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Sunday, 28 November 2010

Overworked and Underpaid - The Hours of Duty of Early Victorian Railway Workers

The early Victorian railway worker was like a tired pack horse who toiled arduous hours for very little reward. In 1839, 30 of the employees of the London to Birmingham Railway complained in a memorial to the directors of ‘lengthened hours of attendance which forbid the enjoyment of either exercise or recreation and preclude them from the society of their wives and children.’ The working week, especially for the manual staff, was usually seven days. Ordinarily there was no time allowed off on Sundays, even if the many of the staff would have wished to go to church, and holidays were never a consideration. Further to this, most railway companies perceived that any time and employee was not spent in an active state was a rest period. Thus, a man may have calculated to be at work for nine hours, but in reality had been on duty for eighteen. Lastly, any overtime was usually unpaid, but refusal to work would have meant dismissal and possible destitution.

It may seem strange to us, but the members of staff who had command of the most safety-critical parts of the network, the signalmen and drivers, were required on many occasions to work hours that even by the standards of the early 1900s would be considered highly dangerous. Frank McKenna, in respect to the long hours of work that drivers had to do, called the system of working a ‘precisely calculated system of exploitation.’ There was not a regulation length working day for drivers, and rather than there being 7 days and 7 nights in a week, there were simply 7 units of operation. Thus, the general rule that there should be 12-hour days was disregarded by the foreman, and shifts of double and treble that period would be insisted on, payment only being provided when the man was considered not able to work further. But, by the 1870s most drivers had had their nominal hours of work per day reduced to 10 hours. Yet, the ‘working day’ was ordinarily linked to the distance that drivers had travelled, and not the time they were on duty. Thus, if they stopped to pick up or drop off wagons on their journey, any rest time in between this would be added to their working day.

The other employees that were in safety-critical positions were the signalmen who controlled the vast array of train movements from their little stone and wooden boxes up and down the network. A letter to the Journal of the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants outlined the hours of work of one signalman in the 1860s and early 1870s:

‘I myself am a signalman, and have been in the employ of the London, Chatham and Dover company for eleven years next June, during which time I have averaged eighty-four hours per week. As there are only two of us, we relieve each other on Sunday morning at 8.30 am., to enable us to change over from day to night. We remain on duty till 7.30 the following Monday, so to enable us to have twenty-three hours off duty once a fortnight.’

Indeed, the Board of Trade, pointed to the fact that it was the fatigue of the signalmen that was the root cause of many of the serious accidents of the period.

Hours of work were not much better for other grades of railway employee. At the top of the railway class system were the clerks, who had a chance of being promoted into management. Yet, many of those who had not reached such heights had comparable hours to the manual railway workers. One Chief Clerk on the North British Railway complained in 1863 that while the hours of work for Clerks were supposed to be between 9.15 am and 6 pm, the reality was that they could only leave when the work had been completed. Therefore, some clerks had been found still at work at 9 or 10 pm, for which they got no overtime. A Clerk complained to the Railway Service Gazette in 1872 that clerical staff on many occasions worked 10, 12, or even 14 hours a day. However, when they complained to their managers about the lack of extra pay they were directed to the book of rules which stated that they were to ‘do duty when and where required, including Sundays.’

For other grades of employee the hours were no different. A Great Western Railway survey of staff in 1871 showed that of Shunters, Goods Guards, Signalmen, Switchmen & Policemen and Porters (totalling 3,258 staff), per day only 7.2% worked 10 or under hours, 22.8% worked between 10.5 and 11 hours, 66.4% worked between 11.5 and 12 hours, and 3.6% worked over 12 hours. Therefore, while the hours of work for railway employees were less than in the generation before, the 10 hour day was still not a reality for most railway employees by 1871. This said, the GWR’s report may have been misleading if the compiler did not factor in employees’ breaks and stoppages into the working day, and thus, the proportion of those working more than 10 hours per day may have been even higher than was presented.

Progress was slow in improving the situation of railway employees’ hours of work. Indeed, one of the first demands of the newly formed Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants in the 1870swas for them to be uniformly reduced. However, despite this pressure, it wasn’t until 1893 under the ‘Railway Servant’s (Hours of Labour) Act’ that the Government imposed any sort of restriction on the length of time a railway worker could be on duty.

Friday, 26 November 2010

Eight Billion Pounds and Politics, Some Thoughts on Yesterday's Announcement

Yesterday the government announced that it would invest £8 billion in Britain’s railways. To the naked eye it looks like a cornucopia of spending designed to enhance Britain’s desperately strained railway network. We will get 2000 new carriages, completion of the upgrade to Thameslink, which links Bedford and Brighton through London, and the electrification of Great Western lines to Newbury and Oxford, as well as the Liverpool, Manchester, Preston and Blackpool lines. While undoubtedly good news, in reality I have a few worries about the investments.

