British Rail

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British Rail ( BR ), until 1968 British Railways , was the state railroad company of the United Kingdom in the areas of England , Scotland and Wales . It was created in 1948 with the nationalization of the country's four large private railway companies, the so-called Big Four , and was gradually privatized and dissolved between 1994 and 1997 . In Northern Ireland , the government operates Northern Ireland Railways .

The rail infrastructure was transferred to Railtrack (later Network Rail ), the passenger transport to the railway operating companies, which were combined in the Rail Delivery Group and operating under the common brand name National Rail , and the freight transport to EWS and Freightliner .

Three developments shaped British Rail: the steam locomotives were completely replaced by diesel and electric locomotives, passenger transport replaced freight transport as the most important branch of operation and the route network was drastically reduced.


Situation before 1948

Britain's rail network emerged during the 19th century and was operated by dozens of private companies. In 1923 they were combined into four large societies, each controlling a specific geographic region. These companies were the Great Western Railway (GWR), the London, Midland and Scottish Railway (LMS), the London and North Eastern Railway (LNER) and the Southern Railway (SR).

During World War II , the state placed the four societies, also known as the Big Four , under its supervision. Sections of the route and systems were destroyed by the effects of the war or worn out due to heavy use. As a result, the companies got into a financial crisis.

Nationalization (1948)

The Labor government of Clement Attlee created the legal basis for the nationalization of the rail network with the Transport Act 1947 . On January 1, 1948, the new state company British Railways was formed, which formed the railroad division of the British Transport Commission (BTC).

A small number of branch lines and industrial lines, which comprised only a fraction of the route network, remained independent. Also not part of British Railways were the London Underground and the Glasgow Subway (both were already public companies), the Liverpool Overhead Railway and the trams. The Northern Counties Committee routes , previously owned by the LMS, were sold to the Government of Northern Ireland and incorporated into the Ulster Transport Authority in 1949 .

The new company was divided into six administrative regions, the boundaries of which were largely based on the route networks of the Big Four and formed the basis of British Rail's corporate structure until the 1980s:

  • Eastern Region (ER) - the southern LNER routes
  • North Eastern Region (NER) - the northern LNER routes in England and all LMS routes east of Skipton
  • London Midland Region (LMR) - the LMS routes in England and Wales and most of the LNER routes west of Skipton
  • Scottish Region (ScR) - the LMS and LNER routes in Scotland
  • Southern Region (SR) - the entire SR route network
  • Western Region (WR) - the entire GWR network

The first years (1948–1955)

After the nationalization, the priority was to repair the war damage and to catch up with the maintenance work. Some pre-war investment projects that had been postponed after the outbreak of war were now carried out ( electrification of individual suburban lines). Despite partial centralization, the new BR regions retained a high degree of independence.

Newly built locomotives and wagons largely corresponded to the pre-war designs of the predecessor companies. There were also significant differences in technical and operational standards. The BR route network was used almost exclusively by trains with steam locomotives , which were generally in poor condition. Only the Southern Region, with its extensive electrified suburban network in the south of London , had a significant number of non-steam-hauled train units.

Instead of introducing new forms of drive on a large scale, BR commissioned new standard series of steam locomotives in 1951, along with new standardized Mark 1 passenger cars and freight cars. The production of the various pre-war types was finally ended. At the same time, efforts were made to standardize technical standards and operational regulations wherever possible.

There was no financial means for a fundamental modernization. In the early 1950s, BR made a small profit. However, when it came to switching to diesel or electric locomotives, Great Britain fell far behind the rest of Europe. The Labor government even deliberately delayed taking this step. The demand for coal would have fallen sharply, which in turn would have resulted in high unemployment among miners. The rampant bureaucracy of BTC and British Railways further slowed progress.

Modernization plan (1955–1963)

The modernization plan drawn up by BTC in 1955 provided for investments to the value of 1,240 million pounds (2005 value: approx. 10 billion) over a period of 15 years. With a bundle of measures, the average speed, reliability, safety and route capacities should be increased. The aim was to regain market shares that had been lost in road transport in passenger and freight transport.

