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History of the British railway system

The British railway system is the oldest in the world.

The Development of the Railways, 1825 to 1948

On September 15, 1830, the Liverpool and Manchester Railway opened from Liverpool Road, Manchester, to Edge Hill (later Crown Street), Liverpool. For the first time you could buy a ticket, expect a purpose-built passenger train to turn up at a given time and take you to your destination on track of four feet eight-and-a-half inches (1.435 m) gauge designed for steam locomotives to haul passengers and operated as one system. This was the start of railways as we know them today.

Of course, there had been railways in Britain for centuries, mostly primitive wooden tracks with single trucks pulled by hand or by horse. These developed during the Industrial Revolution into sophisticated lines of iron track with some ambitious engineering works. The most advanced of these were the Stratford-upon-Avon and Moreton-in-Marsh Tramway, and the Cromford and High Peak railway in Derbyshire. But they all, even the Stockton and Darlington railway opened in 1825, had important differences from modern railways: they were designed for horse haulage, carriage of bulk freight rather than passengers, and all were initially operated like public roads, where anyone with a truck of the right gauge and a horse could ply their trade. This anarchic system made the Stockton and Darlington Railway almost unworkable at first, since waggoners' trains would meet on a single track and arguments ensue as to who should back up to a passing loop.

The L&M was known as the 'Great Experimental' Railway and engineers from Europe and America came to see the lessons learnt which were impossible to predict until they could be tried out on the ground. For example, the entire track had to be replaced in the second year, something unforeseen. The first light locomotives soon needed replacing by more powerful ones to haul the increasingly long and heavy trains, and different designs of locomotive evolved to pull passenger and goods trains.

The financial success of the line was beyond all expectations and interests in London and Birmingham soon planned to build two lines to link these cities with each other and with the L&M. These two lines were the London and Birmingham, designed by Robert Stephenson, which ran from Euston Square, London, to Curzon Street, Birmingham, and the Grand Junction, engineered by Joseph Locke, which ran from Curzon Street to an end-on junction with the Warrington and Newton Line, a branch of the L&M, at Dallam, near Warrington in Cheshire. Although the Grand Junction was so called because it was designed to link the other two lines it was actually completed and opened first, on July 4 1837, with the L & B following a few months later.

Early Mistakes

Although the Government was in favour of the development of trunk railways, to stimulate economic recovery (in which they were tremendously successful) and to facilitate the movement of troops in times of potential civil unrest, each line was promoted by independent private interest and authorised by a separate Act of Parliament. There was thus no overall plan to develop a logical network of railways. Worse, most lines were considered as isolated schemes with little thought for linking them up with other railways to facilitate through running across the country. The terminal stations were therefore often in sites ill-suited for extension or for continuation onto other lines. The problems arising from such lack of foresight soon became apparent as the network and amount of traffic expanded rapidly, and cities such as Manchester and London continue to suffer the lack of through lines in all directions.

Another symptom of the lack of an integrated system was the lack of a standard width between the rails. Most lines were constructed as either broad gauge (7 foot) or narrow (the modern 4'8" width). The latter was favoured in the north of the UK, due to its historical use in the coal industry. Certain lines attempted to run a mixed gauge system with three rails. This was the solution attempted on the 'Old Worse and Worse' line from Worcester to Oxford, although history relates that the inspection train arrived at Evesham to discover the third rail for broad gauge had not actually been finished and was lying by the side of the tracks. Indeed, this railway seems to have set a new standard for incompetent management; during its construction there was a riot over which company constructed a cutting and tunnel, requiring the constabulary from as faraway as Northamptonshire to attend. Even more absurd, the line met with another between Stratford-upon-Avon and Tewkesbury at Evesham but the lack of a cohesive policy meant that two stations were built 50 yards apart and the lines never connected. This pattern was repeated across the country.

Early Successes

The financial success of the early railways was phenomenal, as they had no real competition. The roads were still very slow and in poor condition. Prices of fuel and food fell in cities connected to railways owing to the fall in the cost of transport. The layout of lines with gentle gradients and curves, originating from the need to help the relatively weak engines and brakes, was a boon when speeds increased, avoiding for the most part the need to re-survey the course of a line. And despite their separate origins, the different railways, with one notable exception, were able to run their trucks and coaches on each other's lines when they did join up. Less than twenty years after the Liverpool line opened, it was possible to travel from London to Scotland by train, in a small fraction of the former time by road.

The Great Western Railway

The 'notable exception' mentioned above was the Great Western Railway, for many years (some would say for its entire life) the 'odd one out' among the big companies. It originated from the desire of Bristol merchants to maintain the position of their port as the second port in the country and the chief one for American trade. The increase in the size of ships and the gradual silting of the River Avon made Liverpool an increasingly attractive port, and with its rail connection with London developing in the 1830s it threatened Bristol's status. The answer for Bristol was, with the co-operation of London interests, to build a line of their own, a railway built to unprecedented standards of excellence to outperform the Euston to Liverpool line. To this end they engaged, not one of the Stephensons or their associates, but the brilliant young maverick, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, on the threshold of his meteoric career, who declared that he would build the 'Finest work of England'.

