Competition and Privatisation
Over the past few years, the railways have been undergoing significant changes in their organisational structure and the way in which they operate.
This period of change has arisen because the Conservative Government which was in power until 1997 wished to "reintroduce competition into the railway system". This concluding section of the history reviews the way in which competition in the past has affected the users of the railway. For the sake of simplicity, the review is divided into four periods. 1 - from the formation of the railways until they were grouped; 2 - the period of the “Big Four”, 1923 to 1947, 3 - the period of the nationalised railway, 1948 to date, and a fourth section examining the possibilities presented by the proposed reorganisation. Although these are national issues, the way in which they have affected services at Basingstoke is highlighted. At the end of the last subsection, I offer my own opinion about the chances of success of the proposed privatisation.
From Formation to Grouping
The L&SWR was responsible for the first line to pass through Basingstoke, and, with the exception of the GWR line to Reading, all the others as well. The GWR and L&SWR main lines soon proved profitable, and the management of both companies looked for opportunities to expand - as indeed did promoters of railways all over the country. Inevitably, by reason of geography, the GWR and LSWR found themselves competing for traffic from the same centres. Basingstoke was an early example of a town with lines of both companies. Others followed - Salisbury, Winchester, Whitchurch, Yeovil, Chard, Dorchester, Exeter and Plymouth. Effectively, the line from Basingstoke to Exeter marked the border between the territory claimed by each company, but there were incursions across this border by both sides: while the GWR reached Winchester, and had designs on Southampton and Portsmouth, the LSWR reached Bath and Cheltenham as a result of lines built and owned jointly with other companies.
At first sight, it might appear that the provision of alternative routes would have been a major benefit to passengers. However, this was not necessarily so: the GWR was built to a broad gauge, with the rails 7 ft 0¼ ins apart, while the LSWR was built to a gauge of 4 ft 8½ ins. Thus, there was (at least initially) no question of through traffic. People had to travel by one company’s trains or the other, and those unlucky enough to be making a journey involving both companies would have to leave one train and purchase a ticket for their subsequent journey by the other company’s train.
People with goods to transport fared worse. Since wagons could not run through, special arrangements had to be made where the broad gauge met the narrow. Special transfer sheds* were built with two tracks - one broad gauge and one narrow - either side of a central platform, and the staff on the platform would manhandle the goods from the wagons of the one gauge to the other.
* “transfer sheds”: Although not required for over a century, one has been preserved, at the Great Western Society's centre, Didcot.
The 4 ft 8½ ins* gauge was the one used by George Stephenson when he constructed the earliest modern railways in the north-east of England. From his railways onwards, almost all of the northern railways were built to that gauge. Whilst the broad gauge offered the potential for higher speeds in greater safety, it was the combination of the extent of Stephenson’s gauge and the fact that it is easier to make a broad gauge railway narrower than vice versa which led to the end of the broad gauge. The question of the gauge was settled by the Government, which passed a law in 1846 making 4 ft 8½ ins the standard gauge for all railways other than those connected to the GWR system. After this, parts of the GWR system were adapted to carry standard gauge trains by provision of a third rail between the other two. Gradually, these parts of the GWR became a standard gauge system, by elimination of the outer, broad gauge, rail. Later, the broad-gauge lines which were left were converted to standard gauge as well. This was accomplished by the closure of those lines over one weekend in May 1892, during which the entire remaining system was converted.
* “4 ft 8½ ins”: Stephenson actually inherited his gauge from the horse-drawn colliery railways in his district. This is also the commonest gauge in Western Europe, but not because the Europeans were able to look 150 years forward to the Channel Tunnel - many early European railways were built by British engineers!
Having solved the problem of through trains, there was still the problem of the apportionment of revenues arising from people and goods making through journeys. This problem led to the establishment of an organisation called the Railway Clearing House. The RCH controlled the transfer of money between the various companies. It also did its best to administer the various arrangements they developed between them for running trains over each others lines. In addition, the RCH issued detailed maps and junction diagrams* with a view to settling any disputes which did arise between the companies. Overall, this system worked reasonably well, and the maps and diagrams which were drawn up by the RCH have since become a rich archive for railway historians.
* “junction diagrams”: this is an excerpt from the 1920 Railway Clearing House junction diagram for Basingstoke. The m and c notations indicate miles and chains, where a chain is 22 yards, an eightieth of a mile. On this diagram, the GWR is shown in yellow, the L&SWR blue. Interestingly enough, the map had still not been redrawn at this date to reflect the flyover at Battledown, and the fact that the Basingstoke and Alton Light Railway had been taken up.
In addition to the railway travellers and merchants with goods to transport, there was another group of people who used the railway. These were the investors, who are often overlooked in histories because they were unseen. During the mania years, people made and lost fortunes as a result of speculation in railway shares. Once the railways had been built, the increase or decrease in the value of the shares was determined partly by the profitability of the lines, partly by the future expansion potential, and partly by the weight attached by investors to rumours circulating about the railway companies. These goings on were often documented in The Railway Times, a weekly newspaper devoted entirely to the railways. This newspaper covered everything from the latest traffic returns of the companies to board meeting reports, and carried advertisements for commodities ranging from rails to wagons for rent, and of course, the latest share prices and prospectuses.
