UK Transport History and trends, especially 1951 – 2001

Since 1951 the story of British Transport has been more about expansion than development. It is evident that the significant majority of infrastructure was in place prior to 1951, that all radical innovation preceded this date, no new methods of transport have been devised since and mainstream political ideas appear little changed. To place the second half of the twentieth century in context it is useful to understand:

Transport History up to 1951

On the 15th September 1830, ex-cabinet member, leading economist, peer and Tory party reformer, William Huskisson was invited to the opening of the world’s first inter-city train service by the directors of the Liverpool and Manchester railway company. In a thought provoking frontispiece to modern transport history, The Rocket, one of the most famous steam locomotives, badly mangled Huskisson’s legs. In spite of the use of another engine, The Northumberland, being used as an ambulance it transpired to be a fatal accident. The event was, however ‘successful’ in that it perhaps marked the final indication that the movement of people and goods would no longer be constrained by the speed of a horse, their endurance or perishability.

Relative length of Railway in Britiain through time
Fig #a

By 1847 there were 3,036 miles of Railway track on Great Britain. At the death of Queen Victoria in 1901 track length was approaching 19,000 miles, to reach over 20,000 after the amalgamation of the country’s many railway companies into “The Big Four” of London North Eastern Region, London Midland and Scottish, Great Western and Southern in 1923. In 1947 the railways were nationalised bringing about some rationalisation. By 1951 railway lengths were undergoing slight reduction and as will be illustrated later were to undergo a drastic down-sizing.

Modern locomotives have a long history in that it was in 1879 that Siemens & Halske displayed the first electric locomotive and 1918 when the first commercial diesel locomotive was built, by General Electric, for the Jay Street Connecting Railroad in New York.

By way of comparison, at the time of writing, on 18th March 2004, the fastest scheduled railway service between London and Carlisle is four hours and twelve minutes, though the majority of runs are around four and a half hours. In 1935 the Royal Scot was scheduled to complete the same 299 mile run in five and a half hours.

Running parallel with the railway boom of the 19th century, shipping underwent similar drastic changes. In April 1832 the Sirius and Great Western, respectively, arrived on consecutive days in New York, completing first transatlantic passages under sustained steam power. Just over a decade later, the first ocean-going, ship with a screw propeller built of iron, the Great Britain, was launched by Isambard Kingdom Brunel. By 1952, the ‘Blue Riband’ of the fastest time on and across the Atlantic was set in both directions by the liner SS United States, and though beaten in 1990 they were not superseded by any passenger ship.

In 1893, a vehicle built by Charles and Frank Duryea, was the first gasoline powered car in America and by 1896 a production run of thirteen of their cars were sold. By 1904 the registration of cars was compulsory in Britain after number plate ‘A1’ had been purchased by Earl Russell. 1930 saw driving tests introduced and third party insurance became a requirement. After the Second World War thousands of demobilised ex-members of the armed forces had been given the experience and qualification to drive different vehicles on the road.

Over 100 years ago, two more brothers, Wilbur and Orville Wright made the first man powered flight at Kill Devil Hill, Kittyhawk, North Carolina, and although the first non-stop trans-Atlantic flight was performed by Captain John Alcock and Lieutenant Arthur Whitten Brown in 1919, it was another twenty years when, in 1939, Pan-Am and Imperial Airways established the first scheduled passenger service by flying boat between New York and Southampton. On May 15th 1941, the jet-propelled Gloster-Whittle E 28/39 flew successfully from Cranwell, becoming the harbinger of modern, jet powered, flight; its inventor, Frank Whittle accurately predicting that once his system of propulsion was available, no great invention was required for an aircraft to use it. On October 14, 1947, Charles ‘Chuck’ Yeager broke the sound barrier in a Bell X1 fighter plane over the town of Victorville, California and 1951 saw the introduction of the first commercial Turbo Jet Airliner, the De Havilland Comet in Britain, setting the template for modern air travel.

