History of rail transport in Great Britain

From Academic Kids

This article is part of the history of rail transport by country series

The British railway system is the oldest in the world. On 15 September 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 4 ft 8.5 ins (1435 mm) gauge designed for steam locomotives to haul passengers and operated as one system. This was the start of railways as we know them today.


Railed roads and tramways, 1676 to 1825

Early rails

As early as 1676 railed roads were in use in Northumberland to ease the conveyance of coal from the mines to the banks of the river at Newcastle-on-Tyne. These were simply straight and parallel rails of timber on which carts with rollers drawn by horses enabled several wagons to be moved simultaneously. Called tramroads (the early coal wagons were called drams), these primitive rails were superseded in 1793 when the then superintendent of the Cromford Canal, Benjamin Outram constructed a tramway with L-shaped cast-iron rails: the tramway was a little over a mile in length and had a gauge of 3 ft 6 ins (1067 mm).

Although these rails were a huge step forward over the wooden "rails", they themselves were superseded when William Jessup (1745-1814) - who had been a pupil of John Smeaton - built and, with Outram, manufactured cast-iron rails without guiding ledges, where the edges of the wagon-wheels were flanged instead. Jessup first employed these rails in 1789 at the Loughborough Canal. Such rails could be manufactured in 3-ft (914-mm) lengths.

Cast-iron rails had a propensity of breaking easily, and gradually wrought-iron began to be used. In 1820 John Birkenshaw introduced a method of rolling rails in greater lengths; wrought-iron was used from then onwards.

Early public railways

The first specific railway company to obtain an Act of Parliament was the Surrey Iron Railway in 1799: it was for a public railway between Wandsworth and Croydon in south London. It was worked by horses. Although it survived only until 1845, and was for freight traffic only, it prefaced the projection of almost a score of others in different parts of the country.

Two of the railway engineers who pioneered the use of steam locomotives were Richard Trevithick and John Blenkinsop. At the time there was intense argument about the relative superiority of smooth wheels on smooth rails and the so-called rack and cog wheel: early locomotives did not possess sufficient adhesive weight for the tractive power required. Although it was soon discovered that the cog wheel was unnecessary on ordinary railways, it is still used on railways such as the Snowdon Mountain Railway.

Stockton and Darlington Railway

The Stockton and Darlington Railway (S&DR) came into being because the proprietors of the Wylam Colliery, near Newcastle-on-Tyne wanted to abolish horse-drawn trains in favour of steam. One of Trevithick's locomotives was obtained in 1805, although the wooden track did not at first allow it to be used; in the event two of the Colliery's employees, William Hedley and Timothy Hackworth, designed a locomotive in 1813, which became known as Puffing Billy. A year later George Stephenson, another of Wylam's employees, improved on that design; and it was that design that convinced the backers of the proposed tramway between Stockton and Darlington, which had been given the go-ahead by Parliament in 1821, to appoint Stephenson as engineer of the new line.

Traffic on the railway was originally intended to be horse-drawn, but Stephenson carried out a fresh survey of the route, and the Act was amended so that steam locomotives could also be used; it was also enabled to carry passengers a in addition to coal and general merchandise. The line was 25 miles (40km) in length: had a hundred loops along its single track, and four branch lines to collieries. The S&DR opened on 27 September 1825. It was initially operated like a public road, and it was a common occurrence for waggoners' trains to meet on the single track when arguments would ensue as to who should back up to a passing loop.

The first railway opened in Scotland was between Kilmarnock and Troon. At first it was operated by horses, but in 1817 locomotive haulage was introduced.

The development of the railways, 1825 to 1923

Two railways were the pioneers in railway development in England.

Liverpool and Manchester Railway

The next successful venture, and the one which is now considered to be the first true railway, was the Liverpool and Manchester Railway (L&MR). It had been a project proposed several years before the S&DR, but local landowners had so vigorously opposed the plan that it had been abandoned. The undoubted success of the S&DR prompted a revival of the scheme, and Stephenson was asked to survey the route. Eventually (after one attempt was blocked by opponents of the scheme), the Act of Parliament was obtained, and the line built. The Rainhill Trials, the competition to find the best locomotive to work the line, were held in 1829, which Stephenson won with his locomotive the Rocket; and the L&MR opened on 15 September 1830.

