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Tuesday, 25 January 2011

The Life of 'Sevenpence,' the Templecombe Station Cat - b.1864/65

In the course of my research I find the most wonderful, weird and interesting things associated with the railways of Britain. I should also confess that I have a love for cats and everything they do. So, when the following tale was discovered on-line, I found it endearing and sweet. In the 2nd May 1870 edition of ‘the Children’s Friend’ was the story of ‘Sevenpence,’ the station cat at Templecombe (shown in 1885). The station was on the London and South Western Railway’s main line to the west of England and was located 108 miles from Waterloo. On account that it was an interchange station on the company’s main line, the article described it as having ‘more traffic and bustle going on than is usually found in rural districts or small provincial towns.’

It seems that Sevenpence had an unfortunate youth. As a kitten, in about 1863 or 1864, she was sent from Bishopstoke (now Eastleigh) to a local resident. Indeed, the name was given to her was because of the cost of her transportation. On arrival, for whatever reason, the proposed owner declined to give her a home and Sevenpence was passed between different individuals before being given to the station staff. She was placed in the company’s stable, which was ‘infested with vermin,’ and did her job well, soon showing that she “knew what rats and mice meant.” Indeed, such was the value of her service that a ‘small weekly sum’ was allowed by the company for her maintenance. This sum, unsurprisingly, I cannot find within the company’s accounts. (I did look. It surely came under ‘miscellaneous expenses.’) However, still young, she was a timid cat and never ventured much beyond the stable doors. Indeed, she was also startled by anyone who crossed her path.

With age she became more adventurous and went further into the unknown, becoming ‘a favourite with the porters and the servants of the company, who have ever treated her with kindness and consideration.’ By 1870s it seems that she had grown ‘fiercely bold,’ and whenever a train blew a whistle, or a bell rung, she appeared, ready to greet the passengers. She behaved in a gentle and good mannered way to all. Furthermore, Sevenpence was regularly to be seen jumping onto the track, between the wagons and carriages, and regularly got between the spokes of locomotive wheels, jumping off just as they began to move.

Yet, on many occasions this bold nature got Sevenpence into trouble and danger. As the article stated, ‘Many strange vicissitudes have befallen her, and were she gifted with, speech, numerous ups and downs of a cat life, and hair-breadth escapes, could she relate.’ On one occasion she became concealed in a meat wagon that was destined for London (‘for no good purpose, I fear.’) Station staff were only alerted to the distressed cat by a loud mewing, and, had they not found her sooner, Sevenpence would have found her way to the Nine Elms station staff. On another occasion a heavy weight fell from a crane and missed the oblivious Sevenpence by an inch. At the time she was ‘basking in the sun.’ She was also not particularly concerned by ‘pilot engines and trains in motion,’ and many times, while ‘taking her usual promenade,’ she was nearly crushed to death. But, ‘gifted with more than ordinary sagacity, and nimble in all her movements, she has yet been preserved unhurt.’

Apparently, in her later years Sevenpence did not look as good as she did as a younger cat. But, her life did improve and she abandoned her home in stable for the more comfortable quarters of the waiting room. Here she had a good fire, warm rug, ‘not to mention sundry bits and scraps from kind-hearted travellers, by whom she is much petted and caressed.’

The unknown author of the article concluded the tale by saying that he or she hoped that ‘many of my young friends may become acquainted with the station cat’ who was ‘a useful member of the feline community.’ Further ‘I feel sure all my young readers will join me in wishing that poor puss may be kept from accident, preserved in danger, and live to a good old age, in the full enjoyment of the pleasures and privileges her somewhat peculiar life affords her.’ Whether she did or not, we’ll never know.

Friday, 21 January 2011

When Railway Workers' Write Poetry

Unfortunately, I am deep into a chapter that is due in on Monday, or thereabouts. As such, I have not had the time to write any blog posts and so I thought I’d post some poems that I have found in Railway Company Staff Magazines. While I have many poems from the London and South Western Railway’s (L&SWR) staff magazine, The South Western Gazette, I have also started to photograph staff magazines that originated within other railway companies before 1923. It seems to me that while they loved to include poetry, poetic submissions were also used by editors to fill space. This said, the South Western Gazette did actually have a ‘poet’s corner’ for many years.

