the bulk of the travellers, but woven amongst them were a number of others laden with bags that looked as they required heavy lifting gear to be moved. I suppose they were heading for the slightly ambiguously named 'London Terminals' departing for northern or western climbs on holiday. The slightly later train that I caught on day 2, the 7.54, was as expected filled with men in suits and women in more varied attire. It is an injustice in this world that men essentially have to wear a uniform to work, whereas women feel far more pressure to wear make-up, have different clothes each day and invest far more in their appearance than their male counterparts. But I digress. The train I caught on the first day, the 10.24, was probably the most pleasant by virtue of the fact there was more space to spread out. Those individuals on their way into London at this time were an odd bunch, comprised of students, day-trippers, the late businesspeople (some of which I suspect were hungover). Evidently, London draws in its stragglers after 10 am.

While I went through the usual sweat, sweat and tears (stuck under someone armpit) on the tube all of the days, I had the joy of travelling to York by 'East Coast' on the last (York Station Shown). For all of you who are regular followers of my blog, you will know that some months ago I had a right-royal rant at First Great Western, who failed to provide me with a first class service even when I was residing in a first class carriage. Even though I didn't experience East Coast's First Class accommodation on Thursday, a glance through the window of the carriages proved to me that my assertions about the company's elite services were correct. There were cups and saucers on tables, newspapers ready to be read, and table cloths on standby to absorb the inevitable spillages. As I passed I lamented the fact that FGW had a long way to go and my mind questioned how such two companies can have two widely differing services even when they call them the same thing. Alas, I fear that is how my mind works now. I suspect everything railway-related is dissected as part of a construct of factors, policy decisions and balance sheets. And so, with those thoughts, I settled in my seat in standard accommodation and had a pleasant, but uneventful, journey to York.

It was on the way back that I realised just why sometimes encountering the travelling public is a trial. I should specify at this point that I journeyed to York with my model railway club colleague Richard. On arriving at out allotted seats to journey south we realised that firstly we were booked at a table, but also that we sitting diagonally from each other. As we sorted ourselves out a woman who was booked to sit next to us piped up, “er...have you young gentlemen got seat reservations?,” in a tone that betrayed the fact that she evidently believed we were 'stealing seats.' We replied we did and Richard sat down. The woman looked disgruntled, but went to sit next to her friend who had secured two seats next to each other that weren't booked up. I suppose there will always be an element of society that will always naturally distrust youth, (even though I am at the tender age of 28), and while Richard an I had consumed a few beers, we were polite and sensible. I suppose that is the problem with being in an enclosed space, people become protective, even territorial, about the space they have been assigned and it is at social flashpoints such as these that their prejudices come out.

Moving on, I should say that it was in York that I had the reality of my 'railway-filled' life brought home to me. My department, the grandly named 'Institute of Railway Studies and Transport History,' is housed in a rather ramshackle building next to the National Railway Museum. It is there that I have to go to meet Colin, my supervisor, roughly every two months for supervision sessions. It is for this reason that I am not really that excited by the museum or its contents any more, its all old hat as I have passed through it so many times in the last four years. The only discoveries I usually make are related to which parts of Flying Scotsman are strewn about the workshop. However, Richard's reaction was somewhat different considering it had been close to a decade since he had been to the museum. He was interested in everything and eager to see all. He was like an excited puppy who loved trains. I find this sad as it means I have been immunised against the joy of being interested in railways simply for the sake of it. I no longer see the objects of the industry as the sole interest, and in my mind frame every signal, every carriage, every locomotive as part of a process of management decisions. The physical objects associated with railway operation are now imbued with greater meaning, but diminished joy.

This is because of my academic life that has evolved since 2006. Part of this life occurred on Tuesday and Wednesday as I attended at the Institute of Historical Research's postgraduate student conference at Senate House near Russell Square. The conference title was, 'Politics and Power.' On the first day I volunteered to chair a panel of historians who presented papers on 'Print Culture Politics and Texts'. OK, I confess I know nothing about this subject, but it was very interesting all the same and I think I did well in the chair. Further, the day was peppered with papers on a range of interesting subjects regarding politics, as well as enough sandwiches to feed a small country. Throughout I answered the usual question I get, “so, what are you studying?” It is one of the strange and wonderful things about my own topic that people can relate to it easily. When I am asked about my PhD, my response almost always triggers from the questioner an anecdote, family story or opinion regarding the railways. This, I think, is a wonderful thing and stems from the fact that railways are something that everyone has to relate to, ride on and struggle with. Therefore, it was on the first day of the conference that everyone (who didn't know before) learnt what I was doing and subsequently I took joy in the universal appeal of my PhD.

It was on the second day that I had the highlight of the week. After another day of very interesting papers on politics, there, located at the end of the conference schedule, was my contribution. (In the picture above I am on the far right. Also on the Panel was Dr Helen Glew and the Chair was Peter Sutton) My paper was titled 'Moving a Locomotive Works: Politics, Agency and Decision-Making within a Nineteenth Century Railway Company,' a sample of which was featured in my last blog post. I have found that a feature of giving a paper is that the expressions of your audience do not change, that is unless a joke is cracked. I suppose if they were changing their expressions regularly it might indicate that they weren't listening and by default that what you are saying was duller than a paint-drying conference, or that they didn't like what you were presenting. But, having only ever presented three papers, the experience of unchanging faces is still somewhat unnerving for me. This said, I am sure I will get used to it. The paper tracked the London South Western Railway's plans to move its locomotive, carriage and wagon works to somewhere 'in the country,' and how the different managers engaged in internal politics to stop this happening.

Why was this the high point for me? I discussed how the joy I took in the physical objects of railway operation has diminished, and how I tend to view every object as part of a management process. But then again, when thinking back on the paper I presented, there is a new joy that I now have with regard to railways. Simply put, I love that my understanding of Britain's railways is more complex than the simplistic 'object-by-object' view. I now intimately understand why Britain's railways are the way the are and have a deeper understanding of the processes of their construction and operation. Therefore, it isn't a bad thing that I am consumed by railways, as those aspects of Britain's railways that previously gave me joy have passed, being replaced by a whole new set of wonders.

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