British Rail

From TrainSpottingWorld, for Rail fans everywhere

British Railways (BR), which later traded as British Rail, ran most of the British railway system from the nationalisation of the 'Big Four' British railway companies in 1948 until privatisation in stages from 1994 to 1997.

This period of nationalisation saw massive changes in 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 under the Railways Act 1921 there were four large railway companies, each dominating its own geographic area: the Great Western Railway (GWR), the London, Midland and Scottish Railway (LMS), the London and North Eastern Railway (LNER) and the Southern Railway (SR).

Railway profitability suffered during the great depression of the 1930s, capital spending was postponed and maintenance cut back. This meant that the state of Britain's railways was already poor on the eve of Second World War. During the war, the railways were taken into state control as a vital part of the wartime economy. They were heavily damaged by enemy action, and a further lack of capital investment and maintenance caused by wartime economic necessity compounded this. In parallel with the rest of Britain's economy, after the war the railways were in a very run-down state.

1948: Nationalisation

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 as the business name of the Railway Executive of the British Transport Commission (BTC) on 1 January 1948 when it took over the assets of the Big Four.

A small number of independent light railways and industrial railways, which did not contribute significant mileage to the system, were not included in British Railways; nor were the London Underground and the Glasgow Underground, which were already public concerns, the Liverpool Overhead Railway, and non-railway-owned tramways. The Northern Counties Committee lines owned by the LMS were quickly sold to the Northern Ireland government, becoming part of the Ulster Transport Authority (UTA) in 1949.

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

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

These regions formed the basis of the BR business structure until the 1980s. The regional boundaries were re-drawn on several occasions in the 1950s to make them more geographically-based rather than being based on pre-nationalisation ownership. The North Eastern Region was merged with Eastern Region in the 1960s; a new Anglia Region was split off from the Eastern Region in the 1980s. They retained a level of independence, though there was also some centralisation.

1948-55: The early years

The priority in the immediate aftermath of nationalisation was to repair wartime damage and clear the backlog of maintenance work. Some pre-war capital investment schemes that had stopped upon the outbreak of hostilities were restarted (e.g. the Manchester-Sheffield-Wath electrification over the Woodhead route and the Great Eastern suburban electrification). The new BR regions to a large extent inherited the organisations, structures and ethos of their predecessor Big Four companies and continued to work with a large degree of autonomy, building new steam locomotives and rolling stock to their respective companies' pre-war designs. There were also significant differences in fixed-stock engineering standards and operating standards between the former companies. The BR network was powered almost exclusively by steam locomotives, often of pre-grouping vintage, with rolling stock of a similar vintage and all in a poor state of repair. Only the Southern Region with its large electrified suburban network in south London operated a significant number of non-steam-powered trains.

Rather than pursue other forms of motive power on a large scale, in 1951 a new range of BR standard steam locomotives was introduced, along with new standard passenger and freight rolling stock. Production of the various pre-nationalisation types ceased in favour of these. At the same time attempts were made to standardise other engineering standards and operating standards across the organisation wherever possible.

1955-63: The Modernisation Plan

Britain's railways arguably went into the Second World War having fallen technologically behind those of its peers. As the years passed after the war it became apparent that Britain was falling further behind. Countries like Japan, The U.S. and France already had made significant investment in new diesels and electrics before the war, and this continued after the war. Britain had not, and the run-down network deteriorated even more because of painfully slow rebuilding. Finally, and late, came the modernisation plan for Britain's railways. It cost the government much more than it should have due to bad timing.

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. The aim was to increase speed, reliability, safety and line capacity, through a series of measures which would make services more attractive to passengers and freight operators, thus recovering traffic that was being lost to the roads. The important areas were:

  • Electrification of principal main lines, in the Eastern Region, Kent, Birmingham and Central Scotland;
  • Large-scale dieselisation to replace steam locomotives;
  • New passenger and freight rolling stock;
  • Resignalling and track renewal.

