During the 1970s and 80s the north lost industrial capacity, and political influence. For one reason or another, industries which had employed huge numbers of people fell by the wayside. These were seen as having more to do with the past than the future. London became the economic heart of the UK. With the Big Bang and Light Touch Regulation the stock-market, the banks and high-finance took centre stage: wealth and prosperity seemed endless, until it all went wrong with the financial crisis of 2008.

Class 40 loco No. 40197 at Manchester Victoria hauling an oil train. (BR Blue: The North in Focus, Amberley Publishing)

Undoubtedly, Brexit focussed minds. It appeared to some that the country had become a dependency, being dependant on the inter-dependant, rather than being independent. There was a realisation that those things which had been lost in the north, had not only been an economic disaster for those communities, but also a net-loss for the country; part of the infrastructure had fallen into disrepair, and, even more disastrously, some had been lost for ever.

It could be suggested that in its own way the railway mirrored all the changes and exposed where mistakes were made. The railway reflected what had happened to the country: from the age of steam when there were pretty branch lines in rural areas and nearly every station had a goodsyard, through to a time when financial matters took precedence, and any investment was spent on upgrading express services to the capital to ensure a quick return. Meanwhile, centralization led to the decline of the small towns and increasingly overcrowded commuter services to the major cities. 

Class 55 Deltic loco No. 55012 Crepello at Haymarket MPD. (BR Blue: The North in Focus, Amberley Publishing)

Perhaps it could be suggested that the railway has been a casualty of political muddled thinking. The closures were a mistake.

Despite all its retrospective shortcomings, there was plenty to admire about the railway in the 1970s and 80s. For sure, it didn’t have the magic of the steam era – how could it? Nevertheless, some enthusiasts were able to move with the times, and members of the younger generation who had no connection with those “glory days” were able to see an appeal in the period which became known as BR Blue. Though much reduced from the 1960s the rail network remained busy and far-reaching. There was a variety of interesting diesel locomotives in service and still plenty of maintenance depots. Ticket prices were not overly expensive, so it was possible to travel widely at little cost. Weekends weren’t only for football and cricket; there were Saturday-only excursions and Sunday diversions to see.

BR Blue
A pair of Class 37 locos at Middlesbrough hauling a freight train. The leading loco is No. 37198. Steel on Teesside was an essential ingredient of the Northern Powerhouse and the economy of the north-east. (BR Blue: The North in Focus, Amberley Publishing)

Although the railway itself may have been permeated by an air of resignation, it seemed admirably courageous in its determination – it appeared to try, even if it didn’t always succeed. However, stealthily, almost imperceptibly, the process of change continued. The electrification of the West Coast Main Line was completed, and on the East Coast Main Line Inter-City High Speed Trains introduced. But the railway stations and the timetable remained largely unchanged. Mail and the newspapers still travelled by rail and so did coal…, and not to be forgotten or ignored, so too did the rail enthusiast.

Stephen Owens's book BR Blue: The North in Focus is available for purchase now.