British Rail

From Academic Kids

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Logo of British Rail

British Railways (BR), later rebranded as British Rail, ran the British railway system from the nationalisation of the 'Big Four' British railway companies in 1948 until its privatisation in stages between 1994 and 1997.

This period saw massive changes in the nature of the railway network: steam traction was eliminated in favour of diesel and electric power, passengers replaced freight as the main source of business, and the network was severely rationalised.




The rail transport system in Great Britain developed during the 19th century. After the grouping of 1923 by the Railways Act 1921 there were four large British railway companies, each dominating its own geographic area. These 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).

The London Underground and the Glasgow Subway were independent concerns and there was a small number of independent light railways and industrial railways, which did not contribute significant mileage to the system. Neither were non-railway-owned tramways considered part of the system.

During the Second World War the railways were taken into state control. They were heavily damaged by enemy action and were run down aiding the war effort.


The Transport Act 1947 made provision for the nationalisation of the network, as part of a policy of nationalising public services by Clement Attlee's Labour Government. British Railways came into existence on 1 January 1948 with the merger of the Big Four, under the control of the Railway Executive of the British Transport Commission (BTC).

The Northern Counties Committee lines owned by the LMS in Northern Ireland were quickly sold to the Stormont Government, becoming part of the Ulster Transport Authority (UTA) in 1949.

British Railways

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The "Cycling Lion" emblem of British Railways

The new system was split geographically into six regions along the lines of the Big Four:

These regions would form the basis of the BR business structure until the 1980s. They retained a level of independence, though there was also some centralisation.

1955 Modernisation Plan

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ex-LMS Jubilee Class 45641 Sandwich at Chinley in 1954

The 1955 Modernisation Plan, detailed in the British Transport Commission's (BTC) Modernisation and Re-equipment of British Railways, argued for spending 1,240 million over a period of 15 years. Services were to be made more attractive to passengers and freight operators, thus recovering traffic which was being haemorrhaged to the roads. There were three important areas:

  • Electrification of principal routes
  • Large-scale introduction of diesel and electric traction with new coaching stock to replace steam locomotives
  • Resignalling and track renewal

A government White Paper was produced in 1956, stating that modernisation would help eliminate BR's financial deficit by 1962.

However the modernisation plan failed to take into account the effect that mass road transport would have upon the traditional role of the railways, and as a result much money was wasted by heavy investment in things like marshalling yards, at a time when small wagon-load traffic was in rapid decline.

BR was also hampered by out-of-date regulations that regulated charges for freight, and also forced the railways to transport unprofitable freight. This hampered the railways abillity to compete with road transport and made profitabillity impossible.

Finances got worse and the plan was reappraised in 1959. The new plan was to speed up modernisation and rationalisation. This led to mass orders for new diesel types which were then in development, many of which proved unsatisfactory later.

The British Railways Board (BRB) was created in 1962, taking over from the former British Transport Commission (BTC), which, in addition to the railway, was also responsible for waterways (canals) and road freight transport.

The Beeching Axe and the end of steam

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There was mass withdrawal of steam types

Main article:Beeching Axe

In 1963, BR chairman Dr Richard Beeching published the Re-Shaping of British Railways calling for major rationalisation of the system. Many rural routes were unprofitable in the face of increasing competition from road hauliers and the private car. The Beeching Axe fell on most branch lines and some main lines. Some of these lines have since become heritage railways.

The early 1960s also saw the "Great Locomotive Cull", with mass withdrawals of steam types, and their replacement with diesels, fewer of which were needed on the shrinking system. Steam traction's last stand came in the North-West of England in August 1968. The use of steam locomotives on independent industrial lines, particularly by the National Coal Board (NCB), continued into the 1970s. Many locomotives were preserved, having not been scrapped immediately on withdrawal, but most fell victim to the cutter's torch.

From 1958 to 1974 the West Coast Main Line was electrified in stages at the French voltage of 25 kV 50Hz AC overhead line electrification. Many commuter lines around London and Glasgow were also electrified, and the Southern Region extended its 750 V DC third rail system to the Kent coast. However electrification never reached system-wide level as on many other European railways.

