Tiger in the tank – the story of the first female Secretary of State for Transport

On September 8th more than 350 people took part in the first of the ‘Gender on the Agenda’ events that UTG is sponsoring. A good indicator that this is an issue whose time has come. Meanwhile on October 9th a statue will be unveiled in Blackburn of former local MP, Barbara Castle, on what would have been her 111th birthday. Seems like a good time then to tell the story of Britain’s first female Secretary of State for Transport. Arguably the most significant and dynamic Secretary of State for Transport there has been. And the author of what was the largest piece of non-financial legislation since the war – the 1968 Transport Act.

First the context. In the mid-1960s, Britain was going through a crash transformation, from muddling on with clapped out Victorian transport systems and urban forms, to full on consumer boom modernism. Towns and cities were being rebuilt along clean lines; tower blocks were reaching upwards; and the roads were getting wider.

Government transport policy was a bought-and-paid-for mechanism for encouraging the growth of the motor industry. Terrace houses and steam engines weren’t beloved and desirable as they are now: they were an embarrassment. The car and lorry was in the ascendency (by 1966 the roads were carrying 90% of passenger mileage and 60% of freight ton mileage).

Meanwhile Britain’s Victorian railway had been worked to the bone during the war. Post-war it had to modernise as quickly as state funds would allow whilst taking a battering from road competition. By the early Sixties the railways were struggling with a mountain of debt and had fallen out of fashion compared with the liberation of the car and the open road. The Beeching axe was seen as just the start. Phase two would have butchered what was left – the East Coast Main Line would have gone from London to Newcastle and stopped there. Bus use was in free fall.

At the same time there was carnage on the roads. 8,000 deaths a year – which is not surprising when people could drink as much as they liked before driving as fast as they liked and with nothing to restrain them from hurtling through their own windscreen as a consequence.

And then, in 1966, came Barbara Castle. Transport was a job she never wanted – after her first ministerial appointment at overseas development she was hoping for one of the top three Cabinet posts. But in the end transport was the job she enjoyed the most. Harold Wilson said he wanted a “tiger in the tank” of his transport policy and that’s what he got. In many ways the role played to Barbara Castle’s strengths. A gift for harnessing positive publicity in her favour – helpful in what can be a high profile Department. And a determination to craft the right solution to difficult and complex problems where the typical politician would have chosen the path of least resistance. She also realised that at Transport she had the opportunity to bring all her long held views on the need for a planned approach to the economy to fruition through the prism of one important element of Government policy.

Despite her reputation as the ‘red queen’ there was both pragmatism as well as radicalism in what she did in her short time in the post.

On the radical side, she established Passenger Transport Executives for the major conurbations, whose job it would be produce master plans for transport in their areas, run local bus services and turn around the urban rail networks that had survived the Beeching era. With London Transport also now coming under the control of the Greater London Council for the first time, the city regions would have accountable transport authorities whose job it was to provide high quality and integrated public transport.

The PTEs’ initial tasks included getting to grips with welding local bus services into integrated wholes and deciding what to do with the ailing rail networks they inherited. Tyne and Wear went for the radical option of converting their decrepit local heavy rail network into a new and integrated Tyne and Wear Metro. Merseyside utilised ‘loop and link’ tunnels in Liverpool to turn around its urban rail network. Greater Manchester had less luck in getting funding for a rail tunnel (the ‘Picc-Vicc’ tunnel) to link its southern and northern rail network- though ultimately the successful Manchester Metrolink tram network has proved to be a more than adequate alternative.

Castle complemented the creation of strategic city region transport bodies by raising urban public transport investment, so that it was more on a par with roads, and providing more funding for bus services. She also established the concept of the ‘social railway’ – the principle that government can subsidise unprofitable railways where they bring wider social and economic benefits. The era saw a significant write off of BR debt, too, and much of the publicly owned canal network was saved for leisure use.

On the roads Castle took what she saw as the pragmatic approach, accepting that acting as King Canute was not an option: the country had made its choice and an increase in private car use was inevitable. The original Beeching rail closure programme was largely allowed to play itself out – although she did pluck some routes from the inferno and set a floor for the network well above what was envisaged in the second Beeching report. There’s no doubt that we should now have a bigger rail network than we do now (some of the largest annual contractions of the network happened on her watch) but we could have had a lot smaller one if she hadn’t steadied the ship. And the railways decades long slow comeback also has its roots in her tenure.

She was also determined to make the roads safer. Just as sensible measures to reduce death, injury and risk on the roads now are drowned out by vitriol in the media and by boorish petrolheads so they were then. This included death threats which she turned to her political advantage (she made sure the press got pictures of her going to the pub with her husband and the newly assigned detective on tow). She persevered (naturally) and speed limits, breathalysers and seat belts were the result. 

The 1968 Transport Act was where it was all meant to come together (and mostly did). A grand design for an all encompassing new integrated transport policy. A policy that would accommodate the reality of growing demand for car ownership and use (whilst improving road safety), rescue and revive public transport, pave the way for traffic restrain and integrated networks in urban areas as well as tidy up a host of other transport miscellany (from the canal network to the safeguarding of historic transport relics). She fought to keep as much of her vision intact as she could: the new Act required a record-breaking 45 committee sittings and faced considerable parliamentary opposition (Enoch Powell described the Bill as ‘evil’). But she left transport before the process was completed, and her successor Richard Marsh was all too amenable to ditching what he could, including some radical proposals which would have kept more freight on rail through a new system of licencing for lorries which was felled by the road haulage industry and its unions (thanks lads).

