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History of British Railways

In 1851 Charles Dickens, after an eleven hour London to Paris train journey was moved to bless South Eastern Railways for "realising the Arabian Nights in these prose days" ( A Flight ). In the twentieth century Noel Coward set his famous story Brief Encounter around trains and stations. His unlikely heroine, a middle aged mother of two, has a passionate affair with a young doctor she meets at a railway station. In both cases the railways represent something beyond the constraints of everyday life. In many ways railways have always represented a higher importance. The railways were created by nineteenth century Victorian entrepreneurs. Such was the scale of their efforts, and so wide ranging was their effect, that railways were quickly claimed by the state as a public rather than a private asset. Rail travel's importance went beyond everyday concerns of simple profit and loss. The history of railways in Britain constantly sets this sense of wider importance against economic realities.


Although the ancient Greeks used rut ways to aid transport, modern railways have their origins in sixteenth century mining wagonways. The earliest of these were found in central Europe. The first example in Britain dates to around 1630, and was built to serve coal mines in Newcastle. The earliest systems used wooden rails, which wore quickly. Iron plates were initially used to try and reduce wear, before wood was replaced completely by iron. Coalbrookdale made its first iron rails in 1767. At first rails had a flange to stop wheels slipping off them, but eventually this flange was transferred to the wheel itself, giving railways wheels as they exist today. The next significant moment came in 1801 when Parliament passed an act allowing the Surrey Iron Railway Company to start work on a line between London and Portsmouth. This act formed the first railway company. Nineteen further acts were passed between 1801 and 1821, with the Swansea and Oystermouth railway providing the first documented evidence of a passenger service in 1806, its carriages pulled by horses. More famously the Stockton and Darlington railway was the first to employ steam locomotives to haul passengers and goods. Opening in 1825, it was the involvement of railway engineer George Stephenson which led to steam locomotives replacing the original plan for haulage by horses. A further milestone was reached in 1830 when a new line between Liverpool and Manchester opened. Initially the plan was to use stationary engines to haul carriages attached to long cables, a kind of ground based cable car. But after second thoughts, a competition known as the Rainhill contest was held to find the most suitable form of locomotive power. George Stephenson's Rocket locomotive so impressed at the Rainhill trials that his design was selected. The Liverpool to Manchester line, with trains pulled by Stephenson's Rocket, opened on 15th September 1830. Within two years the company's shares had doubled in value, which set off a furious rush to build railways. By 1848 most of the main regional railway companies had been established.



The Bluebell Railway, Sheffield Park Station - platform 2

In the next few years railways covered the country, and locomotives gained in speed. By 1847 trains could get from London to Liverpool in seven hours, compared to a thirty hour stagecoach service. The range of people able to travel also widened. Only the rich travelled by stagecoach. Railway travel was mass transportation, and as such government felt obliged to become involved almost from the beginning. The Railway Act of 1844, passed during William Gladstone's administration laid down specific standards for third class passengers, and set fares at a penny per mile. The vast majority of people who travelled did so in third class. Using discounted train fares, one third of Britain's population, six million people, were able to visit the Great Exhibition in London in 1851. So many people worked for the railways that entire towns were established to serve the railway network. Crewe is the most famous, built by the Grand Junction Railway - later the London and North Western Railway - in an unpopulated area of Cheshire in the 1840s. But at this stage railway companies, big as they were, remained private concerns driven by competition with their rivals. And it would be difficult to argue that this sense of competition did not have benefits for railway passengers. As Michael Freeman and Derek Aldcroft write: "The number of independent railway companies in Britain, and the competition that arose among them, sometimes conferred enormous benefits on the travelling public, particularly as far as the speed of travel was concerned." (The Atlas of British Railway History p48.) During the 1880s east and west coast lines competed for the shortest journey time from London to Edinburgh. Journey times fell from between eleven and twelve hours in the early 1870s, to seven and a half hours by the height of the speed battle in August 1888. The companies involved then agreed a truce, which held until 1895, when battle recommenced on London to Aberdeen routes. Over the space of six weeks in July/August 1895 the London to Aberdeen journey time came down from eleven and a half hours to eight and a half hours. As well as boosting journey times competition on London to Scotland routes led to the abolition of second class giving a simpler two class system with better facilities for most passengers.