Internally the most significant transport decision may have been taken as long ago as 1914, when, on June 17th, Winston Churchill introduced a bill proposing that the British government invest in an oil company. With a vote of 254 to 18, the British government acquired fifty-one per cent of Anglo-Persian thereby paving the way to committing the British Navy to oil based propulsion and perhaps wedding the British national security to oil interests in the Middle East.

No invention has had any as radical effect upon the UK transport system as those discussed above during the last half of the twentieth century. Design has altered the look, comfort and speed of transport, but only marginally. Space exploration has been the purview of the United States and Russia, until recently joined by China. Hovercraft and Hydrofoils still fill a small niche but have failed to affect personal mobility to any significant degree. Concorde, along with Pogo Sticks and Raleigh Choppers, has come and gone. The promises of information technology to reduce travel demand do not seem to be fulfilled in that the trend of personal movement has continued to increase and the demand for those raw materials on which information is traditionally stored (e.g. paper) has increased markedly.

In actuality, the story since 1951 has basically been one of a decrease in walking and cycling along with a disproportionate increase in passenger miles by air and motor car. Coupled with this explosion of ‘personal mobility’ we see still increasing patterns of residential dispersion, planning and transport going together in what some might analyse as a symbiotic relationship (although others might more readily deem it a Faustian Pact). By 1950 the country’s travelling public were on the cusp of an explosion of car ownership and air travel that would dramatically increase personal mobility.

1951 – 2001: Transport within Great Britain

Indicating little population growth but huge increases in movement and vehicles 1951-2001 UK
Fig #b

The population of Britain in 1951 was just over 50 million. Since then population growth has been somewhat muted, with a 17% increase by the time of the 2001 census. It is with this background of moderate population growth that changes in distance travelled should be regarded. Looking at figure #b, we see illustrated the boom in miles travelled; an increase of 250%. On average the British citizen travels three and half times further than in 1951. Before exploring the particular merits or otherwise of this growth, attention might be given to the more significant events of the past five decades.

Politically, the UK has seen Conservative governments replace by Labour for the latter parts of the 1960’s. 70’s and 90’s. The Conservative transport minister Ernest Marples, who held the office between 1959 and 1964 was perhaps the most instrumental in the ‘demise’ of the railways and the growth of car travel (he appointed Richard Beeching as chairman of British Rail and was the owner of a Road Construction company). Although the M1 was inaugurated one year before his appointment, it was a Conservative initiative which Marples vigorously embraced, expanded and encouraged. On 2nd November 1959 he opened the first stretch of the M1 and during his tenure oversaw the continuation of the road building trend (fig #c) and the establishment of the still continuing motorway programme (fig #d).

Relative Road Length in Britain through time
Fig #c (nb ‘glitches’ in the trend lines are created by methodological change in 1969 and 1993)

Relative Road Length in Britain 1951-2001
Fig #d (nb ‘glitches’ in the trend lines are created by methodological change in 1969 and 1993)

‘Predict and Provide’ was name given to the system by which trends are analysed (in the case of transport perhaps the use of motor cars) and action is taken for provision a facility (i.e. roads) to cater for the extrapolated trends. This has, since 1951 been the foundation of policy and is reflected in figs #c and #d. As have all post war governments, Ernest Marples, as the transport spokesman for Harold Macmillan’s Conservatives, adopted it wholeheartedly, whereby as traffic rose, roads were built. Figs #c and #d most definitely do not reflect area under tarmac. It is obvious that 1 km of motorway may be many times wider than an A class road, and that there has been a trend towards broadening all carriageways.

In 1961 Marples appointed Dr. Richard Beeching chairman of the British Railways Board. Beeching’s subsequent report Reshaping of British Railways of March 1963, whereby 5,000 miles of track and 2,000 stations were deemed inefficient, inspired the closure of much track and many stations, bringing about an eventual 50% reduction of the earlier peak of track length. (Fig #a). It seems that, for whatever reason, the die was cast firmly in favour of the private motor car during the first half of the 1960’s.

