|THE INDUSTRIAL RAILWAY RECORD
© FEBRUARY 1970
Without wishing to be too controversial, we think that the road haulage de-nationalisation was a step backwards in the country's transport system. At least one major American railroad looks upon its business as transportation, without qualification, and if it is cheaper and more efficient to carry goods by plane or truck, then it does so. In Britain we have had a more rigid outlook on railway operation, and a chance to achieve a more efficient overall transport system may have been lost. The "may" is obviously necessary, as such a master-plan would have needed considerable drive and initiative to carry it through; and even more to keep it operating.
In our particular branch of railway interest we have not had the artificial factors to keep open uneconomic lines in the face of new developments in mechanical handling. To be sure, some very antiquated lines have lingered on up to the present time, but the writing is on the wall, and each will have to justify itself economically. One has only to examine the output of the few locomotive manufacturers that remain in business to predict that underground locos will be their best sellers in the low horse-power range for the next few years. As far as standard gauge shunters are concerned we predict sparse sales at home, at least, and with competition overseas intense, manufacturers have a tough task ahead if they stick solely to loco production; overseas subsidiaries will probably do better. What we do feel is that industrial rail traction has suffered in part from the perpetuation of old operating practices. Few lines have achieved their maximum capacities to offset the high capital cost, and many became uneconomic as soon as reliable alternatives appeared. A locomotive, whether steam or diesel, has always been an expensive asset, as also the track and rolling stock that goes with it. Utilisation is the key factor, and the two-trains-a-day system, with outdated wagons and rolling stock, is an obvious target for replacement. We are somewhat surprised that more automation has not been introduced where retention of the rail system is considered justified. In general it is the wagon stock that has lagged behind. We see no modern high capacity dump cars, and indeed many firms adopted cast-off main line wagons; in general the main-line attitude of clinging to small capacity four wheel wagons has been followed in this country, and in many places overseas come to that.
We are in danger of submerging our point, so we will give an example of some sugar estate lines that we have heard of. One enthusiastic transport manager still thinks rail haulage is cheaper, despite a general swing to road. Perhaps he is fortunate in having a relatively compact area to cover, but we feel much of the advantage he enjoys over his rivals is due to the equipment he operates. All locos are modern, fairly powerful diesels; expensive but with a high work capacity. Wagons are larger, for the 2ft 6in gauge instead of the usual 2ft gauge and carry at least twice as much as a comparable "cane-rack" elsewhere. And last but not least utilisation and management is of a high order, with mileage recorders and radio telephones on every locomotive.
Obviously the scope for cost-cutting depends on the scale of operations, but we know of quite a few railway systems in this country that have operated a sizeable stock, and which might have benefited from an overhaul of their operations. However, whatever we say we cannot escape the fact the era of rail usage is almost over. The last few years have seen dramatic changes on the narrow gauges, and the ubiquitous Simplexes and Rustons are on the way to becoming rarities. Maybe we shall soon have to venture into a maze of underground mine workings to see one work at all!