Britain's railways and the state, 1908-21 : origins of the Railways Act, 1921

Tarran, Peter (2004) Britain's railways and the state, 1908-21 : origins of the Railways Act, 1921. (PhD thesis), Kingston University, .


This thesis provides a fresh assessment of the 1921 Railways Act by examining its origins, nature and significance, with special reference to the perspectives of railway officials and others directly involved after 1908, across a period encompassing the cataclysmic experience of the Great War. At a time of growing concern about domestic political stability and the British economy's international competitiveness, the railway industry entered a new phase. Its commercial outlook became increasingly uncertain. The network was mature and losing local traffic to flexible new transport technologies. Gross revenues continued to grow, but were outpaced by costs. Money markets demanded higher returns, making capital expenditure problematic. Inevitably, the industry's huge capital debt and parliament's perceived role in helping to generate it, along with the railway industry's commercial drives and management practices, came under intense scrutiny. Working within a rigid regulatory regime, last amended in 1894, and burdened by nineteenth century statutory obligations and perceptions, companies strove to maintain margins by cooperative agreements and other means that led to a deteriorating relationship with customers. Moreover, the railway industry's labour force, seeking equality with capital, became more militant, as evidenced by the 1911 national strike. Within this context, the Asquith Government finally accepted the shortcomings of the existing regulatory framework, and in 1913 established a Royal Commission, chaired by Lord Loreburn, to reappraise the industry's relationship with the state, even its nationalisation. However, the outbreak of war stopped the commission's work prematurely. The Great War brought the railway companies under government control for an unexpectedly long duration. By its end there was wide agreement that their condition, caused by wartime operations without concern for commercial considerations, prevented their immediate return to their proprietors. The resettlement process, between 1919 and 1921, created an opportunity for reform denied in 1914, and particularly for Sir Eric Geddes to influence the outcome through his 1920 White Paper, which relied on improving the industry's efficiency to validate its radical changes. The Act's dual intent, resettlement and reform, was highly constrained by the intractable nature of the industry's pre-war commercial weaknesses, and the economic circumstances and national mood of the post-war period.

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