The L&MR 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.

Canterbury and Whitstable Railway

The Canterbury and Whitstable Railway was opened, after five years of construction, on 3 May 1830, and four months earlier than the L&MR: the earliest railway in the south of England. Steep inclines meant that stationary engines were necessary on part of the six miles of track. It closed in 1952.

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 4 July 1837, with the L&B following a few months later.

Railway Mania

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, it was legally necessary that each line was authorised by a separate Act of Parliament. All the railways were promoted by commercial interested parties; as those opened by the year 1836 were paying good dividends it prompted financiers to invest money in them, and by 1845 over 1000 projected schemes were put forward. When the government stepped in and announced closure for depositing schemes, the "Railway Mania", as it was called, was brought to an end.

The commercial interests mentioned above were often of a local nature, and there was never a nationwide plan to develop a logical network of railways. Some railways, however, began to grow faster than others, often taking over smaller lines to expand their own. The L&MR success led to the idea of linking Liverpool to London, and from that the seeds of the London and North Western Railway (L&NWR) - an amalgamation of four hitherto separate enterprises, including the L&MR - were sown. Within 50 years the L&NWR was to become "the biggest joint stock company in the world".

"The Battle of the Gauges"

George Stephenson adopted his L&MR railway gauge to that of the width of the tramroads in use in the colliery districts: a width of 4 ft 8.5 ins (1435 mm), and all railways built by him and his assistants adhered to that width. When Bristol businessmen wished to build their railway linking their city with London, they chose Isambard Kingdom Brunel as their engineer. Brunel favoured a wider gauge of 7 ft 0.25 ins (2140 mm): he felt that railways would not be in contact with one another and that their was therefore no need for there to be a uniform British gauge. The Great Western Railway(GWR) was therefore constructed on that premise. He was, however, incorrect; and when railways of a different gauge met the inconvenience caused led to the setting up of a commission to look into the matter. Their conclusion was that the "narrow gauge" (ie that used by Stephenson) should be adopted throughout; although the GWR attempted to forestall that, Parliament later passed the Gauges Act which stipulated the standard gauge.

See also details in this article (http://www.oldandsold.com/articles25/railroads-11.shtml)

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. Less than 20 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.

By 1923 there were some nine major railways operating in England and five in Scotland. In addition there were smaller companies, such as the Cambrian Railways and the many South Wales lines; the Furness and Hull and Barnsley Railways in England; and many much smaller lines. A brief note about each of the larger companies will illustrate how they grew to the importance they had assumed by the time of the huge amalgamations which took place in 1923, in which all but a very few railways were absorbed. Each of the railways described briefly below have their own article.

