The net and basic reproduction numbers are among the most widely-applied concepts in infectious disease epidemiology. A net reproduction number (the average number of secondary infectious cases resulting from each case in a given population) of above 1 is conventionally associated with an increase in incidence; the basic reproduction number (defined analogously for a 'totally susceptible' population) provides a standard measure of the 'transmission potential' of an infection. Using a model of the epidemiology of tuberculosis in England and Wales since 1900, we demonstrate that these measures are difficult to apply if disease can follow reinfection, and that they lose their conventional interpretations if important epidemiological parameters, such as the rate of contact between individuals, change over the time interval between successive cases in a chain of transmission (the serial interval). The net reproduction number for tuberculosis in England and Wales appears to have been approximately 1 from 1900 until 1950, despite concurrent declines in morbidity and mortality rates, and it declined rapidly in the second half of this century. The basic reproduction number declined from about 3 in 1900, reached 2 by 1950, and first fell below 1 in about 1960. Reductions in effective contact between individuals over this period, measured in terms of the average number of individuals to whom each case could transmit the infection, meant that the conventional basic reproduction number measure (which does not consider subsequent changes in epidemiological parameters) for a given year failed to reflect the 'actual transmission potential' of the infection. This latter property is better described by a variant of the conventional measure which takes secular trends in contact into account. These results are relevant for the interpretation of trends in any infectious disease for which epidemiological parameters change over time periods comparable to the infectious period, incubation period or serial interval.