Exploring railway conjunctions

Forging Industrial Policy
May 26, 1995

Historians have long debated the comparative effects that railways had on the economies of the industrialised nations of the 19th century, but there are surprisingly few international studies of the railways' relationship to political systems. This volume goes a long way to filling this important gap in the literature. Frank Dobbin's aim is, however, considerably more ambitious.

Through his study of railways he attempts to develop nothing less than a fresh perspective on modernity. More specifically, Dobbin wants to show that national political traditions of nations have generated contrasting and enduring understandings of the meaning of industrial efficiency.

This social constructivist approach is a welcome rejoinder to those students of industrial policy who try to impose a single logic of development onto the very different experiences of particular countries.

Dobbin argues that the deeply-rooted conceptions of political order held by nations in the pre-industrial era influenced their subsequent notions of industrial efficiency, and hence their policies towards railways.

National differences between political cultures became manifest in striking contrasts of railway policy in the 19th century. But equally, the deeply rooted nature of these national frameworks of meaning meant that notions of what an efficient railway should look like could survive major upheavals in the political order.

This analysis works well. The powerful monarchy of pre-industrial France meant that it was difficult for anyone to think of a railway system that was not built according to the dictates of the state's engineering corps and which did not primarily serve the needs of Paris. Railway policies directed to these ends endured through revolution and counter-revolution.

By contrast, the more locally-focused democracy of the United States encouraged a very different understanding of the appropriate involvement of state and federal authorities in the planning, financing and technical development of railroads. Here the free market and price competition ruled supreme. British political culture produced yet another contrast. Although Britain's railways developed initially within a market-based system, concerns over the possible abuse of monopoly power by large companies led eventually to restrictions on price competition.

The value of this book lies more in the encouragement it will give to others attempting constructivist analyses of industrial policy than to any new insights it offers into railway development - although its very real merits as a comparative study should not be ignored. There are however several points in the analysis of Britain's railways where Dobbin's concern to demonstrate the heuristic value of his perspective leads him to claim more for it than is justified.

One example must suffice here. Dobbin notes, quite correctly, that in the last third of the 19th century parliament condoned the movement towards cartels among railway companies. He suggests that this represented the extension to the railways of an older political imperative to maintain the sovereignty of individual lords. In other words permitting cartels protected small companies from being swallowed up by larger, more predatory concerns.

This, Dobbin suggests, shows that, contrary to received opinion, parliament did not approve of cartels solely in order to mitigate the effects of foreign competition on domestic manufacturers.

But historians have long known about the cartelisation of Britain's railways, and they have offered a more cogent explanation which does not rely on the argument from foreign competition.

By the 1870s the "railway interest" in parliament was on the wane for well understood reasons connected with the revitalisation of party loyalties.

At the same time, traders and manufacturers, who had a long-standing, and not altogether unjustified fear of the potential for monopoly pricing by the railway industry, were gaining in influence within parliament. The movement towards cartels combined with increasingly stringent regulation of the railways' scale of charges can be understood as a compromise between these two groups of opposed interests, a conflict which Dobbin almost wholly neglects. None of this implies that the social constructionist case is fundamentally flawed.

Quite the contrary. Interesting and suggestive though it is, Dobbin's work can be criticised for failing to take social constructivism seriously enough.

By comparison with the sophisticated analyses constructivists offer of, say, scientific and technological change, Dobbin is rather neglectful of the social negotiation of the failure and development of policy. There is still a lot of railway history to be written.

Colin Divall is professor of railway studies, University of York.

Forging Industrial Policy: The United States, Britain, and France in the Railway Age

Author - Frank Dobbin
ISBN - 0 521 45121 3
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £30.00
Pages - 262

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