I could go back to the turn of the 20th century and the impact of the First World War to trace railway history from an engineering aspect. However, perhaps a convenient point to start would be Nationalization ( first proposed at the grouping in 1923) which had nothing to do with politics. The simple fact was that the railway companies owed a fortune on government sponsored low interest loans. Said loans had been taken out in the 1920's and 30's It was just like Railtrack 2000, in 1927 a local train derailed just outside my local station, the track simply disintegrated under the locomotive. Money was spent on new track and rolling stock ( of which my particular interest is locomotives ) and by 1939 the UK had probably the best railway in the world.
The railways contracted to provide war transport at a fixed price, when the government had to pay up the country was totally bankrupt. The thing was that the railway companies owed the government a similar amount and as neither could afford to pay each other nationalization was the only sensible answer.
By the 1950's things were looking up, ( non stop Kings Cross to Edinburg in six hours and a half ) Riddles the BR Chief Mechanical Engineer had introduced his excellent low maintenance standard steam locomotives and had plans to electrify all the more busy lines as money allowed. Steam locomotives were cheap to build, a Black Five cost about 16k, the equivalent electric cost 37k, but the equivalent LMS diesel electric cost 87k. Riddles warned the now Tory politicians that dieselization would cost so much that the railways would never be able to afford mass electrification. Of course the politicians took no notice and started ordering diesel multiple units ASAP, Riddles resigned in 1951, HG Ivatt former CME of the LMS and the man behind the design of the LMS diesels having gone in 1950. The SR also built a diesel electric which was later to form the basis for the very successful English Electric Type 4 BR Class 40, one of which is still fit for mainline running but many are preserved.
An interesting development was the 4-8-4 Fell Locomotive, which had four engines driving though differentials to achieve automatic gear change. Although teething troubles left it running as a 4-4-4-4 it ran in regular service until 1957 when its train heat boiler set on fire. Apparently it was quite good, running express trains through the Derbyshire peak district with long gradients either side of the summit. An old friend of mine was actually on one train hauled by it, he said it performed just as well as any good steam locomotive. No comparative costings survive to my knowledge, the politics pointed to diesel electric traction and wanted no obvious competitors.
With 1955 came the " modernization plan ", perhaps more focused on winning the general election with the promise of jobs in marginal constituencies. It set off quite sensible, about 200 " pilot scheme " locomotives were ordered but the Western Region wanted German inspired diesel hydraulics ( to avoid having an electrical department despite the fact that electronics are required to control the system ). Manufacturers included English Electric, BR itself and Brush where Ivatt was a consultant engineer. North British built the Hydraulics with the equipment built under license from Germany. The engines were particularly unreliable, apparently NB had not been supplied with the " limits and fits " so just made them up perhaps down to the accuracy of their ancient worn out machine tools. They were all scrapped in the early 1960s, a diesel electric version of the Type 2 was also an early withdrawal.
The point was the brakes were taken off the " pilot scheme " and mass orders placed perhaps again to swing marginal seats like Loughborough ( Brush ). The original Brush Type 2 had Mirlees engines which started fracturing their crankcases, a slightly more powerful English Electric engine was fitted to the whole 250+ class in the 1960s, yet more unnecessary expense.
The thing was that that by 1962 they had cumatively ordered enough motive power to run the entire pre Beechin network. The Class 14 0-6-0 600 hp diesel hydraulic intended for great western branch lines had a very short life prior to purchase by private industry.
On the DMU order front the older low power units had been replaced with a half decent Rolls-Royce power unit. Even then they were probably no better than a Class 4 steam engine in overall performance. If my experience with road transport engines is anything to go by the AEC and Leyland powered units of the earlier DMU's would have been less than reliable.
The advent of the diesel locomotive had negative effects on the then built up track. I am informed that in steam days the Stainforth ganger would walk to Ribblehead and be finished any work by lunch time. When the diesels appeared on the scene he was working endless overtime to keep the track safe for express speeds.
By the 1970s all the hydraulics and other " non standard " diesel electrics had been withdrawn, what remained were Class 20, 24, 25, 26, 27, 31, 33, 37, 40, 45, 47 and 55 Deltic. I deliberately omit class 50 because they were introduced in 1967 as a stop gap to Crewe-Glasgow electrification in 1974. I believe that there advanced electronics were troublesome, but that was English Electric problem as they were leased to BR. They were eventually rebuilt with conventional control gear, replacing the " Western " Class 52 diesel hydraulics.
Is it any wonder that despite selling millions of pounds worth of equipment for scrap the railways consistently failed to even break even due to servicing the 1bn LOAN taken out to fund the alleged money saving " modernization plan " The HST was a revolution, but is it worth the extra cost to get there that bit quicker. However the HST is a continuing success but one has to question the latest air operated doors for alleged easy disabled access. The safety fascists were paranoid about people opening the door and falling out, but to make the doors open inwards like the NSWGR XPT in Aussie was surely the cheaper option.
