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Front cover of Backtrack Magazine, April 2018 Issue
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Backtrack Magazine, April 2018 Issue

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Contents Listing - Articles & Features in this issue
The '15XX' Pannier Tanks
The Wick & Lybster Railway
Engine Problems on the Lancashire, Derbyshire & East Coast Railway
Smoking on the Railway
Blink Bonny goes to London
Eric Bruton's 'Black Fives'
A West Riding Portfolio
Railway Nationalisation
'New Life for Old Lines'
Southern Gone West - Part Four
Plymouth in Wartime
Colliery Lines at Swadlincote
Halt Here
Readers' Forum
Book Reviews
 
Cover - GWR '15XX' 0-6-0PT No.1503 has just brought a train of empty stock into Paddington station on 17th August 1963. '94XX' N0.9477 has done the same, as has '61XX' 2-6-2 No.6123.
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Regular readers will be aware that from time to time a guest editorial occupies this space, that invitation having first been issued by David Jenkinson in March 1992. As a mere 'boy' associate editor at the time, I was aware that I was the first to contribute such a piece, as I was reminded when I came across it again recently and with it the unnerving realisation that I'm 25 years older than I was then! Another early editorial of mine reflected on the practice which had inevitably developed among railway writers of dividing history into convenient periods of time, the markers being those significant changes in the functional and organisational nature of the railway system following which it became 'different'. Those, at the time I wrote, were the 'grouping' in 1923 and nationalisation in 1948; 'privatisation' has, of course, become another landmark since then. It had thus become the custom to define railway history under two headings. 'Pre-grouping' encompassed everything from the start of the steam-worked railway through the many companies which were formed and amalgamated with each other up to the fairly settled situation that prevailed when the Railways Act of 1921 took effect and the majority of the railways were 'grouped' into the 'Big Four'. 'Post-grouping' then consisted of the years thenceforward until the nationalisation of railways in 1948 and 'post-nationalisation' took in the years subsequent to that. But history always moves on, of course, and we've since gained 'post-privatisation' as another era and who knows what might yet be to come, given that Government-led railway reorganisation seems to be almost as certain as death and taxes.

The post-grouping days of the 'Big Four' has with rose-tinted hindsight come to be regarded as something of a golden age' (though there might have been others and more are promised, with tomorrow's jam). In that period we had the advent of the Pacifies, 'Castles' and 'Kings', streamliners, prestige luxury trains and much else of an eye-catching nature, so the 'golden age' notion has at least something to it. Yet for such a defining period of railway history it was actually rather a short one - just 25 years of which almost nine were taken up by the Second World War and its consequent austerity. Thus that 'golden age', if such it was, lasted just fifteen or sixteen years before darkness spread across the scene. Back in 2006 A. J. Mullay wrote the fourth volume in our 'Railways in Retrospect' series entitled Railways forthe People: The Nationalisation of Britain's Railways in 1948. Now he has returned with what in the film industry might be termed a 'prequel'. Grouping Britain's Railways: Creating the 'Big Four' in 1923 returns us to the preceding upheaval, the1921 Railways Act which combined the existing companies into the London Midland & Scottish, London & North Eastern, Great Western and Southern Railways. That much we know. But why did the grouping happen at all? Why did it happen the way it did? How could it have been done differently - or better?

The theory behind the grouping has been held to be that the First World War had left the railways in such a condition, physically and financially, that 'something had to be done' but they had not, of course, suffered anything like the ravaging dealt out in the air raids of the 1939-45 conflict. There were, however, other issues to be faced as peace was restored including a post-war wages settlement, the imposition of the eight-hour day and the growing competition from road transport. With the Government having exercised control during the war years and guaranteed the railways' profits for two years after the end of it, outright Government ownership was at least being considered, though 'nationalisation' then didn't carry the political baggage it does today. There being no great appetite for it, the grouping was that good old British compromise, but in achieving it the Government failed to seize the opportunity to create a greater measure of geographical sense of the way railway ownership had worked out by 1921. The pre-grouping railways were placed intact into one or other of the groups, saving their existing, sometimes illogical, boundaries and penetrating lines as they were. No attempt was made to match some of these lines to more logical groups, with the result that the London Midland & Scottish emulated its constituents by turning up in South Wales or on the east coast at Southend and Yarmouth, while the London & North Eastern found itself on the far west coast of Scotland, in a corner of north east Wales and in Cumberland and the Great Western and Southern chased one another round Devon and Cornwall. It would also be wrong to assume the pre-1923 companies all went along complicitly; Sir Frederick Banbury, chairman of the Great Northern, lost no opportunity to grumble his opposition to the whole thing (the 'arch-remoaner' of the day, perhaps!). So Grouping Britain's Railways throws back the curtains and lets some light shine upon this first and hugely significant reorganisation of the railway system: from its origins in the Great War, through the political, economic and practical issues surrounding it, up to the Parliamentary process needed to make it happen and ultimately to the implementation of the Railways Act and what immediately followed. This is a fascinating account, most readably presented, and I commend it to the House.
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