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British railway system

The British railway system is the oldest in the world.

Since 2002, the tracks and other infrastructure are the responsibility of Network Rail, a non-profit organisation.

The trains are operated by 26 companies mainly on a regional franchise basis. These include:

National Rail is the coordinating body of the railway companies.

The Strategic Rail Authority[?] is, within its statutory framework, the strategic planning, and coordinating body for the rail industry and the guardian of passenger and freight interests.

The official regulator is the Office of the Rail Regulator[?]. It has fined a number of operators for failing to provide adequate or accurate ticketing information. The funding and development body is the Strategic Rail Authority[?], an 'arms-length' governmental organisation operating under Directions and Guidance from the Secretaries of State for Transport.

Currently the Channel Tunnel Rail Link is being constructed.

A few places also have underground rail systems:

There are also a number of heritage railways - see List of British heritage and private railways.

Table of contents
1 Further Wikipedia entries

Train stations

History In Brief

The British railway network is the oldest locomotive-drawn railway system in the world. Great feats of engineering were performed in its creation. Examples from the Victorian era are the building of the Forth Rail Bridge, or the replacement of 177 miles of broad gauge rail with standard gauge in a single weekend from May 21, 1892. However, mighty engineering feats are not a thing of the past. An example is the building of the Channel tunnel for the link to the Continental railway systems, and the Channel Tunnel Rail Link from London to the tunnel. Track replacements take considerably longer, however.

The system was originally built as a patchwork of local rail links operated by small private railway companies. Over the course of the 19th and early 20th centuries these amalgamated or were bought by competitors until only a handful of larger companies remained (see railway mania).

In 1923 the remaining companies were re-organised into the "big four", the Great Western Railway, the LNER[?], the LMS and the Southern Railway companies. These were joint stock public companies and they continued to run the railway system until 1948. In that year, near bankruptcy as a result of the Second World War, they were nationalised and amalgamated to form the new operator, British Rail. During the next fifty years the railways entered a slow decline owing to a lack of investment and changes in transport policy and lifestyles. A major reduction in the network occurred during the mid-1960s as part of the Beeching reform of the railways (also known as the "Beeching axe"). Many branch lines were closed at that time and this also had the effect of removing a lot of the feeder traffic from the main lines, particularly freight traffic.

In the mid 1990s it was decided to privatise British Rail. The track and infrastructure was devolved to a company called Railtrack, whilst ticketing and passenger and freight operations were sold off to individual operators.

Despite the claims of the administration that this privatisation would result in an improvement in passenger services, the converse is almost universally considered to be true, with an increased incidence in the number of fatal rail accidents (particularly the Paddington rail disaster[?] and the Hatfield rail crash[?]) resulting in significantly diminished passenger confidence in the safety of rail travel. After the Hatfield crash in particular, drastically reduced speed limits were enforced throughout Britain and train travel was seriously disrupted for months afterwards. Railtrack was on the verge of bankruptcy due to the enormous cost of additional safety measures and was effectively re-nationalised by the government.

Ownership of the railway system was transferred from Railtrack to non-profit organisation Network Rail on October 3, 2002.

The Development of Railways in England and Wales, 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. During the 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' to transport any goods, however unprofitable. 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 2 the railways 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 Atlee nationalised the system in 1948.

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 four administrative regions, which exactly mirrored the regions covered by the former "big four" companies.

(to be concluded)

Further Wikipedia entries

Articles exist, or may be created on the following historic railway companies:

Pre-Grouping (1923)

Grouping (1923 - 1947)

Nationalisation (1947 - 1996)

Privatisation (1996- )



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