Marples’s successor in Harold Wilson’s (Prime Minister 1964 – 1970 and 1974 -1976) first Labour cabinet was Tom Fraser who saw the introduction of wider speedlimits, Barbara Castle, introduced the Road Traffic Act along with shutting a further 2,000 miles of railway. In 1966 Great Britain saw its worst ever year for traffic fatalities (7,985). Perhaps inspired by these grim statistics, Castle notably introduced the compulsory wearing of seatbelts and the breathalyser.

In 1966 Labour barely clung to power with a majority of only two in the House of Commons. The Hull North by-election that year attracted considerable attention, and despite it being thought of as a relatively safe seat, both the Prime Minister (Harold Wilson) and Castle campaigned in the constituency, the latter promising the building of the Humber Bridge (though not started until 1972) in what some observers perceive as a short term political gain in exchange for a long term and perhaps inefficient commitment.

Since 1950 there have been 31 claimants to the position of transport minister or its equivalents. The job description and positions of the minister in charge of transport have a somewhat ephemeral quality. For the 50 year period in question the following titles have been ascribed.

UK Prime Ministers 1945-2006 UK Transport Ministers 1945-2006
1945Clement AtleeAlfred Barnes1945
1951Winston Churchill John Maclay1951
1952Alan Lennox-Boyde1952
1954John Boyd-Carpenter 1954
1955Anthony Eden1955
1956Harold Watkinson1956
1957Harold Macmillan1957
1959Ernest Marples1959
1963Alex Douglas-Home1963
1964Harold WilsonTom Fraser1964
1965Barbara Castle1965
1968Richard Marsh1968
1970Edward HeathJohn Peyton 1970
1974Harold WilsonFred Mulley1974
1975John Gilbert1975
1976James Callaghan Bill Rogers1976
1979Margaret Thatcher Norman Fowler1979
1981David Howell1981
1983Tom King (1983 Only)

Nicholas Ridley
1986John Moore1986
1987Paul Channon1987
1989Cecil Parkinson1989
1990John MajorMalcolm Rifkind1990
1992John MacGregor1992
1994Brian Mawhinney 1994
1995George Young 1995
1997Tony Blair John PrescottGavin Strang1997
1998John Reid1998
1999Helen Liddell (1999 only)
Gus Macdonald
2001Stephen Byers2001
2002Alistair Darling2002
2006Douglas Alexander2006

Without any a specific major transport intervention, Margaret Thatcher’s (Prime Minister 1979 – 1990) programme of deregulation and privatisation has had the most notable effects on transport in the last quarter of the twentieth century, resulting in the emergence of private bus companies being the service provider for public road transport along with a railway system still trying to find an equilibrium after the wholesale dismantling of British Rail in the early 90’s and the conflicts between the new constituents of the rail service, namely rolling stock companies, train operating companies, freight service companies, The Rail Regulator, and the infrastructure providers.

The innovation with perhaps the greatest potential for bringing about social benefit was introduced in 1993 by John McGregor, then minister of transport for John Major’s second Conservative Government. The Fuel Duty Escalator was introduced to incrementally increase the price of fuels such as petrol at a slightly greater rate than inflation. Initially set at 3% in real terms, it was increased to 5% in 1995, and 6%. Because of this the duty on unleaded petrol and diesel had more than doubled in nominal terms between 1993 and 2000, but in the Autumn of 2000, shortly after the “Fat Blokes for Cheap Petrol” demonstrations (which saw an small increases in productivity and spending and massive increases in air quality and safety), Chancellor Gordon Brown 'prudently' abandoned the initiative in favour of reducing duty on many classes of motor car.