Firstly, the figure of around 2000 new carriages certainly seems impressive at first glance. But as everyone has been quick to point out, only 650 will be allocated to augment capacity on existing services. Indeed, the rest will go to Crossrail, which as a completely new line will need new trains, and also the Thameslink fleet will be replaced. Further, while the 650 new carriages will apparently be in service by 2014, the Crossrail and Thameslink carriages will not be operational until 2020 when both these projects will be completed. Thus, for many commuters there will be a lot of waiting around for their nice new trains.

Further, there has been no announcement about where the 650 extra carriages not earmarked to Crossrail or Thameslink will be allocated. Anyone who listened to Radio 4’s ‘file on 4’ programme last week will realise that overcrowding on northern commuter routes is far worse than it is on London’s. Indeed, I have been on rush-hour trains that passed through Leeds, Huddersfield, Liverpool and Manchester, and I can vouch for feeling like a sardine. Conversely, I have been a commuter for many years in London, and can say that while the capacity problems are bad, they have never been anywhere near as stifling as my northern experience. Thus, there is a far more desperate need for the new rolling stock to be allocated to the north of England.

Subsequently, where the new carriages will be going is a crucial question. However, I worry that the process of allocation may be open to abuse for political reasons. Will the ‘not-so-Tory’ north get the carriages, or will they be placed on the London commuter routes to ‘blue’ places like Surrey and Berkshire? Given the high level of control that the Department of Transport currently has over rolling stock procurement and allocation, in that they call all the shots, this abuse may be a possibility. Indeed, the reason for the severe overcrowding in the north can historically be put down to the region consistently getting a raw deal in rolling stock allocation. History may, therefore, repeat itself.

Of course, the DfT stated that as well as the new carriages being introduced the 600 new Thameslink ones will release all the stock that is currently used for northern routes. This particularly includes the ‘to-be-electrified’ Manchester, Liverpool, Preston and Blackpool lines, a project which will be completed in 2016. Yet, given that Thameslink will be completed at the end of the decade, it means that these routes will be electrified without a suitable compliment of rolling stock being available until 4 years after the work is been completed. Further, there is no expectation that nationwide passenger growth will slow. As such, it is highly possible that when those trains arrive in the north they will not solve the capacity problem as it will have worsened. Thus, once again, the north will be getting a raw deal in rolling stock terms. But, there is another political issue that concerns me.

I may just be being cynical, but in 2012 the West Coast Main Line franchise is up for renewal and I it is possible that this factored into the DfT announcing the electrification of the Manchester, Liverpool, Preston and Blackpool lines here and now. A major factor in my theory is that two open access train operators, Alliance Rail and Grand Central, have both applied in the last two weeks to run services to Blackpool as there is no direct link from London to that place.

Could it be possible that the Department for Transport saw these new operators as a threat to the value of West Coast franchise which they are about to start the re-tendering process for? Firstly, both Alliance Rail and Grand Central will run trains out of Euston up the West Coast Main Line, which will potentially remove some of the future franchisees’ traffic along the length of the route. Secondly, the current stock that is run on the West Coast Main Line is the Alstom Pendilino, which is electric and cannot currently reach Blackpool. Yet, both Alliance Rail and Grand Central have plans to service that place using diesel traction.

Therefore, is it possible that the DfT announced the electrification to Blackpool so that they could add this route to the new West Coast franchise in the future, in an attempt to see off regional competitors and raise the value of the franchise? If this is the case, it would mean that in the tendering process they wouldn’t have to consider lower the cost of running the franchise for any future operating company, a move which would subsequently affect the DfT's own income, because of the competition diminishing its revenue-generating potential. Admittedly, this is mere speculation, but there it is a possibility.

Overall, while I support the £8 billion of investment, it isn’t without losers and the political aspect of it must always be scrutinised. At the end of the day, if politics is involved in rail investment there is the potential for it to become highly misguided.


End Note: Isn’t it interesting that Philip Hammond spent yesterday talking about the delivery of new carriages that would ease overcrowding, yet has recently said that the new Pendilino trains, due to arrive soon, cannot be used by Virgin Trains to ease overcrowding on the West coast Main Line and will be stored. Simply madness.

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

The Problem with the Late Victorian British Railway Industry

The declining performance of the British railway industry in the late Victorian period is something that I have referred to repeatedly in my blog, but which I have never fully explained. Indeed, this topic is central to my PhD, which will, hopefully, determine how well the London and South Western Railway was managed between 1870 and 1914. Generally, we know that across this period, while gross railway company profits continued to rise, the profit margin of the industry declined.

Probably the best way to measure this decline is through studying the industry’s the operating ratio. This shows what cost of running the railway industry was as a proportion of its total revenue. Using figures provided by Pollins in Britain’s Railways: An Industrial History, the operating ratio for the British railway industry increased as follows between 1870 and 1902:-

1870 – 48%

1874 – 55%

1878 – 53%

1882 – 52%

1886 – 52%

1890 – 54%

1894 – 56%

1898 – 58%

1902 – 62%

Thus, running Britain’s railways became progressively less profitable and more costly. Thus, historians, mostly writing in the 1960s, 70s and 80s, tried to determine why this was so. Yet, there has not been any consensus on the issue.

