(Last December 15th, 2012)

1. A brief history 2. The big four era 3. The BR era 4. Privatisation 5. Some current facts

A brief history

Railways were Britain's gift to the world. She invented them, developed them and covered herself with them, and sent out her engineers to build them in continental Europe and much farther afield.

There was nothing new about the basic idea of a railway - a special track for wheeled vehicles. Many years before steam locomotives were invented, rails had been laid in quarries and mines to make it easier for horses to pull wagons over very rough ground. But it was Britain's engineers who replaced the flesh-and-blood horse with the "iron horse", as the steam locomotive was affectionately called.

Among the most notable of the early inventors were George Stephenson. His Locomotion was used on the Stockton and Darlington Railway, opened in 1825, and his improved invention, the Rocket, was chosen for the Liverpool and Manchester Railway. Opened in 1830, this was the first public railway to use steam traction for both freight and passenger services.

Few natural obstacles defeated the railway pioneers. They levelled valleys, cut through or tunnelled under hills, and bridged rivers. The railways' impact was swift and decisive. Contemptuously brushing aside the puny opposition of the stagecoach, the horse and cart, the packhorse and the canal barge, they gave an irresistible momentum to the industrial revolution. They also revolutionised travel - until then slow and uncomfortable.

In less than a century, Britain became densely veined with railways. The network totalled 13,600 route miles in 1870; it had increased to 16,700 in 1885, and by 1920 it was nearly 20,000. But by then the first Railway Age was over.

Over the years the railways had been gradually reducing, by amalgamation, the number of their constituent private companies from a peak total of several hundred. In the face of this new competitor they closed their ranks still further. In 1923 they grouped themselves into four large systems: the London, Midland & Scottish Railway (LMSR), the London & North Eastern Railway (LNER), the Great Western Railway (GWR) and the Southern Railway (SR). These four companies were termed "the Big Four". During WWII the managements of the "Big Four" joined together, effectively forming a single company. The war years dictated deferred maintenance and by its end the Big Four were hard pressed to catch up. So, for both practical and political reasons the government decided in 1948 to unify all the railways by nationalisation.

Under the heading of British Railways and then British Rail, much was done to gear the railways to the demands of a highly competitive age. The system itself was streamlined down to less than 12,000 route miles. The steam locomotive was replaced by cleaner and more efficient forms of traction, diesel and electric. Playing a part in that transformation was new rolling stock, new stations, new freight terminals, new methods of operation and a more efficient management structure.

All these developments, with a host of modern techniques ranging from colour-light signalling along the line to computers behind the scenes, helped the railways to exploit their inherent abilities as mass movers of people and goods, and to show that a second Railway Age may not be out of place in the Age of Technology.

The most recent change came in the mid 1990s when the entire system was privatised by separating the infrastructure from the passenger and freight services and creating a number of franchises to operate passenger freight services on a more competitive basis.

The Big 4 era

The Big Four were created by the Railways Act 1921 in order to stem the losses being made by most of the then 123 railway companies, move the railways away from internal competition, and retain some of the benefits from the government-controlled railways of WWI. The name, The Big Four of the New Railway Era, was coined by Railway Magazine in 1923. The three larger companies relied heavily on freight (especially coal) and long-distance passenger traffic. The Southern Railway, however, was predominantly a passenger railway. Despite its small size, it carried more than a quarter of the UK's total passenger traffic because the area covered included many of the commuter lines around London, as well as some of the most densely populated parts of the country. SR capitalized on this with a vigorous policy of electrification.

Each company operated a number of lines jointly with one or more of the others, arising from when the former joint owners of a route were placed into different post-grouping companies. The Big Four inherited and developed networks of feeder bus services and after 1928 began to acquire shareholdings in local bus companies; eventually investing in 33 bus and coach companies, as well as in ferries, hotels and airlines.

The areas served by the Big Four formed the basis of the British Railways regions:

  • the GWR became the Western Region of BR
  • the English and Welsh parts of the LMSR became the London Midland Region of BR
  • the North Eastern area of the LNER became the North Eastern Region of BR
  • the remainder of the English part of the LNER (its Southern Area) became the Eastern Region of BR
  • the SR became the Southern Region of BR
  • the LMSR and LNER in Scotland were united as the Scottish Region of BR
A more extensive article on the Big Four can be found here.

The British Railways/BritRail Era

British Railways (later BritRail) used to run over 20,000 trains every 24 hours. The service carried 900 million passengers a year and nearly 200 million tons of freight. It was big business and a vast and complex transport undertaking. The total network served over 3,000 stations throughout the country, most of them passenger stations, but 553 of them handled freight and 274 exclusively handled parcels.

The Inter-City service comprised 6,000 route miles or about half BR's total, and connected 200 stations at industrial and residential centres. Every weekday more than a thousand crack Inter-City expresses served the network averaging well over 90 mph and frequently reaching top speeds of 125 mph. In the last years of BR, Britain's railways underwent a transformation. Major developments were the electrification of Britain's rail backbone linking the five principal cities, London, Birmingham, Liverpool, Manchester and Glasgow.

Semaphore signals became a thing of the past with multiple-aspect colour-light signals remotely operated. Continuous welded rail, which is cheaper to maintain and gives passengers a smoother ride, replaced the traditional short lengths on thousands of miles of main line. Pre-stressed concrete for higher speeds, replaced the old wooden sleepers.