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

At this time BR's legal liabilities as a common carrier were removed, the most significant of which was the requirement that general goods handling must be offered at every station. This ended the tradition of having a goods handling facility with associated rail infrastructure at practically every station, many of which were becoming under-utilised in the face of competition from road transport. This had associated cost savings in staff, infrastructure and caused a significant reduction in the numbers of slow stopping freight trains, thus increasing network capacity.

Unfortunately the Modernisation Plan failed to take into account this and the other effects 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 that were soon under-utilised and quickly became obsolete. Much money was also wasted by the rapid introduction of new classes of diesel locomotives into fleet service without an adequate period of prototype testing, which resulted in several classes being scrapped within a very few years of their being built. The failure of the Modernisation Plan led to a distrust of BR's financial planning abilities by the Treasury which was to dog BR for the rest of its existence.

Some routes were closed during the 1950s to take account of changing transport patterns and to remove obvious route duplication. For instance, in East Anglia most of the former Midland and Great Northern Joint Railway was closed in 1959; long-distance passenger trains on the former Great Central Railway main line ended in 1960 as a prelude to its later closure. However, the route closures were just a small taste of what was to come.

The Transport Act 1962 converted British Railways from being the trade name of a BTC activity to a separate public corporation, as the British Railways Board.

1963-68: The Beeching Axe Reshaping and the end of steam

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 many branch lines and some main lines - some of these lines have since become heritage railways. In 1965, the Beeching Axe II was planned, but never implemented. If it had, then all but the "major trunk routes" would have closed (see map).

The late 1950s to the end of the 1960s saw first a reduction, then the final withdrawal of Britain's fleet of steam locomotives. Mass withdrawals of older classes started towards the end of the 1950s, with many of the pre-grouping companies' engines being scrapped. BR built its last steam engine at Swindon in 1960. Withdrawals of newer steam engines started in the early 1960s, some of which had been built to modern post-war designs and were less than ten years old. During this period many new designs of diesel locomotive and multiple unit were introduced to replace steam trains. The greater availability and reliability of these new trains, coupled with the need for fewer locomotives and less rolling stock caused by the Beeching line closures, meant that the BR fleet reduced significantly. Main-line diesel locomotives were arriving in large numbers by 1963, and in early 1966 the Western Region was the first region to have no steam locomotives; other regions quickly followed suit, with the last pocket of steam traction being withdrawn from the North-West of England in August 1968. The short narrow-gauge Vale of Rheidol Railway at Aberystwyth in Wales was the only exception: it was still steam-operated on its sale by BR in 1989. Pre-nationalisation rolling stock was withdrawn as BR standard stock became available, the majority had gone by the end of the 1960s.

From 1958 to 1974 the West Coast Main Line was electrified in stages on the French system of 25 kV 50 Hz AC overhead line electrification, this having been chosen as the standard system for new electrification north of London, despite BR having invested significant amounts in two 1,500 V DC overhead systems a decade earlier. Many commuter lines around London and Glasgow were also electrified, and the Southern Region extended its already extensive pre-war 750 V DC third rail system to the Kent and Dorset coasts. However electrification never reached system-wide level, as on many other European railways.

In the early 1960s yellow warning panels, now characteristic of British railways, were added to the fronts of diesel and electric locomotives and multiple units in order to increase the safety of track workers.

1969-81: British Rail

As the last steam locomotives were being withdrawn, the corporation was re-branded British Rail (see British Rail brand names for a full history). This re-branding introduced the double-arrow logo, still used by National Rail under licence to represent the industry as a whole; the standardised typeface (known as "Rail Alphabet") used for all communications and signs; and the "rail blue" livery, which was applied to nearly all locomotives and rolling stock.

In 1973, TOPS (a computer system managing the whole of the railway's operations) was introduced, requiring locomotives and multiple units to be renumbered - individual carriages and wagons continued to carry numbers in a separate series but were classified according to type.

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

1982-94: Sectorisation

The projected future - an APT departs Euston for Glasgow
Sectorisation produced a more colourful railway — this is the Network SouthEast livery on a Mk 1 electric multiple unit.