On the one hand, many historians have argued that the railway industry’s decreasing profitability was caused by external pressures. Ashworth argued that in the mid-1870's traffic growth occurred in low-margin sectors, such as third class passenger and short-haul bulk goods. Companies were subsequently forced into building new facilities because they were too vulnerable financially and politically to refuse carrying traffic. Further, 'pricing and service policies enforced by government and transport pressure groups,' worsened the companies’ situations after this.[1] Irving added to this, arguing that because the public and politicians saw the railways as a service, and put pressure on them to act in such ways, that the companies tried to preserve their commercial freedoms by increasing the 'quality and supply of transport.' This 'involved disproportionate increases in costs and staff.'[2] Further, in an environment where the cost of labour was rising, expensive railway technology was required by law, and there were proportionately falling charges, this meant that the companies' rates of return fell. [3]

On the other hand, the opposing view is that the railway industry became progressively poorly managed over the period 1870 to 1900. Aldcroft accepted that the industry faced the external pressures cited,[4] however, he charged railway managers with a range of failures such as excess line capacity, corporate empire building, under-utilization of fixed equipment, duplicate facilities[5], a failure to relate prices to costs[6] and poor traffic handling.[7] These factors all forced costs up. Further, Cain argued that 'managerial motives,' such as the appointment of overbearing department heads and corporate empire building, were a factor in the decline in profitability. Yet, his main point was that competition between companies increased costs, subsequently doing the greatest damage profitability.[8]

Lastly, Arnold and McCartney, while rejecting the thesis that the railways built too much infrastructure, argued that the period 1870 to 1914 was one of 'structural stasis' in the industry, where the interests of ordinary shareholders were progressively abandoned. In their opinion there was a 'tacit alliance' between railway directors and senior managers that satisfied the short term interests of 'industrial customers and the state.'[9]

Therefore, the state of play in the literature is that no comprehensive answer has been given to the question of why the railway industry declined in profitability up to 1900. Yet, in that my opinion these studies suffer a sever weakness that hampers their pursuit of an answer. None of these historians looked at what was going within the companies themselves. Rather, these historians only used the financial results of the railway industry to make conclusions about the quality of management. Therefore, in my PhD I hope to look at what was going on within one company, the London and South Western Railway, to determine how the quality of management and decision-making affected the company’s profitability. Hopefully, any answers I find can add to the debate.

[1] Gourvish, T.R., Railways and the British Economy 1830-1914, (London, 1980) p.44

[2] R.J Irving, 'The Profitability and Performance of British Railways 1870-1914', Economic History Review, Vol.31 No.1 (Feb., 1978), pp.55

[3] Irving, 'The Profitability and Performance' , pp.65

[4] Gourvish, Railways, p.44

[5] Aldcroft, British Railways p.11

[6] Aldcroft, British Railways p.18

[7] Aldcroft, British Railways p.19

[8] Cain, P.J. 'Railways 1870-1914: the maturity of the private system', in Freedman, Michael J. and Aldcroft, Derek H. Transport in Victorian Britain, (Manchester, 1988) p.115

[9] A.J. Arnold and S. McCartney, 'Rates of return, concentration levels and strategic change in the British Railway industry 1830-1912', The Journal of Transport History, 25 (2005), pp.57

Sunday, 21 November 2010

My 100th post - Some Highlights from the Past 9 Months

This is, believe it or not, my 100th post on Turnip Rail. In anticipation of this momentous day, I have been reviewing some of my previous posts so that I can provide what I consider to be some of the highlights from the past nine months of blogging.

The Beginning

One of the goals of setting up the Blog was to improve my writing. When I looked back on my first post from the 14th February, which was titled ‘Developing the British Railway Manager’, it showed me how far I have come. I cringe somewhat when I read it because I feel that my writing style has improved by leaps and bounds. I hope that these days I don’t make the simple grammatical errors of the past, and that I have a better (albeit not perfect) handle on when and where to put commas. Anyway, if you really wish to read it, it can be found HERE. I should also mention that in the early days of the blog I wrote much longer posts. However, I soon realised that this was not entertaining, and that shorter posts were much more pleasant for the reader. So, when I direct you to older blog posts below they will be longer in length than my current output.

Current Affairs

I have tried over the last 9 months to cover current railway issues. However, I realise that I have always been hampered by the fact that I cannot be as up to date with them as I would like, given the time constraints of the PhD. However, I do have some favourite posts in this area. I am particularly proud of my 11th June post when I researched and revealed some of the current Secretary of State for Transport’s previous comments on rail transportation, all of which were negative. This post can be found HERE. I have also a soft spot for my Blog post of 12th July, in which I drew links between the Beeching report, the Serpell report, and the current review of railways being undertaken by Sir Roy McNulty. This can be found HERE.


