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A tale of short termism: Lord Grocott reviews 'Signals Passed at Danger'

London, 4 October 2023: A worker walks past the HS2 construction site at Euston Station | Image by: ZUMA Press, Inc. / Alamy Stock Photo

Lord Grocott

Lord Grocott

3 min read

Lord Faulkner and Christopher Austin’s history of Britain’s rail network should be compulsory reading for all ministers of transport

This is a book with a strong story written by two men with a mission. It is a history of Britain’s rail network seen from the perspective of the perennial struggle of power and politics at the top. As the authors put it, “over almost 200 years politicians have sought to intervene and control railways without being quite clear about what they want to achieve”.

Chris Austin and Richard Faulkner provide no shortage of evidence for this – from the parliamentary battles that marked the building of the railways, through the spectacular period of railway mania, to the state control of two world wars and the ultimate short termism of the Beeching era, when the magnificent rail infrastructure bequeathed from the picks and shovels of the Victorians was subject to wholesale destruction.

Then came the privatisation debate, which is still far from resolved. And latterly, there is HS2, a case study of what is wrong with how we try to run our railways. Hardly a month has gone by without a policy change or threat of one, with long-running arguments over whether the route was the right one. And now we have the Prime Minister, despite all the work and expenditure that’s already been incurred, deciding to scrap the Manchester leg entirely.

And there is HS2, a case study of what is wrong with how we try to run our railways

There could be no better guides through all this material than Faulkner and Austin, whose partnership has already produced two highly recommended volumes on the rail closures under Beeching, and the re-opening of lines and stations post-Beeching. Their new book has a message and it’s this: railways need long-term planning and vision, while the history of our railways has been one of short termism and political expediency. 

In almost 200 years of railway history, we have had no fewer than 45 government reviews of rail policy and there have been 68 Acts of Parliament dealing exclusively with some part of our railway industry. That means one piece of railway legislation every two and a half years, not including the numerous private bills, hybrid bills and ministerial orders. And since 1997, there have been 17 government ministers with direct responsibility for our railways – that’s an average term of just 18 months. 

Signals passed at dangerBut for all the ups and downs of railway history, for those who love our railways, this is an optimistic book. The value of rail transport has stood the test of time. New railways, including high-speed lines, are being built throughout the world. In Britain, our basic and wonderful Victorian infrastructure is still in use at an intensity and speed that could never have been imagined when the lines were constructed.

And as the authors point out, railways pass a crucial test that is very much the challenge of today: they are an environmentally friendly form of transport and far more so than road or air. 

This is a fine book, highly readable with excellent illustrations, informative content, and a clear message. I am sure it will be enjoyed by specialist and non-specialist readers alike. But most of all it should be compulsory reading for all ministers of transport.

Lord Grocott is a Labour peer

Signals Passed at Danger: Railway Power and Politics in Britain
By: Chris Austin & Richard Faulkner
Publisher: Crecy Publishing

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