Many came from external sources, however, a good proportion were written by railway employees and I’m sure that the poems could tell us a lot about attitudes to work on different railways, railway workers’ concerns in different parts of the country and the lives they led. However, for now, just enjoy them (even if some of them are not great). I’ll start with a poem by J.J. Hatch, a clerk on the L&SWR, who was so prolific that he eventually had a book of his work published. This was from the April 1st edition of the South Western Gazette.

A Lost Friend

As meeting in the eventide,
A man, his journey well nigh done,
Whose face towards the setting sun
Is bright and seems half glorified.

So met I him when life was late,
His life, and loved him from the first;
My soul hath ever been athirst
For kindly hearts with which to mate;

And his was warm with gentle thought
And fruitage of congenial speech,
And so our spirits, each to each,
Were drawn, by mutual impulse taught:

He pass’d into the silent night,
And left me standing all alone,
The sunset hue of eve had gone,
And earth was darken’d to my sight.

Poems with a railway theme were actually quite rare. However, this one from the Great Central Railway Journal of April 1906 certainly bucks the trend. It is simply called ‘A Railway Romance’ and was about a deaf man called Wilkinson who had his hearing restored by being run into by a train. There was no stated author.

A Railway Romance

Wilkinson was strolling slowly,
Pensively upon the railway:
The express was fact approaching
Just behind him, but he lit a
Cigarette and hummed a ballad:
He was deaf, and so he could not
Hear th’ approaching locomotive,
Raging, panting locomotive,
Panting close upon his footsteps:
Or the driver gently whisp’ring
Lisping to the evening zephyrs,
“Wilkinson, you Crimson idiot,
“Crimson, suicidal idiot
“Can’t you hear the crimson engine
“Panting o’er the purple railroad?
“Will you-?” But his words were idle,
(Wilkinson could not have heard a
Cannon let off close beside him);
But the passengers could hear them.-
So the engine rushed upon him,
Rushed at full four miles and hour
(It was a suburban railway),
Smote him with the dreadful buffers
Right upon the ear, when-wonder-
His complaint was cured completely.
Wilkinson regained his hearing.
But when he hears the driver
Comment on the situation,
Mention his opinion of him,
Fully his opinion of him,
Then he wished devoutly that he
Never had regained his hearing.

The Great Western Railway Magazine and Temperance Union Recorder was started by the company’s temperance union in 1888. Because of its origin its content reflected the fact that the readers were expected to engage in good habits. Thus, the poems were often of a religious, clean living or pious nature. This one, from January 1889, was simply called ‘Gone!’ and was ascribed to an unnamed employee who worked at Paddington Station.


Hark! Hark! The bell in the old church tower yonder,
It echoes, dirge-like in the midnight clear;
It bids the soul upon this thought to ponder,-
The Dying Year!

The Dying Year! The “Hand” will soon be “vanished;”
The Dying Year! The “Voice” will soon be “still;”
The Dying Year! The form will soon be banished
Behind Life’s hill.

And as the bell in toll grows slower, deeper,
A Form comes gliding on,
Murmuring, as watchers o’er the pallid sleeper,
The sad word, “Gone!”

Anon, a merry peal of bells are ringing,
The New Tear grasps a rope,
And in the air and angel choir is singing
The joyous song of “Hope.”

The Great Eastern Railway Magazine was started in 1911 by the Great Eastern Railway. Interestingly, a number of poems in the early editions were actually about the magazine itself and events that took place early in its existence. This one, from the first edition in January 1911, certainly shows one individual was optimistic about the magazine’s future. Attributed to ‘A.L.G,’ it is called ‘The G.E.R.M.’

The G.E.R.M.

Pray have you the space for one to make
A trifling observation?
Our Magazine already bears
A shortened appellation-
But one we might adopted without
The slightest hesitation-
“The Germ”!
For germs are good as well as bad,
And often quite benevolent,
Converting all to good that is
In any way malevolent.
(If thou be such, then let us pray
To see thee ever prevalent,
O Germ!)
May be ‘twill prove a germ of life
Of the most intense vividity:
A germ so precious as to be
Sought after with cupidity-
Of such content that all who taste
Will swallow with avidity
The Germ!