There were three main areas:

  • Electrification of main lines and suburban lines in the Eastern Region, Kent , around Birmingham and Central Scotland
  • Procurement of new diesel and electric locomotives on a large scale in order to be able to largely replace the steam locomotives
  • New passenger and freight cars
  • Renewal of track and signal systems

However, the modernization plan did not take into account the impact of mass motorization on the traditional role of the railways. Rather, despite all the economic and social changes, the attempt was made to save the extensive importance of the railroad in the Victorian era into the modern era. Despite the immense costs, the envisaged renaissance of the railroad could not be brought about.

For example, a lot of money was invested in marshalling yards , although freight traffic by rail fell sharply and increasingly shifted to the road. Numerous systems that had just been built were shut down again after just a few years due to a lack of demand. Freight traffic also declined because BR was released from the statutory task of having to operate facilities for goods traffic at every single station.

The program to replace steam operation had been worked out hastily. New types of diesel locomotives were built in series and put into service without sufficiently testing the prototypes beforehand. This led to a financial fiasco: Several series turned out to be so unreliable that they had to be taken out of service after just a few months. So much money had been wasted with the modernization plan that in the decades that followed, the treasury doubted BR's ability to plan for the long term and was very reluctant to provide financial resources.

From 1950 to 1962, unprofitable secondary lines with a total length of 4997 kilometers were shut down. With the Transport Act 1962 , the BTC, which had united all state transport activities in Great Britain under its roof, was dissolved. In the field of railways, the British Railways Board (BRB) took its place on January 1, 1963 .

Beeching ax and the end of the steam locomotive (1963–1969)

If the Beeching plan had been fully implemented, only the black marked routes would be left

Transport Minister Ernest Marples appointed the physicist and engineer Richard Beeching , who had been chairman of BTC since June 1, 1961, as the first chairman of the new agency. Beeching's most pressing task was to drastically reduce the growing deficits. In 1963, he published a report entitled The Reshaping of British Railways , which called for a fundamental rationalization of operations.

The report concluded that most of the route network was low on traffic and should be closed due to unprofitability. The so-called Beeching cuts (Engl. Beeching ax ) fell from 1,963 to 1,973 rail lines with a length of not less than 6,536 kilometers were a victim, but in 1964, 1,701 km decommissioned. In addition, 2363 train stations were closed. The report also suggested electrifying some major lines. In addition, there were first attempts with combined cargo traffic .

In 1965, Beeching published a second - lesser known - report called The Development of the Major Railway Trunk Routes , also known as Beeching II . These particular routes that should continue to benefit from large investments. He also came to the conclusion that all routes that did not connect important cities or ensure suburban traffic in metropolitan areas no longer had a future and should be closed sooner or later. Had this report been implemented, the route network would have shrunk to a little more than 11,000 km and in large parts of the country there would have been no rail traffic at all.

In the early 1960s, the newer steam locomotives began to be retired, some of which were less than ten years old. Numerous new series of diesel locomotives and railcars were introduced. The greater availability and reliability of the new vehicles, combined with the lower need for rolling stock due to the Beeching line closures, meant that BR's fleet could be reduced significantly. However, mistakes were made again. For example, the suction air brake was retained , although the time to switch to the air brake would have been favorable because of the large-scale vehicle replacement.

From 1963 diesel locomotives were used on the main lines on a large scale and in 1966 the Western Region was the first steam-free operating region. British Rail's last steam-hauled train ran on August 11, 1968. The only exception was the short, narrow-gauge Vale of Rheidol Railway near Aberystwyth in Wales , which ran on steam locomotives until the line was sold by BR in 1989. In 1965 the company was rebranded British Rail and a new double-arrow logo to represent the railroad as a whole.

