Alternative Railway History - 1984/85 Miners' Strike

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With some spare time recently, I've been reading a bit of "alternative history" fiction - e.g. Len Deighton's book SS-GB, set in a Britain after the Nazis had invaded and successfully taken control in the 1940s.

This prompted thoughts about possible alternative railway histories.

For example, suppose the outcome of the 1984-85 Miners' Strike had been different.
Say the government & NCB caved in and Scargill and the strikers won.

Despite the win, presumably deep coal mining in the UK would have continued its long-term downward trend. But with a much slower rate of colliery closures and a less steep drop-off in employment than actually occurred in the 1980s and 90s.
And decarbonising imperatives related to climate change would have come into play at a similar pace that they have in the "real world".
So by the 2020s we would probably have ended up in a similar position regarding haulage of coal by rail.

What are some of the differences that would have been seen in railfreight and the general BR landscapes in the decades following a successful miners' strike? - say from 1985 to 2010.

For example, some possible effects on BR's coal business:-
  • Many collieries and the branch lines serving them would stay open for years longer than they actually did.
  • There would have been minimal bulk coal imports transshipped through ports like Liverpool and Hunterston.
  • Many traditional MGR flows would have been retained for years longer (e.g. from Yorkshire to Fiddlers Ferry).
  • The Settle & Carlisle line would not have become busy shifting imported coal from Scotland to the English power stations.
  • Pit-head loading infrastructure and axle load limits on colliery lines maybe meant MGR trains of 32t HAA wagons lasted longer, with fewer opportunities to introduce high-capacity bogie hoppers.

And more general knock-on effects:-
  • With the Conservative government's agenda "derailed" by a major union victory, a reduced appetite for comprehensive railway privatisation in the next decade.
  • Assuming a Conservative government continued in office (and Kinnock did not become PM), would there still have been some sort of rail Privatisation-Lite? (e.g. profitable BR sectors like InterCity still sold off, but no Railtrack plc or ROSCOs?)
  • Even without any privatisation initiatives from Westminster, would subsequent EU Directives eventually nudge towards open-access provisions on BR?.
  • No ubiquitous fleet of Class 66 (at least not the imported EMD variety), in favour of ongoing development & construction of new "British" freight locomotives.
Railway-related responses only please - no anti-Thatcher / Trade Union diatribes!
 
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GRALISTAIR

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Thatcher would have gone sooner and we would have even less railway electrification than now and possibly even no Channel Tunnel thus no HS1 and no future high speed rail at all apart from the Selby diversion.
 

Inversnecky

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I would hesitate to say, but I was just reading about the closure of the Woodhead line being as a result of decrease in coal freight before the strike.

In that 1986 book, mention is made of 600,000 tons of such freight that went on the roads because of staff refusing to take it by rail, and the question left as to how much would return to rail later. Can anyone provide the answer?

A further point relevant to this at that time, was that in France such traffic went on the rails, as there wasn’t that private option as in GB.
 

xotGD

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Instead of the 'dash for gas', we might have had a new generation of coal fired power stations. These would now be getting fitted with carbon capture and storage, and the coal trains would keep on running.
 

tbtc

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As @Inversnecky says, it'd have come too late to save Woodhead (given the natural decline of coal as it became harder and more expensive to extract the stuff, given the way that the easier stuff gets taken out of the ground first) - I can't think of any lines that closed post-Miners Strike that would potentially have been "saved" in an alternative history (?)

Maybe if we'd had something similar during the strikes of the early seventies we'd have seen a UK Government that had to focus on coal which would have kept more lines open, with the possible side effect that the rush for North Sea oil and gas wouldn't have happened, which might have meant less demand for Scottish independence (given that the genesis of the SNP's rise was connected to the idea that Scotland was generating lots of money from the North Sea without seeing the benefits). Too late for Woodhead though.

I suppose that one effect of keeping so much slow freight on the rails would have been that there wasn't space in the timetables for the expansion in passenger frequencies that we saw from the mid 1980s noways (as BR replaced irregular loco hauled services with hourly Sprinters, and then the private TOCs increased frequencies further) - we may have seen fewer passengers as the randomly timed freight services left BR unable to simplify timetables to make them attractive enough for people to have straightforward timetables they could trust. Would it have been better for BR's finances to have the guarantee of freight income or take a risk on attracting passengers? Genuine question BTW - I don't know whether the NCB were paying BR a good enough amount or whether the railway "had to" take the coal traffic without suitable renumeration? I know that sometimes one branch of the state was in a relationship with another at "cost price" rather than proper market price - dunno. If it's true that the railway had to accept coal traffic at minimal cost, that may have tipped the balance away from privatising freight, which may have tipped the balance against overall railway privatisation? But clearly I'm just speculating here.

