‘You have been Chairman of the British Railways Board for how long, sir?’ It was the start of one of those interminable meetings about public transport. Still half awake after a late night sitting in the House, or at least, in the Stranger’s Bar with a certain young lady, I pretended to arrange my papers and let the Minister do the talking.
‘For about six months,’ replied the Chairman. ‘And, ahem, it’s British Rail.’
The Minister for Transport chose not to correct himself. ‘And sir, since the start of your tenure, it appears that the railways are again sliding into debt, having been extensively bailed out by the taxpayer only two years previously, and having made a profit for two years after that.’
‘Surpluses, Minister, in the 1968-69 and 1969-70 fiscal years, were attributable to capital write-offs, but not true operating profits.’
‘And now you are seeking further financial support, of eighteen billion pounds over the next five years.’
‘Exactly.’ The Chairman was unapologetic. The man from the Treasury frowned.
‘It is the expectation of this Government that the railways must become a profitable venture. Slipshod management, and the retention of antiquated and unprofitable lines cannot be allowed to continue. Or there will have to be a public inquiry. At the very least a select committee.’
The Chairman folded his hands, resting them on the polished boardroom tabletop. He looked up at the Minister for a moment, from under raised eyebrows. ‘British Rail carried out some research recently, Minister.’
‘We contacted the national railways of a number of countries. Japan, the USA, Germany, France. All over the world, the national railways are deeply in debt. Just like British Rail. They started as private enterprises-‘
‘Ah yes.’ The Minister allowed himself a small smile.
‘Then they were nationalised. They’ve had taxpayer bailouts, government enquiries, changes of Government, management changes, and yet they’re still in debt.’
‘Nationalised industries.’ The Minister sighed. ‘A recipe for disaster in my view.’
‘Why should that be?’
‘Poor management, Chairman. Incompetence. Pandering to the whims of the trade unions. An easy life, and reliance on bailouts from the tax payer.’
The Chairman closed his eyes for a brief moment, burying his anger deep. ‘It seems to me unlikely, sir, with the greatest of respect, that all managers of all passenger railways in all countries have been incompetent for the past few decades. There needs to be perhaps some acceptance that the service cannot be made to pay. ‘
‘There must be, there has to be, some model of railway service which is profitable. For heaven’s sake, man, concentrate on the well-used lines, and cut out the slack.’
The Chairman gestured out of the window. The big broad leaves of a London plane tree flapped in a late spring breeze.
‘Unfortunately, sir, it’s the branch lines that bring the passengers to the main lines. Once a passenger needs a car to take them to the mainline station, he will purchase one. And having bought it, he is likely to use that car all the way to his destination.’
‘Or she,’ I added, the image of my constituent, with her flame-coloured hair, suddenly breaking into my thoughts. I imagined her in a Morris Minor. Or perhaps in one of those little MGs with the top down.
‘Don’t interrupt, Overbury,’ said the Minister. ‘Unless you’ve something important to say.’ I was only a junior minister, so I subsided into daydreams, and thought about the girl with the flame-coloured hair. I half paid attention to the Chairman, who passed around a number of sheets which still smelt of the Banda machine. Smudged typing and crude line drawings showed a variety of theoretical rail networks of different shapes and sizes, with facts and figures that showed that none of them were actually viable, even though some networks were very small indeed. All of them were going to need continuing financial support from the taxpayer on an enormous scale.
Flame-Hair was the daughter of Mr Archibald Prosser, chairman of the Duddingham Line Defence Committee. He was a local businessman, pinstriped, reserved, with a neatly furled umbrella. She, a final-year student at the LSE, already a veteran of marches, and sit-ins, and throwing heaven knew what at the American Embassy, had been home for the Easter holidays. I had met them in my Thursday afternoon constituency surgery. While Mr Prosser had spoken of petitions, and lobbying, and the Regional Passenger Transport Executive, his mini-skirted daughter had argued stridently about a depth of popular feeling, of trade union militancy, and of direct action to occupy the railway line and prevent the tracks being torn up. In fact, I was aware that another of my constituents, a scrap metal dealer, had been on the point of starting work, when the inexplicable failure of the local newspaper to print a closure notice just before the Easter weekend had given the five local authorities involved along the threatened line the chance to apply jointly for a high court injunction.
I stared down at the duplicated diagrams. None of the proposals included the Duddingham Line. The discussion was going round and round in circles.
‘We cannot charge higher fares for the current levels of service,’ the Deputy Chairman continued. ‘People simply cannot be expected to pay more for overcrowded, slow running trains. They expect comfort and reliability.’
‘Well you will have to improve the services provided.’ Was the invariable answer.
‘But that takes investment.’ And so on.
I pictured Mr Prosser, plump and neat, with his thinning hair smoothed back with Brylcreem, and his immaculate shirt and suit, sitting on the tracks of the Duddingham Line, his shiny black shoes resting on the dusty sleepers, while his wild-haired daughter harangued a riotous, placard-bearing mob. I knew something had to be done. And after all, with a little direction, the young woman, who it appeared was heading for a First in Politics, might make an extremely decorative research assistant.
‘Should we then abandon the idea of railways,’ said the Minister, ‘and look at improved road transport?’ I eyed him suspiciously. After all, one of his predecessors had owned a road haulage firm, hastily transferred to his wife prior to his appointment.
‘So,’ I objected, ‘how would we create the extra capacity for the traffic? The roads are already overcrowded.’
The Minister shrugged. ‘Once the trains had ceased to run, the tracks could be taken up and tarmacked and we could run buses on them.’
‘But you’d never achieve the capacity you need,’ objected the Chairman. ‘Think of the London to Paddington line. The buses would need to run constantly, close together and at very high speeds to provide that capacity. At which point, you might as well join them all together and remove all the drivers except the one at the front…’
‘What about that hovercraft idea?’ mused the Minister. ‘Perhaps we should have another look at that?…’
The day had worn on and eventually, in the gulf of weariness which follows a good lunch in the Red Lion, it looked as though the minister might wrap up the meeting. He could stall for time with a demand for more evidence, until the next economic crisis ate up any possible investment money.
‘You could perhaps bear with us for a moment, minister?’ The Chairman pulled a set of transparencies from his briefcase, and we all heaved a sigh, and prepared to fall asleep during the magic lantern show. An overhead projector trolley was trundled into place, and the minister fiddled irritably with his pens as it was set up and focused to project a crooked quadrilateral of specked light against a wobbly portable screen.
‘These black lines represent the existing national rail network, gentlemen. Look – London, Birmingham, Manchester, Glasgow…’ The Chairman superimposed another transparency over it. ‘These heavier black lines show how the network will appear after the proposed, ahem, rationalisations.’
The Minister nodded, and made a few facial expressions and gestures that indicated that the best must be made of a bad situation, that money could not be poured into the railway network as though from an infinite source, and that road transport would in any event take care of any problems.
The Chairman played his trump card. ‘There are unfortunately no figures attached to this, but, to give an idea of the impact on the electorate, this overlay shows the constituencies which will be most affected by the closures. The red ones are Labour party seats, obviously, and the blue ones are Conservative.’
The atmosphere in the room changed immediately. I could have sworn the overhead projector shook slightly.
‘Good Lord!’ said the Minister.
‘That’s a marginal constituency,’ I said. ‘And that one.’
The Minister went red with frustration. He clenched his jaw, and his hands slowly rose into the air. He glared venom at the Chairman.
© 2014 chateauxenespagne.com
This story borrows from ‘Off the Rails: an autobiography’, by Richard Marsh (1978), and ‘The story of the North Warwickshire Line, 1908-2008’ by Alan Bevan. All characters, however, are fictional.