Some of you may be aware that my PhD is about the quality of management on the London and South Western Railway between 1860 and 1914. Thus, this has been a prominent feature of my blog from the outset. Yet, as I realised quickly that some of my core PhD subjects do not make for entertaining reading, I have recently tried my best to only occasionally touch on the history of railway management. This said, there are some posts I feel are worth mentioning. My post on ‘Early Railway Administrators...The Good, the Bad and the Shiny’ of 15th May, looked at some of the more interesting railway managers of the early years of the British railway industry. They had a range of different backgrounds and did not always behave well. It can be found HERE. In August, I discussed the Feltham Marshalling Yard, and explained how, firstly, it was the original inspiration for my PhD, but also how it was a major investment decision for the L&SWR at a critical moment in railway history (Found HERE). Lastly, there was my post from the 3rd May on Viscount Pirrie, a board member of the L&SWR. He had many other directorships that allowed the L&SWR to gain a link with the other companies at which he was a director. Ultimately, however, Pirrie’s L&SWR directorship allowed him to benefit his own business empire by influencing the L&SWR’s policy. While my research on this subject has moved on, and there is more that could be said on this subject, you can read the post HERE.

Staffing Issues

I have recently become aware of how human stories can be of great interest to people. I have, therefore, recently written more posts on railway employees. In my post of the 18th February I wrote about the editors of the L&SWR’s staff magazine, and how their positions within the company affected the content of the publication. (Found HERE). More recently, I wrote about ‘Crime and Punishment’ in the Victorian railway industry, and how the rules that the Victorian railway companies imposed on their employees were harsh, but the consequences of infringement may have been harsher. This can be found HERE.


I have always been interested in the way that women were treated by railway companies, both as employees or as part of railway worker’s families. Therefore, I was particularly saddened by the story of Mary Ramsdale. She was widowed when her husband died while working on the railways and subsequently suffered a decline in her mental health. This had devastating effects for the family. Her story was detailed HERE. On the whole, however, I have focussed on Victorian Britain’s female railway workers. In my post of the 3rd of September I covered the ‘Hidden History of Britain’s Railwaywomen,’ as I have always been acutely aware that women’s history has frequently overlooked by historians. Thus, I gave some examples of potential areas of research, and commented on what needs to be done to discover more about Britain’s railwaywomen. (Found HERE).

Academic Issues

Because I am doing a PhD it has meant that on occasion I have written about the highs and lows of this process, as well as some of the day-to-day thoughts I have regarding research. In September I posted what would become my most read blog post, in which discussed how the processes of research had been changed by technology over the last decade (Found HERE). On the 26th of February I discussed how strands of academic thought can lead researchers into unnecessary hunts for information, simply because they have a mystery they wish to solve. I detailed my own research on Albinus Martin, and told of how I became obsessed with finding information on him. Yet, this hunt had no particular value for my PhD, and it took me a while to realise this. This post can be found HERE.

I have not been able to list everything that I have written, but an index of all my blog posts can always be found at my main Turniprail website. Just click on 'Blog' on the left hand side and it will reveal a link to an index.


Over the last 100 posts I have, on many occasions, wanted to give up. However, through much support and encouragement I have been egged on to keep going by many friends and colleagues. I now wish to thank some of these individuals. Firstly, thanks must go to Dr Terry Gourvish (LSE) and Dr Roy Edwards (University of Southampton), who over a few pints suggested that I undertake a venture of this nature. I also wish to thank Matthew Snelling, Louise McCudden and Jon Cranfield, my closest friends, who have always supported my blog and have been willing to put up with me babbling about it. I wish to thank Peter Sutton and Dr Kevin Tennent (Open University), who have also regularly interacted with me about the blog and shared ideas. I also want to thank Sophie Collard and Jools Stone, who I met on Twitter. They have helped me immensely, firstly by re-tweeting my tweets, and secondly by allowing me to become a guest on their blogs.

Of course, I have missed out mentioning many individuals who deserve thanks, but, lastly, I must thank you, the readers of the blog. I do hope that you have enjoyed it so far. Please keep reading, spreading the word and making suggestions, without your help it cannot be a success.


Friday, 19 November 2010

Religion and the Early Victorian Railway (a Research Black Hole)

For some reason, as an atheist, I have been increasingly interested in the way that religion interacts with society and how different people’s views are informed by its presence. Therefore, being a railway historian, it was almost inevitable that I would become interested in religion’s interactions with the railway industry. Indeed, because the new railways were the first big business it was almost inevitable that there would develop different types of relationships between the railways and, in the case of Britain, the Christian Church.

Early Victorian railways were clearly an environment where religion interacted with the industry in different ways. Therefore, while Francis Webb, the London and North Western Railway’s Locomotive Superintendent in the 1870s, coerced the men at the works at the Crewe works to go to,[1] there seemed to be nothing religious about the London and South Western Railway who refused to pay for a scripture reader for men building the Hampton Court branch.[2] On the Great Northern railway in 1854, the board asked the shareholders to vote £8000 for the building of a church, and encountered fierce resistance from them; while on the Taff Vale Railway in 1856, religious observance was woven into the employees’ lives by a rule which stated that the company ‘earnestly requested that each of its servants ‘on Sundays and holy days when he is not required on duty…will attend a place of worships; as it will be the means of promotion when vacancies occur.’[3] Thus, there seemed to be no uniform policy to religion adopted by railway managements.

