The railways came to have a profound effect on our national life thanks to posters and brilliant marketing. But exactly how they brought about social change is the subject of a new study in York.
By instinct James Allport was a salesman, and salesmen tend
not to become enduring national heroes.
His business was the railway, and public homage to its great pioneers focuses on engineers and designers, and what they built, not the marketing department.
This is tough on a figure who, in his way, was as inventive and radical as men like the Stephensons, George and Robert,
and the creator of Mallard and Flying Scotsman, Sir Nigel Gresley.
With a single idea in 1872, Allport transformed the railways, and brought about a social revolution in Britain. Many decades down the line, his philosophy was copied by those who led a similar upheaval in the skies.
Budget airlines owe much to the example set by the former colleague of York's Railway King, George Hudson. Allport was general manager of the Midland Railway when he challenged the convention, underpinned by corporate policies, that rail travel was largely the preserve of a well-to-do minority.
Until then, the business model of railway companies was based on serving mainly a premium market – relatively few passengers travelling First or Second Class, and paying expensive fares that produced high profit margins.
Allport wanted to put more backsides on his carriage seats, millions more, and so he reversed the accepted philosophy
To the anger and dismay of his rivals, he introduced a cheap Third Class, which saw the working class pour onto the Midland's long-distance trains, with all
its implications for mobility and the country's social and economic landscape.
Adopting a high volume, low margin principle was what Professor Colin Divall calls the Midland's "Ryanair moment". More than a century later, much the same happened in aviation, as cut-price carriers took on national airlines and opened up global travel to the masses.
Allport would have recognised their impact. "What he did was a revolutionary act," said Professor Divall. "However reluctantly, other train companies had to follow suit, and quickly, on competitive routes. It created a huge surge in rail travel, millions of extra journeys, because there had been a suppressed demand for cheaper travel over longer distances. It was also able to exploit the gradual emergence of leisure time."
Suddenly, the vast majority with little money had a convenient and affordable means of travel between, say, Yorkshire and London, and to Scotland when the Midland built the Settle-Carlisle line.
The company wanted to shout about what was happening, and the result put railways at the forefront of advertising. That, in turn, led to creative marketing techniques as times changed and trains had to compete, not only with each other, but against road transport, and the outcomes of politics.
Divall, of the Institute of Railway Studies and Transport History – a collaboration between York University and the National Railway Museum – is about to begin, with a small team, a three-year investigation into the commercial cultures of the industry.
Part of the focus will be on how its self-promotion evolved into brilliant imagery through poster art and photography,
and everything from station design and merchandising, to the streamlining
of locomotives, and the livery of
It is the most comprehensive research into the subject ever carried out, and is costing 400,000 through a central funding scheme. It will trace the "selling" of the railways over three distinct eras, a
process which made those in the UK the world leaders in marketing. The study begins with Allport's innovations and will end just over a century later with the arrival of 125mph diesel High Speed Trains, now widely regarded as the salvation of British Rail, and still serving some of today's private-sector companies.
In between is a wealth of material to analyse, and Divall isn't sure what they'll find, or what conclusions will be reached, because so much of the railway's impact on national life remains unexplored. How much, for instance, did trains carrying the masses really contribute to economic shifts?
How significant was Allport's Third Class – it proved so successful, especially when upholstered carriages became part of the cheap fare deal, that Second Class was abolished in 1875 – on the development of tourism and spectator sports, and discretionary travel in general? A North Eastern Railway poster from 1911 promotes Hornsea as "Lakeland by the Sea", and in 1923 another described York Minster as "England's treasure house of stained glass".
Some destinations were made to look so attractive and sophisticated – Scarborough, for example – the railway scored an own-goal by encouraging people to also use other means of transport to get there: car, bus, coach, motorbike and sidecar, even bicycles.
Between the wars, railway companies met the competition by promoting
the rail journey itself as much as places to visit.
Some hired former newspapermen, who knew a thing or two about catchy phrases and persuading the public.
Carriage interiors, with the hint of luxury, were highlighted, and suggested a home on wheels. Locomotive design was adapted. Mallard's shape was not related just to the engine's performance, but also proclaimed the sleekness and desirability of rail travel, alongside its power, speed and safety.
Some trains were virtually a fashion statement, others promised "added value" while getting from A to B, and the slogan "It's Quicker by Rail" became a mantra. Thanks to railway artists, a station platform could be almost an art gallery. Clever marketing came to British Rail's rescue in the post-Beeching era.
Despite a decimated network, BR played to its strengths and Inter-City became a brand that was so successful it was copied around the world.
Even in recent times, the train has been presented as more than a mere form of transportation.
A cinema advertisement for Virgin Trains showed a woman going into labour, and a doctor on board offering help. The underlying message was the train as a "community", of the kind which has been lost in other areas of life.
And there's nothing new about rail companies referring to passengers
That was happening in the 1920s. The effectiveness of railway advertising was considerable. At one stage, perhaps as much as 60 per cent of rail travel was non-essential.
As Professor Divall says, by one means or another, railways have been urging everyone to travel on them since James Allport's daring initiative 136 years ago. Pioneering cheap and comfortable rail travel helped to earn him a knighthood, but reflecting on his career, he said his greatest satisfaction was "the boon we conferred on third-class travellers", and the fairer deal he provided for the majority, particularly women and children.
A marketing man to the end.
Apart from serving history, the findings of Divall's study will form an exhibition
at the National Railway Museum.
By then he wonders if the effects of global warming will be so serious that long-distance travel will be actively discouraged. Railways are generally less environmentally damaging than most other forms of transport, but what irony if our network had to reproduce
a classic poster from the Second World War.
It read: "Is your journey really necessary?"