Why was Goods Traffic Important
The LNWR was an immense undertaking. At its peak, it ran a route
mileage of more than 1,500 miles. By 1913, just before World War I, it employed 111,000
people and was the largest railway in Britain in the pre-grouping period (before 1923).
For decades, it was the largest joint stock company in the World.
Goods traffic was highly important, always contributing more than 50% to revenue after 1860. In most years it was over 56%, peaking at 61.5% in 1880 so the much more glamorous passenger traffic contributed less than two-fifths towards profits. In 1913, goods mileage had been 19,800,000, 39% of the total, despite the slower speed of goods traffic. And the company was doing good business: Between 1870 and 1921 dividends usually ranged 6—7½%.
Carrying the goods was never seen as exciting. Locomotives and passenger trains attracted all the attention, yet without the humdrum daily work of carrying goods, industry and daily life across the country would have ground shuddering to a halt.
The LNWR served the backbone of the country. It linked the four most important cities in Britain, and all the important industrial areas of the West Midlands, Lancashire, Manchester, Liverpool and the docks. It ran the route to Scotland via Carlisle, Ireland via North Wales, and South and Central Wales.
Formed in 1846, for 77 years the LNWR was the transportation of industry. Before the onset of road competition after the First World War (1914—18), railways in the ‘Classic Age’ had much greater penetration into society than we see today. Almost all the goods in the shops that had to travel any distance were delivered by rail. The scale of operations of early railways as they matured is indicated by the almost military nature of the organisation they adopted, for the Army was the only existing structure of comparable size.
While nowadays ten times more freight is carried by road than rail, in Victorian and Edwardian days it was not like that. Today we have to put up with heavy, bulky and intimidating lorries on our roads, with all the jams and pollution they cause. In many parts of the country goods trains are now almost never seen. In LNW days the road system was poor and competition was between rail and the canals and coastal shipping. Motorised traffic did not even appear until after 1900.
The railways of those days operated under a “common carrier” obligation. This meant they had to accept all reasonable traffic. British Rail gave up that obligation in the nineteen-eighties, but that was following the wide-scale pruning of the branch-line roots of the railways by Dr. Beeching. Unsurprisingly traffic plummeted and goods yards across the country closed in their droves. So now most goods traffic has to go by road.