Well, for now I think I will stop there. I have many more for when I am having a busy period in my PhD, and I am sure the number I will find will increase.

Monday, 17 January 2011

The Values of Victorian Railway Company Staff Magazines

In my last blog post I talked about how the Great Western (GWR) and London and South Western Railway’s (L&SWR) staff magazines’ had different establishing agendas and how this may have reflected different cultures amongst the companies’ clerks who started and wrote them. In this post I will show where the content of the two company’s staff magazines’, the South Western Gazette (SWG) and the Great Western Railway Magazine and Temperance Union Record (GWRM), converged in one important respect. This will reveal that clerks within both companies had very similar, if not identical, perspectives on railway work that were the result of their career prospects.

One of the most important benefits of being a clerk within any Victorian railway company was the unique promotional opportunities. In the case of the L&SWR I have identified that of 70 Traffic Department senior managers appointed between 1850 and 1922, only 3 (4.3%) had started their careers in non-clerical grades (two porters and a ticket inspector). The remaining 67 all had started with the L&SWR as either junior (or apprentice) clerks or senior clerks.[1] Additionally, Goruvish has shown that of 88 Railway Company Chief Executive Managers appointed between 1850 and 1922, only 10% came from ‘Engineering’ departments.[2] The rest came from Administrative (30%) or Traffic Departments (60%). The only failing of this research, for my purposes, is that it doesn’t identify from what positions that CEMs from Traffic Departments came from. However, we can be almost certain that all those Chief Executive Managers from administrative departments were originally clerks. Overall, however, the evidence suggests that clerks could become managers and other employees rarely received such chances.

Therefore, the fact that the majority of senior L&SWR and GWR managers came from the ranks of the clerical staff, means that their employment outlooks were highly likely be aligned with the goals for the company that senior management had. These goals included profit maximisation, loyalty and efficiency. As a result, the clerk edited staff magazines from both companies reflected this informal association.

Firstly, in both magazines criticism of the policies of the companies was prohibited. In the first issue of the SWG the editorial warned potential contributors that they did not 'think it wise' to include articles which were 'tending to a criticism of the South Western Company's policy, or the action of the company's officials.'[3] [italics in original] Subsequently, in August 1881, a contributor named 'Uno' was reminded in print that his unspecified grievances against the management would not be published.[4] While the same sort of explicit statements were not found in the GWRM, in the first issue the editorial stated that the magazine would ‘not meddle with politics, or with subjects leading to excited controversy, for those can be found ad libitum elsewhere.’[5] Thus, while it did’ not explicitly that reporters could not send in criticism of the company, it implied that ‘controversy’ which this form of correspondence would come under, was not welcome. Therefore, by excluding from these magazines’ pages competing narratives of the companies’ performance and management, the alignment of the views of the clerks and senior management is plain to see.

Secondly, both publications prominently featured financial and traffic information within their pages. From the first issue of the SWG in June 1881, up to the January 1886 number, it printed monthly details of the company's revenue, any increases or decreases compared with the corresponding month of the previous year, and the amount of revenue earned per mile of track opened. Furthermore, these statistics were usually to be found in a position of prominence on page one of each edition.[6] Similarly, the GWRM published throughout its first year (and possibly beyond) information on the GWR’s Stock and Share capital and the traffic receipts of the company in the previous month compared with the corresponding month in the previous two years. While not on the first page of the publication, these figures were in a prominent position in the magazine taking up half of a page.[7] Further, both publications published details of their companies’ half-yearly reports and of the proprietors’ meetings. Thus, the inclusion and prominent position of the traffic and financial information betrayed the fact that both editorial teams, like management, saw the success of the company in financial terms and wished to express to the readership of the centrality of profit in company activities.

The last indicator that the clerks identified with the views of management can only be found in the SWG. In June 1882 the Gazette commented on the fact that the salaried (and predominately clerical) staff had been 'left out in the cold' with regard to pay rises, while the waged grades had received increases. Responding to this, the author stated that 'it is another incontestable proof of the vital importance to the staff of good traffic returns...we trust that for the future all will do their utmost to make the line popular so the present prosperity may long continue.' This implied that employees’ wages were dependent on individual productivity and efficient working. Additionally, it held up as an example the self-sacrificing clerical staff, positioning them within the as understanding the importance of the company's financial success to their employment.[8]As such, the article was projecting the views held by the clerical staff and, by default, the management, that profit was the key consideration of company operations. It is unknown whether a similar expression was made in the GWRM (I only have one year’s worth), but hopefully further research will reveal if this was so.

