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This article is about the defunct entity "British Railways", which later traded as "British Rail". The History of rail transport in Great Britain is covered in its own article.

British Railways (BR), which later traded as British Rail, was the operator of 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. At first the trading brand of the Railway Executive of the British Transport Commission, it became in 1962 an independent statutory corporation, the British Railways Board.

This period of nationalisation saw sweeping 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 one third of the network was axed.

The British Rail "double arrow" symbol (see right) represents direction of travel on a double track and was nicknamed "the arrow of indecision". It is now employed as a generic denoter of a railway station on public (non-operating company) street signs. It is used by the train operating companies jointly as part of their National Rail brand; it is still also used on railway tickets.


The "cycling lion" crest, used on locomotives between 1950 and early 1956.
The 1956 "ferret and dartboard" crest, used on locomotives until the Corporate (blue) Livery and logo was introduced.
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). 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.. There were also joint railways between the big four and a few light railways to consider - see list of constituents of British Railways.

The Railway Executive was conscious that some lines on the (then very dense) network were not profitable and also hard to justify socially, and a modest rolling programme of closures was begun. However, the general financial position of BR became gradually worse, until an operating loss was recorded in 1955.The Executive itself had been abolished in 1953 by the incoming Conservative government, and control of BR transferred directly to the parent Commission. Other changes to the British Transport Commission at the same time included the return of road haulage to the private sector.

Also in 1955, a major modernisation programme costing £1.2 billion was authorised by the government. This included the withdrawal of steam traction and its replacement by diesel (and some electric) locomotives.

Unfortunately, the plan was not carried out effectively. Too many classes of sometimes experimental locomotives were bought, and a number of marshalling yards were built at a time when wagon load freight was already being replaced by train load workings—which do not need complex shunting and reforming.

In spite of the investment, railway finances continued to worsen, and in 1959 the government stepped in, limiting the amount the BTC could spend without Ministerial authority. A White Paper proposing reorganisation was published in the following year, and a new structure was brought into effect by the Transport Act 1962. This abolished the Commission and replaced it by a number of separate Boards. These included a British Railways Board, which took over on 1 January 1963.

The National network might have looked like this by the 1980s if the lines not proposed for development had actually closed (the network for development is shown in bold)

Following semi-secret discussions on railway finances by the government-appointed Stedeford Committee in 1961, one of its members, Doctor Richard Beeching, was offered the post of chairing the BTC while it lasted, and then becoming the first Chairman of the British Railways Board.

A major traffic census in April 1961, which lasted one week, was used in the compilation of a report on the future of the network. This report - The Reshaping of British Railways - was published by the BRB in March 1963. ("the Beeching Axe"). Its proposals were dramatic. A third of all passenger services and more than 4000 of the 7000 stations would close. Beeching, who is believed to have been the author of most of the report, set out some dire figures. One third of the network was carrying just 1% of the traffic. Of the 18,000 passenger coaches, 6,000 were said to be used only 18 times a year or less. Although maintaining them cost between £3m and £4m a year, they earned only about £0.5m. . However, Beeching's proposals also included replacing the surplus lines with cheaper and easier to maintain bus services. These additional recommendations were conveniently forgotten by the politicians of the time insistent upon maximum costcutting, and as a result public transport to whole communities was abandoned.

Most of the closures were carried out between 1963 and 1970 (including a few that were not listed in the report), and the railway was transformed. Freight in particular underwent a revolution as the Victorian network of thousands of little yards was progressively abolished in favour of comparatively few major terminals.

Although railway finances did improve after Beeching, they did not return to profit. However, it is said by some that it was Beeching who really modernised BR, and that his changes were inevitable. Others maintain that the extent of closures was excessive, and in support of their argument point to those lines which have since been reopened.

A second Beeching report, The Development of the Major Trunk Routes, followed in 1965. This did not recommend closures as such, but outlined a "network for development". The fate of the rest of BR was left undecided, although some observers assumed - mostly wrongly as it turned out - that the "undeveloped" lines would in fact close as well.