British Rail

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Class 47 47241 in "corporate blue" livery in 1980

Steam traction on British Railways ended in August 1968 after the system was rebranded British Rail. This introduced the double-arrow logo, still used by National Rail to represent the industry as a whole (though some cynics claimed the logo meant the railway "didn't know if it was coming or going"); the standardised typeface used for all communications and signs; and the "rail blue" livery which was applied to nearly all locomotives and rolling stock.

In 1973 the TOPS system for classifying locomotives and multiple units was introduced, and is the basis of the classification system. Hauled rolling stock continued to carry numbers in a separate series. Also during this time, yellow warning panels, characteristic of British railways, were added to the front of diesel and electric locomotives and multiple units in order to increase the safety of track workers.

The major engineering works were split off into a separate company, British Rail Engineering Limited (BREL), in 1970.


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Sectorisation produced a more colourful railway — this is the Network SouthEast livery

In the 1980s the regions of BR were abolished and the system sectorised into five sectors. The passenger sectors were InterCity (express services), Network SouthEast (London commuter services) and Regional Railways (regional services). Trainload Freight took trainload freight, Railfreight Distribution took non-trainload freight, Freightliner took intermodal traffic and Rail Express Systems took parcels traffic. The maintenance and remaining engineering works were split off into a new company, BRML (British Rail Maintenance Limited). The new sectors were further subdivided into divisions. This sectorisation ended the "BR blue" period as new liveries were adopted gradually. Infrastructure remained the responsibility of the Regions until the "Organisation for Quality" initiative in 1991, when this too was transferred to the sectors.


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Old trains, new livery -- Virgin Trains took over two InterCity franchises
Main article: Privatisation of British Rail

On the advice of the Adam Smith Institute, under John Major's Conservative Government's Railways Act 1993 British Rail was split up and privatised. This was a continuation of the policy of Margaret Thatcher's Conservative government's privatisation of publicly-owned services. The unpopular Conservative Government was facing a Labour victory at the May 1997 General Election and so privatisation was rushed through and was finished in November 1997.

BR was privatised within the business structure that was in place. Passenger services in each sector were franchised out to private companies, mostly bus operators. National Rail was created to organise ticketing. Freight operations were sold but mostly bought by one company, EWS. Railtrack controlled infrastructure. The Shadow Strategic Rail Authority was created to oversee and advise the government. The British Railways Board remained with some residual functions.

Privatisation has had mixed results. Passenger growth has been stimulated, but this has been at extra cost to the taxpayer and passengers, who have seen steady fare increases since 1997. Freight has also increased; however, there is debate as to whether these increases in passengers and freight have been due to privatisation, or simply to an improved economy which usually results in more travel. Some analysts have pointed out that a similar rise in passenger numbers occurred in the late 1980s when the economy was buoyant, only to fall again in the recession of the early 1990s; however, recent passenger-journey numbers have climbed back to the level last seen in the 1950s.

Railtrack's management proved to be incompetent and the Labour government refused to continue to subsidise the losses of shareholders. It went insolvent, was put in receivership and was replaced by a not-for-profit publicly owned Network Rail. Some saw this as the first step towards renationalisation. Given the costs this is unlikely at present although some studies have recommended this as a cheaper choice than the current subsidies to commercial companies. The Shadow Strategic Rail Authority's power became real when it dropped part of its name, becoming the Strategic Rail Authority (SRA).


The BR network, with the trunk routes of the West Coast Main Line, East Coast Main Line, Great Western Main Line and Midland Main Line, remains unchanged. The Beeching Axe fell on many branch lines and some other main lines.

Locomotives and rolling stock


Steam locomotives

Main article: Steam locomotives of British Railways

BR inherited a number of locomotives from the constituent "Big Four" companies, the vast majority of which were steam locomotives. BR also built 2537 steam locomotives in the period 1948-1960: 1538 were to pre-nationalisation designs, and 999 to its own standard designs. These locomotives were destined to lead short lives, some as little as 5 years against a design life of over 30 years, because of the decision to end the use of steam traction in 1968.

Diesel locomotives

Main article: Diesel locomotives of British Rail

Electric locomotives

Main article: Electric locomotives of British Rail


Multiple units

See also

External links

fr:British Rail nl:British Rail


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