From 1909 to 1914 the GWR also ran Day Excursions, with dining cars, from Paddington to Killarney - for the Lakes. The Great Western Railway knew a thing or two about "customer care" and provided sleeping cars on the homeward run. The Great Western Engineering Department, being an arm of the same organisation that ran the trains, was well aware of the existence of these trains and did its track maintenance at times and in ways that did not inconvenience the passengers - but that was before they became "customers".
This morning, almost 90 years later, a "Train Operating Company" called "Great Western Trains", was to begin its service from Fishguard to Paddington - with a bus. This was because the line is blocked by engineering work which could not be put off just to let a train through. The track has been reduced from two lines to one, the passing loops closed, the staff made redundant. Money has been saved. As a result, routine maintenance cannot be side-tracked; once the engineers take up occupation the line must remain blocked until they are finished. It is a crude and restrictive system. Odd trains, one-offs like boat trains, running solitary in the middle of the night, become simply a nuisance to be shrugged off on to the road - and since the franchisee is also a bus operator, what could be easier?
The Great Western Railway, whose name the franchisees have stolen, spent vast fortunes to create traffic where none existed and balked at nothing to get it swiftly and comfortably to its destination. Now, with too few staff and with the railway infrastructure pared to the minimum - or even less than the minimum if it causes trains to be turned into buses - the system cannot cope and does not want to cope with the slightest thing out of the ordinary.
The difference between the new "Great Western Trains" and the old Great Western Railway is much greater than the difference between the GWR and the "Western Region" of British Railways that came into being upon nationalisation almost 50 years ago. On 1 January 1948, when the Great Western was purchased by His Majesty's Government, the name may have disappeared but the locomotives, carriages, stations, the tradition of public service which had developed during 112 years of continuous ownership, the reality of giving 50 years of your life to "The Job" - all this remained.
The railway companies were born in an age of unbridled free enterprise. Initially, they owned the track and took tolls from train operators, because that was the limit of experience at the time, that was how the turnpike roads and canals worked. The turnpike system, however, was soon found to be unworkable on railways and was quietly dropped. As the companies matured, they acquired workforces numbering in the tens of thousands, large groupings which proved in time to have some political weight.
Railwaymen naturally created their own society, from drama groups to trade unions, demanding the right to vote and a better life. The Great Western invented the welfare state within the town of Swindon, and all the railway companies had to go some way towards meeting the civilised demands of their workforces. Parliament laid obligations on the companies, and the railway companies were, whether they liked it or not, harbingers of social democracy. They gave security to many thousands of families.
The nationalisation of 1948 was the culmination of 100 years of development by the railway companies towards a co-ordinated, comprehensive, non-competitive transport system in a humane, non-competitive world. The companies themselves saw the need for co-ordination from an early date: competition between them in the 1830s created barriers to travel, so the Railway Clearing House was established in 1842 to enable a passenger to travel over any number of companies' lines without having to buy another ticket at the company boundary.
Competition between companies also caused financial loss in fantastic legal battles. For example, the cost of getting the Act through Parliament to make possible the construction of the Trent Valley Railway was actually greater than the cost of building it. Little wonder that figures such as Robert Stephenson and Joseph Locke favoured state control after the French model.
The amalgamation of companies was found to be essential - not to create an extortionate monopoly but to prevent the competition that ate profits, to prevent the duplication of services, to provide a more co-ordinated national railway - and to ensure safety. When the South Eastern railway and the London Chatham & Dover merged after 30 years of intense competition, the track of the LCDR was so defective that it had to be re-laid in its entirety. While the battle with South Eastern had been waged, maintenance of the line itself had been skimped and the money spent on dividends.
The train operating companies, of which "Great Western Trains" is only one, are revolutionary. They are a manifestation of the culture of risk, or insecurity. It is part of the 18th century ethos to which we are returning. Keep everyone worried about the renewal of their contract, keep them submissive, make their labour cheap - except of course for the executive elite. There is no humane future in risk and insecurity, not even for those who impose it on the rest.
We are hurtling back to an 18th century future on a train which could be a bus.
Adrian Vaughan, a former railwayman, is the author of 19 books on railways. His 20th, a history of their economics from 1821-1921, will be published later this year by John Murray.Reuse content