The Iconic History of British Railways

British Railways have molded the landscape of modern Britain as it looks today. Railways were always an integral part of the national economy, and has helped the nation become an industrial powerhouse.

Humble Beginnings

Britain’s earliest railways were not universal, as some early industrialists, such as George Stephenson, sought to implement his standard gauge (4 ft 8 1/2 in), and Brunel, of the Great Western Railway, implementing his broad gauge (7 ft). Many railway companies were not sure how they would interchange with one another, due to the discrepancies between a universal track gauge. Additionally, many of the early railways were spontaneously conducted, being built by organizations or individuals, who would build their railway to their own specifications.

Beginning in 1804, Richard Trevithick constructed the first working steam locomotive, which made its first run on the tramway of Penydarren Ironworks in South Wales. Although Trevithick was the first to build a working steam locomotive, it was not until George Stephenson developed his “Rocket”, which set the bar for locomotion in the earliest eras of rail transport. Although Stephenson was not the inventor of the steam locomotive, he was the first to produce it for industrial use.

Steve Jones photo

Upon the advent of steam locomotion, many individuals expressed concern, as they believed the speed these locomotives were able to attain would be a public safety concern. This was a common obstacle that Stephenson faced while wanting to use steam traction on the new Stockton and Darlington Railway, which was originally supposed to use horses as the primary motive power.

Stephenson began constructing locomotives for this railway at his Robert Stephenson & Company shops, located in Newcastle. Here, his son Robert was the director and facilitated the building of locomotives. The first locomotive to emerge from the facility was “Locomotion” (originally “Active”), and reached a record setting speed of 24 mph on a stretch of the railway. The Stockton and Darlington also built and tested the first railway carriage designed to carry passengers.

Stephenson’s next project was the Liverpool and Manchester Railway (L&MR), which was a prime location for a railway, as Liverpool’s port was busier than ever before, and Manchester was at the heart of the textile industry. Upon the railway’s completion in 1829, it was unsure who would build the locomotives. A few early railway pioneers have contributed their designs and it was decided that a competition would be had to decide who’s locomotive was best.

This competition, called the “Rainhill Trials” was a competition between Stephenson and four other early railway pioneers. The rules were that each locomotive entered had to weigh sixty tons or less, and be able to travel for sixty miles with minimal breakdowns. Stephenson entered his locomotive called the “Rocket”, which ultimately won the competition. Stephenson impressed the judges with his design, and received the contract to build locomotives for the Liverpool and Manchester Railway. Stephenson’s locomotives performed reliably and the L&MR was a great success. With the success of the railway, news broke around the world praising Stephenson’s engineering capabilities and the prospect of rail travel worldwide.

Peter Richmond

It was unsure how the railways were to be operated, as initially, the railways were to be operated similar to a road, in which individuals or organizations would pay a fee and provide their own vehicles for transport. This was attempted with the Surrey Iron Railway, which connected Wandsworth and Croydon in the southern London suburbs. The railway did not succeed, however, as it was not economical and it was believed than instead, a single entity should operate the railways.

Even though the railways were operated by a single entity, many of the major trunk lines began to operate inefficiently, as many branch lines were constructed, resulting in inefficient operations. Many critics blamed parliament on how they granted train companies permission to establish routes, as routes which would have been seen as useful were met with harsh scrutiny by many land owners and political interest groups. Many were opposed to parliament’s bill by bill system of organizing railway lines, as there would be multiple lines running to the same destination. By 1844, the chairman of the London and Birmingham Railway believed a government run national railway system was an option.

Additionally, early railways had little intervention and regulation from the government, as many railways operated on their own set of expectancy. To ensure safer and more reliable travel, parliament passed the Railway Regulation Act of 1840, which required railways to be inspected and instilled reliable and safe operation by railway workers. Further legislation sought to bring a standard set of rules and regulations when opening a new railway, however, these clauses were only applicable to railways constructed after the year 1845.