Obviously nobody knows how locos would have been - maybe you could argue that if there were more freight trains then there'd have been more locos sticking around therefore more scope to keep more loco hauled passenger trains - which may have meant less incentive for "sectorisation" (instead, keeping one big pool of 37s/ 47s etc that could be used for freight or passenger services) but then maybe a cash strapped BR wouldn't have had the money for the complete overhaul of freight haulage and would have to keep sweating the 1960s locos (rather than just a handful surviving).
 

Helvellyn

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One of the things that the 1984-85 strike did was make many economical pits less so, or even loss.making, because in not being worked there was more flooding, etc. So in some cases it accelerated closures.

So in an alternate history I think you might have seen a dash for gas still, or even more nuclear stations built, because neither party would want to leave the country still beholden to the Miner's Union in the 1990s when even tougher decisions on the viability of some pits might have been required.

For rail I think the Class 37 refurbishment programme wouldn't have been curtailed when it was because so much of the Class 56 fleet would have been used for coal for longer, and possibly more 60s would have gone to coal than they did. So other freight flows would have needed modernised locos. This assumes more collieries still open in the late 1980s when these decisions were being made.
 

furnessvale

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I would hesitate to say, but I was just reading about the closure of the Woodhead line being as a result of decrease in coal freight before the strike.

In that 1986 book, mention is made of 600,000 tons of such freight that went on the roads because of staff refusing to take it by rail, and the question left as to how much would return to rail later. Can anyone provide the answer?

A further point relevant to this at that time, was that in France such traffic went on the rails, as there wasn’t that private option as in GB.
It was far worse than that. Iron ore that railwaymen refused to move also went by road.

Road hauliers used the money they made to re-equip their fleets which enabled them to attack every aspect of railfreight after the strike was over. It is sad to note that solidarity after the strike was sadly lacking as miners loaded these new HGVs rather than trains.
 

Merle Haggard

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In that 1986 book, mention is made of 600,000 tons of such freight that went on the roads because of staff refusing to take it by rail, and the question left as to how much would return to rail later. Can anyone provide the answer?

The N.U.R./R.M.T and ASLEF would not move coal during the strike - solidarity with their N.U.M. brothers, had been mined by miners who weren't striking.
Once the strike was over, the N.U.M. was happy to load to road.
I asked an N.U.M. person why there was no reciprocal solidarity with the rail unions. The answer - 'we lost'.
 

Bonemaster

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Difference would likely have been only 10 years or so before you ended up in the same place.

Thatcher and the Tories would not have taken defeat lying down, and would have set out to defeat the coal industry and the unions in a different way.

British Coal would have been privatised earlier, and in a more piecemeal way to divide the union power over the industry. The dash for gas of the early 1990s would still have happened, and the private companies would have shut the mines one by one anyway, as they were uneconomic.
 

Taunton

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Woodhead should have been closed earlier, the coal used in power stations built where the coal mines were in Yorkshire, and the power transmitted by the grid over the Pennines. Taking the coal over by trains to burn it on the other side is just inefficient. This is what happened far earlier with London.
 

ChiefPlanner

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The rates for coal movement by BR to another nationalized outfit - NCB were generally excellent , even for block movements doing short journeys. Both parties had invested in wagons (the HAA fleet) , SSF fitted locomotives and loading / discharge points , so the operation was pretty efficient and rates were charging for a good , flexible , service.

The loss leaders were penny packets of domestic coal wagons trundling around parts of the network , and there was still some of that in the 1980's - down to Whitby , Llandeilo and so on - but the longer distance domestic flows from say South Wales to the Neasden's and Chessington's of this world were fine and survived a bit longer into Speedlink.

So the coal strike slammed BR very hard - and put huge pressure on the finances for several years - not just in lost revenue but in deferred infrastructure improvements. In terms of freight , coal had cross subsidised such elements as Speedlink , and a sharp pencil was put onto the whole freight cost operation.

Other things as well - the desire by HMG to "market test" other coal supplies led to considerable imports from largely benign countries like the USA , which came into Newport and other ports for Didcot Power station - a move that was far less efficient in resource terms than the well established and polished pipeline of basically hourly paths into the station from Toton via Oxford.

There is a book here for someone , as many of those involved in these matters are still around , albeit retired !
 

Bald Rick

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765(?)points at Sheet Stores Jn would have kept failing for longer. They seemed to be a magnet for coal dust.
 

6Gman

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The N.U.R./R.M.T and ASLEF would not move coal during the strike - solidarity with their N.U.M. brothers, had been mined by miners who weren't striking.
Once the strike was over, the N.U.M. was happy to load to road.
I asked an N.U.M. person why there was no reciprocal solidarity with the rail unions. The answer - 'we lost'.
I was involved in planning coal movements by rail at the time. Every week we planned a programme of trains - few of which ran. And then the following week we did it all again. To no effect.