For all rail users, competition was a mixed blessing at this time. It did offer more choice to passengers, but did not necessarily get them to their destinations any more quickly or cheaply. Indeed, where railways did choose to compete on speed, as the L&SWR and GWR did between Plymouth and London, the results could be disastrous for the passengers. This was certainly the case at Salisbury in 1906, where one of these racing expresses failed to slow down to take a sharp curve, and came off the track, killing 24 passengers and four railway staff. For people with goods to transport there were at first the problems of the break of gauge at the border, and the question of how much to pay the carriers, though both of these were ultimately solved. For the speculator, good news often came as a result of a competitor company doing badly, rather than the one in which they had invested doing well, and in some cases, a railway company might have to build or take on an unprofitable line in order to protect its revenues elsewhere. A case in point was the Basingstoke and Alton Light Railway.
The “Big Four” Era
The changes brought about at Basingstoke by the Grouping were more or less negligible. The L&SWR was amalgamated with others to form the Southern Railway, and the GWR acquired a new logo, but no lines actually changed hands. During this period, competition was less aggressive; instead of attacking the problem from the point of view of preventing the opposition gaining passengers, all four of the newly formed companies set about courting the potential passenger. Partly, this was because the railway network was largely complete, and the railway companies were no longer involved in large-scale construction. Under the Big Four, much imaginative marketing material was produced by all the companies. This ranged from books about the railways and the destinations they served, via jigsaw puzzles, to posters. The railway companies became great patrons of the arts, commissioning the best artists of the day to produce their posters, and to express the spirit of the age in their station architecture.* In some cases, resources were pooled, as in the decision to allow GWR bookings to be handled at Basingstoke by SR staff. Goods were handled more imaginatively as well. The railways were quick to realise the potential offered by motor vehicles, and offered collection and delivery services. The fact that there were now larger networks available meant that it was easier to get freight from one place to another. The Railway Clearing House was still needed, but the complications of its operation were much reduced.
* “architecture”: there was no significant building work in the Basingstoke area during this period. The nearest example on the SR is probably the rebuilt signal box at Woking. Further in towards London, the station at Surbiton was rebuilt in splendid 1930's style.
When World War 2 started, the railways worked co-operatively to support the war effort. Though good for the nation, this proved to be bad for the investor. The government paid the railway companies a fixed fee for operating the trains, and collected all the revenues itself. This was a spectacularly poor deal for the railways, because the fixed fee was set below the actual receipts in the years leading up to the war, and in the event, the railways carried many more passengers and much more freight than they had previously.
The Nationalised Railway
The advent of the nationalised railway offered passengers and those with goods to transport new opportunities. Initially, the railways operated as they did before, but without the question of having to deal with more than one company. Over time, services were offered which crossed the old company frontiers, and an integrated service began to develop. The investors, of course, had no further interest in proceedings.
In Basingstoke, there was little difference to perceive, except that the locomotives and stock all belonged to the same company. There was no change in booking procedures, since these were all handled by SR staff anyway. What had been GWR became the Western Region, and what had been SR became Southern Region. This changed in 1957, when the regional boundary was moved from Basingstoke to Southcote Junction, near Reading, thus making all lines radiating from Basingstoke Southern Region lines. When competition from private transport brought about the closure of a significant part of the network, what remained was a system which was smaller and better integrated. A conscious effort was made by the railway management to achieve this. In came a new corporate image, a new corporate colour, “rail blue”, and a new corporate logo, the double-arrow. Modernisation of rolling stock and motive power accelerated the services to the point where InterCity services outran the cars, even those using motorways. On local services, the replacement of slow steam locomotives hauling one or two coaches by diesel and electric multiple-unit trains gave those railways which were left a chance to compete with the bus services over the routes, and sometimes the trains won - like on the Basingstoke to Reading run.
Co-operation was even encouraged between the railways and the other local transport operators, supervised by County Councils, or Passenger Transport Executives in urban areas. In Hampshire over recent years, the co-operation between the railways and the County Council has led to the refurbishment of almost all the county's stations. At some, like Micheldever and Overton, this has involved extensive rebuilding. Passengers have certainly benefited in some measurable ways from the railway system working together. Perhaps the best example of this was the way in which the various routes in south east England were brought together as Network SouthEast. The joint promotion of the various routes did much to increase public awareness, and the offer of discounted fares, even in a time of increasing car ownership, boosted the number of people travelling.
Freight generally declined, being lost to road haulage during the nationalised period. In previous times, trains would often be made up on an ad-hoc basis to carry small amounts of freight. The situation is now markedly different. Freight trains are much more specialised, which has two effects. On the one hand, such freight as is still carried by rail is carried efficiently. On the other, for anyone with a new freight flow to introduce to the railways, a lot of planning and investment is likely to be required. This tends to prevent new freight being moved by rail. The main flows of freight on the railways are coal, mail, stone and containers. Over the past few years, some freight carriers* have purchased their own locomotives, dedicated to their own trains.