Steve Jones photo

The Railway Clearing House (RCH) was assembled by parliament to standardise the ticketing system of the various railways, allowing customers to purchase one ticket and travel on different railways until reaching their destination. The tickets were given to passengers which were time and date stamped, and gave them permission to travel. The RCH also established a way to implement the use of carriages and wagons on different railways throughout the nation. This was conducted by implementing a pay by the mile system when a carriage or wagon reached a foreign railway. This improved the overall travel experience and gave way to the implementation of excursion services, particularly, the use of rail travel to the “Great Exhibition” in 1851.

During the late 19th century, although parliament attempted to standardize the newly constructed railways, many technical differences between the railroads deemed them incompatible with each other. Braking systems were highly debated, as some railways leaned towards the air brake, while others deemed the vacuum brake was the system of choice. Many early railways adopted the vacuum braking systems as it was cheaper and less complicated. Both were seen as viable alternatives in Parliament, and were approved for the usage on the nation’s railways.

Throughout the late 19th and early 20th century, many calls for railway nationalisation were made, with many groups forming, which included the Railway Nationalisation Society which had the backing of all political parties. Prior to World War I, the government set up a committee to discuss the nationalisation of the railways, as they had the full support of the labour party. However, upon Britain’s entrance into the war, railway nationalisation was put on hold, and the railways were operating towards the war effort. During the war, the government gained control of the railways, and facilitated them for the good of the nation.

The Grouping Era

After the war in 1919, railway nationalisation was again a topic of issue. During this time, hundreds of railways were operating across Britain, however, many believed that these railways could be consolidated to increase efficiency and performance. Eric Geddes, a conservative politician, was a vital proponent of railway nationalisation, and called on the railways to consolidate, but to remain private entities. One of the integral arguments were the companies operating the bustling East Coast Mainline, which was partially owned by Great Northern Railway (GNR), the North British Railway, and the North Eastern Railway.

Corridor Tender on “Flying Scotsman”
Public Domain

Consolidation of the nation’s railways was initiated in 1922, and formed the London and North Eastern Railway (LNER), the London, Midland, Scottish Railway (LMS), the Great Western Railway (the only pre-grouping railway to survive), and the Southern Railway. Suddenly, the hundreds of railways across the nation were consolidated to what was called the “Big 4”.

Even with these new consolidated railway companies, the push for nationalisation was ever prominent. In 1933, the public transport services in London were publicly run under the London Transport Act. London Transport was formed, which proved to be a great success, as the bustling city’s transportation network was ever expanding. This was a great success and gave way to further negotiation about railway nationalisation.

Britain soon entered World War II and the nation’s railways resources were put towards the war effort. During the war, the British Transport Commission was formed to both discuss how to use the railway’s resources during the war, and afterwards during peacetime. During these meetings, much consideration was given to nationalising the railways, and was the most likely result. This led to opposition by many of the railways, as they strongly opposed nationalisation, and began campaigns to delay. However, two years after the end of the war, the railways were nationalised in 1947, and the property that the railways owned was given to various agencies within the government.


In the early fifties, British Rail sought to modernise its railway, as it was still in its war ravaged state. Additionally, British Rail reported that its competition with the airline industry was increasing, and the nation was less likely to travel by train in its current state. This prompted action by British Rail, and the agency began discussing modernisation, which included upgrading infrastructure, motive power, and rolling stock.

31284 at Saltley on 25/04/87 Steve Jones photo

British Rail looked to design modern diesel locomotives, and appointed Robin Riddles head of locomotive design. Riddles was chosen as he had previous experience on the London Midland Scottish (LMS) and Southern Railways, which debuted diesel prototypes. However, these early prototypes were not successful and were too wide, heavy, and did not sustain the desirable power. Although diesel were widely prevalent at the time, especially in other countries, many believed that electric traction was the future of the railways, and that the diesel power was just going to be used on an interim basis. However, electrification proved too expensive, and diesels were ultimately preferred. A prevalent issue that plagued early BR diesels was the placement of the steam generator to heat the passenger cars, as in the era of steam, the excess steam was used for this purpose.