Between 1958 and 1974 the West Coast Main Line was electrified in stages. The French power system was chosen as the standard for new electrification north of London , 25 kV AC voltage at 50 Hz with overhead line , although BR had already electrified individual lines with 1500 V DC voltage and (overhead line) a decade earlier . Numerous suburban routes around London and Glasgow have also been converted to electrical operation. In the Southern Region, however, the different power system of the old Southern Railway with 750 V DC and side power rails painted from above remained , which now extended to the coast of Kent and Dorset .

HST and APT (1970–1979)

High speed train

Maintenance of rolling stock and track systems was outsourced to a newly established company called British Rail Engineering Limited ( BREL ) in 1970 . In 1973, BR introduced the new TOPS computerized management system to standardize maintenance information. For this reason, all locomotives and railcars had to be renumbered. Cars kept their original numbering but were classified according to the type of car. Locomotives and railcars were also given the bright yellow warning markings on the fronts, which are typical of today's British railways, in order to increase the safety of construction and maintenance workers.

In 1976, high-speed diesel trains of the High Speed ​​Train (HST) type were successfully used on the Great Western Main Line for the first time . These operated under the type of train InterCity , under which all fast trains operated by BR since the early 1960s. This enabled BR to noticeably increase the number of passengers and improve its financial situation. BR also began developing the world's first multiple unit with tilting technology , the Advanced Passenger Train (APT). However, BR did not pursue the project any further from the early 1980s. The reasons were lack of money, political pressure and the fact that the prototype had been used in scheduled traffic before the technical problems were completely resolved.

Division into sectors (1980-1994)

Class 411 electric multiple unit with Network SouthEast livery

In the 1980s, BR dissolved the operating regions and introduced a new corporate structure with sectors. Passenger traffic was divided into InterCity (express trains), Network SouthEast (suburban traffic to London) and Regional Railways (regional traffic). Trainload Freight handled the wagonload traffic , Freightliner handled the combined cargo traffic, Rail Express Systems handled the transport of parcels and Railfreight Distribution handled the other freight traffic. The operation of marshalling yards was given up in 1984 in the area of ​​greatly reduced wagonload traffic. In 1988 the outsourced infrastructure and maintenance company BREL was split into two further companies: while British Rail Maintenance Limited remained in the possession of BR, British Rail Engineering was being prepared for any later privatization.

The Conservative government of Margaret Thatcher examined the possibility of further extensive closures in the style of the Beeching ax. In 1983 Sir David Serpell, who had worked with Richard Beeching , published the Serpell report , which called for further streamlining of the route network. The report met with fierce political opposition and was quickly withdrawn.

To the surprise of many, the Thatcher government, actually considered anti-railroad, decided in 1985 to electrify the East Coast Main Line . The conversion on this important route was completed in 1990. At the regional level, Network SouthEast also carried out several electrification projects, including on the Midland Main Line northwards to Bedford . The direct current network in the south reached Hastings and Weymouth . After the reopening of the Snow Hill Tunnel in central London, the new Thameslink service was introduced in 1988 . The comprehensively modernized Chiltern Main Line between London and Birmingham was reopened for express train traffic in 1987, which was very popular.

The route length of British Rail (excluding Northern Ireland) was 16,584 km on March 31, 1991, of which 4912 km were electrified. The vehicle fleet consisted of 6,425 locomotives, 12,451 passenger cars and 21,000 freight cars. Of the locomotives, 2539 were electric railcars, 260 electric locomotives and 1752 diesel locomotives. The BR also owned 197 high-speed trains. British Rail stated in 1991 a transport performance of 731.4 million passengers and a freight volume of 134.8 million tons.

Privatization (1994–1997)

By the 1980s, Thatcher's government had sold almost all of the former state-owned enterprises, with the exception of the rail network. In its manifesto for the general election in 1992 , the Conservative Party committed to privatize the railways, but did not set out any specific course of action. The Conservatives surprisingly won the election and were forced to quickly draft a bill to be presented in parliament the following year. British Rail's management was strongly committed to privatizing the company as a whole and converting it into a public company. Prime Minister John Major preferred a similar model to the former "Big Four" prior to 1948. Eventually, the Treasury prevailed, demanding a split into seven (later 25) franchises to maximize profit.