While I still have a lot to do on railway company magazines, from the evidence above I can tentatively say that the clerks of both the L&SWR and GWR expressed views in their publications which were aligned with their respective companies’ managements. However, the degree to which these were held by all the companies’ clerks is unknown and to determine this is also the aim of further research.


[1] Data collected from: The National Archives [TNA], RAIL 411/491 to RAIL 411/497 and RAIL 411/499 to RAIL 411/502

[2] Gourvish, Terence .R., ‘A British Business Elite: The Chief Executive Managers of the Railway Industry, 1850-1922,’ Business History, Vol. XLVII, No.3 (Autumn, 1973), p.305

[3] TNA, ZPER 11/1, South Western Gazette, June 1881, pp.5

[4] TNA, ZPER 11/1, South Western Gazette, August 1881, pp.8

[5] TNA, ZPER 19/2, Great Western Railway Magazine and Temperance Union Record, November 1888, p.1

[6] TNA, ZPER 11/1, South Western Gazette, June 1881, pp.1

[7] TNA, ZPER 19/2, Great Western Railway Magazine and Temperance Union Record, November 1888, p.7

[8] TNA, ZPER 11/1, South Western Gazette, June 1882, pp.2

Thursday, 13 January 2011

The Morals of Victorian Railway Company Staff Magazines

Very recently, I have become interested in railway company staff magazines from before 1923. Not only are they an excellent source of information on the late 19th and early 20th century railway companies, but they detail the business cultures that existed within them. Naturally, as part of my PhD I have heavily used the London and South Western Railway’s (L&SWR) staff magazine, the South Western Gazette (SWG). This was the first railway company staff magazine and was started in 1881. The second staff magazine to be published came from within the Great Western Railway (GWR) in 1888 and was called the Great Western Magazine and Temperance Union Record (GWM). At the point of establishment the magazines shared two important things in common. Both were established voluntarily by clerks for ‘moral’ reasons, and both had clerks as reporters. Yet, the morality that drove the establishment of these publications was different in each case. Thus, I believe this possibly reflected the fact that amongst the two companies’ clerical staffs, different cultures had evolved up to the 1880s.

The different purpose of the two publications was evidenced by their first editorials. The GWM was established by the GWR’s Temperance Union to bind the union’s branches together. But also, its aim was to reinforce temperance amongst the union’s members. Thus, the first editorial stated that:

‘We anticipate marked results from the Great Western Magazine, not only in animating and linking together the existing branches of the Great Western Temperance Union, but in pressing on men’s minds the special claims which the cause of Temperance has upon railway men for their support an sympathy…'[1]

Contrastingly, the SWG was the result of three clerks working together to support the company’s Widows’ and Orphans’ fund, and as such did not have within its content a stated agenda.[2] Its first editorial stated that the SWG was:

‘Written by South Western men for South Western men, in the pecuniary interests of Widows’ and Orphans’ Fund, it deserves the support of all classes in the service, not on account of any literary merit –it has no pretention in that direction-but because it will assist a most deserving institution.'[3] [Italics in original]

From these statements it is evident that the individuals’ who started these publications had different moral purposes in mind. Subsequently, it potentially indicates differences in collective culture amongst the two companies' clerical staffs. The culture amongst the clerks of the GWR meant that the GWRM focussed on impressing on individuals the need for moral actions. Subsequently, they believed that these moral actions, invariably, would improve your life and lead to a better state of existence. Thus, the onus was on the individual to be moral and improve their own lives, but with guidance. Yet, the L&SWR clerks’ view of morality, as expressed through the Gazette, was one of altruism and of doing good deeds in the common interest. Thus, morality was not just a matter on individual action, although evidently individual morality was important, but collective morality was also necessary for the common good. In some sense, the GWRM was the conservative publication, whereas the Gazette was the socialist one.