Quite clearly, companies’ religiosity, or lack thereof, was dependent on the religious leanings of management or those sitting on the board. Channon argued that the board members of the Midland Railway shared ‘religious (non-conformist) and political (liberal)’ values.[4] But how this played out within the company is unknown. Contrastingly, from my research on the London and South Western Railway I have developed the impression that its board was never really concerned with religious matters. Yet, from the evidence above, it is clear that the Taff Vale board felt that church attendance was an indicator of an individual who was worthy of promotion, and, thus, there is no doubt that religion shaped the development of that companies’ management.[5] Further, Webb, cited above, had religious beliefs that shaped who the management class in the works were. While the staff was generally of liberal and nonconformist religious tendencies, a commentator stated that the foremen employed to supervise them were ordinarily conservative and adhered to the Church of England. Clearly, he was trying to engineer religious changes amongst the workers by promoting those who had similar views to him.[6] Thus, overall, it is clear that the religiosity of companies’ managements and board were not the same.

Evidently, from the lack of evidence presented here, more research on how religion shaped the early Victorian Railways needs to be done. I have shown that there are examples of how the religious views of individuals or groups may have impacted on policy. Yet, to what extent it shaped the industry’s development unknown. If I get time, I would to undertake research on this in the future.

[1] McKenna, Frank, The Railway Workers 1840-1970, (London, 1980) p.48

[2] The National Archives [TNA], RAIL 411/2, Court of Directors Minute Book, 14th April 1848, Minute No.989

[3] Simmons, Jack, ‘Religion,’ The Oxford Companion to British Railway History, (London, 1997), p.418

[4] Channon, Geoffrey, Railways in Britain and the United States 1830-1940, (Aldershot, 2001), p.102

[5] Simmons, Jack, ‘Religion,’ The Oxford Companion to British Railway History, (London, 1997), p.418

[6] McKenna, Frank, The Railway Workers 1840-1970, (London, 1980) p.48

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Is the Department For Transport Trying to Price us off the Railways?

I often get asked by many people why, if railways are a better way to travel, does the government allow the train operating companies to continually put up fares? Indeed, in the last few weeks, as part of the Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR), we have seen the burden of paying for the privatised railway network shift towards the passenger. For three years from 2012 the price of unregulated fares will increase per year by a factor of RPI (a measure of inflation) plus 3%. This is after many years in which the formula was set at RPI+1%.

There are a number of reasons for this fare rise that I am confident that play a role in this decision. Obviously, the first is to reduce the government’s funding of the railway. If fares go up, the Train Operating Companies will earn more money, reducing the government’s need to subsidise their profits. In addition, if more money was coming into the Train Operating Companies’ coffers, Network Rail, also funded by the government, could put up the rail access charges. Thus, they in turn would earn more money, also reducing the financial burden on the public purse. Therefore, the cockamamie way that our railway industry is structured, in that the government essentially pays the private companies to run the trains, but also funds the infrastructure, is a factor in the price rise.

The second reason for the price rises is Philip Hammond, the Secretary of State for Transport, who is universally known for being pro-car, and who I suspect simply sees rail investment as a waste of money. Indeed, while in opposition he stated that road transport was the only thing that could ‘kick-start’ economic growth regionally, and, more damningly, that the railway was soaking “up ever-larger volumes of taxpayer's money” and was a “bottomless pit for public finance.” (See my earlier post on Hammond's pre-election Pro-car, anti-rail parliamentary activities HERE.) After all, through Network Rail, the railways cost the Government a lot of money through renewing rolling stock and investments in infrastructure. Therefore, on entering his post as Secretary of State for Transport, Hammond already had a view that roads were a preferable means of travel, and that railways cost too much. As such, I feel it is unlikely that his attitude has not played a role in trying to reduce the financial burden of the railways on the Department for Transport (DfT).

Considering these factors, I believe that there is a third reason for the fair rise that cannot be divulged to the public. In short, Hammond and the Government don’t want you to use the railways. Rail usage has risen considerably over the last decade, and is still predicted to increase further over the next. However, to accommodate this more investment will be required in infrastructure and rolling stock. But, with the new economic environment, and the attitudes of the Secretary of State for Transport, they’d rather not have to do this.

Thus, I suspect that the DfT may have a secret policy of effectively pricing people off the railways which would reduce the need for further expenditure in the long-term. Indeed, many commentators have commented that the RPI+3% will actually mean fewer people will use the railways. Travellers would be forced onto the roads, where, while congestion is still a problem, modification and maintenance of the infrastructure would be far cheaper for the DfT. Indeed, it is not surprising that in the CSR road projects received much more support numerically that rail ones.

Of course, it is quite possible that within the Department for Transport this is not a stated policy. All I am intimating is that if the fare rises are seen through a prism of the future infrastructure investment that will be required, Hammond’s view of rail transport and given the structure of the industry, it is possible that the DfT is secretly trying engineer how we travel through price rises to reduce their long-term costs.

