Monday, 13 September 2010

Fair Exchange in 1948

In 1948, the railways in the United Kingdom were nationalised by the then government. There were four (the "Big Four") railway companies operating in the country, and they acted independently of each other for many purposes. So, after nationalisation, British Railways had a fleet of steam engines from four different stables. Because of the war, many of these locomotives were past their best. Each of the companies had its own locomotive designers, and over the years, each company had developed its own style of locomotive design, to meet the topography of the region, and the objectives of its railway service.

The new management realised that this might be inefficient, so commissioned trials to help find a range of standard steam locomotives. So they mixed and matched, taking locomotives from one stable and running them on the other types of track. The aim was to find the "best".

Now, one of the first questions one asks in O.R. is "What do you mean by best?" According to the history of the 1948 Exchange, nobody really thought of this. Obviously it is a multi-criteria problem, and there are several types of locomotive to be identified and designed. But, even for one type, such as hauling express trains, there are various criteria to consider. The Wikipedia article about the exchange comments:
the testing had little scientific rigour, and political influence meant that LMS practice was largely followed by the new standard designs regardless.

So the optimum was found, not so much by scientific analysis, but by politics. O.R. scientists, beware!

And a little footnote from the book which started me on this story, Amazing and Extraordinary Railway Facts by Julian Holland:
One eminent railway historian was shocked that the Stanier Black 5 type had performed badly; it appeared that the driver and fireman had tried to minimise the fuel consumption during the trial.

So, of course if your staff don't understand the aim of the experiment, they may interpret it in the wrong way. Beware!

A Stanier Black 5