The Working and Management of an English Railway/Chapter 17

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The Working and Management of an English Railway by George Findlay
Chapter 17 — On the Railways as a means of Defence

On the Railways as a Means of Defence.

It can hardly be necessary to insist upon the obvious importance of the railway system when considered in relation to the means of warfare, and more particularly in connection with any scheme for the defence of the country in the event of invasion. Thanks to our insular position and to the admirable and powerful navy with which England keeps the narrow seas, it may safely be said that the possibility of an invader ever being able to set foot on our shores, is more or less remote; but there have not been wanting those of late who have not hesitated to discuss this contingency as one within the regions of practicability, and, whether it be remote or otherwise, it is only prudent to reckon with it.

If a calamity so great should at any time overtake us, it is quite evident that the prospect of our being able to repel the invader and maintain inviolate our hearths and homes would to a very great extent depend upon the perfect equipment and efficient working of the network of railways which now covers these islands. The Government have been fully alive to this fact, and many years ago a step was taken which would probably turn out to be a very prudent one if ever an emergency should arise. A Corps was constituted which is termed the "Engineer and Railway Volunteer Staff Corps," and which is composed of a certain number of engineers, several of the great contractors, and the general managers of most of the principal railways, the contractors forming what is called the "Labour Branch" of the Corps. The intention is that in case of an invasion the officers of this-corps would superintend the working of the railways, as they do in time of peace, but acting then under the directions of the military commanders. The railways of the country, so far as might be necessary, and wholly if need be, would have to be, for the time being, given up to the service of the State, as was recently done in Western France, when the experiment was tried of mobilising certain Army Corps, and by thus utilising the means and appliances which are at all times available, and making a free use of the perfect organization and large resources of the great railway companies, it is believed that no difficulty need be anticipated in concentrating a considerable body of troops within a brief period of time upon any part of our shores that might be threatened by a foe.

In the early part of 1885, the War Office instituted a kind of test of the ability of the officers of the Staff Corps to perform this task, which it may be of interest briefly to describe, as although, of course, merely on paper, it served to afford a very fair idea of what could undoubtedly be accomplished by the railway companies in case of need. The test took the form of an "Exercise" proposed by order of the Commander-in-Chief, and constituted in point of fact a kind of problem to which the Staff Corps were required to furnish the solution. The assumption was that an invading force numbering 150,000 men had commenced to disembark on the Coast between Southend and Shoeburyness, and that hostile vessels were simultaneously ascending the Blackwater river to land a strong detachment at Stangate Abbey. Instructions were supposed to have been issued by telegraph for the concentration of six Army Corps, numbering about 130,000 men, on the line of Stanford-le-Hope, Billericay, and Chelmsford, with a view to occupy the Basildon position and repel the invader, three Corps being brought up as rapidly as possible, and the whole within forty-eight hours'. Particulars were given as to where the troops were stationed all over the country—North, South, East and West—and the number of men quartered at each place—and in due course the problem was solved and the answer furnished.

It was assumed, of course, that the ordinary traffic would be, for the time being, entirely suspended, that land could be freely encroached upon whenever necessary for the construction of temporary platforms of sleepers and ballast, for loading and unloading horses and artillery, and for other purposes, and that all the railways could be worked as one. Tables were submitted showing in the most complete detail the number of trains required, where each would start from, and the hour of starting, the route travelled, the hour of arrival at destination, the time allowed for refreshments and other purposes on the journey, and the number of men conveyed by each train. The total number of trains employed was 515; the speed was about 25 miles an hour, exclusive of stoppages, the trains following one another on the same lines at intervals of fifteen minutes, and the last train was timed to arrive at Chelmsford within 45 hours and 50 minutes of the hour at which the order was supposed to have been given by telegraph, so that, in theory, at any rate, the defenders were placed in a position to drive the invaders into the sea. Thus it is evident that railways have revolutionised the conditions of modern warfare, much as they have revolutionised everything else that existed before their advent. In the days before the era of railways a kingdom might be lost or won, or the fate of a dynasty decided, before a single army corps could make its way by forced marches from the north of England to the south coast.