In 1953, the relinquishing of the British Transport Executive gave way to the beginning of modernisation, however, Riddles decided to retire during this time, as it was sure to be a trying time for the nation’s railways. Purchasing of new locomotives and other upgrades would be out of pocket for British Rail, although they could borrow money from the government,at the expectation that it would be repaid. The total cost of modernising the system would ultimately cost the agency 1.2 million pounds.

Phil Richards photo

Improvements to infrastructure included replacing the obsolete bullhead profile rail with flat bottom rail, which allowed for heavier trains and improved the possibility of high speed services. Signals and other communication systems were also updated, as many of the signal boxes were replaced with automatic colour light signals, which improved efficiency especially in highly populated areas.

As the early diesels began to be introduced into the fleet, problems arose. The steep grades and sharp curves of the British Railway system proved trivial for these motors, as fast acceleration was needed to improve speed and reliability. The early diesel locomotives were hastily constructed and were not correctly engineered to the British Railway, and were not reliable. One of the most significant setbacks of these locomotives was the lack of a reliable steam generator to heat the passenger cars, as oftentimes, passengers were left in unacceptable temperatures when they often failed.

Many of the early BR diesels were diesel-electric, where the low speed diesel prime mover would power the electric traction motors that would power the wheels. However, BR experimented with diesel-hydraulic types that were in use in Germany. These locomotives used a high speed prime mover, which powered the axles using hydraulic fluid. The advantages of this type of locomotive were that it was lightweight, as it did not house the heavy traction motors in the trucks, however, it sacrificed the ability to provide hotel needs for the coaches, due to the lack of available electricity. These locomotives were used on the western region, many not lasting more than ten years.

In addition to the diesel locomotives, diesel multiple units (DMUs) were also introduced and were pressed into service along the West Riding and West Cumberland, and were a great success initially. These DMUs were originally planned to rejuvenate the services in these areas, however, ridership was much lower than expected, and the units were pulled from service. British Rail thought that if the lines attained modern equipment that was cleaner and more reliable, it would experience an increase in service, however, this was not the case.

Phil Richards photo

Many of these DMUs were designed for branch line services, however, it was discovered that these units were ideal for many suburban, cross country, and intercity services as well. British Rail also invested interest in the railbus, that was already in use throughout Germany. It was thought that these vehicles could provide practical services by facilitating the use of one person crews who would drive the train and collect tickets. Many regions disregarded the idea stating that it would be inefficient to run a one car train. However, the Scottish region took favor in these unique vehicles, whereas the southern region strongly opposed.

British Rail’s next venture was the electrification of the West Coast Main Line. The WCML was chosen because it passed through many populated metropolises, as opposed to the East Coast Main Line, which traversed through much less populated areas.

There was much debate about which type of voltage to make standard to power the line. It was decided that 25 kv was to be used, however, due to the many limited clearances along the WCML, a dual voltage system was implemented, in which voltage would switch from 25 kv to 6.25kv, when in limited clearance areas. This was considered to be technologically advanced at the time, many praising BR for its engineering excellence. However, this success was not without setback, as some trains exploded when switching between the voltages. After these instances, it was decided that the dual voltage system was not needed for low clearance areas, and that 25 kv in these areas was safe for operation. Later, BR would convert the entirety of their electrified system to 50 hz.

Steve Jones photo
86258 “Talyllyn” at Birmingham International on 07/05/87.
Scanned from a Kodacolor Gold 100 colour negative.

Initially, electric multiple units (EMUs) ran many of the services using electric traction along the WCML, however, BR decided to implement locomotives for the long distance runs. This resulted in the construction of the AL6 (AC locomotive 6) or Class 86 locomotive, which was constructed after studying five prototypes. These locomotives were geared for mixed traffic service, and ran from alternating current (AC) power.

