Southern Railway (Great Britain)

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File:Southern Railway Bridge (Tarka Trail) Sign Instow.jpg
A London and South Western Railway weight restriction sign on a bridge across the Tarka Trail (formerly the Barnstaple to Great Torrington railway) at Instow, North Devon.

The Southern Railway in the United Kingdom, which existed between 1923 and 1948, was geographically the smallest of the four railway systems created in the Grouping ordered by the Railways Act 1921.


Confined to the south of England, it owned no track north of London. In the area south and south-east of London it had a virtual monopoly, while some of its lines to the south-west were in competition with the Great Western Railway.

Unlike the three other railways established by the Grouping (the London, Midland and Scottish Railway, the London and North Eastern Railway and the Great Western Railway), the Southern was predominantly a passenger railway. Despite its small size it carried more than a quarter of the UK's passenger traffic, because its area included many of the dense commuter lines around London (South London's geology being unsuitable for underground railways), serving some of the most densely populated parts of the country.

The Southern was particularly successful at promoting itself to the public. Following poor publicity in 1924, John Elliot was appointed public relations manager. He was instrumental in creating the strongly positive image that the Southern enjoyed prior to World War II. The campaign was built upon increasing publicity for its modernisation programmes, coupled with the promotion of the benefits of the south and south-west as holiday destinations. "Sunny South Sam" became a character fixed firmly in the public mind as embodying the service of the railway, whilst slogans such as "live in Kent and be content" encouraged commuters to move out from London, and thus further patronise the Southern's services.

During World War II the Southern found itself at the front line. Before hostilities, 75% of its traffic was passenger with just 25% being freight; during the war, roughly the same number of passengers was carried but they made up only 40% of total traffic, freight traffic growing around six-fold to make the remaining 60%. A desperate shortage of freight locomotives was remedied by Chief Mechanical Engineer Oliver Bulleid, who designed a remarkable 0-6-0 locomotive, the Q1, the most powerful such engine to operate in Britain. Forty of these machines transformed the Southern's ability to haul heavy freight. The volume of military freight and soldiers moved by the primarily commuter railway was a breathtaking feat.

Constituent companies

The major constituents of the Southern were:

  • The three Isle of Wight railways [a total of 55.75 miles (90 km)], and
  • Railways leased or worked by the constituent companies.

Together, the Southern had 2186 route miles (3518 km).

For the complete list, see List of constituent companies of the Southern Railway

Other assets


See also: Railway electrification in Great Britain
1933 poster for the Southern's newly-electrified suburban services
1933 poster for the Southern’s newly-electrified suburban services

The Southern was probably the most innovative of the Big Four companies, and the main evidence of that was its commitment to electrification - compare the Southern's legacy with the absence from the Great Western Railway of even a single electrified route.

The intensively-used commuter system in a relatively small geographical area made the Southern a natural candidate for electrification - the LSWR and the LBSCR had already introduced it for some of their lines in the London area before the grouping. However, the two schemes were incompatible, with the LBSCR adopting a 6600 V AC overhead system (similar to that used by the Midland Railway for their Lancaster to Morecambe trial section), and the LSWR a 660 V DC third rail standard. After the Grouping a comparison of the two systems was made and the LSWR standard was adopted for the whole system.

Most of the area immediately south of London was converted, together with the long-distance lines to Brighton, Eastbourne and Portsmouth. Starting in 1931, this was one of the world's first modern mainline electrification schemes. Only the suburban part of the former SECR routes was electrified by the Southern, although the long-distance Kent routes were next in line for electrification, which would have been followed by the electrification of the Southampton/Bournemouth route. World War II interrupted these plans, and these lines were electrified only in the late 1950s and late 1960s respectively. Originally only electric multiple unit trains were used, but later electric locomotives and electro-diesel hybrids were developed.


The war-devastated company was nationalised along with the rest of the British railway network in 1948, incorporated into the newly formed single country-wide operation British Railways, but largely surviving as the Southern Region. Many of its lines in London and Kent had been damaged during the war and much of the rolling stock was either damaged or badly in need of replacement. At the time of nationalisation the Southern had started a vigorous programme of rebuilding and renewal.

Other notes

1945 poster ('Shabby?') by L. A. Webb promising post-war Southern refurbishment and showing Malachite Green and Sunshine Yellow livery
  • The Southern adopted an olive-green livery. From mid 1938, this was replaced by a livery dominated by a striking Malachite green, often matched with sunshine yellow lining. Stations were painted in green and cream. The Southern Region retained green as its main livery, in a rather more sombre shade.
  • The name Southern has been revived as a rebranding of South Central, which operates the former LBSCR routes to South London, Surrey and Sussex from Victoria and London Bridge.
  • The name "Southern Railway" can still be seen above the eastern entrance to Victoria.
  • The Southern operated a number of famous named trains, including the Brighton Belle, the Bournemouth Belle, the Golden Arrow (London-Paris, Flèche d'Or for the French part of its route), and the Night Ferry (London - Paris and Brussels). Its network stretched into Devon and Cornwall, known derisively as the Southern's "withered arm" because the GWR had a better grip on this territory, dominated by lucrative summer holiday traffic including named trains such as the Atlantic Coast Express.

See also

The "Big Four" pre-nationalisation British railway companies
v  d  e

Great Western London Midland & Scottish London & North Eastern Southern

GWR constituents: Great Western RailwayCambrian RailwaysTaff Vale Railway
Barry RailwayRhymney Railway(Full list)
LNER constituents: Great CentralGreat EasternGreat NorthernGreat North of Scotland
Hull & BarnsleyNorth BritishNorth Eastern(Full list)
LMS constituents: CaledonianFurnessGlasgow & South WesternHighland
Lancashire & YorkshireLondon and North WesternMidlandNorth Staffordshire(Full list)
SR constituents: London and South Western RailwayLondon, Brighton and South Coast Railway
South Eastern RailwayLondon, Chatham and Dover Railway(Full list)

See also: History of rail transport in Great Britain 1923 - 1947List of companies involved in the grouping

External links

  • Southern E-mail Group - extensive source of information concerning the Southern Railway, its predecessors and successors
  • Southern Posters - collection of Southern Railway promotional material