Of course, in the event of this country being engaged in warfare on the continent of Europe, or elsewhere abroad, either independently or in conjunction with some other power, the advantages which in a war of defence would be derived from the perfection of our railway system would no longer be available, or if they existed, they might be used against us. For instance, when the Germans invested Paris in the war of 1870-1, not only did they avail themselves of the railways around the city, but they took possession of the extensive locomotive works of the Northern of France Railway, and were thus enabled to repair the rolling stock and plant required to work the railways of which they were in possession, even seeking out and impressing into their service many of the artizans employed in the works, although it must be said to their credit that they honourably paid these men for their labour. Mention of this fact recalls a somewhat amusing incident related to the writer by M. Banderali, the able Locomotive Superintendent of the Northern of France Railway, and which was a striking proof of the extent to which the courtesies of nations are sometimes displayed in modern warfare. M. Banderali occupied a comfortable and well-furnished residence at St. Denis, and when, on the approach of the German army, he was forced to retreat with the Northern army to Lisle, taking with him, as far as possible, the rolling stock and other personnel of the railway, he had no time to dismantle his house, or remove any of his goods and chattels. He accordingly left behind him a letter addressed to any officers of the German army who might be quartered in his house, politely begging them to make free use of everything they found there, but expressing a hope that they would do as little damage as possible. But the Teuton was not to be beaten in courtesy by the Gaul, for on M. Banderali's return, after the evacuation, he found everything just as he had left it, and upon the piano in his drawing-room was a volume of Schubert's songs subscribed to their courteous, though involuntary, host by the officers of the German army who had been his guests!

Colonel H. M. Hozier, who recently read a paper before the members of the Royal United Service Institution on the "Equipment and Transport of Modern Armies," enlarged upon the importance, to military commanders, of having the control of an efficient railway corps able to move with an army, to construct or repair railways in advancing, and to dismantle and break them down when necessary to cover a retreat. There is no doubt that in such a case, it would be of the greatest assistance to those who were conducting such operations, to be able to command the services not only of trained Engineer officers, but of artificers, engine drivers, firemen, and men of all the various crafts connected with the making, repairing, and working of railways; and it is satisfactory to add that the need of such a body of men has not been lost sight of by the War Office, and that the nucleus of a force of the kind has already been formed. At the locomotive works of the London and North Western Company at Crewe, where something like 6,000 men are employed, a Volunteer force was embodied in the early part of the year 1887, under the title of the 2nd Cheshire (Railway) Engineer Volunteers, which comprises at present—and while it is as yet perhaps only in its infancy—an effective force of 631 men, of whom 23 are officers, 578 are non-commissioned officers and men, and 30 are first-class Army Reserve men who are employed in the works, and are attached to the corps as supernumeraries, This corps is composed almost entirely of men who, in their ordinary avocations, are smiths, fitters, firemen, etc., and they are undergoing, in addition to the ordinary infantry drill, a course of instruction in military engineering. The corps, having been incorporated upon the ordinary volunteer principle, is at present only liable to be called out in case of invasion, but such men as these would be invaluable in case of a war on the continent, or elsewhere, in which we might be engaged, and the War Office, recognising this fact, have arranged that a certain proportion of the men comprising each company should enlist in the Royal Engineers, as a matter of form, for one day, and then be placed in the first-class Army Reserve for six years, in which case they would receive pay, and their services would be available in case of need either at home or abroad. A considerable number of men have already come forward, and if the movement proves successful, the example will doubtless be followed in other large railway works throughout the country.

The Crewe Volunteers were reviewed by H.R.H. the Duke of Cambridge, on the occasion of his opening the Crewe Park, on the 9th June, 1888, when he complimented them very highly on their efficiency, and spoke of their probable value to the country in the event of war; at the same time expressing the hope that the example so well set at Crewe would be followed elsewhere.

Note to Second Edition.

"The officers of the Staff Corps, under the direction of the War Office, are at present engaged in drawing up a carefully considered code of Rules and Regulations for the working of the railways of Great Britain in time of war or mobilisation, and also for the conduct of transport operations in connection with railways abroad, in the event of this country being engaged in a foreign war."


