Posted by: billpurdue | July 8, 2014

British Rail was a success

During the period when our national rail system was publicly owned (1948 to 1994), it came in for a lot of stick from the press, politicians, the traveling public, in fact just about everyone at one time or another. One person who thinks that British Rail wasn’t all that bad, in fact that it was quite successful in many ways, is Tanya Jackson and she sets out to prove her point in her book British Rail: the nation’s railway.

Britiah Rail

Concentrating almost entirely on the period of public ownership, Ms Jackson argues that whilst there were many problems with British Rail (or British Railways as it was at first known), the nationalized railways were responsible for many innovations including new techniques in constructing high speed railways, 25kw electrification and even the Pandrol rail clip, which was spotted and improved by BR engineers. She doesn’t just concentrate on the successes: the failures, the interference from successive governments and the clashes of personalities and the ways in which funding was squeezed have all had a negative influence. So it’s rather surprising that British Rail(ways) managed to have any successes, given the difficulties under which it operated. On case you’re wondering, Tanya Jackson is the Transfer Development Manager of the Historical Model Railway Society and is the British Rail Carriage Steward. She has even written comedy for BBC Radio .


In spite of the successes, the author doesn’t end with a plea for re-nationalisation of the railways. As I understood her reasoning, she feels that nationalization was a necessary phase through which the railways of the UK had to pass. Perhaps another railway author, Adrian Vaughan would disagree with that. In his book The Greatest Railway Blunder, he argues that the greatest mistake in the history of railways in the UK was the privatization in the 1990s. (Incidentally this book is currently available at a much reduced price from Postscript books – it’s in their latest monthly catalogue). I imagine Christian Wolmar would have a lot to say about privatization pros and cons too. Take his book, Fire and Steam, an excellent general history of the railways in the UK.


I found the book fascinating throughout and not at all dry, as I had at first feared. For anyone interested in the history of the UK’s railways, this is recommended.


Looking back over a lifetime of railway writing is the theme of another recent railway book and I’ll write more on that next time.


Listening to the “PM” programme on BBC Radio 4 today, I heard an item about two new tributes to Virginia Woolf. There’s a new exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery of portraits of Woolf by her Bloomsbury Group contemporaries Vanessa Bell and Roger Fry and photographs by Beresford and Man Ray, as well as intimate images recording her time spent with friends and family. There are also some personal items on display including letters, diaries and books.

It has also been announced that a new ballet inspired by the work of Virginia Woolf is being written for the Royal Ballet. The feature by the BBC Arts editor Will Gompertz looking at both these developments can be heard at . The Virgina Woolf Society website is at



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