So what’s the lessons for today for anyone in with clout in transport and who wants to do something with that clout? A stand out is that you need to go out there and relentlessly sell radical change: Castle always had her press people in for the key decisions, and led from the front on making the case. But perhaps more than anything it is to heed these words of hers: “There are great temptations to play safe, and then I think a slow moral corruption sets in… the higher you go, the more you’ve got to lose. It become easier to argue with yourself. And it can be a very tricky thing indeed, this. You need timing and you need judgement and you need courage.”

Jonathan Bray

A brochure on the story of Barbara Castle and the 1968 Transport Act can be downloaded here: https://www.urbantransportgroup.org/resources/types/documents/barbara-castle-and-story-1968-transport-act

A PDF of this article can be downloaded here: https://www.urbantransportgroup.org/resources/types/documents/passenger-transport-article-issue-249

Treasures of the Urban Transport Group YouTube archive

Many rainy lunchtimes in the making, we are proud to present the treasures of the UTG YouTube archive…

YouTube is stuffed with archive train videos – there’s less out there on the buses, trams, ferries, trams and transit systems of our big regional cities. Well let me rephrase that – there’s less out there that’s interesting! But we’ve hunted down what we could find. So why not spend one of your rainy lunchtimes by joining us in an exploration of a world where people smoked at all times – including on wooden underground trains; where transport systems were built by men whose safety gear was flared trousers and check shirts, and of course a fag; and where pageants and festivals were held where grateful citizens would celebrate new rail connections.

We begin our tour in Liverpool with the wondrous Liverpool Overhead Railway. The world’s first overhead electric railway that glided over streets crowded with rail and road traffic from the UK’s second busiest port. Worn out by corrosion, wartime bombs and continuous use it was closed in 1956 and demolished the year after. It lives on however in a stunningly beautiful CGI recreation by Steven Wheeler.

Catching our breath we reach further back in time – right back to 1902 and one of Mitchell and Kenyon’s Edwardian rediscovered documentary films takes us on a tram ride through the Bradford of over a century ago. A double decker time machine on steel rails through streets of behatted cyclists and horse drawn goods wagons.

Five years before those scenes were filmed, the Glasgow Subway got some new trains. In the 1970s they were still running! Here a whimsical and comprehensive effort from 1977 to mark its last day before modernisation – complete with a set of characters as eccentric as the system itself. There’s also some needling questions by the Edinburgh presenter about Glasgow’s perceived shortcomings (I’m not getting involved!).

‘Last day’ films are a staple of the transport film documentary genre – and one of the best ones ever made was about the last day of Glasgow’s trams. ‘Nine Dalmuir West’ is a free wheeling, hand held grainy, black and white elegy to the last days of a tram system that was loved by the city – but not loved enough to buck the trend and spend the money to renew it. The film has all the latent restless energy of the early Sixties which was about to change British cities forever. And for all the fondness for the tram – it wasn’t going to be part of this new world. But the trams went out in style with one hell of a party in the tram depot on the last night (shown near the end of the film). And those women tram drivers are cool (they were out of a job too as the Corporation wouldn’t let them drive buses!). The men wearing their caps like guardsmen also cut a dash.

There’s a more stilted farewell to Sheffield’s trams in this 1960 documentary. The relentlessly chirpy, mustn’t grumble, know my place, tram driver narrator makes you want to clatter him with a tram pole after a while – but another steel railed, double decker, time machine. And a vivid reminder of what British cities were too quick to get rid of – especially the routes with dedicated tracks of their own. Though in the shots of the trams passing Sheffield’s new concrete and glass shopping centres you can see how the tram must have seemed like some elderly embarrassing relative that you may be fond of but now needed to be shuffled off to the retirement home as soon as was seemly.

Before we move on from the demise of the Tram here’s Alan Bennett’s closing words to a forward to ‘A Nostalgic Look at Leeds Trams since 1950’ by Graham Twidale:

‘Buses have never inspired the same affection, too comfortable and cushioned to have a moral dimension. Trams were bare and bony, transport reduced to its basic elements, and they had a song to sing, which buses never did. I was away at university when they started to phase them out, Leeds as always in too much of a hurry to get to the future, and so doing the wrong thing. I knew at the time that it was a mistake, just as Beeching was a mistake, and that life was starting to get nastier. If trams ever come back though, they should come back not as curiosities not, God help us, as part of the heritage, but as a cheap and sensible way of getting from point A to point B, and with a bit of poetry thrown in.’

Time for one more ‘last day’ film before we move on. This time Britain’s last trolleybus system which was to be found in Bradford before finally succumbing in 1972.  Not on YouTube but better than that – on the Yorkshire Film Archive.


The late Cllr Stanley King – proud Bradfordian, trolleybus advocate and former Chair of the West Yorkshire Passenger Transport Authority – can be heard near the end of the film.

After all those seductively melancholy last day films let’s take a more positive view of modernization and change! That’s what PTEs were set up to do. To turn round ailing public transport systems that had been battered by Beeching and hammered by the growth in private car use! Time to move on. Time to remake our cities and the transit systems that serve them. Time for Glasgow Transport 1980…

Everyone goes on about integrated transport nowadays but as the film shows in 1980 we had it! There’s even a transport pageant, march past and festival held at the end of the film to celebrate the Glasgow Transport 1980.

On a lighter note. Here’s an entertaining training film for bus crew from Tyne and Wear. If Oz from ‘Auf Wiedersehen, Pet’ had been a bus driver he would have been Animal Anderson…

And to end what better way to go out but with an all singing, all dancing finale – ladies and gentlemen I give you: Tyne and Wear Metro: the Musical!

If you enjoyed this selection from our YouTube archive there’s more to explore on our YouTube channel which can be found here


Jonathan Bray