A writer in the Edinburgh Review, of July, 1889, commenting on Mr. Acworth's recently published work on "The Railways of England," is apparently much impressed with the difficulties which must arise, and the loss of profit which must ensue, from the fact of traffic of various descriptions, and travelling at different rates of speed, having to be accommodated on the same railway, and he puts forward the theory, that in cases where a railway is doubled, that is, where there are two up and two down main lines, if one of each were appropriated to the express passenger trains, running at forty-five to sixty miles an hour, and the others devoted to such selected merchandise traffic as would pay for a speed of about thirty miles an hour, and to passenger trains calling at every station, leaving the heavy mineral and low-priced goods traffic to be accommodated by the canals, the railways would thus be utilised in the most remunerative manner, and there would be a lucrative future in store for the railway shareholder.

This proposition is one based upon fallacies which are sufficiently apparent to any one practically conversant with the working of railways. The reviewer, in short, advises the railway companies to increase their revenue by cutting off one of the most important branches of their business—and that not the least lucrative—on the assumption that the others would in the end grow to such an extent as to absorb the whole of the accommodation provided; but it is very doubtful whether there are sufficient grounds for this initial assumption, since in a country of small extent, like Great Britain, there must be limits to the possibilities of expansion of any class of traffic. In the second place, he is apparently not aware that the policy of appropriating one track to the express passenger trains, and the other to the goods and slow passenger trains, is one already adopted on sections where there are four lines of rails; besides which, he overlooks the fact that the goods traffic is practically worked during the night, when there are very few passenger trains running. Thirdly, when he relegates the heavy goods and mineral traffic to the canals, he forgets to inquire how far these latter would be competent to provide for it. Canals only exist in certain districts, and they cannot be taken to the doors of the manufacturers, as railways are, by means of branch-lines and sidings throughout the country; and the idea, for example, of the canals accomplishing the gigantic task of bringing into London its daily coal supply of about 32,000 tons, and distributing it throughout the metropolis in the manner expected of the railway companies, is one which, to any one familiar with the subject, appears almost grotesque, to say nothing of the fact that if the railway companies abandoned this class of business, the millions of money which have been spent in providing for it would be practically thrown away.

The reviewer, too, is mistaken in hastily assuming, as he appears to do, that passenger traffic is remunerative to railway companies in a high degree, while goods traffic, especially of the heavier classes, is carried with a small margin of profit. A very few simple calculations drawn from the published accounts and other known statistics of the London and North Western Railway will serve to correct this error.

In the year 1888 that Company received for the conveyance of passenger train traffic, £4,251,329; the working expenses amounted to £2,268,157, leaving £1,983,172, or 46⅔ per cent, as representing the net profit. During the same year the same Company received for the conveyance of goods and mineral traffic, £6,198,583, and the expenses of working it amounted to £3,237,154; the net profit being £2,961,429, or 47¾ per cent.; so that the percentage of profit upon merchandise traffic, taken as a whole, is more than 1 per cent greater than that upon passenger traffic. It may be added that of the total of 35,922,619 tons of merchandise traffic carried upon the London and North Western Railway during the period mentioned, no less than 27,898,314, or about 77⅔ per cent, consisted of coal, coke, and the other low-priced mineral traffic, which the reviewer so much despises. It is impossible accurately to calculate the actual rate of working expenses upon each particular class of traffic, but it seems tolerably clear that, if nearly 78 per cent, of the whole were carried at a loss, and were, as the reviewer puts it, "A robbery of the shareholders," there would have to be a rate of profit upon the remaining 22 per cent, which we know is far from existing, in order to achieve the general result described above. It is quite true, of course, that coal, and the other mineral and heavy traffic, is carried at a much lower rate per ton than the lighter and more valuable descriptions of merchandise; but it must be borne in mind that the service of conveying it involves nothing more than the mere cost of haulage, and the provision of sidings, to receive and marshal the waggons, the vehicle being provided, and all loading and unloading services performed by the senders and consignees, in most cases, within their own premises. On the other hand, for the ordinary merchandise, it is necessary to provide expensive warehouses and sheds, costly machinery and appliances, waggons and sheets, and an army of men to perform the handling services, to say nothing of the greater risk; so that, on the whole, it may be conclusively assumed that one class of traffic pays as well as another.