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The Declining Profitability of the Railway Industry, 1870-1914 - CED00008M

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  • Department: Centre for Lifelong Learning
  • Module co-ordinator: Dr. David Turner
  • Credit value: 20 credits
  • Credit level: M
  • Academic year of delivery: 2022-23

Module will run

Occurrence Teaching cycle
A Spring Term 2022-23

Module aims

The module aims to:

  • Show how the British railway industry's profitability declined between 1870 and 1914
  • Present the different academic arguments for the causes of this weakening financial performance
  • Explore how and why railways expenditure on fuel, materials and wages increased in the period
  • Discuss how increasing government intervention in the railway industry affairs may have been an influence on companies profitability
  • Explore how British railways management practices developed before 1870, and compare and contrast it with how management developed in overseas railways and in other industries.
  • Examine the level of competition within the British railway industry and its possible effects on companies profits
  • Explore how the operating and administrative practices the railways had established by the 1870s were possibly not updated thereafter to efficiently handle the increasing complexity of their traffic and trade.
  • Show the extent to which the technology of British railways changed and developed between 1870 and 1900.
  • Show how railway companies decision-makers possibly pursued policies that were not in the best interests of shareholders
  • Suggest how overseas railway companies, particularly those in the United States, may have been more efficiently operated and innovative than those in Britain.
  • Challenge students to engage with an area of the historical study where there is on-going debate amongst academics
  • Continue to instruct the students on the appropriate academic skills for essay writing, such as critical analysis, argument, referencing, and research
  • Demonstrate the complexity and diversity of events in the past, and the range of problems involved in the interpretation of complex, ambiguous, conflicting and often incomplete material
  • Encourage students to think independently and develop their own viewpoints on a debated subject of study.

Module learning outcomes

By the conclusion of the module the student should be able to:

  • Demonstrate an understanding of the possible external pressures on British railway companies profitability after 1870
  • Show an understanding of how management practices developed within the British railway industry before 1870, compared with railways in other nations and other industries.
  • Demonstrate knowledge of how and why British railway companies operational and administrative practices possibly declined in efficiency after 1870
  • Express an opinion on existing arguments in the literature on the causes of British railways declining profitability after 1870
  • Write work that is sustained offering a measured, convincing and scholarly argument
  • Demonstrate research skills by engaging with both primary and secondary source material
  • Select and organise appropriate information effectively so as to develop coherent opinions and arguments
  • Consider and solve problems, including complex problems to which there is no single solution
  • Write work that is sustained offering a measured, convincing and scholarly argument.


Task Length % of module mark
N/A 100

Special assessment rules



Task Length % of module mark
N/A 100

Module feedback

The tutor will give regular individual feedback throughout the module on work submitted.

The assessment feedback is as per the university’s guidelines with regard to timings.

Indicative reading

Reading lists, and the availability of texts/journals electronically, are subject to change: please check with Lifelong Learning/teaching staff before making any purchases prior to the start of the module.

Required Reading

  • Aldcroft, Derek H. British Railways in Transition, (London, 1968) – SUPPLIED DIGITALLY
  • Arnold, A.J. and McCartney, S. Rates of return, concentration levels and strategic change in the British railway industry, 1830-1912, Journal of Transport History, 26 (2005) – SUPPLIED DIGITALLY
  • Cain, P.J., “Railways 1870-1914: The maturity of the private system”, in Freeman, Michael J. and Aldcroft, Derek H. (eds.), Transport in Victorian Britain, (Manchester, 1988) – SUPPLIED DIGITALLY
  • Irving, R.J., “The Profitability and Performance of British Railways 1870-1914,” The Economic History Review, New Series, 31 (Feb. 1978) – SUPPLIED DIGITALLY
  • Mitchell, Brian, Chambers, David, and Crafts, Nick, How good was profitability of British railways 1870-1912?, Economic History Review, 64 (2011) – SUPPLIED DIGITALLY

Recommended Reading

  • Crafts, Nicholas and Leunig, Tim and Mulatu, Abay, “Were British railway companies well-managed in early twentieth century?” Economic history review, 61 (2008) – SUPPLIED DIGITALLY
  • Gourvish, T.R., “The Performance of British Railway Management after 1860: The Railways of Watkin and Forbes”, Business History, 20 (1978) – SUPPLIED DIGITALLY
  • Pollins, Harold, Britain’s Railways: An Industrial History, (London, 1971) – SUPPLIED DIGITALLY
  • Wilson, John F. British Business History, 1720-1994 (Manchester, 1994) – SUPPLIED DIGITALLY

The information on this page is indicative of the module that is currently on offer. The University is constantly exploring ways to enhance and improve its degree programmes and therefore reserves the right to make variations to the content and method of delivery of modules, and to discontinue modules, if such action is reasonably considered to be necessary by the University. Where appropriate, the University will notify and consult with affected students in advance about any changes that are required in line with the University's policy on the Approval of Modifications to Existing Taught Programmes of Study.