Yet this same period of competition was also a time when it seemed that railways had to be controlled in the national interest. And pressure for this did not come from left wing idealists who believed in nationalisation, but from the business community. As T.R. Gourvish says, business was "eager to force railways into a 'public service' mould." Gourvish quotes a Berwick trader who said in 1890: "What we want is to have our fish carried at half present rates. We don't care a ______ whether it pays the railways or not. Railways ought to be made to carry for the good of the country, or they should be taken over by the government." (Railways and the British Economy 1830 - 1914 P48)

Even though nineteenth century England is known for ruthless private enterprise, this was a period when government legislation supported the notion of railways as a public service rather than a means of private enrichment. The Railways and Canal Traffic Act of 1873, the Cheap Trains Act of 1883, and various safety legislation passed between 1889 and 1900 all indicate a significant change of opinion towards government control of railways. This trend reached a natural culmination during the First World War when a truly national rail service was created. In 1914 all railway companies had to put their assets at the government's disposal, in return for a guaranteed net income equal to that of 1913. There was much rationalisation of a formerly fragmented network, which greatly increased efficiency. The Great Northern Railway, for example, saw a 125% increase in goods traffic. The London and South Eastern Railway carried twenty million soldiers to and from continental destinations during the war. Such feats were achieved with 30% of railway staff absent on national service, and with considerable quantities of rolling stock being used on the continent.



Period motorcars outside the South Devon Railway

In the inter war years, railways were released from government control. By now the advantages of large scale planning seemed obvious, which meant that 120 companies were amalgamated into four large groups, the London and North Eastern (LNER), the London Midland and Scottish (LMS), Southern Railways (SR), and the Great Western (GWR). However, it was at this point that a measure of inertia crept into railway planning. While railways in Europe moved forward with electric and diesel locomotives, British companies for the most part remained faithful to steam. Steam was pushed to its limit in the Mallard streamlined train, which achieved a speed of 126mph in 1938, but this disguised a wider slow down. Large parts of the network, particularly in rural areas were struggling financially, leading to the closure of 350 stations. Decline was temporarily halted when railways were once again taken under full government control during World War Two. With road traffic virtually suspended the railways had to cater for a hugely increased workload. This was achieved, as in the First World War, by more efficient use of resources, and it has to be said by cutting corners on maintenance. By the end of the war a substantial amount of rolling stock and line was awaiting repair, up to 30% in some areas. The post-war Labour government of Clement Attlee nationalised the railways in 1947, only for it quickly to become apparent that the success of wartime planning could not be replicated in peace time. Free from wartime restrictions, competition from road travel grew rapidly, particularly after 1953 when petrol rationing ceased. In 1959 the first section of the M1 opened, and in 1963 British European Airways started running five return trips daily between London and Edinburgh, with fares roughly matching a first class train ticket. A rail modernisation plan was abandoned in the early 1960s, and in May 1962 Dr Richard Beeching was appointed to manage the railways and make them pay. Between 1962 and 1970 the number of locomotives was reduced by two thirds, track mileage by a third, and the work force by half. Steam power had gone by 1968. Intensive investment went into 3000 miles of most profitable track. But even after all this the railways still could not be made profitable. By the early 1980s the annual subsidy was, according to Freeman and Aldcroft, almost £900 million. The Serpell report of 1983 suggested that a commercially profitable network would only run to 1,630 miles.

In 1993 the Conservative government of John Major sold off the railways to a large number of private companies, with Railtrack PLC responsible for maintaining the track network. Over one hundred separate companies ran rail services, with the help of a continuing large public subsidy. Following the Hatfield rail crash in 2001, Railtrack collapsed, and was replaced by Network Rail. At this stage it seemed as though the railways were in terminal decline. Since then there has been some improvement in the railways' position. The government white paper of 2007 Delivering a Sustainable Railway states that during the decade 1997 - 2007 railway traffic grew by 40%. Rail travel is also seen as fashionably friendly to the environment - transport as a whole contributes 23% of CO2 emissions in the UK, with rail travel accounting for only 1% (see Delivering a Sustainable Railway section 1.15). The future of the railways, therefore, might seem reasonably bright. Nevertheless, government figures can tell a different story. The Department of Transport's Transport Statistics for Great Britain show that while rail traffic has grown by 40% in a decade, that adds up to only an increase from 5% to 7% of total journeys made. The Department of Transport's figures also show we are paying a lot of money for that 7% of journeys. In 2007/8 total government expenditure on road infrastructure came to £4807 million. This paid for a road system that in 2007 carried 92% of journeys. By contrast government spending on rail infrastructure came to £5567 million, for only 7% of journeys (see Transport Statistics Great Britain 2009, Modal Comparisons, section 1.14). This seems like a lot of money for not many journeys. Logically speaking it seems remarkable that railways have not disappeared, as canal transport did in the nineteenth century when faced with railway competition.



But now as always, there is an element of railways that appeals to more than the mundane business of efficiently getting people from point of departure to destination. There are nearly fifty preserved railways in Britain running services that have nothing to do with getting from A to B in an efficient manner. It could be said that the railways represent the first time British industrial society put formal measures in place to promote public good over private profit. William Gladstone's legislation to limit ticket prices for third class passangers in 1844 predates the introduction of widespread social security measures by half a century. Today the public service role of railways continues to be important, to the extent that a great deal of money is spent to carry a relatively small minority of people. It will be interesting to see how the tensions implicit in this situation play out in the future.