A government white paper of 1998 (“A New Deal for Transport, Better for Everyone”) and the ten year transport plans were all initiatives which promised an application of a demand management strategy that might have induced beneficial differences to transport within Great Britain, but like the fuel duty escalator, their promise is somewhat muted and their targets seem increasingly optimistic. The Commission for Integrated transport have been somewhat circumspect in their evaluation of the success and potential for such given their review of progress. There is little evidence to suggest that the trends of the last 50 years will not continue well into the next century.

1951 – 2001: Transport influences upon Great Britain.

In all aspects of life travel has increased. In 1956 the first soccer European cup final saw the Real Madrid team of all talents beat Stade de Reims 4-3 in the culmination of 29 matches between 16 teams, Britain being represented only by Hibernian from Edinburgh. By the end of the 2000 – 2001 champions league season (The direct descendent of the European Cup) there had been a total of 237 games with six British representatives.

100 people watched Bob Mathias win his first Olympic decathlon title by completing his 1500 meter run in a poorly lit White City stadium on a dark and wet evening in 1948. When Pavo Nuurmi of Finland carried the Olympic flame into the Helsinki Olympics of 1952 there were 149 events and for the first time a Russian contingent boosted numbers to 4,925 from 69 nations. Kathy Freeman lit the flame in Sydney 48 years later, not only for over twice as many participants, but also 46,967 volunteers and 16,033 media representatives.

Juan Manuel Fangio’s Formula One drivers’ title of 1951 was only the second championship of what we now know to be an international circus that travels thousands of miles every two weeks for a season encompassing 16 events in 5 continents.

Up until 1949 the relatively new medium of television was the purview of less than 25,000 households, and only in 1951 did the single channel BBC become available in the north of England. When Queen Elizabeth was crowned in 1953, two million households owned television sets. At the beginning of the twenty first century over 5 million sets per year are sold in the United Kingdom. A great variety of sports enjoy global TV coverage to the vast majority of homes in the United Kingdom, a far cry from relaying cricket commentaries via ticker-tape and Crystal palace, yet it is regarded as not unusual to travel to the other side of the globe merely to watch a sports event live whilst the broadcast product is superior to the live in many quantifiable aspects.

Perhaps the greatest influence on transport in Great Britain has been an external one, namely the price of oil.

Given that transport is a commodity, it follows some simple economic principles – that the cheaper it becomes, the more of it will be purchased. In real terms the price of purchase of a motor car and the cost of running it has dropped since 1951, more significantly as a proportion of income. Empirical evidence for these effects can be seen during the oil crises of 1956 (Suez), the six day war (1967) and especially the Yom Kippur war and consequent Arab oil embargo of 1974. It is entirely reasonable to see that the provision of infrastructure without payment at point of entry has served to drive down the ‘point of entry’ cost of private motoring, and it might be speculated that the introduction of efficient safety measures (such as the drink drive laws) have contributed in some small way to the reduction of personal private motoring costs, through, perhaps, reduced insurance premiums, and accident reduction. (Conversely it should be pointed out that by driving down the costs of private motoring without reference to full costs, the relative costs of other forms of transport become proportionately greater).

We can see some correlation between the (more volatile) price of a barrel of West Texas Intermediate on the wholesale market and the price of petrol at the UK pump. It is the former price that is used herein as the indicator of petrol prices

Fig #e

Fig #f compares the trends in average disposable income and the cost of a gallon of petrol over the second half of the twentieth century. (No weighting has been made to account for inflation as it is a comparison of contemporary prices). It should be born in mind that petrol elasticities will largely only apply to that portion of the population who purchase petrol, therefore it might be more accurate to consider only that particular set within society. In 1951 a barrel of West Texas Intermediate averaged $2.57. By the year 2001 the market price was over $30 dollars a barrel (although as early as 1980 the price had reached $37, the price volatility of the product reflected in its 1997 average of $14.39). A more consistent and marked rise in disposable income has seen a steady increase in not only actual, but also real (i.e. weighted for any given year) terms. It seems there was a significant change in the correlation of oil prices and disposable income sometime around 1980 when it can be seen that the latter galloped away, making the cost of oil to the consumer very much and increasingly cheaper on a year on year basis.