The main distinctive feature of the Great Western Line was its track gauge of seven feet and one-quarter-inch (2.14 m), much wider than the standard gauge and wider than any modern broad gauge. This permitted much safer, more stable running at speed. It was, however, an example of an 'early mistake'. If the Great Western had continued as it had begun, as a line or system not intended to be connected with the others, there would have been no problem. But very soon the other railway systems began to see the need to run through trains, especially of freight, from one system to another, and this required track of uniform gauge. The Great Western was soon at a disadvantage, as all goods had to be lifted and transferred into and out of its wagons when running onto another company's system. The other companies too, felt the inconvenience and eventually a Royal Commission decided that the GW must not build Broad Gauge lines outside its existing area.

At this time the Western had taken on a life of its own and was looking for the best way to survive and expand. It became clear that despite the railway, the limitations of Bristol were such that Merseyside would continue to take over as the principal western port, and to keep a share of American trade the Great Western must, like the others, build a line there. The ban on further expansion of the Broad Gauge meant that this line would have to be Standard Gauge beyond Wolverhampton, and thus the Western had to develop Standard Gauge rolling stock for the northern half of the line. To run its trains into Paddington meant laying a third rail within the seven-foot, and from then on the Broad Gauge was doomed. Although it survived on the main line to Cornwall until 1892, its removal was essential for the company's future in the twentieth century.

Other Companies

The London and North Western Railway was founded in 1846 from the original main line companies working from Euston to Scotland. The Great Northern Railway built their own line northwards from Kings Cross to Doncaster. The Midland dominated the central coalfields and became a very prosperous company, able to build a grandiose London terminus at St. Pancras, and a largely unnecessary but superbly engineered main line to Carlisle, the highest main line in England. The London and South Western ran parallel to the Great Western into Cornwall. By the end of the century there were hundreds of separate railway companies, large and small, successful and ruinous, in many cases running alongside one another for part of the way and vying for trade.

The last main lines were completed in 1900 to 1910 and comprised a new route into London built jointly by the Great Western and the Great Central Railways. The Great Central needed a faster route than the Metropolitan line from Aylesbury to Marylebone, and the Great Western needed a shorter route from Birmingham. They built a line of their own to join a Great central line from Aylesbury at Ashendon Junction near Princes Risborough and the line then approached London, dividing again at Northolt.

Although new branch lines were constructed as late as 1939 and short link lines as late as the 1990s (to Manchester Airport) and to date (2003) a brand new high speed line is being constructed to link the Channel tunnel to London. Despite this the railway system as a whole had reached its fullest extent by 1914.

The grouping period

During the First World War the whole system was taken under government control and run by the Railway Operating Division of the War Office. This revealed many advantages in running all the railways as one system. When, after the war, the railways began to lose revenue rapidly with the rise of road transport (stimulated by the cheap sale of thousands of war-surplus vans and lorries), nationalisation was considered, but was so unpopular even with the Government that a compromise was put into place. With a very few exceptions, all the companies were grouped into four, the London, Midland and Scottish, the Southern, the London and North Eastern, and the Great Western.

The 'Grouping' period lasted only 25 years until another world war prompted full nationalisation. Although the railways presented the illusion of being four separate competitive companies they were effectively owned by the Government and never ran at a healthy profit. Indeed, the LNER never made a profit at all.

This was largely because the Government would not release them from their obligation as 'general carriers'.

The general carrier requirement had been brought in in the 19th century. It obliged railway companies by law, to carry any cargo offered to it at a nationally agreed charge, which was usually well below a rate necessary to make the operation profitable for the railways. The idea behing the general carrier requirement had been too stop railway companies from 'cherry picking' the most profitable freight whilst refusing to carry less profitable freight, this had made sense when railways had had an effective monopoly over land transport, and had made huge profits.

But with road competition encroaching, it put the railways at a disadvantage, because they had to subsidise unprofitable freight operations with profitable ones which drove up charges. The road haulage operators who had no such restrictions could therefore undercut the railways and take away their business.

The railway companies responded to this with a national campaign in the late 1930s for a 'square deal' to allow them the same commercial freedom as road operators. However just as the campaign looked like being successful World War II started. The general carrier requirement was not lifed until 1957.

No large railway can operate at a profit unless more than half its traffic is freight, and the freight was being siphoned off by the road companies.

To make the best of the situation, Government money was used to modernise the operation. New large freight marshalling yards were built, faster passenger trains improved the railways' image and electrification began to be introduced on some lines.

