there is a very clear “image” conjured up in Socialist minds by these words, an automatic response that might be summarised as follows:—
The Labour government inherited a badly run down railway system; it then nationalised road haulage and made a gallant effort for several years to plan the two as a co-ordinated system. Unfortunately the Tories have spent a decade undoing the good work; they have given power to regional boards, dominated by businessmen, who have ensured that private industry shall take profitable slices of railway orders. The Tories have discriminated unfairly against railways (and canals) as freight carriers, against the private hauler on the roads. Finally the Stedeford Report has drawn up a blueprint which, be “decoordinating” transport operations, has finally betrayed the ideals behind nationalisation once and for all. The consequence will be chaos in the sixties, in contrast with a true nationalised system, like the French, with its fast, punctual and clean services.
This picture seems to me not only to be largely false, but also to reveal a very basic inability in all sections of the Labour movement to think precisely about precise problems.
To deal with the last fallacy first. The French have a magnificent skeleton of a railway system; trains are run at intervals infrequent enough to ensure that they shall be full; there is no attempt to provide a service to those wishing to travel within the French provinces without going through Paris. It is assumed that passengers will be prepared to travel a fair distance to get to a station. They are merely units within a brilliant technocratic scheme, which, after 15 years of deficits of up to £180m p.a., is now within striking distance of breaking even. C’est magnifique, but it’s not the British railway system. We expect the luxuries of frequent services, of trains to take us direct from Crewe to obscure points in the South West, from Birkenhead to Brighton; and we get it; and we have been unprepared to pay an economic price for it.
No government could confront us suddenly
To return to our fallacies. Labour paid an inordinately large price for a very varied collection of assets. It then did nothing except centralise their operation. At the same time it (and the Tories) refused any form of economic freedom to them. The railways themselves were very widely differing systems, which of course had been forcibly grouped twenty-five years before. The GWR was a single rational system, brilliantly engineered, proud of its reputation as the finest railway in the world (because of—in spite of Mr. MacMillan’s presence on the board); run-down but still a viable unit. So was the SR with its enormous commuter traffic (bigger than all the passengers carried in all the railways in the USA); on the other hand the LNER and LMS were hotch-potches of dozens of small lines, pushed across the country at the whims of Victorian entrepreneurs, furiously poaching a few passengers from each other. At the same time there were the docks, with their obvious connection with the railways; the canals, largely a Georgian network, many with very little commercial future; a large number of luxury hotels, some broken down ships. A collection of Victoriana to dazzle Mr. Betjeman, all built on the assumption that there were no roads, that these were the only ways to transport people and freight round these islands.
The Labour Government was characteristically unable to distinguish between planning and operations; it centralised both, thus leaving the system in the same shackled conditions commercially as it had been before the war. It is only now that the railways have been freed to judge for themselves the prices of their freight services. Since 1958 there has been a tacit assumption that Socialism means roughly the size of railway system we have now. This is rubbish; how can we need so intricately large a system now that railways no longer have a monopoly of internal transport? Remember the basic fact; that railways have immense overheads; to justify these, there has to be a level of traffic which grows larger every year. There is no reason for retention of uneconomic lines if an adequate road system is there; why support two sets of transport overheads? There are obvious cases where for social reasons, or development purposes, an area or town should be specially favoured; there is a very fair comparison with BEA’s Scottish services and airfields; these are subsidised, but Luton or Southend airports are not treated as though they were in the Hebrides? But each case must justify itself, on social or economic grounds; everyone must have access to a good service, but we must define these terms.