Last Days of the Big Four

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Back in the immediate post second world war period, the railways had been “nationalised’ for the duration of the war, and following the election of Clement Attlee’s Labour Government, they were keen to return to the pre 1939 arrangements.  The new government were clear that they were going to bring all of the LMS, LNER, GWR and Southern under a single umbrella, as a truly nationalised industry.  A national rail network and operating as a single entity.

The call for nationalisation went back to at least 30 years earlier, with the Geddes Report, and David Lloyd George – when Prime Minister in 1918 – told a TUC deputation at a Select Committee that he was “in complete sympathy” with the projects for railway and canal; nationalisation.  29 years later, one MP quoted the English philosopher John Stuart Mill in a debate:

Countries, which at a given moment are not masters of their transport, will be condemned to ruin in the economic struggles of the future.”

It seems the railway companies in the 1940s were not “in complete sympathy” with either Lloyd George or John Stuart Mill.  Mill’s maxim is as valid in 2022 as it was in 1947.

But …. Unsurprisingly, the shareholders and ‘investors’ in the previous separate businesses were going to publish an alternative view, where they would claim the ‘Big Four’ had plans for investment and development at all levels.  There are some examples that could rightly lay claim to being developed by the private companies – the early diesel, electric, and gas turbine locomotives.  At least in terms of main line locomotives these were more a case of the British companies playing catch up with railway systems elsewhere in the world.

Britain’s main source of fuel and energy was the huge coal resources that were still being mined, and the non-steam development was always going to be a difficult project, and even where oil burning was tried on steam traction, it was not a success.

The Big Four were clear about their opposition to nationalisation, and claimed in their publicity material, such as the booklet produced in 1946, that they had great plans, as well as laying claim to some dubious successes of the 1930s. 

Typical of their claims were these two statements:

The inter-war period was not an economic period they should have looked at to suggest some of their ‘developments’, characterised as it was by the ‘Great Depression’.  Many of the UK’s world-famous engineering companies were close to going bankrupt during this period, and examples such as the North British Loco Co survived by the skin of their teeth. 

The railway companies claimed that they had achieved this work during the period from 1928 to 1938 – it may be argued that some of it was achieved, but then the booklet was designed for marketing and a ploy to dissuade the supporters of nationalisation.

The world was changing rapidly, and the manufacturers and suppliers, as well as the railways were faced with major change.

These changes might not be so easily met by reverting to pre-war management and supply chain practices, and the haphazard developments in motive power and rolling stock.  The ‘Big Four’ were adamant that they were best placed to take the separate railway companies forward and provide the technological and operational developments needed.

They concluded the booklet with this statement:

But there were those in parliament who offered their different views, including those of railwaymen like Walter Monslow:

The full booklet can be downloaded here:

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