To re-affirm my assessment, it is interesting to look at the coverage each publication gave to the other’s central focus. In 1881 the L&SWR employees already had a temperance society. While the Gazette gave it some coverage in its early years, overall they seemingly paid little heed to it compared their coverage of the work of the widows and orphans fund. Indeed, in December 1885 the Deputy Chairman of the L&SWR, Wyndam S. Portal, wrote to the Gazette complaining about the lack articles regarding the company’s temperance union.[4] Conversely, in 1888 a GWR widows’ and orphans’ fund did exist. Yet, it only received a small piece of coverage in early issues,[5] and the activities of the Temperance Union’s branches filled approximately half the publication's pages. Thus, while each publication did concern itself with the other’s central issue, it was not their top priority.

While the origin of this difference in culture would be hard to determine without further study, it is easy to see why they may have become established within the clerical staffs both companies given the nature of clerks’ employment conditions and their lives. By the 1880s clerks in all railway companies were selected by examinations. However, passing these would afford new clerks unique career prospects (up to management), good pay and high job security compared with other railway workers. Yet, what this did was insulate them from the other employees, and their view of what was important in railway work was naturally aligned with those of their managers. Further, once an individual had become a junior or apprentice clerk they would be trained by other clerks and ex-clerks, such as station masters, and would ordinarily socialise with them also (as evidenced by Sam Fay’s Diary).[6]Lastly, once an individual became a clerk on one Railway Company it was incredibly rare for him to move to another. Thus, by the 1880s clerical staffs within companies were isolated groups of employees, where ideas would not circulate far or interact with others from outside.

Subsequently, with clerical employment structures being developed up to the 1860, and having become fully established by the 1880s, it is highly likely that the different purposes of the SWG and the GWM were the result of two different employment cultures that had evolved separately within the two companies’ clerical staffs. Of course, this is open to further investigation, and I realise that I have made some sweeping assumptions, but overall it cannot be denied differences of culture must have existed to some extent. In my next post, I will take a different look at the two magazines to discover what L&SWR and GWR clerks had in common.


[1] TNA, ZPER 19/2, Great Western Railway Magazine and Temperance Union Record, November 1888, p.1

[2] TNA, ZPER 12/9, Southern Railway Magazine, June 1931, pp.202

[3] TNA, ZPER 11/1, South Western Gazette, June 1881, p.5

[4] TNA, ZPER 11/5, South Western Gazette, December 1885, p.3

[5] TNA, ZPER 19/2, Great Western Railway Magazine and Temperance Union Record, December 1888, p.17

[6] Bill Fay Collection, Sam Fay’s Diary 1878-1881

Sunday, 9 January 2011

Did the Great Central Railway Indoctrinate Children?

Probably the weirdest thing I have come across in any railway company staff magazine was ‘Auntie Agnes,’ who wrote for the staff magazine of the Great Central Railway, the Great Central Railway Journal (GCRJ). This wasn’t an agony aunt column for railway workers, nor was it an article on gardening tips. Rather, her column was for railway employees’ children and, to my knowledge, was an anomaly amongst the pages of railway company staff magazines more generally.

The GCRJ started in June 1905, and was, in some sense, child of the London and South Western Railway’s (L&SWR) own staff magazine the South Western Gazette (SWG). Both had been created by Sam Fay, who had been an L&SWR Clerk in 1881, when he had started the former, but by 1905 was General Manager of the GCR, taking the staff magazine concept with him.[1] Yet, while the SWG was set up for the benefit of the L&SWR’s ‘Widows and Orphans Fund,’ there was seemingly no similar justification for setting up the GCR.[2]

By 1905, staff magazines were no longer simply being published by the employees, for the employees, as the SWG and Great Western Railway Magazine had been. Amongst all the sports, entertainment and staff news, staff magazines were used by railway company managers to inform their employees of their priorities and agendas, and to educate them. This clearly evident in the first issue of the GCRJ, where there were articles under the headings of ‘Control of Engine Working,’ ‘The Washington Railway Congress,’ ‘Death of an Old G.C. employee,’ ‘Locomotive Notes’ and ‘American Methods of Railway Inspection.'[3] Yet, the ‘Auntie Agnes’ articles also show that the world of the railway worker was not something that ended when he clocked off. Rather, his family were ‘railway families,’ and the home and workplace were intrinsically bound up together. However, it is surprising that while the kournal had something for the children of railway workers, there was nothing for their wives.