Upon the success of the electrified WCML, the line was upgraded to 50 hz, which resulted in various different voltages throughout the network. The ex-Southern lines south of London were of concern, as they operated from a third rail instead of overhead wires. British Rail decided to keep the third rail in place, and rather expand it to the lines to Dover and Folkestone, which provided more efficient service in the bustling area.

The East Coast Main Line (ECML) was next to receive attention, however, electrification was no longer on the radar. During this time, English Electric had merged with a company called Napier, which manufactured engines for boats. English Electric had attained the Napier Deltic prime mover, which British Rail used to their advantage. English Electric placed this engine into the carbody of a prototype locomotive, the DP2, and tested it on the British Rail system for two years, before agreeing the manufacture twenty-two examples of the locomotive. The prime mover used in the Deltic locomotives included driveshafts shaped in a triangle or “delta”. This was a high speed diesel engine that was capable of quick acceleration, which was very important to British Rail, and could reach a top speed of 100 mph.

This locomotive came to be known as the Class 55 “Deltic”, and became the primary motive power on the ECML, hauling trains at record speeds. The “Flying Scotsman” trip from London to Edinburgh was reduced from seven hours to six, averaging a speed of 65 mph. The success of the Deltics was hindered by one issue, maintenance costs. The Class 55 locomotives were considered maintenance headaches, and were expensive to maintain due to the amount of moving parts inside the locomotive. Initially, English Electric was contracted to perform maintenance on the locomotives, but afterwards, British Rail picked up the tab.

The Class 55, although a great performer was hindered by the infrastructure along the ECML. The age old signaling systems and tight curves meant a stark reduction of speed. And similar to most early BR diesels, the steam generator and carriage heating system plagued the Class 55.

Steve Jones photo
D9000 “Royal Scots Grey” at Saltley on 06/06/99. The loco was a regular on the Virgin Cross Country Birmingham to Ramsgate service at the time.
Scanned from a Kodachrome 64 colour slide.

British Rail focused also on its station infrastructure, as it dated back to the Victorian era and was in need of updating, especially with the stark competition from roadways and air travel. To appeal to the traveler, new stations were constructed with updated amenities and services. During this time, London Euston was upgraded and the agency took great pride in its transformation, making the platform less crowded and easier to maneuver. Customers could now arrange their travel plans without having to go to numerous desks, as they could plan their trip in one convenient place. The building was upgraded from its old concrete appearance, to having grand glass structures. Additionally, numerous other stations along the WCML were rebuilt, including Manchester Piccadilly and other locations. This allowed British Rail to compete with other modes of transport, and increase revenue.

The British Rail modernisation was a success on many fronts, however, the many classes of diesel locomotives that were on hand made for an expensive maintenance situation. Due to the political pressure to modernise their fleet, BR scrambled for designs and did not allow any time for them to be thoroughly tested, as there was no prototype for many of these early diesels. Nevertheless, BR soldiered on and continued to provide services for the nation. However, despite these pitfalls, the British railway systems outperformed many other rail systems in continental Europe.

The “Beeching Axe”

Dr. Richard Beeching, chairman of British Railways studied the nation’s rail systems and concluded that various routes throughout the network could be abolished. He called for the closure of 2,363 stations and 5,000 miles of railway, due to their poor ridership, in an effort to reduce the agency’s deficit. This report was called “The Reshaping of British Railways”, which triggered stark protest from many, including the National Union of Railwaymen, who devised a response to Beeching’s report called “The Mis-Shaping of British Railways”. Although Beeching was known for his infamous report, many portions of the system have seen residual closures since the early fifties. However, the amount of railway lines that were closed were much less than expected, as he focused on closing underused branch lines.

