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The days when railway companies held their passengers to ransom

In these enlightened days of state-controlled railways and fare control it is sometimes difficult to believe that there was a time when railways were monopolies red in tooth and claw and were more or less free to do what they wanted.

And here, from a hundred years ago, we have an egregious example of precisely the sort of monopoly abuse we have so often been warned of. It’s revision time for fares and you know what’s coming: they’re… er… reducing them:

The Times 3 December 1913 p5

The Times 3 December 1913 p5

Well, that’s as may be but the only reason they’re doing that is because they’re making the service… er… better:

In anticipation of the opening of the first section of the electrified suburban lines during the coming year…

As it happens the lines to which they refer weren’t electrified until 1916 – not that that is particularly important.

So, what’s going on? Well, as Brian Micklethwait likes to point out everything competes with everything else. Railways may not compete much with other railways but they sure as hell compete with buses, trams, cars, moving nearer work and finding a job nearer where one lives.

Even so, railwaymen often refer to the “sparks effect”. This is the phenomenon whereby a newly electrified line will see a significant increase in passengers. With that in mind you would have thought they could increase their fares. I can only imagine fares are being reduced because they are able to run more services.

By the way, not strictly relevant but I loved this from column 1 on the same page:

Mr J. D. Gilbert asked the chairman of the Highways Committee whether in view of the by-laws allowing passengers to stand in the tramcars, the committee had considered the advisability of issuing notices, similar to those in use in Manchester, asking ladies to have all hatpins protected.

From here

From here

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21 comments to The days when railway companies held their passengers to ransom

  • John K

    It probably helped that the central bank could not conjure gold sovereigns out of thin air to “stimulate the economy” back then.

  • Mr Ed

    Would anyone have imagned back then that the UK’s current, ludicrously expensive railway system would have emerged from what existed back then, absent state intervention?

    John K’s point is excellent, and don’t overlook the economic distortion of the Bank of England funnelling fiat money into the financial sector, creating jobs and incentives to work in London, and house price distortions that drive (!) people to commute long-distance by train or otherwise so that they may have a job. If the credit source closed and real savings were the source of credit, the UK might look very different economically.

  • bloke in spain

    Not quite the topic, but whatever gave SW Railways (?) the impetus to come up with that remarkable map? Even rotating 90deg C/W leaves one struggling to match stations with any known geographical locations.
    Is the this the very, very first example of the instruction leaflet being created in Korea?

  • Thornavis.

    b i s

    I was wondering that myself, it might be an example of the difficulties of railway cartography at the time, when designers where struggling with the problems of scale in making rail maps clear and concise, something the underground had particular problems with and which wasn’t solved until Harry Beck’s map was adopted. In this case I think what might have happened is that in order to show the station names clearly it was necessary to reorient the map from a westerly to a south easterly direction, this keeps the lettering largely clear of the lines. The end result is actually rather good I think, there’s a lack of clutter and an aesthetic appeal that perhaps foreshadows the golden age of the railway poster a decade or two later.

  • Mr Ed

    B i s I noticed that too, perhaps it is a fair representation viewed from the West at a notional 30,000 ft and it fits with the train graphic above, but if the train were mirrored it could work more-or-less viewed from the South, which is, after all, an arbitrary perspective.

    It is a very attractive poster, far nicer than today’s ‘Don’t Spit at our Staff’ sort of agitprop, and I don’t mean this.

  • llamas

    No, I have before me a map of the South London railway system, produced by (somebody else) dated 1912 and it is directionally and proportionally quite accurate, certainly no less so than the seminal Beck map of the London Underground.

    Since the map specifically refers to the Bakerloo Line, it cannot be earlier than 1906 in date. And if we check (click, click, Wiki) we find that the LSWR first used electric traction in 1915.

    So it’s just an appallingly-unergonomic map. They forced an extensive and odd-shaped network into the available rectangle.

    llater,

    llamas

  • Thornavis.

    Llamas

    “So it’s just an appallingly-unergonomic map. They forced an extensive and odd-shaped network into the available rectangle.”