The first edition of the GCRJ carried under the heading ‘Children’s Page,’ the first letter from Auntie Agnes. In the corner was the note, ‘for three months we will try the experiment of a children’s page, and if appreciated will make it a permanent feature.’ Yet, its continuation throughout the first year, indicates that it was deemed a success.

In the first letter to the children, Aunt Agnes, whose real identity is unknown, asked that the children tell her about themselves. Information was requested on their ‘pets, what you like to do best of all, your favourite games, how you spend your holidays or anything you think will be of interest to other little boys or girls.’ They might, as a result, have their letter printed, space permitted. All letters were to be sent to ‘Auntie Agnes, c/o the Editor, Great Central Railway Journal, Central Station Leicester.’ There had already been one letter though, and the first contribution (shown), was from a girl by the name of ‘bubs’ who was aged 5.
Agnes finished her column by talking about how they must have enjoyed Whitsuntide and were looking forward to the upcoming holidays.[4]

However, Agnes did not miss the opportunity for a little promotion of the railway company. In the July edition one of her new ‘nephews,’ as she called them, had won a scholarship and was about to go on holiday to Yorkshire. ‘Of course,’ she said, ‘he will travel by our railway, the GCR, which you all know is the quickest and best in the North.'[5] It strikes me that that this statement chimed very well with the overall educational nature of the journal.

In later entries Aunt Agnes described the letters that she had received, and in the July edition she was inundated with stories of the children’s holidays[6] In August, she received poems from one girl who had taken them from a new book she had received called Alice in Motorland. This book was apparently much like Alice in Wonderland. From September onwards, Aunt Agnes also described parts of her trip to America and Canada.[7] She wrote a number of letters described her train journey from Boston to California[8]and what she did while she was there[9] She also answered many questions from her ‘nieces and nephews’ as to what the United States was like[10] True to form, she also never missed an opportunity to compare North American railways with the Great Central, consistently referring to the latter as ‘our railway.’ Indeed, at the current time I have not got images of the GCRJ beyond June 1906, and it is unknown as to when Aunt Agnes returned.

So what can we make of the ‘Children’s Page’ (admittedly with limited information). I will speculate that the ‘Children’s Page’ was possibly established by the GCR’s management in an attempt to indoctrinate its employees’ children. It is known in the period that being the child of a railway worker guaranteed employment with the railway company. Therefore, isn’t it plausible, given the constant references to 'our railway,' that the GCRJ was trying to breed loyalty to the company amongst their future servants? I admit that I may be on shaky ground here without more evidence. However, this explanation would tie up nicely with the educational nature of the GCRJ more generally. Whatever the answer, the ‘Children’s Page’ shows that the railway company’s management was, at very least, trying to reach into their employee’s homes to blur the lines between that space and the workplace.
[2] The National Archives [TNA], ZPER 18/1, Great Central Railway Journal, June 1905
[3] The National Archives [TNA], ZPER 18/1, Great Central Railway Journal, June 1905
[4] TNA, ZPER 18/1, Great Central Railway Journal, June 1905, p.15
[5] The National Archives [TNA], ZPER 18/1, Great Central Railway Journal, July 1905, p.38
[6] TNA, ZPER 18/1, Great Central Railway Journal, July 1905, p.38
[7] TNA, ZPER 18/1, Great Central Railway Journal, August 1905, p.58
[8] TNA, ZPER 18/1, Great Central Railway Journal, September 1905, p.78
[9] TNA, ZPER 18/1, Great Central Railway Journal, February 1906, p.196
[10] TNA, ZPER 18/1, Great Central Railway Journal, March 1906, p.216

Thursday, 6 January 2011

Why did they do that? A Principal of Railway Company Decision-Making

Hiding under the ins and outs of my PhD is the universal basic premise of business history, that what I am essentially studying is how and why decisions were made. For this reason, the policy decisions that the managers and directors of the London and South Western Railway (L&SWR) made take a central role in my work. But, all decisions were governed by principals that the company had adopted for various reasons at different points. Indeed, I am slowly coming to the conclusion that many of the principals that were in place in the late 19th century, had been laid down in the 1830s and 40s.