It is often claimed that the closure of stations serving rural communities removed much feeder traffic from main line passenger services, but this is debatable. The number of passengers on many closed lines did not even justify the continuance of various rail replacement bus services which were introduced after the lines had closed. These bus services generally ran to the old station sites rather than the centre of population which is a possible explanation for their lack of use and subsequent withdrawal . However, some routes probably did suffer from the loss of their feeders, such as the former main line between Salisbury and Exeter. This route has survived, but it was once linked to several branches carrying considerable summer traffic.

The closures were extremely unpopular at the time, and in spite of the logic behind them, they remain contentious today.

Passenger levels decreased steadily from the late 1950s to late 1970s.

Passenger services then experienced a renaissance with the introduction of the high-speed Intercity 125 trains in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

The 1980s saw pressure to reduce government funding and above-inflation increases in fares. A further British Rail report, from a committee chaired by Sir David Serpell, was published in 1983. The Serpell Report made no recommendations as such, but did set out various options for the network including, at their most extreme, a skeletal system of less than 2000 route km. This report was not welcomed, and even the government decided to quietly leave it on the shelf. Allegations that the Serpell Report set out a programme of closures are incorrect.

In the 1980s, BR was gradually re-organised, with the regional structure finally being abolished and replaced with business-led sectors. This led to far greater customer focus, but was cut short in 1994 with the splitting up of BR for privatisation.

Between 1994 and 1997, British Rail was privatised. Ownership of the track and infrastructure passed to Railtrack; passenger operations were franchised to individual private-sector operators (originally there were 25 franchises); and the freight services sold outright (six companies were set up, but five of these were sold to the same buyer).

The Conservative government under John Major predicted that privatisation saw an improvement in passenger services.


The former BR network, with the trunk routes of the West Coast Main Linemarker, East Coast Main Line, Great Western Main Line and Midland Main Line, remains mostly unchanged since privatisation. Several lines have reopened and more are proposed, particularly in Scotlandmarker and Walesmarker where the control of railway passenger services is devolved from central government. However, in England passenger trains have returned to Corbymarker and there are numerous other proposals to restore services, such as Oxford-Milton Keynes/Aylesbury-Bedford, Lewes-Uckfield and Plymouth-Tavistock.

In Wales, the Welsh Assembly Government successfully supported the re-opening of the Vale of Glamorgan Line between Barry and Bridgend in 2005. In 2008 the Ebbw Valley Line reopened between Ebbw Vale and Cardiff, with services to Newport scheduled to commence by 2011. (The Barry-Bridgend route was included in the closures proposed in the Beeching report of March 1963 and its services were duly withdrawn in June 1964, but Ebbw Vale had already been closed to passengers before the report was published.)

In Scotland the Scottish Executive/Government have reinstated the lines between Hamilton and Larkhall, Alloa and Stirling and work is underway to link Airdrie to Bathgate. The biggest line reinstatment project is the former Waverley railway Edinburgh to Borders line.

Successor companies

Under the process of British Rail's privatisation, operations were split into more than 100 companies. The ownership and operation of the infrastructure of the railway system was taken over by Railtrack.

The Telecomms infrastructure and British Rail Telecommunications was sold to Racal which in turn sold onto Global Crossing and merged with Thales Group.

The rolling stock was transferred to three private ROSCOs (ROlling Stock COmpanies). Passenger services were divided into 25 operating companies, which were let on a franchise basis for a set number of years, whilst freight services were sold off completely. Dozens of smaller engineering and maintenance companies were also created and sold off.

British Rail's passenger services came to an end upon the franchising of ScotRail; the final train that the company operated was a Railfreight Distribution freight train in Autumn 1997. The British Railways Board continued in existence as a corporation until early 2001, when it was replaced with the Strategic Rail Authority.

Since privatisation, the structure of the rail industry and number of companies has changed a number of times as franchises have been relet and the areas covered by franchises restructured. Franchise-based companies that took over passenger rail services include:

See also


  1. The UK Department for Transport (DfT), specifically Table 6.1 from Transport Statistics Great Britain 2006 (4MB PDF file)

External links

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