The M1 tolls the first death knell for rail freight

Certain themes in history repeat themselves. The improvements to the 18th century road system brought some prosperity to Stony Stratford, which had reached a peak by 1838. The the new rail line came to Wolverton and put Stony Stratford into a relative decline, saved only in the longer term by the availabilty of good jobs in the new Wolverton. Fast forward a century and you can see road beginning to reassert itself over rail.

The post war railways were already in trouble. The six year war had been another period of stalled development for the railway companies and the nationalisation of 1948 led to another period of stagnation. The railways were then a cheap means of moving people and goods, but they were not necessarily efficient. The transport of goods could take days, even weeks to reach their final destination. Much of this time was spent being shunted around yards or waiting for delivery or collection at the goods depot. There was very little coordination between road transport and rail transport. The government of the day, which liked the idea of central control, created British Road Services, a nationalised road transport system, and I can still remember those red trucks travelling up and down the Watling Street in the early fifties. Unfortunately the BRS improved nothing. Despite (or possibly because of) the centralised control, road transport and rail transport did not work well together.

In the 1950s the Conservative government believed that the future of efficient transportation lay in road rather than rail and the railways were left to wither while huge resources were put into road improvement. It was needed. In my memory any car journey, no matter what the distance, averaged  not much more  than 30 miles and hour, mostly because of having to slow down to pass through towns and villages every few miles. The flagship program of road improvement was the M1 which was to pass near to Wolverton through Newport Pagnell.

M1 looking south from Little Linford Bridge 1960

I don’t remember the day this was taken. It could have been a Sunday. But note the general absence of lorries. Note also the curious use of lanes. When the motorway opened the Ministry of Transport advised using the inside lane up to 40mph. the middle lane up to 50mph and the outside lane up to the speed limit. There were a lot of cars on the road in 1960 which could not even reach 60mph.

The general decline of the railways brought Wolverton into a slow decline as a railway town. It really started in the 1950s although it was not immediately evident at the time. The Works opened it new training school on Glyn Square in 1954 and many of my contemporraries started work here and went on to long careers with the railways. However there were other signs of change. Some men started to take up better paying jobs in Coventry and Luton where their skills could earn them much higher wages. Jobs in the works began to shrink and there was some concern amongst the Urban District Council. Eventually they persuaded Copperad to set up a factory on the Old Wolverton Road in 1964, and others followed.

The M1 opened in 1959 and I think this was a turning point in the history of rail freight, and by extension, Wolverton. Just as the new railway of 1838 marked the beginning of the end for the old stage coaches, so the motorway signalled the beginning of the end for the dominance of rail freight. As we have seen in the development of the past 50 years next day delivery is very reliable, but it is all done by road.

In 1964 British railways created something called Red Star Parcels. You might be forgiven for confusing this with a football team in Belgrade but this was the name they chose. The concept was to quickly transport parcels from station to station. Fine, but at the same time Dr Beeching was busy closing down rail lines and stations. Eventually the managers realized that a combination of rail and road was required and they teamed up with the City Link company to manage the local delivery. Even so Red Star did not have the stellarcareer that its name might imply and it was eventually bought up by more successful companies. I mention this because it illustrates how slow the railways, with all their resources, were to adapt to the new competition.

And this is the case with many industries. They are successful. They grow big and powerful and they become conservative and resistant to change. They concentrated on getting the goods delivered safely and economically, but not necessarily on time. They assumed that because shops and factories had maintained large inventories and placed orders only a few times a year they would not mind if the goods were delivered a week late. The road companies offered fast just-in-time delivery so that companies no longer had to tie up capital in large inventory. That was certainly worth a few extra pennies in delivery charges – and that was not understood by the railways until too late.

Goods by Rail

When did you last take a parcel down to your nearest railway station so that they could send it on to its destination? Can’t remember? I thought not. The very idea of sending parcels by rail is now completely off the radar.

Wolverton, like most railway stations has an active parcels office once. In the third station it was on the right hand side and there was a huge weighing scale standing in the lobby. Years ago Wolverton residents and businesses would happily take their parcels to the office tied up with rough string and sealed with sealing wax for despatch.

So there were actually two parcels offices in Wolverton – the Post Office obviously and the railway Parcels Office. I am not sure how one distinguished between the two. Perhaps one was cheaper than the other or perhaps the railway Parcels Office was chosen for more bulky goods. I suspect businesses used it more than individuals, but I do know that families would use it to send their luggage to their hotel or boarding house in advance of their holidays. There was, of course, regular delivery of stacks of newspapers every morning. I also remember a lift from the platform to street level in the middle of the station.

The old station (i.e. the second station off Young Street) was also converted into a Goods Depot after 1881. There was a network of shunting yards and certainly heavy goods like coal and cement might be distributed from here.

Goods traffic was the primary money spinner for the railway companies for about a century and huge Goods Depots were developed across the country – Willesden and Broad Street in London were examples. Rail transport was fast and economic. Road haulage was mostly confined to short runs from the depot to final destination. After WW II the picture changed and railways lost their way. I’ll come to that tomorrow.