One of the most fundamental strands of thought in the minds of early railway managers and directors was that traffic will always grow year on year. This stemmed from the success of the early railway company and its business environment in which it was the only form of land transportation. However, with threats to the company’s business after the 1880s, this thinking had all but diminished by 1914. This form of thinking is evidenced by a number of explicit statements, but also by patterns of behaviour and decision making.

In 1860, a special committee of the L&SWR board met to discuss the accommodation at its Nine Elms Goods Depot. Archibald Scott, the Traffic Manager at the time, attended. Under discussion was the proposal to move the company’s Locomotive, Carriage and Wagon Works to the country and use the vacant land for the goods traffic. Scott commented that ‘should the traffic increase as may be seasonally expected,’ in 20 years the space would be insufficient for its management. [1] Here we see the underlying principal that railway management had adopted at work. The statement indicates that in the company’s managers and directors must have had in the back of their mind that traffic would continue to increase unabated. This is, however, the only explicit case that has been found where a company official makes such a statement.

Additionally, there is no indication that the traffic was ever expected to decline significantly. Indeed, if an L&SWR manager or director observed the traffic and revenue statistics, they would see that the prevailing trend was be growth almost complete year on year growth, which these would convince him of this fact. Naturally, there were years when the company’s traffic and receipts declined and the management and directors were concerned as to why this was so. In 1857 a special committee was launched to investigate the ‘falling off of traffic,’[2] and in 1881, Scott, by then General Manager, was forced to explain to the board ‘the circumstances of the present decrease ‘in the company’s receipts.’[3] However, the fact that these investigations were launched indicates that a dropping off of traffic was an exception to the norm.

Thus, it is this belief, that traffic would continue to grow and profits would continue to increase, that shaped much of the company’s decision-making in the period between 1838 and 1914. It meant that managers and directors perceived that all extra costs to accommodate traffic in trains as being covered by the extra income that would be earned from that traffic. Thus, their analysis of operational efficiencies to be made was minimal, and they simply built wagons, carriages and modified stations or yards, as the traffic levels demanded. Thus, this principal, in the late 1900s, would see their operational costs rise and their profit margins shrink.

[1] The National Archives [TNA], RAIL 411/217, Special Committee Book, Special Committee on Nine Elms Station Accommodation, 19th December 1860, p.113

[2] TNA, RAIL 411/216, Special Committees, Special Committee on the state of the company’s traffic, 3rd December 1857, p.226

[3] TNA, RAIL 411/6, Court of Directors Minute Book, Minute No.2281, 28th April 1881

Monday, 3 January 2011

If You Want Low Fares, Grasp the Nettle - Criticising the Railway Critics

Inevitably, passenger and railway advocacy groups criticised the fare rises that hit us yesterday. In the wake of this, the Chief Executive of the Association of Train Operating Companies (ATOC), Michael Roberts, went on BBC news and gave a very good interview in which he provided sensible responses to sensible questions about why the increases were occurring.[1] I have to be honest, I was quite impressed. Here was a man who knew about how Britain’s railways were funded, the structure of the industry and the problems that it faced basically telling at as it as he saw it. Now, I am not saying that I agree with the increase in ticket prices, in fact I worry profusely about the effect they may have on rail usage generally. But in reality, what are the other options to raising fares when the government's subsidy for railways is about be massively cut?

Of course, there are always alternative options to such large fare rises. I am not an industry insider, nor am I someone who fully understands the ins and outs of the modern railway network. All I can really say is that I am a railway historian who has developed a slight grasp on the vagaries of the modern British railway industry. Therefore, I would not be able to give a fully informed opinion on how to reduce the fares or change the funding model through a re-adjustment of the structures of the industry, railway company management, cost structures or operating procedures. But then again neither does anyone else, including many critics of the price rises.