In the 1980s, the regions of BR were abolished and the production side of the business was divided into five sectors.[1] The passenger sectors were:

  • InterCity (express services)
  • Network SouthEast (London commuter services and other interurban services in the South-East)
  • Regional Railways (all other passenger services).

The freight sectors were:

  • Rail Express Systems, parcels traffic.
  • Railfreight, later split into:
    • Trainload Freight (trainload freight)
    • Railfreight Distribution (non-trainload freight)
    • Freightliner (intermodal traffic)

The maintenance and remaining engineering works were split off into a new company, British Rail Maintenance Limited (BRML). The new sectors were further subdivided into divisions. This 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.

Running concurrently with the Sectorisation process came the last of BR's major infrastructure projects; the East Coast Main Line was electrified in stages between 1987 and 1990; Thameslink, a crossrail connecting the northern and southern halves of London's suburban network opened in 1988; the Chiltern Main Line was extensively modernised so as to open up an additional link between London and Birmingham (See Network SouthEast. A follow on from the Chiltern project was to be the nationwide roll-out of the Automatic Train Protection system, which helped prevent accidents caused by SPADs. However, privatisation intervened and this plan was largely abandoned. A lack of resources also led to the cancellation during the planning stage of other major infrastructure refurbishment projects, including Crossrail, which would have seen an east-west line through London, and the InterCity 250 upgrade to the West Coast Main Line.

1994-97: Privatisation

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 of privatisation of publicly owned services.

Several models of privatisation were mooted: the one that was chosen resembled that chosen for the electricity and gas industries. The ownership of track, trains and infrastructure was separated into different companies based upon the existing BR business structure, with regulation remaining after privatisation where sufficient competition was deemed not to exist. Passenger services in each sector were franchised out to private companies, often bus operators. The Association of Train Operating Companies (ATOC) was created to organise ticketing and market the rail services using the National Rail brand. Freight operations were mostly bought by one company, later EWS. Railtrack plc was created as a regulated monopoly controlling the infrastructure and its shares floated on the London Stock Exchange. The Shadow Strategic Rail Authority was created to oversee and advise the government. The British Railways Board remained with some residual functions.

1998-2000: The leftovers

The Transport Act 2000 abolished the British Railways Board and dispersed its remaining responsibilities.

Not all of BR's activities were confined purely to the running of trains and two areas have so far escaped privatisation:-

British Transport Police

The British Transport Police (BTP) remains as the principal provider of police services on National Rail and the London Underground. The BTP is in the joint ultimate charge of the Department for Transport (DfT), the Scottish Executive and the Welsh Assembly, who, along with passenger and industry representatives make up the membership of the British Transport Police Authority.

BRB (Residuary) Ltd.

The successor to the BR Property Board, it deals with the remaining land, buildings and various liabilities that were surplus to operational needs but were omitted from the privatisation process. It is in the ultimate charge of the Department for Transport.

The Current Inheritance

Privatisation has had mixed results. Passenger growth has been stimulated, but this has been at extra cost to passengers, who have seen steady fare increases since 1997; and to the public purse which, by 2006, was paying a subsidy more than three times as large as British Rail had received. 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 increasing congestion on the roads and 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 in the recession of the early 1990s; however, recent passenger-journey numbers have climbed back to the level last seen in the 1950s. Indeed, passenger levels have risen to such a level (2007) that on the most popular commuter routes, there are frequent, above-inflation rises in fares to discourage passengers from travelling.

Privatisation has also had profound effects on the graphic design employed both on trains and the marketing of rail travel - there is now no single, coherent design for liveries, station signage or postering.


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 mostly unchanged since privatisation, with several branch line re-openings particularly in Wales and Scotland, where the control of the railway network is devolved from central government.

See also


  1. Thomas, David St John; Whitehouse, Patrick (1990). BR in the Eighties. Newton Abbot: David & Charles. ISBN 0-7153-9854-7. 

External links