In the UK, at the start of the 1980s, there were 13 major railway works, employing over 30,000 staff with extensive engineering design and construction skills, but by the end of the decade, only 4 works were left and staff numbers had fallen to just over 8,000. Following the 1968 Transport Act, BR’s Workshops Division was able to bid for non-BR work, including potential export orders internationally. On 1st January 1970 it became rebranded as British Rail Engineering Limited.
There were a number of major workshop closures in the 1960s, with Glasgow Cowlairs being one of the last, and in the 1970s, only Barassie Wagon Works, near Troon shut its gates for the last time. That said, the impact of loss of jobs and engineering skills continued, but the pace of industrial demise in the 1980s would see a step change in the pace of that decline.
This was driven to a great extent by the government’s “Transport Act 1981”, which provided British Railways Board with the option to dispose of any part of its business, and subsidiary companies, amongst other activities related to components of the old British Transport Commission, and various road transport measures. The act did not specify which subsidiaries were, or could be offered for sale, but debates in parliament did contend that this would include BREL. The MP for Barrow-in-Furness, Albert Booth, made this observation in parliament in April 1981:
“The object of the amendment (“amendment No. 1”) is clear. It is to keep British Rail Engineering Ltd. strictly within the scope of British Railways and the British Railways Board and to remove the ability that the Bill would confer on the Minister to instruct the board to sell the engineering subsidiary or to prevent British Railways from seeking the consent of the Minister to sell the subsidiary.”
Unsurprisingly, the Transport Secretary, Norman Fowler, rejected this suggestion, with this reply on the same day:
“The future of BREL is currently a matter of discussion between the Government and British Rail. The British Railways Board certainly wants improvements in British Rail engineering. Frankly cannot remember at this stage whether we have discussed the issue of private investment.”
A kind of non-answer, and with hindsight this seems to be an inaccurate response.
During this time too, two Transport Acts (1981 and 1985), which privatised and deregulated sections of the road transport industry came into full effect. In 1980, the National Freight Corporation was privatised, and certain rail/shipping/road integration activities were abolished, with changes to regulations about public service vehicles (buses). This was a precursor to the full-blown privatisation of buses that occurred after the 1985 Transport Act, and which led to chaotic urban transport operations in many areas of the country. On top of this, there was the controversial “Serpell Report” of 1983, which aside from its other findings, seemed to consider BREL workshops as an odd asset to be owned and operated by the national rail industry.
But the impact of the changes that occurred in the 80s was more than just about numbers, and the tragic consequences for many families dependent on these engineering works – this was equally as much about the loss of skills, training programmes, and technical and technology development. Between 1980 and 1985 innovation had seen the end of projects such as the APT, where the technology was later adapted within the “Pendolino” series of trains, but produced under a combination of Fiat and Alstom.
The private sector had an extensive partnership with the railway workshops too, and during this time the last major innovations from Britain’s railway industry included heavy involvement in the original Eurostar trains, and of course the ‘Le Shuttle’ locomotives. It could be argued that the completion of the Channel Tunnel, and the arrival of the TMST (Trans Manche Super Trains) marked the final chapter in the UK’s railway engineering expertise. Closure of the railway workshops would affect the likes of GEC, Metro-Cammell, Brush and others.
During the 1980s, some of the most well known, indeed world famous railway works were scheduled for closure, including: Ashford (1980); Derby Locomotive Works (1990); Horwich (1985); Swindon (1986); Wolverton Carriage Works (1980) – better know today perhaps for a nearby town with concrete cows. In addition to these major works, that disappeared completely, others were reduced to a mere fraction of their former size, and none were permitted to compete for other engineering work beyond British Rail orders.
They had the skills, but the official policy of the day did not permit those skills to be used.
Inside Doncaster Works, on the day the first of the Class 58 locomotives was presented to the public and media. Photo: Rodger Bradley
The last orders for British Railways workshops to build new locomotives, was for the ill-fated Class 58, constructed at Doncaster Works from 1982 until the last of the class was completed in 1987. The works took on a role as the national locomotive stores in 1986, and parts of the site demolished, with other areas sold to Bombardier, and the US company Wabtec. For the next 20 years the remnants of the works remained in use with small orders for repairs and maintenance, and parts for train equipment, including braking systems until it was finally closed in 2007. On the 20th December that year, plans were reported in the press “ … to turn the land into a massive housing, retail and business complex …”.
A sad end to a 153-years-old engineering history. But these stories were repeated elsewhere, and perhaps one of the most well known and reported was that of Swindon Works, originally over 360 acres in extent, it closed in 1986, and the site put up for sale. Following a reorganisation begun in 1962, it was planned that the loco works would continue, but with a reducing workforce – as steam power disappeared. By 1966, the old carriage and wagon works had been closed, and a new apprentice training school was built, and Swindon had a total workforce of 5,320 at that time. That was despite the loss of over 2,000 men in 1963 and 1964.