With the Railways Act 1993 , which came into force on April 1, 1994, British Rail was divided into over 100 different companies. There were some regulatory mechanisms: contracts for the use of the railway infrastructure had to be approved by the Office of Rail Regulation . The individual routes were combined into regional groups and advertised as concessions for which private companies could apply. Most bus companies made use of this option. In order to continue to guarantee a uniform tariff system, the marketing company National Rail was established . In 1997 the privatization process was completed.

Development from 1998

The privatization brought the desired success everywhere. Although the number of passengers carried increased, the hoped-for price reductions largely failed to materialize. Rather, the prices had to be massively increased. Freight traffic has also increased, but there is a dispute over whether this is due to privatization or rather to general economic growth.

The entire rail infrastructure was taken over by the private company Railtrack . But their managers turned out to be incompetent. The maintenance of the systems was neglected for reasons of cost, important investments were canceled out of short-term profit thinking. Due to numerous breakdowns and fatal accidents, among which the accident at Hatfield (Hertfordshire) in 2000 made international headlines, the impression arose that the privatized British railways were unsafe. Railtrack could no longer pay dividends to its shareholders and had to declare bankruptcy in 2002 . One year later, the public company Network Rail, which is not explicitly geared towards maximizing profits, took over responsibility for the technical systems.

The Transport Act 2000 dissolved the British Railways Board and distributed its tasks to other bodies. Not all areas of British Rail were limited to pure rail operations and were therefore not covered by the privatization:

The British Transport Police (BTP) are still responsible for police work on the National Rail and London Underground networks . The Department for Transport (DfT), the Scottish Government and the Welsh Parliament are jointly responsible for the BTP . Together with representatives from passenger and industry associations, they form the British Transport Police Authority.

The successor to British Rail's property management (BR Property Board) is BRB (Residuary) Limited. It manages the remaining land, buildings and liabilities that were not affected by privatization. The supervision is carried out by the DfT.

With the entry into force of the Railways Act 2005 , the Strategic Rail Authority was dissolved again and its tasks were transferred to the rail transport division of the Department for Transport.

See also

Individual evidence

  1. ^ Transport Act 1947 - The Railways Archive
  2. ^ Modernization and Re-Equipment of British Rail - The Railways Archive
  3. ^ Transport Act 1962 - The Railways Archive
  4. ^ The Reshaping of British Railways - Part 1: Report - The Railways Archive
  5. ^ The Reshaping of British Railways - Part 2: Maps - The Railways Archive
  6. ^ The Development Of The Major Railway Trunk Routes - The Railways Archive
  7. RHODES Dr. Michael: The Illustrated History of British Marshalling Yards . Sparkford: Haynes Oxford Publishing & Co, 1988. ISBN 0-86093-367-9
  8. ^ Railway Finances - Report of a Committee chaired by Sir David Serpell KCB CMG OBE - The Railways Archive
  9. ^ Railways Act 1993 - The Railways Archive
  10. Whether this is actually the case is controversial. Overall, the number of accidents has continued to decrease since privatization. The positive trend from the British Rail era thus continued. [1]


  • David Henshaw: The Great Railway Conspiracy - The Fall and Rise of Britain's Railways Since the 1950s. Leading Edge Press, Hawes (North Yorkshire) 1994. ISBN 0-948135-30-1 .
  • Terry Gourvish: British Rail 1974-97 - From Integration to Privatization. Oxford University Press, Oxford 2002. ISBN 0-19-926909-2 .
  • Christian Wolmar : On the Wrong Line - How Ideology and Incompetence Wrecked Britain's Railways. Aurum Press, London 2005. ISBN 1-85410-998-7 .

Web links

Commons : British Rail  - collection of pictures, videos and audio files