The UK rail network is rubbish because Churchill’s advisor thought we’d all be commuting by air by now

Just heading over to the office. Image: Adrian Pingstone at Wikimedia Commons.

In 1947, Britain’s rail networks were nationalised. They needed it: the war, and lack of investment afterwards, had taken its toll. It was estimated in 1955 that it would cost over £1bn (around £31bn in today's prices) to repair the network, and make the transition from noisy, polluting steam trains to electrified ones.

Post-nationalisation, however, the number of rail passengers fell to levels not seen since the 1880s. Things only really picked up again after 1995, when the network was re-privatised. The British government, it’s fair to say, dismally failed rail travel, which makes it all the harder for left-wingers to argue for re-nationalisation now, despite many compelling arguments in its favour. So what happened?

Well, in 1886, a man named Frederick Lindemann was born. Half a century later, he would be a prominent physicist and scientific adviser to Winston Churchill; more, he would be one of the Prime Minister’s most trusted allies. In 1941, an MP suggested to Churchill that he relied on Lindemann, by then Lord Cherwell, a little too much. He responded with the bizarre line: “Love me, love my dog, and if you don’t love my dog you damn well can’t love me.”

Here’s Cherwell on the far left, looking bored during a display of anti-aircraft guns in 1941:

Image: War Office official photographer, Horton (Capt), couresy of Imperial War Museum.

Churchill’s “dog” was no fan of railways. He advised the prime minister that the £1bn investment would be pointless, on the basis that rail would soon be obsolete. Instead, he argued, “helicopters or other forms of transport” would take its place.


(On an unrelated note, he was also not a fan of the working classes – who he called “stupid”; or black people  who inspired a “physical revulsion which he was unable to control”. He also thought Radar was a myth, believed the world should be “led by supermen and served by helots, and told his friend Roy Harrod, on news that another of Harrod’s close friends had died, that he thought the chap concerned a “very second-rate person”. Twice.)

Many others agreed with Cherwell (though most thought motor transport was the future, not helicopters), and plans went back and forth until the 1960s, when mass electrification was rejected in favour of diesel engines. The government continued to invest heavily in road transport. 

As you may have noticed, they were wrong about rail. After privatisation, once proper investment began, passenger numbers climbed steeply. In the 2010s, passenger numbers overtook all previous records:

Click to expand. Rail passengers in Great Britain, 1829-2014. Source: Wikimedia Commons/ UK Office of Rail Regulation.

There are two main conclusions to draw here.

First: the old, traditional thing doesn't always die when you expect it to, even when it would be especially convenient. Cassettes may have faded, but radio is still going strong. Trains, helped along by advances made in bullet and maglev technology, are still the easiest and fastest way to travel by land. 

Second: if your adviser reckons the world should be ruled by a secret “superman” elite, maybe stop inviting them to meetings.

 
 
 
 

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CityMetric is now City Monitor, a name that reflects both a ramping up of our ambitions as well as our membership in a network of like-minded publications from New Statesman Media Group. Our new site is now live in beta, so please visit us there going forward. Here’s what CityMetric readers should know about this exciting transition.  

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Sommer Mathis is editor-in-chief of City Monitor.