In summer 1981 a friend and I spent the entire week on BR doing an all line rail rover for £80, only coming home for a bath on Tuesday. Slept on the overnight trains, often Mk1 corridor stock where you could lie flat across three seats. The whole week went like clockwork, never missed a train until we read the time table wrong, yet managed to substitute the agenda easily. The railways looked in good fettle, even freight was doing relatively OK. Things were little changed in 1985 when I did a Freedom of Scotland pass, which was to prove the template for a three month Austrail Pass nov 1987-feb 1988. The suburban system around Sydney was excellent, only £10 a week for an area the size of Lancashire. I can't help speculating that the fact that they were still using 1925 designed electric stock on some services, the bulk of trains were 1960's double deck EMU stock allowed the low fares.
Three foot six guage rush hour suburban trains at Perth used 1920's mainline stock during the rush hour hauled by 1950 English Electric loco's. Likewise Brisbane, but 1960s steel stock, the five foot threeAdelaide system was fairly run down 1950 DMU's only but dirt cheap, ( not included in Austrail pass ) Melbourne suburban was pretty impressive. It was a pain having to book long distance journeys in advance.
Even though in 1981 there were no tachgraphs at the time, the EU 8 hour driving hours wrecked freight transport efficiency. Industry in central Scotland was decimated when the tachographs eventually came in, mostly due to Dumfries & Galloway police rigidly enforcing the 40 Mph HGV speed limit on the A74. Srathclyde had a spell at it also but could see the damage to the economy, didn't help rail freight either. Now there were lots of empty wagons in central Scotland who couldn't get home for a load the next day so spend the rest of your day loading one to take back. Stuff like spuds and whiskey, basically anything not in a particular rush and you could use traditional railway stock. The yard of the garage where I worked backed onto the Blackburn-Hellifield line so you couldn't miss what was going on. The trains just got shorter and shorter, Scotch wagons were also taking stuff back in the other direction. The final nail in the coffin was the APT and the need to take the catch points out of the WCML so all partially fitted trains were withdrawn.
The result was even more wagon's on the road and everyone had to buy new more powerful equipment, then they did it again in 1985, new 38 tonne weight limit when they should have gone straight to 44 tonne and allow a " full " 40 foot ISO container to be handled by road. The only problem is that much of the current road freight is low density stuff like Stobart's empty beer cans to Worcester and full cans back to Carlisle, which could make such traffic more " eco friendly " ( fuel efficient ) by road.
Perhaps the future is a network of road / rail container interchange depots, with regular trains running between the extremes stopping of on route to interchange traffic. For instance if you had a consignment of goods ( container ) from the south west for destinations in the north east you would intersect the train at somewhere near Preston and deliver ( perhaps several drops ) to as far as Newcastle the next day. Reciprocal from the east coast route, arrange things to make the best use of both rail and road transport. For instance a road vehicle sent from Preston could collect goods to go by rail from a north east depot as part of a working day. It just needs clever organization, computers are not really up to it yet if rail ticketing software is anything to go by.
On the passenger side they introduced the four wheel Pacer DMU's yet four wheel coaching stock was abandoned by the late Victorians. Their " bucking bronco " ride could be described as exciting if not frightening. The Sprinter's are underpowered, only the same engine as a typical late 1980's 38 ton artic yet weigh almost 50 tons. With hindsight the sensible thing to have done would have been to convert and refurbish redundant Mk1 and Mk2 coaching stock for push-pull working and use refurbished withdrawn freight locos as motive power. They do it in the United States, and even Network Rail now have push pull test train sets hauled by class 31 and 37 locomotives. Once again the politically correct disabled access argument comes in to muddy the waters, but once upon a time station staff would pick you up and carry you on if at all infirm.
By the 1990s neglect of the track infrastructure made privatisation the easy political option, but was done in the most inefficient of ways, everybody had to expensively lease everything from the Banks and their stock market parasites. It would appear that the whole object of the exercise was once again false economic growth and we all know what happened with Railtrack.
I have never believed the alleged passenger statistics claiming that train journeys increased. I suspect most of the alleged gain is in double counting of passengers using more than one company to complete their journey. Now many split their journey to save money, how does that reflect on passenger journeys. Crammed into a three car DMU like sardines when in the 1980's the same service would have been loco hauled with up to 10 coaches ?
The result of consistent political mismanagement of our railways since the 1950's means that many people can no longer afford the essential democratic activity of being able to just walk on to a long distance train. We must not let the politicians continue to interfere, new ( imported, stock market parasites change money ) trains ordered to replace the HST's when there is no true need yet. Its up to groups like Cfbt to prevent the HST's being scrapped and instead used on services like Edinburgh / Glasgow - Birmingham currently covered by sardine can latest DMU's. There must be enough coaching stock stored around the country to provide push pull sets ( up to 8 coaches proven ) perhaps utilizing loco's currently in preservation as motive power and replace the remaining Pacer's and cover overcrowded rush hour trains.
The future needs to be targeted investment, make do and mend, only then can fares come down in real terms. Perhaps a modern equivalent of the Fell Locomotive needs to be investigated, no expensive copper and heavy duty electronics. Railways need to get back to the basic first principle of a simple locomotive hauling cheap to build rolling stock. At least Network Rail are doing a good job replacing the worn out track, but all their debts need to be written off. With the track sorted expanding freight could help subsidise passenger services like it did pre war.