But my recollection is that the vast majority of it came back post-strike. The idea that (e.g.) Didcot could have switched to road supply seems fanciful.
 

Journeyman

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As @Inversnecky says, it'd have come too late to save Woodhead (given the natural decline of coal as it became harder and more expensive to extract the stuff, given the way that the easier stuff gets taken out of the ground first) - I can't think of any lines that closed post-Miners Strike that would potentially have been "saved" in an alternative history (?)
I think this is something that the SAVE WOODHEAD people fail to realise - if Woodhead had survived beyond 1981, I very much doubt it would have made it past 1985. There was no traffic left for it.
 

tbtc

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I think this is something that the SAVE WOODHEAD people fail to realise - if Woodhead had survived beyond 1981, I very much doubt it would have made it past 1985. There was no traffic left for it.

Agreed.

I think it would be better if the people who keep suggesting Woodhead as a mega-cure would understand that it was essentially a freight line (mainly from the Dearne Valley coal fields to "Lancashire" - i.e. from the Barnsley direction) with a token passenger service (which used the route from Penistone to Sheffield)

I'm not defending the "rationalisation" at Dore (far from it!) but the fact that BR thought they could accommodate all of the Sheffield - Manchester traffic via the single track chord there shows how little there was back then - certainly not enough to warrant two separate routes

If anything, the question could be "Why Did Woodhead Last As Long As It Did" (given that, if the Government had built more Power Stations on the Yorkshire side of the Pennines then we wouldn't have had to keep taking so many coal trains through Woodhead)
 

Helvellyn

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If anything, the question could be "Why Did Woodhead Last As Long As It Did" (given that, if the Government had built more Power Stations on the Yorkshire side of the Pennines then we wouldn't have had to keep taking so many coal trains through Woodhead)
The route was modernised in the 1950s - electrification, new tunnels and new motive power - so maybe it was a case of keep it going until the assets are life expired, then close?
 

Journeyman

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The route was modernised in the 1950s - electrification, new tunnels and new motive power - so maybe it was a case of keep it going until the assets are life expired, then close?
Yeah, they basically kept it going long enough for the locos to be sufficiently knackered enough for disposal, and for the non-standard electrification system to become a big enough problem.
 

Taunton

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The issue with the Woodhead electrification was that it was done for a passenger line, into Manchester Piccadilly, but mostly handled freight, which got no further than Guide Bridge or Mottram before having to change to diesel.

Therefore the coal trains ran with diesels from the Yorkshire collieries to Wath. Into the yard, change locos to electric, haul it up over Woodhead to Guide Bridge. It's not far, there may be one or two places on moorland summits where you can see both ends of this leg. Into the yard, change locos again to diesel, off round south Manchester to the power station. When Woodhead closed, the same diesel ran right through via Standedge from the coal mine to the power station.
 

Merle Haggard

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The advantage of a 1500v DC system over the Pennines was that, even with the technology of the day, locos. of trains on the downhill sections could feed power back into the overhead using regenerative braking. Meant that a lot of the energy used in lifting the trains to the summit came from ones descending beyond the summit, difference being losses due to friction.
Did require a controller to ensure the circuit was balanced - regenerative braking doesn't work if there's no load on the circuit.
 

Taunton

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I sometimes feel the regenerative aspect of Woodhead is overplayed. As I understand it the regen aspect is only within an individual substation section, it cannot be returned along the high voltage feeders. Being only 1500v, and the freights drawing heavy currents, the substation sections are necessarily quite short. The chances that there really is an uphill train in your section to balance the downhill service is way below 100%.

I don't know how they handled regen when there was no receiving train. Some installations stopped the loco regen if the resulting voltage rose to say 10% above nominal, while others had large outside resistance banks at the substation that would connect to burn off surplus unwanted current being returned.
 

36270k

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I sometimes feel the regenerative aspect of Woodhead is overplayed. As I understand it the regen aspect is only within an individual substation section, it cannot be returned along the high voltage feeders. Being only 1500v, and the freights drawing heavy currents, the substation sections are necessarily quite short. The chances that there really is an uphill train in your section to balance the downhill service is way below 100%.

I don't know how they handled regen when there was no receiving train. Some installations stopped the loco regen if the resulting voltage rose to say 10% above nominal, while others had large outside resistance banks at the substation that would connect to burn off surplus unwanted current being returned.

Some Woodhead substations e.g. Strafford Crossing and Hadfield had resistance banks to absorb the regenerated current when there were no other trains in the substation section.