A new generation of high-speed trains was introduced starting in the 1970s; they prepared the way for the East Coast electrified route which significantly cut journey times with speeds of 125-150 mph, and for the much vaunted under the Channel "Chunnel" opened in 1994, perhaps the most exciting of the many projects that took place in the final stage of British Rail.

Inter-City was a round-the-clock service; every night 70 sleeper trains, with their comfortable compartments which were virtually hotel rooms on wheels, served 100 different destinations. The service was improved by the introduction of a completely new sleeper fleet. Costing about 35,000 pounds sterling each, the new coaches were air-conditioned and set new standards of quietness, smooth running and general comfort.

Motorail trains, where a passenger's car was also carried on the same train, were a popular and essential part of BR's service. They carried passengers and cars on holiday journeys and enabled motorists to avoid the strain of driving long distances on busy roads. But to more than half-a-million commuters BR meant the journey to and from work every day. The rush-hour operation, morning and evening, was the one which placed the heaviest demands on railway ingenuity and resources. Without it, the roads in the big cities would have come to a standstill, choked with traffic.

The Privatised era

Railway operations were privatised during 1994-1997 with track and infrastructure passed to the Railtrack group of companies; passenger operations were franchised to individual private sector operators and freight services sold outright. Railtrack was subsequently sold to Network Rail, a government created owner/operator which is now regionalizing into nine semi-autonomous organizations - some saying it looks eerily like a return to the original pre-WWI system.

Passenger services in Great Britain are divided into regional franchises and run by Train Operating Companies. Initially, there were 25 franchises, but the number of different operating companies is smaller as some run more than one franchise or franchises have combined.

In 2002-3 these services provided 976 million journeys totalling 24.7 billion passenger miles of travel. Chunnel trains, now known as High Speed 1, are strictly international and by 2003 were running at up to 186 mph. The first domestic high speed running over 125 mph (to about 141 mph) began in December 2009.

There are several freight operating companies, the largest of which is DB Schenker, formerly the English, Welsh and Scottish Railway (EWS). Types of freight carried include intermodal containerised freight and coal, metals, oil, and construction materials. In 2004 Royal Mail discontinued use of its 49 train fleet, switching to road haulage after a near 170 year history of mail trains. However by the end of that year, this decision was reversed and mail is now transferred on some routes including between London, Warrington and Scotland. UK freight trains are very fuel efficient - on average 70% more efficient than road transport with the heaviest freight train equivalent to 160 lorry loads.



Over 2,000 route miles of Britain's railway network are electrified. All other services are diesel operated - except for one, short, narrow-gauge steam-operated tourist line in Wales; Vale of Rheidol-Aberystwyth to Pontarfinach (Devil's Bridge); and many preservation lines.

Rolling Stock:

Passengers are carried in 7,000 locomotive-hauled coaches, 7,000 electric multiple unit coaches and over 3,000 diesel multiple unit coaches.


To haul passenger trains made up of ordinary coaches and freight and parcels trains there are 3,500 diesel and over 300 electric locomotives.


Nearly 900 million passenger journeys a year are made on Britain's railways. These journeys total an estimated 18,000 million miles. More than a third of the journeys are made by season ticket holders.


Over 1,000 Inter-City trains run every weekday, many averaging over 90 mph and with top speeds up to 125 mph. Over 1,600 trains a day average 70 mph or more between stops.

Longest Journey:

A journey from Penzance to Wick, the two extremes of British Rail's network, involves at least 922 miles of train travel.

Most platforms:

The station with the largest number of platforms is Waterloo. It has 24 main-line and suburban platforms, 4 platforms on the Charing Cross line (Waterloo East station), 8 London Underground platforms (the Waterloo and City line is now part of London Underground and the Jubilee Line now serves Waterloo) for a grand total of 32 platforms!

Busiest Station:

Four signal boxes control Clapham Junction, the world's busiest Junction, through which over 2,000 trains pass every 24 hours. Averaged out over the 24 hours 2,000 passengers pass through the complex rail network at Clapham Junction every minute.

Continuous Welded rail:

Total mileage is over 6,000.


There are over 200 modern power boxes and over 8,000 single track miles are equipped with colour-light signalling. Around 4,000 route miles are equipped with the automatic warning system of train control.


Of over 50,000 bridges, the longest is the Tay Bridge in Scotland, two miles 364 yards, which spans the Firth of Tay near Dundee.

Highest point:

Scotland is also the location of the highest point on the British Rail system: the summit at Druimuachdar, between Perth and Inverness, is 1,484 feet above sea level.

Lowest point:

The bottom of the Severn Tunnel is 144 feet below sea level. At 4 miles 628 yards long it is also notable as the longest of around a thousand tunnels.

Steepest Main Line gradient:

At Exeter is 7- chains of 1 in 31.3; the famous Lickey Incline is 1 in 37.7.

British Transport Hotels:

British Transport used to run 31 top class hotels in England and Scotland but all have been sold off but one Great Eastern London (Liverpool St).

Shipping service:

Sealink, which was BR's shipping subsidiary, had 62 ships providing the largest fleet of its kind in European waters. There were ten Sealink routes for passengers and cars to Europe and four to Ireland. Sealink ferries were sold off to Seacontainers Ltd in the 1980s and they were subsequently sold to Stena in 1990.


BR's subsidiary hovercraft service used to "fly" under the brand name Hoverspeed. It provided rapid cross-Channel transport for people and cars as well as a frequent ferry link between Southampton and Cowes.

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