Every time that the fares go up Passenger Focus (PF), a body which are supposed to defend the rights of railway passengers, say the same things. Firstly, they inform us that British passengers already pay the highest fares in Europe. Secondly, they assume that the commuters will be dumb-struck, or, as they said this year, ‘baffled’ by the fare increases. Of course commuters aren’t baffled, they know greed when they see it. Thirdly, we are always told that some companies have put fares up above the average.[2] Then, they do the traditional thing of supplying to news outlets a lovely table which details the highest percentage price increases on certain season tickets. While all these facts are true, it isn’t like we didn’t know them already. Realistically, PF are just repeating complaints heard on every platform around the country.

Furthermore, on the 31st December the Campaign for Better Transport (CFBT) went wild and launched a new campaign called ‘Fair Fares Now,’ which seeks to achieve ‘cheaper, simpler, fairer train fares.’ Ideally, their goal is to do this before the ticket pricing rules change in 2012, after which Train Operating Companies (TOC) will be able to put up regulated fares by the percentage of the Retail Price Index plus 3 per cent (it is now RPI+1%). However, is this really different to PF’s complaints? The answer has to be no. The CFBT are also saying what they have said before and what everyone knows; that high train fairs are not smart, not green, and definitely not fair.[3]

With such tired old scripts and with only one issue on their agendas, is it surprising that these organisations have changed nothing? They do not make headway because they do not engage with the structure of the industry. The railway industry is a huge web of contracts, managers, technologies, structures, organisations, companies and, of course, financial transactions. For PF and the CFBT to only talk about the fares, when essentially pricing is one out of a raft of industry issues, is very short-sighted. Essentially, they are criticising an aspect of the rail industry that the TOCs and the Department for Transport know they are going to get criticised for and which for the last 13 years have acted on irrespective of outside input. What PF and CFBT should do is take a leaf out of the book of high-profile critics of the pre-World War One railway network, William Acworth and George Paish.

Both men were very vocal critics of the railways in their day and criticised not only the rates that they charged for their services, but also the way that the companies ran their businesses. For example, in his 1891 book The Railways and the Traders: A Sketch of the Railway Rates Question, Acworth had chapters entitled ‘Cost of Carriage,’ ‘Equal Mileage Rates,’ ‘What the Traffic Will Bear,’ ‘What the Traffic Will Not Bear,’ ‘Who Shall Fix the Rate?,’ ‘Some Extortionate Rates,’ ‘Competition and Combination,’ ‘Continental Rates,’ ‘American Rates,’ ‘Why English Rates are High,’ ‘The Traders Demands,’ and ‘The Board of Trade Provisional Orders.'[4] Further, in 1902 Paish wrote a book called The British Railway Position, in which he criticised British railway management on matters of train loading, costing, operation and capacity.[5]

What separated these men from the current critics of the railway network was that they had detailed knowledge of how the industry worked, how the companies operated and how much the railways cost to run. Armed with this information, they were able to make stinging criticisms of the railway companies and caused their senior managers and directors feel very uncomfortable indeed. But this was not their only success. Because of the knowledge they possessed Acworth and Paish began to influence government thinking. Subsequently, their insight led to them both being asked on different occasions to sit on Parliamentary committees investigating railway management and pricing.

Subsequently, their criticism was successful in helping changing the way that railway companies interacted with the public and shareholders. Between 1890 and 1914 Governments legislated to freeze the rates that were charged by railway companies, determine what operating statistics they collected and specified how their yearly accounts were presented. Indeed, some of these changes were the result of committees that Acworth and Paish sat on. While the merits and failures of these policies can be debated, Paish, Acworth, and others used their detailed knowledge of the industry help force the railway companies to bend to the will of the state and the people.

Thus, what we as passengers need is not for PF and the CFBT to complain about just the fares, as every passenger will already be doing that and historically the evidence suggests that it doesn't change anything. Their role should be to analyse and criticise the structure of the industry, the way that it is subsidised, and how the companies operate. Their role should be to provide a counter narrative to the one peddled by ATOC and the DfT that actually presents alternatives to current industry policies and structures. They should be trying to make the currently comfortable railway managers and transport ministers feel very uncomfortable in their offices by questioning how they have created a system that has so blatantly failed. Only then will they begin to be listened to, gain influence and be on the road to achieving their stated goals.





[4] Acworth, William, The Railways and the Traders, (London, 1891)

[5] Paish, George, The British Railway Position, (London, 1902)

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