Are Trains Nationalised in the UK?

For over forty years, government run British Rail commanded the nation’s  rail network. However, during the 1990s, the government proposed privatisation, much to the disapproval of the labour party.

Are trains nationalised in the UK? No,British Rail was privatised between 1994 and 1997. Ownership of railway tracks was contracted to Railtrack, who were responsible for maintaining infrastructure, and later transferred to Network Rail in 1997. 

The passenger services formerly British Rail, were transferred to twenty-five operators. The freight operations were transferred to six freight companies.

History of British Rail

Before the advent of British Rail, the “Big Four” railway companies dominated the British Rail network, the London Midland Scottish (LMS), Southern Railway (SR), London and North Eastern (LNER), and the Great Western Railway (GWR). Since World War I, when the railways were under government control until 1921, future nationalisation was proposed, but never implemented.

However, it was not until after the war in 1948 when the government took control of the railways, and branded the new organization “British Railways” (BR), later shortened to British Rail. The change came under the labour party’s candidate, Clement Attlee, who sought to end the privatisation of public service offices. Amid the British Rail takeover, the agency analyzed the profitability of many rail lines, as a result many underutilized railways began to close.

British Rail began to split its assets into different divisions for organisational purposes.

Southern RegionFormerly the Southern Railway
Western RegionFormerly the Great Western
London Midland RegionFormerly London, Midland, Scotland railway
Eastern RegionFormerly London and North Eastern, south of York
Northeastern RegionFormer LNER, north of York
Scottish RegionAll railways in Scotland
Richard Dyke


In the fifties, due to British Rail producing a small profit, they began to invest in modernisation of its fleet, and considered introducing diesel and electric locomotives. Britain, however, was behind other countries in Europe, as some workers’ employment would be in jeopardy due to the dramatic reduction of coal produced in the country. With the introduction of diesel locomotives, oil would be imported from other countries, resulting in unemployment.

By introducing newer locomotion, British Rail sought to reduce delayed trains, while improving the speed and reliability of the network. This was achieved by electrifying the busy east and west coast main lines, in addition to track rehabilitation, and the addition of classification yards.

Due to the lack of planning, the classification yards failed because of the low number of freight traffic. Dieselisation had begun, however, production was rushed which led to many unsuccessful locomotive designs, which further hindered the financial ability of the agency.

Although many locomotive designs were unsuccessful, they eventually evolved into versatile machines in the late fifties to early sixties. One locomotive manufactured during this time deemed one of the most successful in the railway’s history. In the early to mid sixties, British Rail began taking delivery of the Class 37 locomotive, manufactured by English Electric. This was the beginning of modernisation, as this diesel was versatile, and could operate as an intercity passenger locomotive, or haul heavy freights, both being done with ease.

The Beeching Axe

The finances of the railway continued in a downward spiral throughout the late fifties. Although, many passenger railways that either reduced or cut off service completely during the war effort were restored, the agency turned to Richard Beeching, who was one of the chairmen of the British Transportation Committee (BTC).

Beeching discovered some concerning issues regarding the agency’s spending, as well as the low utilization and high maintenance costs of some of the equipment. Little used rail lines were also suspended, as it was not financially viable to continue operation. For seven years between 1963-1970, numerous rail lines were suspended.

Additionally, Beginning in 1979, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher began to sell agency’s that were government owned, in favor of private ownership. Thatcher’s administration was known for its unfriendliness to the railways, as she removed several entities, including their ferries and hotels. This eventually led to sectorisation, which split the agency into three sectors, although, Thatcher was opposed to the total privatisation of railways.

Syd Young


Many of the rail lines that survived the Beeching Axe were organised into three sectors:

Intercity, which operated express services, utilizing the modern and technologically advanced High Speed Train (HST) train sets, built by British Rail Engineering Limited (BREL). Intercity introduced high speed rail service that stretched throughout the country, traversing the West Coast Main Line, branded as “Intercity 125”. Intercity served many commuters as well, with such services to Gatwick Airport.

Network Southeast was London’s premier operator of commuter trains, as well as the densely populated Southeast England area. Network Southeast trains received a eye catching red, white, and blue paint scheme, and used many diesel multiple units(DMUs) in its operations.

Regional Railways operated the remainder of passenger services throughout Britain. This included long distance services, as well as commuter and short-haul services. Regional Railways operated both express and local service in England, Scotland, and Wales. They invested in new equipment due to the old equipment proving to be unreliable, and uncomfortable for riders. Thus, they introduced new diesel multiple units (DMUs), which offered more flexible service and a better experience for passengers.

Richard Dyke

Continued Financial Burdens

Despite dividing the railway into three sectors, British Rail still suffered from low revenues, as roads were deemed more popular than rail travel. Many railways were considered to be unprofitable, and termination was considered.

The only sector that produced a profit was Intercity, boasting quick commute times and comfortable trains, and was the first service within the agency that produced a significant profit. This gave British Rail a spark of confidence that rail transportation could once again be profitable, if significant changes were made.


With the financial burdens of British Rail realized, the agency decided to privatise, and pass off their services to individual train operating companies, while the government created Railtrack to maintain the infrastructure, which later became Network Rail.  After privatisation, operators called “shadow franchises”  such as Virgin Trains, took over operations, and were to bid for an operating agreement. Additionally, train operators were to lease their rolling-stock from the rolling stock leasing companies(ROSCOs).

Richard Dyke

In an attempt to introduce various train operators into the market, the European Union (EU) decided to issue legislation requiring railways to be separate from government agencies. Under the leadership of conservative Prime Minister John Major, a conclusion was made that the only way to improve rail service was to end British Rail’s monopoly on the railways, and make it available for other train operators.

The first stage of privatisation was to downsize many of their assets. This was made possible by the Railways Act of 1993. As a result of the agency downsizing on its assets, British Rail was divided into 100 different organizations.

The track and stations came under Railtrack ownership, and leased the rail line and its infrastructure to the train operating companies. Freight operators, such as Load Haul, Trans-Rail, and Railfreight Distribution, were eventually merged into the English, Welsh, and Scottish Railway (EWS).

Railtrack continued to provide infrastructure maintenance until 2002, when their safety record was questioned, due to the Hatfield accident, which occurred due to metal fatigue. This led to the introduction of a new agency called Network Rail, which performed the same duties as Railtrack, but was reorganized with many new safety measures put into place.

Currently, Network Rail owns the rail infrastructure throughout Britain, and is responsible for the maintenance of tracks, bridges, tunnels, overhead wires, and stations. Network Rail’s customers are the twenty-five passenger train operators, and six freight operators that use Network Rail’s track, which the operators lease from them. Altogether, Network Rail owns over 2,500 stations throughout the country’s network.

Related Questions

Is the British Rail logo still used? Yes, nicknamed “the arrow of indecision”, the British Rail logo is still used throughout the United Kingdom to denote railway stations. These signs can be seen on the street, as well as at most train stations throughout the country. Additionally, some locomotives, many of which owned by Direct Rail Services (DRS), have been painted in the British Rail blue with the double arrow logo. 

Is Virgin Trains a public company? Yes, Virgin trains is a publicly traded company owned by its respective shareholders, and is part of Virgin Rail Group.





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