Did the London Passenger Transport Board Secure for the Workers the Best Obtainable System of Popular Administration and Control? 1905-1948

Welcome to our second post by York Transport Historians group member, James Fowler. James is a 3rd year PhD Student with The York Management School.

My thesis is a wide ranging analysis of the development of London Transport between the report of the Royal Commission in 1905 and Nationalisation in 1948. It seeks to offer answers in the ongoing debate about which forms of corporate governance and public administration deliver transport most effectively and for whom. A central theme here is the tension between the ideals of public administration of organisations and the realities of politics. In summary I think that the operational and technical analysis of the development of London transport is a well trodden path, but the politics and public administration of the organisation has been little explored and is actually more illuminating in terms of understanding the nature of the system and who has benefitted from it.
Albert Stanley - Lord Ashfield, Chairman of the LPTB
Albert Stanley – Lord Ashfield – Chairman of the London Passenger Transport Board.

I’m currently in the third year of my work and so naturally it is always possible that fresh evidence from the archives will change my arguments. However, some themes are appearing consistently through the detail.

The first is a revision of the long held views about the financial viability of London transport in general and the London Underground in particular. Conventional wisdom has it that the tubes were never viable and had to be supported by bus revenue[1] and that the London Passenger Transport Board (LPTB) was burdened with insupportable debts its creation that stymied services, wages and investment.[2]
The reality is far more complex. Some tube lines consistently paid dividends, some did not. It is true that none of the tube lines paid double digit returns like the buses, but without their existence the buses could not have been a viable transport medium and therefore financial pooling accurately reflected an operational reality, not an act of charity. Finally, when operational circumstances changed radically during the First World War, the tubes subsidised the buses. The charge that bondholder’s interests trumped passengers and employees is also open to challenge. Again, it is true that statutory returns to bondholders from the LPTB were fixed at a generous rate in the context of the period. However, the response of the Board was simply never to pay the statutory rate to a significant number of them. By contrast, the trend in nominal and real fares fell throughout the period while numbers employed, conditions and real wages all improved.  Second, the role of national, municipal and local government in the evolution of transport provision is consistently underestimated or missed in the major overviews of the topic. [1] [2] [3]
The central question here, the answer to which incidentally goes a long way to addressing many of the ‘underinvestment’ and ‘network coverage’ issues highlighted in the literature, is why London never acquired an equivalent of either the Metropolitan Transit Authority in New York or the city controlled Metro de Paris. The answer lies in a thorough analysis of the evolution of municipal government in London and its relationship to both other local authorities and Parliament. In a nutshell it seems it was caught between the upper and nether millstones of vested interests and a fear of municipal socialism.[4] [5]
Third there is an apparent paradox which challenges our current obsession with audit and transparency. While the leadership of the LPTB was essentially unaccountable to the public, regulatory bodies, Ministers or stockholders, it nevertheless managed its operations in a fundamentally efficient and honest manner. There was no shortage of crooks in the period. In the industry Yerkes and Whitaker-Wright had carved out notorious reputations and wider society at the time contained plenty of dishonest businessmen such as Clarence Hatry. The final chapter will explore how the LPTB managed itself and how effective it’s most well known leaders, Pick and Ashfield, really

Frank Pick - Vice Chairman of the LPTB
Fran Pick, Vice Chairman of the London Passenger Transport Board

were and why they did not indulge in corporate malfeasance.

In conclusion, the evolution of transport provision in London in the period 1905-1948 offers the full spectrum of corporate and public form from small scale private sector to complete nationalisation, an analysis of which allows us to consider which the most effective in securing the best obtainable system of popular administration and control of transport provision.
[1] Barker, T and Robbins, M. (1976) A History of London Transport Volume Two, Allen & Unwin.
[2] Wolmar, C. (2005) The Subterranean Railway, London: Atlantic Books.
[3] Jackson, A & Croome, D. (1962) Rails Through Clay, Routledge.
[4] Robson, W. (1939) The Government and Misgovernment of London, Allen & Unwin.
[5] Chandler, J. (2007) Explaining Local Government, Manchester University Press.

 

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