* “some freight carriers”: Amey Roadstone and Foster Yeoman use their locomotive fleet on stone trains, and National Power uses its locomotives on coal trains.
Into the future
In the past, the tracks have been owned by the companies operating the trains over them. This is the first major difference in the privatised structure. Now, all the infrastructure is owned by a company called Railtrack, and other companies pay Railtrack a fee for the use of the rails. There are four operators offering passenger services from Basingstoke
and on to
Exeter. SWT also
Thames Trains operates the shuttle service between Basingstoke and Reading, calling at all stations.
InterCity Cross Country operates the services via Reading and Oxford to Birmingham and the North. Passengers may board northbound services only, as the southbound services stop at stations served by SWT to set down only.
Regional Railways (South Wales & West) operates a very restricted service from Carmarthen, Cardiff and Bristol to Waterloo via Salisbury and Basingstoke. Passengers are only allowed to board the train at Basingstoke if they are travelling beyond Salisbury, and may only leave it at Basingstoke if they have come from beyond Salisbury.
In every case of the restricted ticketing arrangements, if unwary passengers venture onto these trains with tickets which are only valid for the journey when undertaken by different services, they are liable to be surcharged for boarding an incorrect train.
So much then for the train operators at Basingstoke. Unlike the previous train operators here, not only do these four companies not own the track their trains run on, they don't own the trains either. The trains are owned by one of three leasing companies. These are called Angel Train Contracts, Eversholt Leasing and Porterbrook Leasing. ATC owns the trains used by Thames Trains, those used on this service by Regional Railways (South Wales & West), and the Wessex Express trains used by South West Trains on the Weymouth service. EL owns the locomotive-hauled coaches used by InterCity Cross Country, and the electric multiple-units operated by SWT apart from the Wessex Express units. PL owns the InterCity 125 High Speed Train sets and the locomotives used by ICCC, and also the diesel units operated by SWT on the Waterloo to Exeter and Reading to Brighton services.
Freight train operations in Britain have been divided between three companies called Loadhaul, Mainline Freight and Transrail*. The method of dividing the services is mainly geographically based on where the train starts. Any service originating from the Basingstoke area* should be Mainline Freight, Transrail originates services from the western side of the country, and Loadhaul covers the North East and Scotland. This isn't quite all, because freight which originates from the Channel Tunnel is handled by Railfreight Distribution. Mail by rail is handled by yet another operator, Rail Express Systems.
* “Loadhaul, Mainline Freight, Transrail”: After much publicity about the competition, the situation was completely overturned when all three companies were acquired by the same American operator. In consequence, the freight operations which were so carefully divided have again been merged, this time under the name EW&S - English Welsh and Scottish Rail!
* “Freight originating from the Basingstoke area”. Since the closure of the stone terminal at Basingstoke during the late 1980's, there have been no regular freight trains originating in or near Basingstoke
Having mentioned the Channel Tunnel, it is worth noting that in the future, it is planned to operate an overnight international service from Basingstoke to Paris. This will add yet another brand name into the equation (Eurostar) courtesy of another train owner (European Passenger Services).
All the companies mentioned will or could be involved with the rail services in the Basingstoke area, not to mention a dozen or so other companies whose remit covers the technical aspects of railway operation. Overall, British Rail is being split into over 250 different companies as a result of privatisation.
"Safeguarding the interests of the customer" in all this, there are two regulators - OPRAF, the Office of Passenger Rail Franchising, and ORR, the Office of the Rail Regulator. Unfortunately, with the Winter 1995-1996 Great Britain Passenger Timetable, this carefully-crafted organisation did not appear to have worked smoothly - the timetable was issued with one 57 page book full of amendments. A further 250 page book of corrections was found to be necessary, and even that did not correct all of the 8,000 or so mistakes known to be in the book. The reason behind all these mistakes was a lack of proper co-ordination between the various operating companies, and Railtrack, who have overall responsibility for issuing the timetable.
Photographs of the liveries applied to rolling stock by the different operators are available by clicking here.
A Personal View of Privatisation
Having detailed what is in the process of happening, it is self-evident the railway organisation which is coming into being is extremely complicated. Indeed, it appears to be designed more to confuse than to attract potential passengers. The last century and a half of railway history is against the notion that competition is automatically good for the customer.
I am not in favour of the approach being adopted. Nobody I have discussed this with who has any familiarity with the railways supports what is being done. Far from introducing competition at Basingstoke, all that has happened so far is a restriction of choice - there may be more trains, but intending passengers are barred from using them.
Nobody can say for certain in advance whether private or public ownership is better for the railways, but I believe it is, in the words of one noted local authoress, "a truth universally acknowledged," that fewer owners are better than more. As a friend of the railways, I hope they will survive the experience.
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