    Well yes, that was the problem, geographical accuracy was less important than the need to show clearly which stations on which route were to be served by the new
    trains. Moving it round to allow the station names to remain clear of the lines was one way of doing that and I still think it works well.

    How large is that south London map ? Small posters or even smaller pocket size maps always struggled with fitting everything in without loosing clarity. The Underground group started producing schematic maps around this time but until Beck’s map no one had fully cracked the problem.

    The main line companies had less of a problem as they only produced full system maps occasionally, the North Eastern had some lovely ceramic tile ones which adorned many of their stations, some still survive.

  • llamas

    True enough. Should also have noted that the LSWR was advertising their electric train services against other companies competing in overlapping areas, notably the LBSC and SER systems. The distortion of the map may have been intended to make the LSWR routes appear more-favourable to potential customers in the zones of overlap.

    The map I have is across 2 8vo pages in a book called ‘The Boy’s Guide’, by Archibald Williams, published in 1912. It also contains a pretty-good map of the London Underground in similar format.

    llater,

    llamas

  • Thornavis.

    Llamas

    Yes that’s a good point about competition, with the LB&SCR in particular. I did actually wonder whether this was a deliberate attempt to give the impression that it would encroach into the latter’s South London area but thought it too fanciful. However the two companies disliked each other intensely so perhaps there is something in that.

    The Brighton company’s electrification pre-dated the South Western’s by several years and it must have smarted to see how successful it was at winning back traffic from the tramways.

  • Thornavis.

    For anyone who loves maps there’s a very informative and well illustrated book on the subject of early underground maps, entitled ” No need to ask “. By David Leboff and Tim Demuth, published by Capital Transport.

  • llamas

    Thinking about this more, I suspect that the competition angle is the right one.

    If you worked in the City, the the LSWR routes would actually be much-more attractive to you because they took you to Waterloo, which gave you a 4-minute ride to Bank Tube station via the ‘Drain’. Riders on the central LBSC routes would end up at Victoria, with longer and less-convenient Tube rides to the City. And the Northern line of the Tube already had the due-South inner suburbs pretty-well taken care of. Bal-Ham – Gateway To The South.

    So this was aimed at City workers in Wimbledon or Chiswick, competing as much with the Tube as with the LBSC. You could ride in first-class, electric-hauled comfort to Waterloo (not rubbing elbows and changing trains on the one-class Tube), then take a short ride on the Drain with nothing but other PLU, since it only goes to the City.

    Or perhaps I’m over-thinking this.

    llater,

    llamas

  • Thornavis.

    Llamas

    No I don’t think you are over thinking it, the economics and commercial politics of this are very interesting. There would have been competition with the District at Wimbledon as you say and to a degree with the Brighton where their routes intersected, which was not much really. South London commuters would have been competed for mainly by the Brighton and the South Eastern, the latter had no electrified routes, City bound users of the Brighton would have gone mainly to London Bridge rather than Victoria. The City and South London tube ( later the Northern line ) only went as far as Clapham at this time.

    Where the South Western was vying with the LB&SC was in image rather than market share. Both saw themselves as high status lines, in contrast to the impecunious South Eastern, they had been at daggers drawn ever since the 1840s and electrification was a way of showing how modern and focused on improvement they were.

    Something similar happened in the 30s with the LMS and LNER producing streamlined high profile locomotives and prestige trains, this was as much about maintaining market share in competition with the car and also trying to persuade more people to travel in difficult economic times as it was about outdoing each other.

  • Pardone

    The scandal is that the taxpayer is being forced to subsidies this outdated and economically unviable form of transport, and effectively being charged ridiculously TWICE.

    Strip away the subsidies and let rail die.

    Its high time trains were consigned to the scrapheap.

  • Mr Ed

    Pardone,

    The only caveat I have for your view ismthat withut the subsidies, the train operating companies might get a grip on costs and trains but actually be economic at least in some areas. I would save – leave them to their own ingenuity and enterprise even though the Sky may fall.

