by Phil Marsh

75 years ago Britain’s Railways prepare for war

Published: 19th August 2014

Why our railways were ready for war in 1939

World War One (WW1) ended in 1918 and the railways were in a parlous state after being brought under Government control and used primarily for military purposes. After WW1 Britain’s railways were almost bankrupt because of the Government’s financial arrangements with the railway companies combined with minimal maintenance carried out in the war.

This was followed by the great depression bringing a huge change to society and it was a combination of these factors that played a massive part in what the railways were doing 75 years ago. The second half of the 1930s are often considered to be the golden age of railways, abruptly ended by the outbreak of World War Two (WW2).

The Grouping, the depression and government investment

In fact, the poor state of the railways brought ‘The Big Four’ in 1923 when over 100 railway companies were amalgamated by government legislation into The Great Western Railway, (GWR) The London Midland and Scottish Railway (LMSR), The London North Eastern Railway (LNER) and the Southern Railway (SR).

The railways had also suffered after WW1 as a result of the coalminers and general strikes and were in a run-down condition during the 1920s depression in the decade after WW1 ended. The Governments of the 1930s then poured money into the railways to provide employment and to help bring them back to a reasonable condition.

Confidence grew as the 1930’s progressed and the railways expanded in many areas such as building the World’s largest port at Southampton reclaiming a huge acreage of land. The World steam train speed record was increased until in July 1938, LNER’s ‘Mallard’ reached 126mph for a quarter of a mile and this still record stands today.

Train numbers

Train services varied between the ‘crack expresses’ such as ‘The Flying Scotsman’, ‘Cornish Riviera Express’, ‘The Royal Scot’ and ‘The Bournemouth Belle’. These were newly built trains, some streamlined which often ran at around 100mph boasting luxury on-board service and facilities.

The SR’s electrified London suburban network was the largest such operation in the world. Some official figures published in 1937 by the railways allow to provide a snapshot of the UK’s railways in the run-up to World War Two (WW2).

A total of 1,179,462 passenger journeys made and 91,760,000 parcels were moved by rail in 1936 but these figures disguised the many loss making operations. There were many one or two-coach trains running between country halts on branch lines that were already beginning to be closed as road traffic became more affordable and convenient.

It took 19,817 steam locomotives, 32 diesel locomotives and a fleet of 1653 railmotors to move these trains using 42,656 carriages which offered 2,486,000 seats in total. The freight fleet numbered 618,948 vehicles plus 17,790 Guards Vans, Mail Vans and horse trucks whose total carrying capacity was 7,341,000 tons.

The railways ‘employed’ 13,125 horses which pulled 25,217 vehicles and at this time the railways were unchallenged in the freight market, moving anything between millions of tons of coal and other minerals, animals, and general merchandise. These operations took place on a total track mileage of 50,701 (including sidings) and a route mileage of 19,218 of which 1,550 was electrified. These were controlled by 10,315 signalboxes serving 6747 passenger stations and 6948 goods stations.

Integrated transport Government investment

The Government investment plan was that the UK railways led a co-ordinated nationwide transport system linking rail, road, canal, sea and air travel with the secret remit to be ready for war which was seen as inevitable. The Railways (Agreement) finance Act of 1935 made £27 million pounds available for investment at a guaranteed rate of return for investors to facilitate certain new-works by the Big Four. This included providing four tracks on busy routes and more platforms and goods facilities at strategic locations.

The UK railways were World leaders at places like Bristol Temple Meads, the World’s largest goods station and Whitemoor sidings near March were the World’s largest sidings.

The ‘Big Four’ were Britain’s largest owners of road vehicles and the largest household removers operating 15,000 road passenger vehicles plus 9075 non-passenger vehicles. The railway also owned 51,317 houses and employed 370,000 staff including 112,000 in workshops plus a golf course attendant, rat catcher, pier master and a basket maker!

Going into war….

Waterloo was Britain’s largest station covering 24 acres and Manchester Victoria and Exchange stations boasted the longest platform at 2194 feet long. Trains even ran direct to Europe via the Dover to Dunkerque train ferry and this service used one couple of the 137 railway owned ships which weighed 179,375 tons and used the railways 77 docks, harbours and wharves offering 514,913 feet of quayside. These enabled 17,962,000 tons of goods to be imported and a massive 51,505,000 tons of exports to be shipped.

The railways even operated air services in conjunction with trains known as Railway Air Services operating 62 services. At this time, thousands of new carriages and wagons were being built annually. A massive resignalling modernisation scheme was underway using electric signals rather than semaphores giving better visibility to drivers and firemen.

New locomotives were also built which could go faster hauling heavier loads and track was improved to help run more services. The railways were considered to be very safe with the risk of death in 1936 for example, I in 393 million.

The railways owned and operated 55 hotels also operated 644 restaurant cars and 58 buffet cars, many of which were fitted with electric refrigerators. Fresh food from across the UK was taken by rail to major cities or docks at fast speeds as were fish and perishable meats in refrigerated wagons.

Preparing for war

The Government were pushing the railways from this time and passed an act in 1937 as a result of foreseeing war looming. This prepared the railways for another huge war effort having realised that without the railways and their staff in WW1, the end result may have been different.

Railway workshops were designing and building armoured trains, weapons, naval vessels and even submarines and planes well before war broke out. Spitfires were built at Eastleigh, Submarines at Swindon, Planes at Derby and Wolverton while docks such as Southampton were ready to be turned to military use.

The Army operate Longmoor Military Railway near Petersfield trained railway reservists and regular army personnel in railway warfare, repairs and construction, foresight indeed.

So when WW2 was declared on September 14 1939, the railways were not only ready, but able to switch to a wartime operation at a moment’s notice and as 25 years earlier, were not found wanting serving the country.

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