Swindon too had built up skills in the new technology of diesel traction – with both hydraulic and electric transmission – from the new “Warship” and “Western” class main line diesels, to refurbishing multiple units, including electric multiple units for other regions. In March 1960, Britain’s last steam locomotive “Evening Star” was completed at Swindon, and 20 years later at the start of the 1980s, Swindon built twenty 0-8-0 diesel-hydraulic locos for the metre gauge railways of Kenya. Of course, the skills developed to support hydraulic transmission was rendered unnecessary, since British Railways had decided that all future traction would be fitted with electric transmission. A similar problem befell the North British Loco Co in Glasgow, who had built BR’s first main line diesels for the Western Region.
During the early 1980s less and less repair and maintenance work was undertaken at Swindon as part of the recently formed British Rail Engineering Limited, which was seen mostly to be awarded to Crewe or Derby, and with the embargo on bidding for non-railway work, the decline of the works was perhaps inevitable. The loss of engineering skills, and the loss of engineering apprenticeship opportunities was clearly bad for future prospects. It is well known, that like many “engineering towns” across the country, from Birmingham to Barrow-in-Furness, or Doncaster to Derby, the railway works at Swindon employed generations of the same families.
Ironically perhaps, some of the coach building skills were transferable to bus companies, and some of the men employed at Swindon were able to use those skills in the road transport industry.
The year after closure, in 1987, when 1500 people lost their jobs, the works were bought by Tarmac Swindon Ltd, with the intention of building a complete new community – housing, retail, etc. – which it thought to name ‘Churchward’. A few years later plans were approved to include a new railway museum in the remaining buildings, ‘R Shop’, which today is known as the “Steam Museum of the Great Western Railway” (https://www.steam-museum.org.uk/Pages/Home.aspx ).
Another railway town hit hard by the dramatic loss of jobs and skills from the railway workshops in the 1980s was Horwich in Lancashire. There was both a locomotive works and a wagon works in Horwich – the loco works was established by the Lancashire & Yorkshire Railway, in the Victorian Era, whilst wagon building only started in 1963, when the work was transferred from the nearby Earlestown Wagon Works.
Horwich Works covered some 81 acres, and was begun in 1887, lasting just about a century until 1985, when it too closed. It had been expanded during its life, and in the post WW2 era had a covered area of over 150 acres, and had churned out artillery pieces, tanks, aeroplane parts and shells during the war. As a locomotive works it was closed in 1963/4, but had turned out 35 of the new BR Standard Class 4 2-6-0s in 1952 and 1956, and continued to repair and maintain many other loco types until closure. The last steam type to be overhauled at Horwich was a Stanier 8F 2-8-0 No. 48756, completed on 4th May 1964.
At the end of 1966, 2492 people were directly employed in the works, on wagon building but by 1983 this had been reduced to 1400, and 3 years later the works closed finally with the loss of 300 jobs. Some small-scale engineering activity continued for a time, when BREL sold the site to the Parkfield Group in 1988, and the following year the rail connection was removed. The site became broken down into numerous industrial units on what was named the “Horwich Loco Industrial Estate”, and many of the buildings are still in use today.
Horwich Railway Works heritage is not forgotten either, and the Horwich Heritage Centre (http://www.horwichheritage.co.uk/index.php ), located nearby, remains committed to telling the story of the men and women who worked at Horwich and their engineering achievements over the years.
Unsurprisingly, the ongoing run down of the railway workshops in the 1980s, despite suggested opportunities to win export orders, to a degree considered possible by the government, the impact of the changes was greeted with much scepticism by MPs.
This was a typical view recorded in Hansard in February 1986, by Peter Snape MP for East Bromwich:
“Mr. Snape: Does the Secretary of State accept that since the Conservative party took office, the railway works at Shildon, Stratford and most of Horwich have closed? Does he accept that Swindon is scheduled shortly to close and that the works at Glasgow are also under threat? Does he accept that up to 12,000 further redundancies in BREL are threatened and that it will take more than the disgraceful slur from his creeping hon. Friend the Member for York (Mr. Gregory) to alter that?
Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that it is the Government’s intention to run down BREL even further prior to privatisation and that the public sector will again pick up the bill, while the private sector picks up the orders? Railwaymen will not forget the right hon. Gentleman’s role in that.”
At that time, Nicholas Ridley was the Transport Minister, and offered this response:
“Mr. Ridley: The hon. Gentleman has been told—again he does not seem to take it in—that his pressure for increased investment in the railways, which has been met, as I said earlier, has resulted in rolling stock that does not require so much repair, maintenance and reconstruction because it is new and of a higher quality. That has been the cause of the rundown in BREL’s work force. To try to increase employment in the railway engineering industry I have agreed with the chairman of British Rail the new arrangements whereby BREL’s activities will be split into repair and new build. The new build part will, therefore, at least have the opportunity to gain export orders. I should have thought that the hon. Gentleman would welcome that. He never seems to welcome good news.”
Judging by what we know occurred in the 1980s, Peter Snape’s estimate of 12,000 further redundancies was about ½ way through this “slimming down” of BREL.
