Towards Nationalisation – Transport Act 1947


On the 6th August 1947, the “Transport Act” was given the ‘Royal Assent’, which created the Transport Commission, who were empowered to – “…to provide, or secure or promote the provision of an efficient, adequate, economical and properly integrated system of public inland transport and port facilities within Great Britain for passengers and goods …”.   This included the railways, road passenger and freight transport, docks, canals and coastal waterways, and established the Transport Consultative Committees – both national and regional – to monitor and report on the performance of the services.

The main management bodies were the “Executives”, and at the start these consisted of:

  1. Railway Executive
  2. Docks and inland Waterways Executive
  3. Road Transport Executive
  4. London Passenger Transport Executive

Later the Hotels Executive was set up to manage the establishments and hotels created by the former privately owned railway and transport companies around the country.

The first members of the British Transport Commission, appointed in 1947 were:

  • John Benstead – NUR General Secretary
  • Lord Ashfield – Chairman of London Passenger Transport Board, Director of Midland Bank & ICI
  • Sir Cyril Hurcomb – Secretary to Minister of Transport, Chairman of Electricity Commission
  • Sir William V. Wood – President of the LMS
  • Lord Rusholme – General Secretary of the Cooperative Union

BTC Original Commission Members 1947

In the same year, and just 4 months earlier, the LMS had produced artists impressions of the new diesel locos they were planning to introduce. An illustration appeared on the cover of the company’s magazine for April 1947, as shown below:

Cover of April 1947 LMS Magazine

It is clear from this illustration that this shows the 10000 and 10001 classic diesels, and the bottom illustration shows what became 10800, as built by the North British Locomotive Co.

10000 with post 1956

Of course much of the argument against nationalisation was based on finance and compensation to shareholders. A particular point of concern was how to determine the value of the assets being taken into public ownership. The Financial Secretary to the Treasury, Glenvil Hall (MP for Colne Valley) made it pretty clear in one debate:

  • There were people in the party to which I have the honour to belong who believed that, in taking over certain industries and services, there was much to be said for confiscation. On the other hand, for many years it has been the settled policy of the Labour Party that right, proper and just compensation should be paid. When we faced the electors at the last General Election that principle was made clear in the document familiar to us all as “Let us face the future.” Therefore we say that in our view, in taking over industries and services mentioned there, just compensation should be paid.


The arguments to and fro continued, but the bill did finally receive its assent from the King on the 6th August, and from the railways’ perspective the next round of struggles would centre on whether LMS, LNER, GWR, or Southern practices in running the railways would take the upper hand. Those who perhaps think that the inter-war years and even the last years of the “Big Four” were success, should consider perhaps that the Government was subsidising private companies in the late 1940s, and even before World War II, company revenues were “managed”. As British Railways came into being, this comment made by Ernest Davies the labour MP for Enfield, during a debate in the House of Commons when opposition MPs were trying to reject the “vesting date” of 1st January 1948 is interesting:

  • “…There are many reasons why we should fix this target of 1st January, 1948, for the transfer of the railway and canal undertakings to the Commission. The first is that this country cannot afford to delay the transfer, because at present the taxpayer is subsidising the railways to the extent of £11,500,000 a year.”


So, the Government was subsidising private railway companies in the 1940s, just as it is today – we are back to where we were 70 years ago.

Last Days of “The Big Four”

On the matter of locomotives, steam was still king, but on the Southern the electrification works had progressed to cover – literally – a lot of ground, whilst the LNER had embarked on main electrification using overhead contact systems.

Small steps in adopting new technology perhaps, and with diesel shunters taking on increasing amounts of work, the LMS was the first to enter the fray with main line designs. It has to be said too, that both the LMS and GWR began flirting with less conventional propulsion systems – hence the arrival of gas turbine powered locomotives.

Steam traction was being converted to oil firing in many places, and with the shortage of coal, as many as 1,217 locomotives were planned for conversion to oil firing. The process was initiated by the Big Four in 1946, with the old GWR being first to start the process, when No. 5955 “Garth Hall” was converted in that year, and the North British Locomotive Co. was authorised by the then Minister of Transport to supply 1200 sets of oil-burning equipment.

This project was not a success, and all of the locomotives planned for conversion, and those which had been converted, were re-converted in less than a year after British Railways started operations in January 1948.

After the end of the Second World War, the railways in Britain – as in the examples above – were planning major, and in some cases, revolutionary changes. The majority of people still travelled by rail, although the trains, manpower and structures, had all suffered from the ravages of the recently ended hostilities. Steam was still the principal means of motive power, although elsewhere, in the USA in particular, the diesel-electric locomotive was making rapid progress, and it looked set for a promising future here too, as the LMSR had been demonstrating.

Electric traction was already a force to be reckoned with, notably the third rail systems, whilst electrification at1500Vd.c, with overhead catenary was gaining in popularity, as the lines from Liverpool St. to Shenfield, and across the Pennines between Manchester and Sheffield bore effective testimony. Very little real change was evident in the first couple of years after nationalisation, as the newly formed Railway Executive got down to the task of managing British Railways from its headquarters so recently vacated at 222 Marylebone Road – ‘TheKremlin’. The members of the 1948 Railway Executive included:

Sir Eustace Missenden W.P.Allen
Sir Wilfrid Ayre V.M. Barrington-Ward
C.Neville R.A.Riddles
J.C.L.Train Field Marshall Sir William Slim

The military connection was continued throughout those early years until Slim was replaced in 1949 by General Sir Daril Watson, and later, and perhaps more widely known, General Sir Brian Robertson, who presided over the early years of dieselisation.

The public face of the new organisation was given these early brand images as we call them today, but back then they were referred to as ‘totems’. Needless to say they soon acquired more colourful nicknames – the “double sausage” and the “cat on a mangle wheel”. The lion and wheel emblem was eventually applied to the sides of tank engines, and the tenders of main line locomotives, whilst the double sausage was used on station name signs, and a great deal of documentation.

Nationalisation was not of itself, a panacea to cure an illness which had dogged the industry for many years before 1948. The four main line railways had each earned themselves nicknames, which demonstrated the regard in which they were held by the travelling public the LMSR for instance was the ‘Long, Miserable &Slow Railway’, the GWR was not known as frequently as some would have us believe, as ‘God’s Wonderful Railway’, but more commonly, the ‘Great Way Round’. Punctuality featured heavily in the companies’ names, with the LNER becoming the ‘Late and Never Early Railway’, and the Southern was the ‘Slow Railway’. The latter particularly apt perhaps for the 21st Century equivalent in the latest incarnation of the Southern!

Changing Operations

BR Double Sausage

On the passenger front, in1948 the total number of passenger journeys made had fallen below the 1,000 million mark, since pre-war days, and remained at that level until 1955.   Freight carried by British Railways was always heavily weighted in favour of coal traffic, which made up around 60% of the total between 1948 and 1955, even showing a slight increase until the early 1960s. In contrast, there was a general decline in freight traffic between 1948 and 1962, from 273 million tons a year to 228 millions a year, a reduction of 16 1/2 %.

So 70 years ago, the massive programme of nationalisation of all the country’s transport undertakings was begun, and throughout the decade that followed, many changes were made, in both organization and technology – some at a rather quicker pace than others. Perhaps some of the most negative effects on the operation of railways – for both passenger and freight were to come after the mid 1960s – and the unfair competition with heavily subsidized road building schemes in particular.

The irony of today’s “privatised” railways is that they are even more fragmented in their operations than the pre 1948 railway companies had been, and they too are not meeting the needs of transport in the 21st century in the UK.