Major railway companies in Great Britain

English railways

  • Great Central Railway (GCR): the GCR was originally (before 1897) called the Manchester, Sheffield and Lincolnshire Railway when it served those areas by means of an east-west line; it then built a line to London, and was renamed as the GCR. The line occupied the central position between the East and West Coast main lines (see below) and had its London terminus at Marylebone station. Since nationalisation the route has been truncated.
  • Great Eastern Railway(GER): the GER was an amalgamation of the Eastern Counties Railway and the Northern and Eastern Railway, and as its name suggests served the eastern counties of England: Essex, Suffolk and Norfolk. Its main London terminus was Liverpool Street.
  • Great Northern Railway (GNR): the GNR began as an amalgamation in 1846 of two rival schemes: the London and York Railway and the Direct Northern Railway (both started in 1844). The GNR main line ran northwards from Kings Cross to a joint station with the NER at Doncaster. Other lines served Lincolnshire and Derby. The GNR also had joint ownership of the Cheshire Lines Committee, giving access to Liverpool; other joint workings led to West Yorkshire (Leeds and Halifax). The GER, with the NER and the NBR, operated the East Coast Main Line between London and Edinburgh
  • Great Western Railway (GWR): the GWR was incorporated in 1835 to construct a railway, operated on the broad gauge of 7 ft 0.25 in (2140 mm), between Bristol and London. With the addition of several railways - among them the Bristol and Exeter Railway (amalgamated 1876); South Wales Railway (1863); West Midland Railway (1863); South Devon Railway (1878); and the Cornwall Railway (1889) - the GWR territory took shape. The major routes, apart from the original line, served Weymouth, Plymouth and Penzance to the west; all of South Wales to Fishguard and Aberystwyth; Birmingham and Chester to the north-west. A working agreement with the LNWR took the latter line to Birkenhead on Merseyside. The broad-gauge system resulted in what became known as the Gauge War: it caused great problems where the GWR met other companies' tracks, and eventually (in 1892) the last broad gauge line was abolished. The name "Great Western Railway", unlike all the other railways referred to, has been retained throughout the nationalisation of the railways, and one of the train operating companies bears the name in 2005.
  • Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway (L&YR): the L&YR was incorporated in 1847; as with all the major railways it was the result of amalgamations, in this instance the Manchester and Leeds Railway which in 1859 joined the East Lancashire Railway to form the L&YR. Its lines covered the two counties, and served, inter alia Manchester, Leeds, Liverpool, Preston, Doncaster and Goole. In 1922, after the passing of the Railways Act 1921, the L&YR amalgamated with the LNWR.
  • London and North Western Railway (LNWR): the LNWR was formed in 1846 when four existing lines were amalgamated: the London and Birmingham Railway; the Liverpool and Manchester Railway; the Grand Junction Railway; and the Manchester and Birmingham Railway, making the LNWR the largest in the country at that time [420 miles (672 km)]. By 1923 its main line stretched from Euston station in London to Carlisle, with branches to Oxford and Cambridge; to Peterborough; and from Crewe to North Wales and West Yorkshire. It had running powers to enable its trains to reach Swansea and other parts of South Wales; and it also owned a railway in Ireland. The LNWR, together with the Caledonian Railway, operated the West Coast Main Line between London and Glasgow.
  • London and South Western Railway (LSWR): Promoted as the London and Southampton Railway, the first section opened in 1838. By 1923 its main line extended from Waterloo in London via Salisbury and Exeter to Plymouth running parallel, but south of, the GWR main line. Other main towns served were Portsmouth and Bournemouth as well many of the south and south-west seaside resorts. The latter were served by what was known as the Atlantic Coast Express. The LSWR also had a busy suburban network in south-west London. The Somerset and Dorset Joint Railway was jointly owned with the Midland Railway.
  • London, Brighton and South Coast Railway (LB&SCR): the LB&SCR began as the London and Croydon Railway (opened in 1839) and the London and Brighton Railway, in 1840. Its network of lines covered a large portion of the South London suburbs and served almost the whole of the county of Sussex, much of Surrey and some extensions into Kent and Hampshire. Many of the south coast resorts owe their existence to the line. Electrification began in 1909 on the overhead system; this was later changed to third rail when the LB&SCR became part of the Southern Railway.
  • Midland Railway (MidR): the MidR was formed in 1844 with the amalgamation of three railways: the North Midland Railway; the Midland Counties Railway, and the Birmingham and Derby Railway. In its early days it had no London terminus, using termini of other railways (the LNWR and the GNR) until 1862, when its grandiose London terminus at St Pancras was built. By 1923 its main line ran from St Pancras to Carlisle via Nottingham and Sheffield. It also has a secondary main line from Derby (the MidR headquarters) through Birmingham to Bristol. It part-owned the Midland and Great Northern Joint Railway, serving east coast ports and resorts; the Somerset and Dorset Railway (with the L&SWR); and had access using other joint railways to reach Swansea in South Wales, Liverpool, and the port of Stranraer in Scotland. The latter route gave it access to its ownership of two of the Irish railways.
  • North Eastern Railway (NER): The NER was incorporated in 1854, and was the amalgamation of three railways: the York, Newcastle and Berwick Railway; the York and North Midland Railway; and the Leeds Northern Railway. In 1923 its main line ran from the joint station at Doncaster through York and Newcastle-on-Tyne to Berwick-on-Tweed. It formed part of the East Coast Main Line, and its headquarters were at York. It had a larger tonnage of mineral and coal traffic at the beginning of the 20th century than any other railway in Britain.
  • South Eastern and Chatham Railway (SE&CR): The SE&CR was a so-called working union in 1902 of two railways in the south east of England; the South Eastern Railway (opened in 1842) and the London, Chatham and Dover Railway (1859). Like the LB&SCR and the LSWR, it had a large suburban traffic base and served many of the south east coast seaside resorts. Its main line in 1923 ran from several London termini via Tonbridge to Dover and Folkestone.

