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Sunday, 11 September 2011

Discredited by Victorian Railway Managers: Separating Trains from Tracks

In Britain’s privatised railway system one thing has caused a particular headache for policy makers, namely, that the maintenance of the infrastructure is under separate control from the operation of the trains. Indeed, most now believe that unified control of these elements would have been far more desirable, as such an arrangement would have been improved the communication, management and expenditure within the  railway industry. 

But the current arrangement isn't just a feature of modern railways, and a visit to the 1830s, 40s and 50s would reveal that some railway companies used private contractors to maintain their lines. In 1837 William Allcard's firm was awarded the maintenance contract for the Grand Junction Railway when it had completed it. Furthermore, his firm also maintained the permanent way of the Sheffield and Manchester Railway.[1] On the formation of the London Brighton and South Coast Railway in 1846 the company advertised in Herpath’s Journal for ‘tenders for the maintenance of the Permanent Way and Works of the whole of their main line between Brighton and the Junction with the Greenwhich Line near London.’[2] Also, the directors of the Shrewsbury and Birmingham Railway advertised in February 1851 for the same.[3] Lastly, in 1840 Thomas Brassey's firm, after constructing the London and South Western Railway’s (L&SWR) main line, was given a ten year contract for the maintenance its way and works.[4] Thus, while not identical to today's maintenance arrangements, some Victorian railway companies clearly separated the control of the trains from the maintainers of the tracks.

But why did early railway managers opt for using contractors rather than conducting the maintenance themselves? In the case of Brassey and Allcard both had built lines that they subsequently went on to maintain. Furthermore, the London, Brighton and South Coast Railway advertised for tenders at the point which it was formed. Therefore, the fact that at the beginning of their operations the railway companies engaged contractors who had worked on the railways, and seemingly did not investigate alternatives, suggests that early railway managers did not posses the knowledge to enable them to organise and undertake railway maintenance.  Indeed, it would have been simpler and cheaper in the short-term for the companies to employ the experienced contracting firms, rather than creating whole new maintenance departments with hierarchies, supply chains and staffs.

Yet, by the 1870, as far as I am aware, most railway companies had taken maintenance operations ‘in house.’ Indeed, in the L&SWR's case this was done to improve costs and administrative harmony. When Brassey’s original ten year contract was up in 1850 the L&SWR had re-let part of the contract to him and another part to a Mr Taylor.[5] Five years later, the two contracts were again up for renewal and a special committee of the  L&SWR's board charged the resident engineer, John Strapp, to write a report on the maintenance arrangements. He was to  include ‘a detailed account of his estimate of the expenses attending the company’s keeping the maintenance in their own hand.’ Indeed, this would suggest that by the 1850s the L&SWR's management had developed knowledge of permanent way maintenance and felt that the company could adequately undertake the job themselves.

However, at this stage it wasn't a certainty that the company would take over maintenance, given that Brassey and Taylor were invited to re-tender for their contracts.[6] However, they were not to be successful, and a month later, with Brassey and Taylor’s proposed tenders taken into consideration, the committee recommended to the board that ‘the company should take the maintenance into their own hands’ on the basis that this would reduce company costs.[7] This recommendation was accepted and the committee's decision was justified when the management of the permanent way maintenance improved and the expenses was reduced. Consequently, the company’s annual report of 31 December 1856 stated that ‘the results have proved satisfactory, inasmuch as the ordinary repairs have been more substantially and durably executed than could have been claimed from a contractor, and the total expenditure for the year has only exceeded the estimate by £39.’[8]

Thus, the L&SWR's case (and presumably others) shows that separating control of infrastructure maintenance from control of train operations has always been undesirable. Therefore, those privatising the railways in the 1990s were essentially introducing a system which had been long since discredited on the basis of its inefficiency.


[2] Herpath’s Railway and Commercial Journal, No. 391, Vol.85 December, 1846, p.1552
[3] The Railway Record, 8 February 1851, p.96
[4] William, R.A., The London and South Western Railway – Volume 1: The Formative Years, (Newton Abbott, 1968), p.246
[5] William, The London and South Western Railway – Volume 1, p.246
[6] The National Archives [TNA], RAIL 411/216, L&SWR Special Committee Minute Book, 30 August 1855, p.181
[7] TNA, RAIL 411/216, L&SWR Special Committee Minute Book, 30 August 1855, p.181
[8] TNA, RAIL 1110/281, L&SWR Reports and Accounts, Half-year ending 31 December 1856, p.1

1 comment:

  1. This all depends how you specify 'control'. While you might bring in external contractors, you aren't giving up ownership and so the contractors aren't seeking rents for the use of the tracks. Ultimate responsibility for the track also remains with the railway company. Surely this scenario is closer to Railtrack's disastrous experiment with outsourced maintenance than the track/train split.

    Though I agree its still interesting that they experimented with contractors before settling on full internalisation.


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