During World War II the railways again came under effective government control, and were used more heavily than at any time in their history. The railway system suffered heavy damage in some areas due to German Luftwaffe bombing, especially in cities such as London and Coventry.

Also during the war, the railway network was starved of investment, and only the most essential maintenance work was carried out, leading to a drastic deterioration in the condition of track and rolling stock.

The damage to the railway network, caused by bombing, was not as extensive as it had been in many other European countries such as France and Germany. This unwittingly worked to the railways disadvantage, because in other European countries, the damage to their railway systems had been so bad, that it gave them an opportunity to essentially re-build their railway systems from scratch, and dramatically modernise them.


After the war the four big railway companies of the grouping era were effectively bankrupt, and so were glad when the post-war Labour government of Clement Attlee nationalised the system in 1948, to create the new British Railways

However given the fragile national economic situation of the late 1940s, an outright government purchase of the railway companies was too expensive to consider. The method of nationalisation chosen by the government, was to compensate the shareholders of the former private railway companies, over a long period of time with guaranteed fixed interest payments, paid from British Rail's income.

The government had based the levels of compensation for former railway shareholders, on the valuation of the railway companies in 1946, a time when the valuations were artificially high due to the large amount of wartime traffic being carried. Given the run-down state of the rail network, the government had paid far more to buy the railways than they were actually worth. This saddled British Rail with unnecessarily high debt re-payments, which would in later years cripple the railways fianances.

Despite nationalisation and the creation of British Railways, the management of the rail system changed little, and was left in much the same way as it had been before nationalisation. British Railways was divided up into five administrative regions, which closely mirrored the regions covered by the former "big four" companies in England and Wales, with the addition of a separate Scottish Region (for a time, there was a separate North Eastern Region which was soon amalgamated with the Eastern Region, to basically reflect the English operations of the LNER).

The Labour government also nationalised other means of transport such as canals, sea and shipping ports, bus companies, and eventually amidst much opposition, road haulage. All of these transport modes including British Rail were brought under the control of a body called the British Transport Commission (BTC).

The BTC was a part of a highly ambitious, and somewhat Socialistic scheme, to create a publicly owned, centrally planned, integrated transport system. In theory the BTC was to coordinate different modes of transport, to co-operate and supplement each other instead of competing. This was to be achieved by means of fare and rate adjustments.

However the road haulage industry bitterly opposed nationalisation, and they found allies in the Conservative party. Once the Conservatives were elected in 1951 road haulage was soon de-nationalised and de-regulated, but the still heavily regulated railways and buses were left under the control of the BTC -- the Labour ideal of an integrated transport system had been shattered.

The railways in the post-war world

In the post-war world, lifestyles underwent radical changes, cars became affordable to the masses, new road and motorways were built. The railways on the other hand entered the post-war world with technologies and operating practices which had changed little since the Victorian period. The last sixty years have seen the railways stumbling to adjust to the new world.

During the 1950s, a long series of blunders by politicians and railway management alike nearly brought the British railway system to its knees, and resulted in the huge Beeching Axe closures programme of the 1960s.

Before the war, the railway companies had formed a powerful political lobby group, however one effect of nationalisation was to effectively destroy this political influence (as they were owned by the government, they could hardly criticise its policies).

Conversly the newly privatised road haulage industry and motor interests, were becoming increasingly powerful and influential over government transport policy, a trend which dictated transport policies of all British governments for the rest of the post war period.

In the immediate post-war period, most of the money spent on the railways, was spent on clearing the enormous maintenance backlog inherited from the war. After that there was little left over for modernisation. By the start of the 1950s Britain had fallen well behind the rest of Europe in terms of dieselisation and electrification of its railways. Indeed under the Labour government there was a political incentive to avoid dieselisation because this would have meant a reduced demand for coal, which would have put miners out of work.

The beaurocratic committee structure of the BTC and British Rail did not help matters, it slowed progress towards modernisation too a crawl.

The first attempts at modernisation of the network came in 1955, when British Rail announced plans for mass dieselisation of the rail network, Britain was by this stage many years behind the rest of the industrialised world, and British Rail intended to catch up quickly.

However the dieselisation plans were rushed, and many classes of diesel locomotive were rushed into full scale production, before their prototypes had been fully tested. Predictably enough it turned out to be an expensive fiasco. Many of the new diesels were chronically unreliable, some so much so that they had to be withdrawn from service after just a few months of service. This affair did little to bolster British Rail's reputation with the public or the government.

Theoretically dieselisation would produce efficiency savings, because diesel locomotives were less labour intensive than steam. However the unreliability of many of the new diesels wiped out much of the potential efficiency saving from dieselisation.

Night Ferry

The Night Ferry was Britain's first international passenger train, with carriages to Paris and Brussels: they went on the ferry. It has operated 1936-1939 and 1947-1980.

See also