Scottish railways

For further details see List of early British railway companies

The Grouping

See particularly List of railway companies involved in the 1923 grouping

On 1 January 1923, as a result of the Grouping* the "Big Four" railway companies were set up as follows:

Complete details of the railways within those four companies are given in individual articles
* For the events leading up to the Grouping see Railways Act 1921,

Following the grouping: 1923-1947

In the 16 years before the outbreak of WWII the new companies set about the tremendous task of rebuilding railways which had had little or no work done since 1918. Priority was new rolling stock: locomotives, coaches and wagons. As an example of the need for rationalisation, the LMSR took over 10,316 steam locomotives at the grouping: these comprised no fewer than 393 different classes.

In the 1920s each of the companies produced some exceptional locomotives:

  • LMSR: Royal Scot class 4-6-0 (1927); Sir Henry Fowler was Chief Mechanical Engineer (CME)
  • LNER: A3 Pacific class 4-6-2 (1927); B17 Sandringham class 4-6-0 (1928); Sir Nigel Gresley CME
  • GWR: Castle class 4-6-0 (1923); King class 4-6-0 (1927); Hallclass 4-6-0 (1928): Charles B. Collett CME
  • SR: King Arthur class 4-6-0 (1925); Lord Nelson class 4-6-0 (1926); R.E.L. Maunsell CME

In addition to those mainly passenger locomotives, many new classes of freight engines were produced: the pannier tank locomotives of the GWR and the Garratt heavy freight 2-6-0+0-6-2 locomotive of the LNER (although the latter were not a huge success and only a few were built) being two examples.

Total mileage of the British railways as at 1 January 1923 stood at 19,585 route miles (31,336 km). From the end of the 1920s, when it was obvious that the motor vehicle was in the ascendancy, dozens of little-used branch lines began to close: some to passenger traffic, many completely.

Although few railways were constructed, some new works were undertaken. Among them were:

  • Station redevelopments (notably those at Manchester and Paddington)
  • Lines were opened to allow easier running - one example being those on the Isle of Thanet
  • The Southern Railway began a programme of main-line electrification, which was to bring fast services to many of the south coast resorts, and to extend the London suburban routes.

These latter themes are taken up more fully in the sections which follow.

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, and after the war it was widely agreed that the required development of the rail network could not be achieved under the conditions that had existed before the war. Nationalisation of the railways, which had been mooted by William Gladstone as early as the 1830s, was considered, but was rejected by the government and the owners of the rail companies. A compromise was created in the Railways Act 1921. Under this act, almost all of the hundreds of existing rail companies were grouped together into four new companies: the London, Midland and Scottish, the Southern, the London and North Eastern, and the Great Western. This "grouping" had been first proposed in the 1850s, and lasted from 1 January 1923 to 31 December 1947. Although the railways presented the illusion of being four competitive companies, the geographical divisions meant that they each operated as virtual monopolies in their respective areas. The railways were now in competition, not with each other, but with the roads.

Road transport grew rapidly during the 1920s, stimulated by the cheap sale of thousands of war-surplus vans and lorries and the subsidised construction of new roads. The revenues of the railway companies suffered in particular because of the loss of freight to road haulage. This was largely because the Government would not release the railways from their obligations as 'common carriers'. The common carrier requirement had been brought in in the 19th century. It obliged railway companies 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 intention had been to stop railway companies "cherry picking" the most profitable freight whilst refusing to carry less profitable freight. This had been a necessary measure when railways had had an effective monopoly over land transport. 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. It was then thought that no large railway could operate at a profit unless more than half its traffic is freight, and the freight was being siphoned off by the road companies. 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 common carrier requirement was not lifed until 1957.

