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The Railbus Story


Part One

The railbus experiment by British Railways is one that seemed doomed to failure from the start, and one that seems to have only progressed to satisfy public demand worried about their rail lines closing. It was an an era when running lines at a loss was not acceptable - unlike today lines where subsidies are not unusual.

It was a time when many passengers were being lost to the convenience of the road bus. They had an almost impossible task, the traction cost was just a small part of the overheads of running services, the track (and other infrastructure like bridges), signalling and staff being others, and while they did cut loses it wasn't to the extent required.

They were more successful in Europe, which no doubt aroused the public's curiosity as to why they weren't be used here. Prompted by a Parliamentary debate and a suggestion from the Central Transport Consultative Committee, the BTC (British Transport Commission) asked British Railways to look into their potential use. In their reply in June '56 they sought permission to go ahead with railbus trials. They gave two reasons: one was to gain experience with them to demonstrate that they had at least tried them; the other, interestingly was not in an attempt to save any branch lines, but to save costs on lines that they were not allowed to close. The full memo can be read here.

When circulated the responses agreed that there would be little benefit financially but should be done for PR purposes, an example response read "whilst I think that the savings to be made by the use of light railcars in the way proposed will be very small compared with standard diesel multiple unit trains, we will always be at a disadvantage in this country in dealing with objectors to the withdrawal of passenger services until we have made experiments, and I therefore support the proposals."

The memo was discussed at the BTC meeting on Thursday June 28th 1956, and the minutes from the meeting noted "Lord Rusholme welcomed the proposals as a proof of the Commission's endeavours to operate rural rail service as economically as possible, and as an answer to criticisms." The full minute can be read here.

The railbus scheme gathered further backing from the BTC at it's July 19th meeting, when it was felt it had been too eager in a policy to close money-loosing branches, recognising that they had important roles at feeders for main line services, and all possible should be done to improve their economies. The minute can be found here.

On July 10th 1956 the BTC wrote to all six Regions asking if they'd be prepared to undertake trials with the vehicles. Noting that they had received preliminary details of possible designs from manufacturers, they proposed a a meeting with interested Regions with three main objectives:-
1) to discuss and agree procedure
2) to discuss and agree what common form the trials will take
3) to decide upon the procedure to be adopted in the design and supply of the vehicles to meet Regional requirements.

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