Sectorisation and the High Speed Train (HST)

Hugh Llewelyn photo

In the late sixties, many countries were beginning to developed high speed electric trains, primarily Japan. British Rail wanted to experiment with this, however, mass electrification was not practical at the time. Additionally, the many curves on the British system were not practical for higher speed operation. However, British Rail did not shy away from the challenge, and the staff at Derby was in the process of developing a prototype train that was fast, lightweight, and could handle the sharp curvature of the system. The result was the gas-turbine powered APT-E (Advanced Passenger Train Experimental), which included a lightweight body, and a tilting mechanism to tackle the curves.

Upon testing, a controversy occurred, as there was only one seat in the cab for the driver. This concerned the Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen, as they believed that BR was phasing out two person crews. As a result, the APT-E did not test on the mainline for over a year. Its return to service saw success as it hit a speed record of 152.3 mph during a test between Reading and Swindon on the western region.

Courtesy of

The APT-E tested extensively on the Midland Mainline, and most notably on the Old Dalby test track, where the train set another record setting speed of 143.6 mph. The unit was solely used as a prototype and was never designed for regular service, as when testing was complete, it was retired and given to the National Railway Museum, York in 1976.

With the success of the APT-E, discussion continued on how to implement high speed rail travel whilst using the current railway system. Electrification was too expensive, and could not be considered, it became a fact that the high speed train would have to run on diesel power.

Director of design, Walter Jowett, devised a series of pamphlets called the “Black Books”, that focused on what type of motive power was the most practical to operate on the British Rail system The second pamphlet of this series titled “Diesel Electric Multiple Unit trains”, suggested the use of the Paxman Ventura prime mover. This engine was to be put into power cars that would be placed at either end of the train, however, the prime mover was renamed the Paxman Valenta. These were to be lighter and have an improved weight distribution by placing the traction motors between the bogey frames. In 1972, Crewe Works completed the prototype HST, which began testing with the new Mark 3 coaches. It immediately began breaking speed records for diesel trains, recording 143 mph on the ECML between Darlington and York.

With many successful test runs, it was time to design a production version of the HST, which would be designed by Sir Kenneth Grange, who is known for giving the HST its iconic front end design, which eliminated the buffers to increase aerodynamics. When the production models were completed, they were painted in the iconic “Intercity 125” livery, and became the premier passenger service on the railways, whisking passengers to their destinations at speeds of up to 125 mph.

Steve Jones photo
310067 at Birmingham New Street on 23/04/87

Within five years of HST service, British Railways was facing cuts similar to the Beeching era under prime minister Margaret Thatcher. This prompted BR to split their system into three “sectors”. Intercity, the express and high speed services, Network Southeast, which facilitated commuter services around London, and Regional Railways, which facilitated the remaining passenger traffic. Freight was allocated to Trainload Freight for trainload freight, Railfreight Distribution for non-trainload freight, and Freightliner for intermodal traffic. Additionally, mail services were facilitated by Rail Express Systems. During the sectorisation era, the Thatcher administration admitted British Rail to electrify the ECML, which gave way to electrified trains with the addition of the Class 91 locomotive,and Mark IV coaches.


In 1990, when John Major took over as prime minister, the administration pushed for railway privatisation. Thatcher had already sold many of the industries and property owned by the government, and it wanted to privatise the railways as well. The Railways Act of 1993 solidified this decision, and the railways began their transition, which took until 1997. Under privatisation, the track and infrastructure would be owned by government agency Railtrack(now Network Rail), who would lease the track out to private train operators, which is the current system used today.

Although British Rail had its hardships, as the only service to turn a profit was the Intercity services, it was a success. The agency engineered state of the art trains and set records for their various engineering feats, as well as helping to craft the current era of modern trains, that continue to serve Britain in the current era.

For more information on British railways, Tanya Jackson’s book “British Rail:The Nation’s Railway” gives an in-depth study of the agency’s history. (Link to Amazon)

Matt Buck photo




Lifelong Rail Enthusiast and Owner of Worldwide Rails

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