With the transport policy pursued by the government, and more general changes in lifestyle favouring travel by road, the Big Four railways never ran a healthy profit. Indeed, the LNER never made a profit at all. The railways were starved of investment and entered a period of slow decline. Although modernisation and expansion had been the intention of the Grouping, there was little new construction after 1914 and by 1939 there was already a massive backlog of maintenance on the existing network, with a drastic deterioration in the condition of track. 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. However this damage was not as extensive as it was 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. With only essential maintenance work being carried out during the war, the maintenance backlog increased even further. Rolling stock also began to deteriorate. After the war, it was clear that the rail network could not be maintained in the private sector.


See Transport Act 1947 for full details

The Transport Act 1947 set out to nationalise all forms of transport in the United Kingdom: the British Transport Commission (BTC) being the body formed to oversee the working of the Act. To oversee the railways the organisation known as British Railways came into being: under it the railways were organised into six regions:

  • Eastern Region (ER) southern LNER lines.
  • North Eastern Region (NER) northern LNER lines in England (later amalgamated with ER)
  • London Midland Region (LMR) LMS lines in England and Wales.
  • Scottish Region LMS and LNER lines in Scotland.
  • Southern Region SR lines.
  • Western Region (WR) GWR lines

In 1962, the British Transport Commission was dissolved and various boards were established to oversee and regulate the railways, the docks, inland waterways, road haulage and London Transport. In 1968 British Railways became British Rail.

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 era. The last 60 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, but one effect of nationalisation was to effectively destroy this political influence (as they were owned by the government, they could hardly criticise its policies).

Conversely 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 bureaucratic committee structure of the BTC and British Railways did not help matters, it slowed progress towards modernisation to a crawl.

The first attempts at modernisation of the network came in 1955, when British Railways 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 Railways 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 Railways' 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.

The modernisation plan

The modernisation plan of the mid to late 1950s, was intended to bring the railway system kicking and screaming into the 20th century. However most railway historians now regard it as a costly failure and a missed opportunity. The plan involved major projects of electrification and dieselisation of the existing network.

However, the plan has been widely criticised since as it failed to take into account the impact that the motor car, road transport and a changing society would have upon the railway system, and attempting to carry the railway system on as it had been since the Victorian era as if nothing had changed.

So, for example, massive investment was made in marshalling yards at a time when small wagonload traffic which they dealt with was in steep decline and being lost rapidly to the roads. Many of the modernised marshalling yards found they had nothing to marshall.

The Beeching era

For main article see Beeching axe

The 1970s to 1990s


For main article see Privatisation of British Rail.

Contemporary developments

The British railway system continue to be developed. Contemporary projects include:

  • the Channel Tunnel Rail Link, a project to construct a 108 km high-speed rail line from London to the British end of the Channel Tunnel, and involving a great deal of complex civil engineering including a 1.2 km bridge over the River Medway, a 3 km tunnel under the Thames near Dartford, a 3.2 km tunnel through the North Downs, 19 km twin tunnels running into central London, a major new railway station extension to St Pancras Station in London, and a complex redesign and rebuild of the King's Cross St Pancras tube station. The southern phase 1 of the project opened in September 2003, and the northern phase is due to be completed in 2007.
  • the West Coast Mainline upgrade.
  • the Stirling-Alloa-Kincardine railway, a rare 21 km extension to the network, to the north of the Firth of Forth in Scotland. A Bill for the railway passed through the Scottish Parliament in 2003, and is expected to get the Royal Assent in 2004. Work is expected to commence in 2004 with completion in 2006. The line re-establishes a railway decommissioned in 1983; the new line will provide passenger connections to Glasgow, and freight links between Kincardine and Longannet power stations, and the coal terminals at Hunterston Deep Water Port.

See also

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