  • Indeed. For the record, in true free-market conditions I am pretty sure most Inter-City lines and most, if not all, London commuter lines would survive.

  • bloke in spain

    “Small posters or even smaller pocket size maps always struggled with fitting everything in without loosing clarity”

    Hasn’t prevented them doing that favourite of web designers & using white lettering over pale, thus making it illegible unless you’ve your nose against it. Art triumphs over substance as ever. I still suspect a Korean influence, though.

  • Pardone

    There is no economic justification for the continued existence of this 19th century relic.

    > Forced to pay for it twice.
    > No staff at nights so skivers and chav scum can get on and off trains for free (this is commonplace and is costing the taxpayer millions) while people like me have to pay for it.
    > Terrible service, unreliable, untrustworthy and universally incompetent.
    > Ticket machines frequently don’t work
    > Stations resemble third world toilets.

    As for HS2 and Crossrail, they are a colossal waste of money and expenditure of taxpayer dough on something that is not the responsibility of the government.

  • bloke in spain

    “For the record, in true free-market conditions I am pretty sure most Inter-City lines and most, if not all, London commuter lines would survive.”
    It’s certainly a shame the Ally Pally loop perished leaving a whole wedge of North London relying on surface transport. The upper level Highgate Station’s still there. Almost intact, but disappearing into the weeds. My map shows it terminating at the Palace but ‘on the ground’ experience has a disused station NE of the Palace, a bridge over Park Avenue & a clear pass up to Bounds Green way. The connection with the North London line at Stroud Green would have given that part of London a chance at the peripheral links it so much needs rather than just the radials. The dogs would have missed the Parkland’s Walk, though.

  • Paul Marks

    It should be remembered that the dagger had already been put into the back of the railways by 1913.

    Unions put above the law by the Act of 1906 (building on the 1875 Act) and the “Liberal” government starting to regulate the railways to death (building on the modest regulation of the 1840s).

    In 1913 it was only a matter of time before the private railways were destroyed – although the First World War accelerated the process.

  • Thornavis.

    Patrick Crozier

    I think you are right, we also shouldn’t forget freight which is profitable and operates without subsidy, rail freight helps to reduce road congestion and is part of a competitive market, the provision of extra rail facilities at the new Felixstowe container berth is a good example. It’s also rather difficult to imagine London working properly without its rail links, above and below ground or without the buses for that matter either.

    Most provincial secondary lines would struggle to survive if viewed as separate entities but they often act as part of inter city routes both for regular and diverted traffic, they also carry some of the freight movements.

    I have always thought that a completely privatised network would survive, albeit in somewhat reduced form and with some state involvement in the form of joint funding for infrastructure improvements and a few government owned lines that could be run on a contract basis where useful.

    Pardone

    “There is no economic justification for the continued existence of this 19th century relic.”

    You’ll be wanting to scrap all the ships and dig up all the roads then I take it ? They are relics from the Bronze Age if not earlier and aircraft date from more than a hundred years ago now, hopelessly old hat.

    There may be good arguments for removing state involvement from a transport mode or leaving it to die if it isn’t fulfilling any useful function – like most of our canals – but the date of invention isn’t one of them.

  • Pardone

    “With some state involvement in the form of joint funding for infrastructure improvements and a few government owned lines that could be run on a contract basis where useful.”

    “Joint funding?” Dear god. The taxpayer always gets screwed by infrastructure projects (which conveniently always run over budget, fattening the wallets of contractors who, by an uncanny coincidence, are mates with the politicians who pushed for said projects) If it is economically valid no need for any state funding, it should be able to secure venture capital.
    Contractors are always lazy and wasteful when taxpayer’s money is involved because they know they can fleece with impunity thanks to their friends in government.

    In the video game Animal Crossing, such projects are funded by charitable donation, that is how infrastructure projects should be funded. The people who want these fancy and decadent infrastructure projects should fund them out of their own pocket, not forcing the rest of us to fund these white elephants through taxes.