The emergence of BREL Ltd as a separate business under the British Railways Board was a clear indication of the government’s desire to sell off the workshops. Not just the traditional heavy locomotive engineering side, but the wagon works where the railway’s freight vehicles were built and maintained, with a smaller number of specialist vehicles supplied by private industry. One of the most well known of the ‘wagon works’ was at Shildon, in County Durham – a town of 14,000 in 1982, and where around 1/7th of the population were employed in the works. BREL had scheduled it for closure, and in May 1982, the local MP, Derek Foster made this observation:
“Only a short time ago British Rail Engineering announced that it was to close the works in Shildon. It is a profitable works. This works has been described as the most efficient wagon works in the whole of Europe—not by me, not by the workers at the plant, but by the managing director of BREL. Not more than 14 months ago it was described as the jewel in the crown of British Rail Engineering, and now British Rail is saying that it is obsolete.”
Part of the government minister’s reply was interesting too:The works did close in 1984, and 1,750 jobs were lost – jobs and skills – and in the debate, the local MP referred to the many jobs and livelihoods that were at stake, and indeed would be lost when the works closed. At that time too, the economic recession had hit industry hard, and it was cited that British Rail had given as a justification for closure the over valued pound, “….the tight financial limits that have been imposed by the Government….” the failure to win export orders, and the recession.
“The Shildon works lie in the Bishop Auckland employment office area, which is part of the Darlington and south-west Durham travel-to-work area. It is the effect on unemployment in that area that must be considered. The latest available figures for Darlington and south-west Durham indicate that 11,500 people are without work—a rate of 13.9 per cent. Thus, as the House can see, if the addition of 2,500 people to this list over the two-year period involved in closure took place, although much to be regretted, it would not increase those figures to the rates that the hon. Gentleman suggested. They would be about 161⁄2 per cent.”
Four more wagon and coach building works also closed in the early 1980s – Ashford, Temple Mills (W. London)Townhill (Dunfermline), and Wolverton – leaving York as BREL’s only remaining rolling stock workshop, and a dependence on private contractors for new vehicles.
Another notable loss of the decade was the St Rollox works in Glasgow. Here, the existence of both Cowlairs and St Rollox in the same area had led to the concentration of activity at St Rollox, when work was transferred from Cowlairs after its closure in 1968, and the loss of more than 1,000 jobs. In 1988, as BREL was being put up for sale – which was something that the government had indicated was not included in its earlier Transport Act – St Rollox was also closed, with a loss of 1,206 jobs. Seen against the background of the run down of other engineering industries in and around Glasgow, especially shipbuilding, this was a dramatic blow to the economy, and with little by way of other industry to absorb these changes.
Looking back at the 1980s, the decade had seen immense change in the railway industry, and manufacturing, which left Britain poorly prepared for any growth in rail transport, and yet, in that same decade, British Rail had proposed an investment programme for the building of hundreds of items of rolling stock and locos. An optimistic view to say the least, as the closures continued. This, despite the sale of BREL to a consortium of ABB, a MEBO (Management Employee Buy Out), and Trafalgar House (a finance company).
Overall, yes the world of work was changing, and the lack of investment and development of core industrial strategies, together with the economic recession of the 1980s would prove to be a turning point. The continued loss of the skills and technological development over many decades would ultimately prove the final nail in the coffin of the UK’s railway engineering industry, and the technical lead it had established over its competitors.
It could equally be argued that these had little impact on the railway manufacturing businesses, and the workshops in particular, but the general trend was towards fragmentation and disassembly of a national industry, and the loss of skills and opportunities for economic development in those fields. Of course, the UK did still have a fairly extensive private sector railway manufacturing industry, with the likes of GEC Traction, Brush Electrical Engineering, Ruston Paxman, and Metropolitan Cammell, amongst others still winning orders – mainly for export it may be said, but there was little growth. Job losses from the railway workshops would not be absorbed by the private sector, and the long-term prospects were poor.
Between 1980 and 1989 the total jobs lost directly reached more than 8,000, so if you factor in the jobs lost in the supply chain, on simple statistics alone, that could be in excess of 30,000. Whilst the last diesel locomotives built for British Rail came from Brush, at Loughborough, following the completion of the East Coast electrification, Crewe Works of BREL built the final locomotives, the Class 91, to an order from GEC-Alsthom.
In the end, before the railways were privatised, former British Railways workshops played their part in delivering innovative technology, before the wilderness years of the 1990s.
Further reading and useful links:
- Horwich Heritage Centre (http://www.horwichheritage.co.uk/index.php )
- Steam Museum of the Great Western Railway (https://www.steam-museum.org.uk/Pages/Home.aspx )
- Video: Swindon Railway Works 30th Anniversary Closure: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ElNi5fQ2W-A
- Closure at Doncaster Plant Works: https://www.doncasterfreepress.co.uk/news/closure-at-plant-works-means-end-of-the-line-for-150-years-of-history-1-509529
- From the Archive: Shildon Wagon Works: https://www.thenorthernecho.co.uk/history/11856977.From_the_Archive__Shildon_Wagon_Works/