1 Feb 2010

Political interference leads to waste

With nearly all industrial production devoted to the military, Britain's railways struggled through World War 2 with a strategy of make-do and mend. By 1945, they were both worn-out and running with a equipment that was hopelessly antiquated, including nearly 20,000 steam locomotives of which nearly half were more than 30 years old. This was a train spotter's paradise but tied down a huge labour force in heavy and dirty work.

When the war ended, new and improved designs of steam locomotives were introduced, which more efficient and incorporated a collection of labour-saving features. Then came nationalisation in 1948 and further design improvements were made by British Railways' engineering design team. By the early 1950s, diesel traction was becoming established in the USA, and a handful of expermental locomotives came into service in Britain. Then, in 1951, a Conservative government was elected and Britain's railways were reorganised and decentralised. And in 1955, a Modernisation Plan was announced, proposing a major programme of electrification, the introduction of diesel multiple unit trains for local services, a pilot scheme of main line diesels, with the purchase of about 200 locomotives. The construction of steam locomotives would continue for a few more years and it was expected that these would run until they wore out, which would have kept them going until the mid-1980s.

So far so good. The details are not clear even now, but it seems that the government bent to pressure from industry and a decision was made to eliminate steam as soon as possible. This meant large orders for the manufacturers. The effect was that designs that were intended as prototypes went into large-scale production without sufficient testing. Some designs worked well, others needed substantial and expensive modifications before they would run reliably, and a few were endlessly troublesome and quickly went for scrap. The last steam locomotive was built as late as 1960, but the entire fleet had been retired by 1968, many running for less than half a dozen years. By then, the railways had a collection of odds-and-ends which were not necessarily faulty but were non-standard, such as the diesel-hydraulic locomotives seen in the picture. They too, went for scrap after just a few years in service.

It was a episode of waste, caused mostly by political interference. In West Germany, by contrast, steam continued in service for another decade as modern equipment was kept in use for as long as it was economic.

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