Monday, 15 November 2010

Fog! - The Railway's Silent Killer - Part 2

In my last post I wrote about how fog was a silent killer within the Victorian railway industry. In this post I will look at one of the ways that the industry tried to mitigate its potentially lethal affects. In one respect, this is the story of one technology in particular, the Fog Signal and how it warned drivers of impending danger. In another respect, it is also the story of the Fog Signaller or ‘fogmen’ whose job was probably one of the least technological in the railway industry.

The Fog signal, or more accurately the track detonator, was developed by E .A. Cowper in 1841 as a way to provide an audible signal for drivers when visibility was limited, or at times when there was an emergency. [1] Ordinarily, when the sun was shining and a train driver could see all that was around, the ‘distant’ signal played a role of forewarning him of the status of a ‘home’ signal further ahead. However, in foggy conditions it was quite possible that both were out of sight in the murk. Therefore, fog signal was predominately used to supplement the distant signal.

The track detonator, which came to be used throughout the railway industry very quickly after its development, was basically a small, flat, round box, that was attached to the top of the rail. These were placed on the track by the fog signaller, a short distance before the distant signal when it was at danger. Within it was a small explosive charge, which detonated when a train rolled over the top. The driver, alerted to the danger ahead by the explosion, would then be on the lookout for the danger signal or the frantic hand waving from the fog signaller. In response, he would either slow or stop his engine until he had been given the all-clear to proceed.[2]

The poor sod, and I think sod is the correct word, to undertake the placing of fog signals was the fog signaller or fogmen. I wrote a few weeks ago about the dirt of the railway industry, the platelayers, and on many occasions platelayers doubled up as fogmen. However, this job was also taken on by other railway employees such as porters. These men were posted to small huts next to the signal and had to monitor the status of the distant signal constantly so as to know when to place the detonators. Some were also employed as ground men, which could pass messages to the signalmen in the signal box and inform him of the status of the trains.[3] Fogmen typically spent anywhere up to sixteen cold and hungry hours on duty, but for as little as 2d per hour.[4]

Looking at the 1884 London and South Western Railway (L&SWR) rule book, which was almost identical to all other British railway companies’ (they being standardised through the Railway Clearing House in 1876), gives us and insight into the duties of the Fogman. When a fog descended during the day, those employees allocated to be fogmen had to report themselves either to the station master or, if the posting was too far from a station, to the signalman covering a section of the line (Rule 62). If the fog occurred at night, they had to be sent for (Rule 63), and a list of the names and addresses of all fogmen were kept at the stations and signal boxes to facilitate this (Rule 64).

On arrival at the station or signal box they were provided with ‘no less’ that 24 detonators, a hand signal lamp (trimmed and lighted) and a green flag. They would then proceed to the signal where they would work (Rule 65). If during their duty the number of detonators became exhausted, they were to communicate with the station or signal-box and obtain more (Rule 66). If the fog continued for long periods of time, station masters or inspectors were to arrange for a relief to be sent, and station masters were to provide the fogmen with refreshments throughout their duties (Rule 67). It was up to the Station Masters to make sure that the fogmen had proceeded to their posts, and where there were ‘numerous’ along the line, a competent man was to visit them to see if they were doing their duties and to provide them with more detonators if required (Rule 68).[5] Established in the 1840s, this system of operation lasted well into the 20th century.

In a way, the relationship between fog signal and the fog signalman were part of a greater construct of interactions between the railway worker and railway technology that were replicated throughout the Victorian railway industry. While the fog signal itself was undoubtedly an important technological advance that saved many lives, it was still highly dependent on some poor individual sitting in miserable conditions to place them on the line. While today almost all technology serves us as there are safeties that are built in, in some respects, technology in the Victorian railway industry for many railway workers was a wild beast that had to be tamed. Therefore, the adequate functioning of fog signals was served by the misery of the fog signaller.

[1] Pope, Norris, ‘Dickens’s “The Signalman” and Information Problems in the Railway Age,’ Technology and Culture, Vol.42 No.3 (July 2001), pp.454

[2] Foster, Richard, ‘Fog,’ The Oxford Companion to British Railway History, (London, 1997), p.165

[3] Foster, Richard, ‘Fog,’ The Oxford Companion to British Railway History, (London, 1997), p.165

[4] McKenna, Frank, The Railway Workers, 1830-1970, (London, 1980) p.66

[5] 1884 London and South Western Rule Book, Author’s Collection, p.37-42

Friday, 12 November 2010

Fog! - The Railway's Silent Killer - Part 1

The fog that engulfed many parts of the nation on the 29th of October 1856 was the densest that many had seen for some years. In the words of the Morning Chronicle of the 30th, so dense was the fog that ‘persons travelling by the different railways and boats were exposed to imminent danger.’ Indeed, such was the perilous nature of travelling on the river Thames, that the Chronicle reported that many transferred their patronage to the railways. However, on arrival at the station, there was no guarantee that the staff would be there to assist, and it was reported that even with the assistance of the bright tail lights that were used on carriages, guards at Putney were unable to find their way along the roads to work.[1]