Price of Oil relative to income in the UK 1950-2000
Fig #f

Fig #f indicates a comparison between the trend of cheapening of fuel and the rise in distance travelled. The trend lines in figure 4 above are expresses as a ratio when the cost of oil: and Disposable income in 1950 was 1:1. Assuming an average Briton in 1950 could afford 1 unit of oil, the trend line shows how many of those units he might afford on a year by year basis. Again assuming that in 1950 the same average Briton travelled 1 unit, the second trend line illustrates how far he has travelled each year since.

Fig #g

It is not impossible to imagine a distinct correlation between petrol price and distance travelled. This would be consistent with simple economic theory and is born out by the trends displayed in fig #g. Though by no means a perfect correlation there are other variables which might be considered

These combine to create the ‘smoothing’ of the line indicating distance travelled as depicted in figure #g.

Other Trends

Provision for private car travel is often endorsed by claims that, amongst other things, the world is more dangerous nowadays; that vulnerable people and especially children run a greater risk of physical danger. Another major claim is that building new roads creates a better standard of living through job creation. Without seeking to predict the verity of such claims, the time frame explored in this paper may give some indication as to whether they can be born out through retrospective analysis.

Physical Danger

Against a background of slightly rising population (17%) and the huge increase in personal mobility indicated in fig#b, if personal mobility does increase safety a reduction in murder, assaults and personal robbery would not be remarkable. The safety of children is a highly emotionally charged issue therefore as these trends must a least be paid some attention to.


Perhaps the most cited justification for road building is that of ‘regeneration’ through the encouragement of commerce and ultimately job creation. The validity of an argument which uses employment as a barometer of ‘success’ is not within the purview of this research, nevertheless, it is widely assumed that employment is a good thing and that road building can bring about this benefit. Once again if these arguments hold water, there would be an expected inverse correlation between car ownership, road length, distance travelled and levels of unemployment. From figure #h it is shown that their appears to be a correlation between unemployment and distance travelled, but not the inverse one suggested by the common prediction. In the United Kingdom over the last 50 years there has been a 17% increase in population, nearly 250% increase in distance travelled along with a 5 fold increase in unemployment. Arguments will rage as to whether other specific factors have contributed to these increases in unemployment, but the theory that without the transport increases we have seen unemployment figures would have been ‘worse’ becomes increasingly tenuous. It is utterly irrefutable that in the United Kingdom the rate of unemployment has risen at an even greater rate than the striking increase in personal mobility. Without compelling evidence to explain the relationship between the visible trends of unemployment and mobility the continued citation of the ‘roads to prosperity’ argument in its various forms becomes further removed from its initial perhaps intuitive, but nevertheless incorrect assumption.

One Nation

Thus far the United Kingdom has been considered as a homogeneous entity, yet it is obvious that there are divisions across location, ethnicity, gender and economic welfare. It is critical when addressing transport issues to understand how ‘UK Transport History since 1950’ is not one issue for all citizens but is very different for specific groups in terms of its underlying trends, benefits and disbenefits.

To quote the National Statistics on Family Spending, in the year 2000

“Only a quarter of households in the lowest income group owned a car. For the top four income groups this increased to over 90%. Over half the households in the two highest income groups owned a car”

From this we may logically predict that any advantage given to car drivers is an advantage that general pertains to higher income groups, yet on the other hand it could be mooted that by increasing car ownership there is an increase in incomes. This latter argument is however, largely redundant in that no person can drive a car under the age of 17 and, so far, no parent or guardian can drive two cars simultaneously, therefore we have a large portion of the population who can not consistently avail themselves of any advantages offered by private motor travel. Physical and mental ability, previous convictions, confidence, availability of training and the resources needed to purchase in to the system of car ownership are all constraints to car driving, constraints which may be insurmountable, constraints which have a greater likelihood of binding lower income groups.


National Statistics Family Spending

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