Wednesday, 6 March 2013

Travelling Heavy Instead Of Light

There was a heavy mist in the English Channel yesterday so Europe was isolated.  The trucks were still coming however on the ferries and through the Tunnel.  In line with previous counts a great many were from destinations a thousand and more miles away bringing in both essential supplies as well as consumer goods of choice.

As the local motorway runs between the lesser used line from Dover and Folkestone and the new Eurostar line it is a source of wonder why so few freight trains are seen on them given that it is possible to route the freight across the UK rail network.  We do some rail travelling but freight trains are relatively rare.

Why has it been so impossible to put together a coherent modern method of freight delivery in this way?  To really examine this it would take a very long post and analysis of what might and what should be done.  My particular interest is that around sixty years ago I worked on the railways sometimes in the parcels department.

Then it was possible in an ordinary town to ship items across the network.  The items would be booked in, the clerk would call the destinations and the porters would put them on the relevant barrow.  Then the barrows would go up to the platform for the items to be put into the right freight wagon for the later freight train.

The trouble was the trains.  The freight wagons did not have automatic air braking.  This meant a strict limit on running speeds and also a limit to the number that could safely make up a train because of the problems when stopping and starting. 

With bulk freight, notably coal, it was even worse.  The five ton four wheeled typically ancient trucks shunted and bumped, clattered and clanked and derailed all too easily.  Between these and the other freight trains it meant a great deal of track space was needed for routine movements.

This in turn impacted on the passenger services.  With so much track space and time taken up for basic freight there were limits to the number of trains that could be run and at what speed.  So even with decent carriages and powerful locomotives not many trains could be scheduled at higher speeds.

Yet the knowledge of the freight problems and the means by which it could be dealt with were known even late in the 19th Century.  But it took the best part of a century for the government and railway authorities to deal with it. 

By this time the railways were in serious subsidised decline and being cut back heavily.  When nationalised in 1947 it was expected that the railways would cover their costs and yield revenue to the Exchequer.

What we did have were the much trumpeted public relations business of a small number of express trains, at high cost to the passengers, being held up as the beacons of progress when the freight, local and commuter and cross country services were poor, well behind those of some other countries and in dire need of reform and investment.

So we have finished up with the expensive, complicated, highly subsidised railway system of today.  How far this can be sustained is arguable.  With the dominance of London based thinking based on the financial sector feeding the debate we are likely to have new projects that suit limited interests which when the money is tight means bad new for the greater travelling public.  Also, whatever happens to oil prices there is little hope at present of reviving fast freight as a real option.

The history of the UK in the 20th Century and going into the 21st is that this pattern of indecision, unwillingness to invest to deal with basic problems as opposed to high profile schemes, whether or not they paid, failures in organisation and top level management that was more about politics than provision is all to often found.

If anything, it has become progressively worse and almost the norm.  If we cannot save ourselves nobody else will and certainly neither Europe nor the USA or any from our former Empire.

1 comment:

  1. I was talking to some old friends yesterday and for some reason we found ourselves regretting the absence of those grand projects the Victorians went in for.

    They didn't always yield a profit, but somehow there were lasting benefits beyond the accountant's ledger. Now it's all vanity projects or dithering over trifles.