While many became lost and were unable to find their way, some lost their lives to fog by being trampled by horses and carts, and, predictably, by accidents on the railways. The accident report read that William Yeoman (or Houghton), a porter at Wimbledon Station on the London and South Western Railway, was killed while ‘incautiously crossing the line’ in the fog.[2] He was hit in the abdomen by the 11 am down train, and was hurled 15 yards. His mangled body was removed to await examination by the coroner.[3] More horrifically, J. Watkins, a gatekeeper employed by the same railway company at Wandsworth Town, was also killed.[4] Ironically, he was crossing the line to place fog signals for the protection of trains, when he was hit by one. The Chronicle reported that he was ‘knocked down and literally cut in twain.’ His remains were removed to a shed, also to await examination by the coroner.[5]

However, while the L&SWR suffered the loss of employees, on the London and North Western Railway at Wolverton a significant accident occurred. At 3.30 pm a goods train, which contained twenty-five wagons and two damaged locomotives, approached the station. Suddenly the locomotive broke away from the main section of the train and ran down the bank. Fearful of causing an accident, the driver drove the locomotive beyond a point to where his now disconnected train would come to halt. He stopped, and reversed his locomotive to reconnect his load. Yet, his disconnected train had not stopped moving. The fog hindered his view of the oncoming danger, and subsequently the three locomotives and a number of wagons, collided to become what the Examiner called an ‘inextricable mass.’ The driver, apart from being scalded, was generally unharmed. However, his fireman was in a serious condition,[6] and despite being given care, died the next day.[7]

As has been shown, fog was a major problem of that the Victorian railways had to overcome. Indeed, as Richard Foster argued, before the clean air act of 1960, fog was the ‘single greatest impediment to the safe and expeditious working of the railway.’[8] We don’t know how many railway employees and passengers died because of it, but there is no doubt that the numbers were high. Therefore, Victorian railway managers had to face this challenge head on, and in the next post I will examine how they developed tools to overcome this silent killer.

[1] The Morning Chronicle, 30th October 1856, p,15

[2] House of Commons Parliamentary Papers - 1857 Session 1 (0.23) Railway accidents. Return of the number and nature of the accidents and the injuries to life and limb which have occurred on all the railways open for traffic in England and Wales, Scotland, and Ireland respectively, from the 1st July to the 31st December 1856.

[3] The Examiner, 1st November 1856, p.63

[4] House of Commons Parliamentary Papers - 1857 Session 1 (0.23) Railway accidents. Return of the number and nature of the accidents and the injuries to life and limb which have occurred on all the railways open for traffic in England and Wales, Scotland, and Ireland respectively, from the 1st July to the 31st December 1856.

[5] The Morning Chronicle, 30th October 1856, p,15

[6] The Examiner, 1st November 1856, p.63

[7] Lloyd’s Weekly Examiner, 2nd November 1856, p.33

[8] Foster, Richard, ‘Fog,’ The Oxford Companion to British Railway History, (London, 1997), p.165

Thursday, 11 November 2010

Potters Bar Accident Charges Come too late to make Real Changes Happen

Buried amongst other news stories yesterday was the news that two companies would be prosecuted over the 2002 Potters Bar rail accident. On the 10th May 2002, at 12.58, the West Anglia Great Northern northbound train, which was travelling at high speed, derailed just outside Potters Bar station. The train passed over a faulty set of points which failed, causing the rear set of wheels to travel onto a parallel line. The train then flipped over and came to rest wedged between the platform and the building structures. Seven people lost their lives and another 76 were injured.

The accident was caused by a collection of maintenance errors. The Health and Safety Executive’s report of May 2003 stated that blots that held one of the points’ stretcher bars in place were either missing or loose. This was despite a full inspection of the points being undertaken on the 1st of May, as well as a visual check having been carried out on the 8th. Indeed, even when on the 9th of May a railway worker travelling on the line reported ‘lethal vibrations,’ poor communication meant that an inspection was conducted on a set of points at the wrong end of the platform. Thus, they did not find the loose bolts.

You may have noticed that I have left out the names of the companies that are being prosecuted. In 2005 the Office of Rail Regulation (ORR) decided, on the basis that there was a lack of evidence, not to prosecute two companies responsible for maintaining that section of track in 2002. These companies were Railtrack, who had overall control of maintenance on Britain’s railways, and Jarvis, their subcontractors who were responsible for the section of track in which the accident occurred. However, with the recent conclusion of the inquest into the crash. Ian Prosser, the ORR’s director of safety, now feels in a position to proceed with a prosecution. But, there is a slight problem; neither Railtrack, nor Jarvis, exists anymore. Indeed, the prosecution is proceeding against Network Rail (NR), who took over maintenance of Britain’s rail network from Railtrack, and Jarvis’ administrators, as the company is now in administration

Railtrack was a private company, but one that was very poorly run. After mounting debts and government bailouts, in October 2001 it went into administration. Yet, in May 2002 it was still maintaining the network and the government, while supporting its operations, were investigating ways for it to get out of administration. However, despite all efforts Network Rail took over Railtrack’s assets in October 2002. But with this transfer of infrastructure NR also assumed Railtrack’s legal responsibilities, which now makes it culpable for the Potters Bar accident.

