On 25th September, 1825, an exciting event linked the neighbouring towns of Stockton and Darlington, in the North of England. The first steam-driven train, with Stephenson himself at the controls, puffed triumphantly along between the two towns, at the amazing speed of thirty miles an hour. This was the opening of railway travel in Great Britain, which has since passed through the early rivalry of the small companies for passenger and goods traffic, and the amalgamations into the four large companies, until today we have the vast, nationalised British Railways.
An early example of the harsh competition was the defeat of the Great Western’s application for Parliamentary sanction for their line to Bristol. This was the work of a rival group with interests in a line from London to Southampton. There were the races to the West Country, and the famous Battle of the Gauges, which lasted until 1892, when the Great Western admitted defeat. Brunel’s 7 ft. gauge had all the technical advantages, but it was more expensive to lay than the standard track. That was why it never spread beyond the Great Western—and was eventually dropped. Many of these battles were ended when the combatants joined forces, as happened so often during the 19th and early 20th century.
1959 is another landmark in the history of British railway locomotive production. A few months ago the last steam locomotive passed from the works at Crewe, and now diesel and electric power will be taking the place of steam. This is part of British Railways’ large-scale modernisation programme, involving the electrification of long stretches of line, rebuilding bridges and platforms and erecting overhead cables. An important part of this programme entails strengthening rails and sleeper beds, for some of the new locomotives can travel at 90 miles an hour and the permanent way must be able to stand the increased stress. Let us hope that the modernisation schemes do not cut too fine a safety margin. We can all remember railway accidents which have been caused by inadequate safety measures; recently the writer spoke to a signalman who works a 12-hour shift in a busy box on the London to Holyhead Irish Mail route. It was, he said, at times “a bit too much” for him.
The importance of the railway network to the British ruling class forces a higher degree of safety in their operation than perhaps applies in other spheres of commodity production. Railway accidents are generally followed by courts of inquiry, which often expose the excessive working hours, inadequate rest and poor health of workers such as signalmen, who sometimes carry too much responsibility for really safe working. Always undermining the safety margins is the factor of cost, impossible to eliminate so long as profit is the spur to production.
Of course, there is no need to worry about the lack of safety if you cannot afford a ticket, for without this you will not be allowed on to the train. This vast cardboard empire, with its attendant army of human automatons selling, clipping and snooping, is a typical example of the waste of capitalist society. One of the snoopers’ jobs is to see that nobody travels a class above his tickets that nobody who has paid a fare entitling him to a grimy second-class seat, steals into a first-class compartment like those on the Master Cutler—the business man’s train to Sheffield. Such contrasts, we know, are inherent in capitalist society. But the point is that, despite the euphemistic tags of “public” and “social” services, which are applied to nationalised transport, travel is still for sale—at so much per mile. And the ambition of the railways, as ever, is the accumulation of capital.
What of the men who have spent the best years of their lives building and operating the vast railway network of Great Britain? Are they to be found living “first class” in the twilight of their lives? Are they enjoying the fruits of their past labours? Alas, such is not the case. Read the Liverpool Echo (7.8.59):-
Superannuated railway workers in the South of England are joining forces with their North Wales colleagues in the fight to secure better pensions . . . to see what can be done on a national scale for those elderly people who are living on small fixed incomes.
Such is the lot of the cast-offs of capitalism.
What we really need is a railway system which is operated for our use, instead of for the profit of some company or State bondholders. A railway which travels at a speed dictated by safety, comfort and pleasure, and not by the mad rush of commercial interests. We can only get that when all of society’s wealth is freely available to the people of the world. When the workers who have designed, built and operated the railways and all other wealth, decide to take social possession of their social product. Then we can eliminate not merely the class symbols on the carriages but every evidence of privilege and waste, which produces the shoddy along with the best. We shall never again hear, “Tickets, please!” Mankind will have taken a real step forward in its social travels.
G. R. Russell