On older DC electifications like the Milwaukee Road ( 1915 ) that used rotary convertors rather than rectifiers, it was possible to return regen current to the grid.
 

furnessvale

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Yeah, they basically kept it going long enough for the locos to be sufficiently knackered enough for disposal, and for the non-standard electrification system to become a big enough problem.
Ably assisted by a few porkies in the closure submission.

eg "re-equipping for 25Kv will cost £30m+" The virtually one third that remained after closure was re-equipped for less than £1m.

eg "Closure will save an electric bill of £xxx". No mention was made of the alternative fuel bill for diesels on a different route.
 

Journeyman

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Ably assisted by a few porkies in the closure submission.

eg "re-equipping for 25Kv will cost £30m+" The virtually one third that remained after closure was re-equipped for less than £1m.

eg "Closure will save an electric bill of £xxx". No mention was made of the alternative fuel bill for diesels on a different route.
I think a lot of the 25kV conversion cost was a need for new locos. I can't be bothered getting too angry about it, anyway. BR were strapped for cash and there wasn't enough traffic to justify keeping it.
 

Merle Haggard

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But my recollection is that the vast majority of it came back post-strike. The idea that (e.g.) Didcot could have switched to road supply seems fanciful.


Indeed, but...

Driving home on the M1 after the strike was over, on several occasions at night I was overtaken on the Southbound carriageway (I was driving a Transit van at about 60 m.p.h.) by convoys of artics with high sided tipper trailers. Because they were not sheeted the surface of their loads sprinkled my windscreen, and was the fine coal associated with power stations. There were features of the vehicles and driving which I won't explain, but I did find the experience frightening.

So, albeit only anecdotally, there did seem to be at least an attempt to use road.
 

43096

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I think a lot of the 25kV conversion cost was a need for new locos. I can't be bothered getting too angry about it, anyway. BR were strapped for cash and there wasn't enough traffic to justify keeping it.
The 82s, 83s and 84s were all becoming (or had become) surplus at that point.
 

Taunton

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Ably assisted by a few porkies in the closure submission.

eg "re-equipping for 25Kv will cost £30m+" The virtually one third that remained after closure was re-equipped for less than £1m.
Not surprising. It just needed power for a few 3-car emus. Did/does it even need a substation or was the feed when connected up at Piccadilly adequate? Equipping it for a longer heavy freight haul would be in a different league.
 

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There were some quite ridiculous "stranded" trains - one of the most obvious was the Nottingham to Barking coke train (containers for Ford's) , which stood for weeks at Finsbury Park in full view of thousands of passengers , ditto air braked domestic coal wagons marooned at Willesden Brent.

It took a lot of effort to rebuild the freight business after that.
 

Merle Haggard

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There were some quite ridiculous "stranded" trains - one of the most obvious was the Nottingham to Barking coke train (containers for Ford's) , which stood for weeks at Finsbury Park in full view of thousands of passengers , ditto air braked domestic coal wagons marooned at Willesden Brent.

Not in trains, but there was a large number of steel bodied flats and hoppers loaded with wet (and possibly acidic) coal marooned in sidings for the duration of the strike. I think, but I'm not sure, that this was the reason for the large scale re-bodying of these wagon types.
 

Inversnecky

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I don't know how they handled regen when there was no receiving train. Some installations stopped the loco regen if the resulting voltage rose to say 10% above nominal, while others had large outside resistance banks at the substation that would connect to burn off surplus unwanted current being returned.
From what I read that was it: they just connected resistors which burned up the energy as heat.

But it would be interesting to know what proportion of energy was saved through regen braking. Doubt it would be more than a few percent (authoritatively plucking a figure out of thin air!).
 

tbtc

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The route was modernised in the 1950s - electrification, new tunnels and new motive power - so maybe it was a case of keep it going until the assets are life expired, then close?

Yeah, they basically kept it going long enough for the locos to be sufficiently knackered enough for disposal, and for the non-standard electrification system to become a big enough problem.

You both make good points.

One of the factors behind Beeching's decisions is said to be the cost of renewals of the crumbling Victorian embankments etc - some lines struggled on but eventually would have needed serious money throwing at them to keep them fit.

Same goes for a number of bus routes which were just about covering their marginal costs with life expired vehicles but were scrapped when regulations required low floor buses - you can eke out a couple of additional years from a sixteen year old vehicle but eventually it'll need replacement with something compliant, which suddenly makes the route uneconomic.

We had similar problems on Sheffield Supertram over the past decade as the infrastructure (which was all built in the mid'90s started to become life expired at around the same time, meaning a lot of disruptive track replacement needing done around the same time.

Getting back to Woodhead, I suppose it's one thing to order bespoke stock when setting something up (the initial electrification) but that then means it needs replacing by something bespoke at a later date, rather than being replaced by cascades of other stock (81/82/83/84/85 etc) - this is why I'm generally against building bespoke stock (460s etc)
 
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