Additionally, Jarvis, an infrastructure subcontractor of Railtrack in 2002, is now in administration and has ceased functioning. Network Rail over the last 8 years has brought much of its maintenance operations in-house and thus, combined with their culpability in the Potter’s Bar accident, much of Jarvis’ decline was because of losing contracts on Britain’s rail network. In addition, and in an effort to generate business, Jarvis also over-extended itself financially in the mid-2000s to the point where its debts were insurmountable. Subsequently, it was placed in administration earlier this year.

Therefore, while the families of those who died in the accident are happy that a prosecution has been brought, it is, sadly, far too late to charge those who were truly responsible. As Louise Christian, the families’ solicitor at the inquest stated, "[a prosecution] has taken place eight and a half years after the event. However, the prosecution is being taken against a company which is in administration and another not for profit company, which is owned by the Government, so the extent to which it can produce accountability may be limited." Indeed, as Network Rail have correctly stated, it is an unrecognisable company from the one they took over eight years ago.

Therefore, I believe that this prosecution comes far too late to make any substantive difference to the standards of infrastructure maintenance on the British railway network. The recently concluded inquest into the Potters Bar accident, rather worryingly, stated that a similar accident could happen soon. However, that is a matter for NR currently and the evidence in the court case will almost certainly focus on the maintenance and procedures Railtrack and Jarvis were operating in May 2002. It will, therefore, not address the way NR currently maintains Britain’s railway infrastructure. The only positive thing that may come out the court case is to further define the line between what constitutes ‘good’ and ‘bad’ maintenance procedures; and any extra definition of that is always welcome.

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Decisions based on what? Information Upcoming in the L&SWR

At the core of the operations with large businesses is communication. Smooth and accurate communication is vital to make sure that many different operating units, dispersed over large distances, coordinate their actions. Being the first major industry to have large scale, geographically spread operations, the Victorian railways were the first to develop and evolve complex information transfer systems up and down their organisations. ‘Upward’ forms of communication developed to enable senior management could make astute decisions. It is these latter forms of communication that I am working on at the moment.

While not the most engaging subject that I have to deal with in my PhD, the development of upward communication within the London and South Western Railway (L&SWR) is very important for my study. The matter of what information managers had is central to my overarching question of how the company’s managers made decisions, and how good those decisions were. Did they go ‘lets have an extra siding here, a station there, or an extra waiting room’ based on large or small amounts of information, and how did the level of information feed into the quality of decision-making?

I am quite lucky with this part of the study, in that I am graced, unusually, with more information on upward information flows in the earlier part of the L&SWR’s history, than the flows in the late-Victorian period. I suppose this is because before 1870, after which the company was in its mature phase, everything was still developing, and as such a greater number of edicts were made that defined exactly what communications were required. However, by the later period, there was less need to inform junior managers, particularly station agents, of what forms and returns they were required to send to the headquarters regularly, as these had been ingrained in the fabric of railway life for some time and were ‘common knowledge’ amongst the staff. Thus, there is, in the case of the L&SWR, a paucity of information about information flows in the later Victorian period.

My main sources of evidence from the early period of the L&SWR’s history are the rule books, that were issued to each employee (in 1845, 1852, and 1864), and the ‘Abstract of instructions which have from time to time been issued to the Station agents’ (from 1858 and 1865). These laid down what information senior managers should have been sent by station agents from stations and yards. These communications took three forms; statistics, regular operating returns and correspondence dealing with other pertinent matters, and most were sent by train to officials at the company’s headquarters.

The range of statistics that junior managers sent to senior management developed very quickly, and they were a way for the latter to observe long term trends in traffic volumes, but also to regulate costs. So, by 1864 these included the tonnage of goods traffic arriving at stations, the number of passengers carried, the type of goods traffic carried, the amount of money taken, the wages paid, the amount of coal (or coke) used by locomotives, the amount of tickets issued, and the volume of stores used. From these, senior management made decisions as to the policies that the company would pursue, or where economies needed to be made.

In addition to this, there developed a number of returns that related to the operating procedures of the company, allowing senior management to monitor how well the organisation was functioning. These included returns of damaged roiling stock that arrived at stations, sent to the Locomotive Superintendent, a daily return of lost property found, forwarded to the Lost Property Office, and most importantly, a general return that encompassed any other issues at the stations. This return, sent daily by the first train, included anything from suggestions regarding safety, right through to ideas for improving company operations or the need for increased accommodation for traffic at stations. Thus, these communications showed senior managers how the company was functioning and where improvements needed to be made.

Lastly, there were ad hoc forms of upward communications. Of course, there were the occasions when senior management was required to be immediately notified of an occurrence, as in the case of an accident, but letters were also to be sent up to headquarters on other matters that could not wait until the regular morning report. These included when signals were out of repair, a staff member that was suspended for infringing the rule, or a response to when information was requested by senior management in a hurry. These communications, I presume, were rare, and were less associated with decision making, than with reporting something that had gone wrong.

Thus, by the 1860s the L&SWR had developed many procedures, so that information of different types could move up the company hierarchy to inform decision-making. Whether that decision-making was any good, well, that is the question of my PhD.

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