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British Rail

British Railways
British Rail
Industry Land and sea transport
Fate Privatised
Successor Railtrack
Founded 1 January 1948
Defunct 2001
Headquarters London, United Kingdom
Parent British Transport Commission (1948-1962), British Railways Board (1962-2001)

British Railways (BR), which from 1965 traded as British Rail, was the operator of most of the rail transport in Great Britain between 1948 and 1997. It was formed from the nationalisation of the "Big Four" British railway companies and lasted until the gradual privatisation of British Rail, in stages between 1994 and 1997. Originally a trading brand of the Railway Executive of the British Transport Commission, it became an independent statutory corporation in 1962: the British Railways Board.

The period of nationalisation saw sweeping changes in the national railway network. A process of dieselisation and electrification took place, and in 1968 steam locomotion had been entirely replaced by diesel and electric traction, except for one narrow-gauge tourist line. Passengers replaced freight as the main source of business, and one third of the network was closed by the Beeching Axe of the 1960s.

On privatisation, responsibility for track, signalling and stations was transferred to Railtrack and that for trains to the train operating companies.

The British Rail "double arrow" logo is formed of two interlocked arrows showing the direction of travel on a double track railway and was nicknamed "the arrow of indecision".[1] It is now employed as a generic symbol on street signs in Great Britain denoting railway stations, and as part of the Association of Train Operating Companies' jointly-managed National Rail brand is still being printed on railway tickets.[2]


  • History 1
    • Nationalisation in 1948 1.1
      • Regions 1.1.1
    • 1955 Modernisation Plan 1.2
    • The Beeching report 1.3
    • Post-Beeching 1.4
  • Branding 2
  • Finances 3
    • British Rail Investment 3.1
    • Privatisation of British Rail 3.2
  • Accidents and incidents 4
  • Network 5
  • Preserved Railway Lines 6
  • Ships 7
  • Seaspeed 8
  • Successor companies 9
  • Future 10
  • Parody 11
  • See also 12
  • References 13
  • Further reading 14
  • External links 15


Nationalisation in 1948

BR steam locomotiive: number 70013 Oliver Cromwell
As BR modernised, diesel and electric locomotion gradually replaced steam. Pictured: two preserved 'Warship' class diesel-hydraulics

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). During World War I the railways were under state control, which continued until 1921. Complete nationalisation had been considered, and the Railways Act 1921[3] is sometimes considered as a precursor to that, but the concept was rejected; nationalisation was subsequently carried out after World War II, under the Transport Act 1947. This Act 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.[4]

There were also joint railways between the big four and a few light railways to consider (see list of constituents of British Railways). Excluded from nationalisation were industrial lines like the Oxfordshire Ironstone Railway. The London Underground — publicly owned since 1933 — was also nationalised, becoming the London Transport Executive of the British Transport Commission. The Bicester Military Railway was already run by the government. The electric Liverpool Overhead Railway was also excluded from nationalisation.

The Railway Executive was conscious that some lines on the (then very dense) network were unprofitable and hard to justify socially, and a programme of closures began almost immediately after nationalisation. However, the general financial position of BR became gradually poorer, until an operating loss was recorded in 1955. The Executive itself had been abolished in 1953 by the 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.


British Railways was divided into regions. Initially based on the areas the former Big Four operated in, however several lines were transferred between regions over the years; Notably, this included the former Great Central lines from the Eastern Region to the London Midland Region, and the West of England Main Line from the Southern Region to Western Region

The North Eastern Region was merged with the Eastern Region in 1967. In the 1980s, the regions were abolished and replaced by "business sectors", a process known as sectorisation.

The Anglia Region was created in late 1987, its first General Manager being John Edmonds, who began his appointment on 19 October 1987. Full separation from the Eastern Region – apart from engineering design needs – occurred on 29 April 1988. It handled the services from Fenchurch Street and Liverpool Street, its western boundary being: Hertford East; Meldreth; and Whittlesea.[5][6]

1955 Modernisation Plan

The report latterly known as the "Modernisation Plan"[7] was published in January 1955. It was intended to bring the railway system into the 20th century. A government White Paper produced in 1956 stated that modernisation would help eliminate BR's financial deficit by 1962, but the figures in both this and the original plan were produced for political reasons and not based on detailed analysis.[8] The aim was to increase speed, reliability, safety, and line capacity through a series of measures that would make services more attractive to passengers and freight operators, thus recovering traffic lost to the roads. Important areas included:

The government appeared to endorse the 1955 programme (costing £1.2 billion), but did so largely for political reasons.[8] This included the withdrawal of steam traction and its replacement by diesel (and some electric) locomotives. Not all the modernisations would be effective at reducing costs. The dieselisation program gave contracts primarily to British suppliers, who had limited experience of diesel locomotive manufacture, and rushed commissioning based on an expectation of rapid electrification resulted in numbers of locomotives with poor designs, and a lack of standardisation.[9] At the same time containerised freight was being developed.[9] The marshalling yard building programme was a failure; being based on a belief in the continued viability of wagon load traffic in the face of increasingly effective road competition, and lacking effective forward planning or realistic assessments of future freight.[9]

The Beeching report

Network for development proposed in 1965 report "The Development of the Major Trunk Routes" (bold lines)

During the late 1950s, railway finances continued to worsen, whilst passenger numbers grew after restoring many services reduced during the war, 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.[10] 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.

A Scammell Scarab truck in British Railways livery, London, 1962. British Railways was involved in numerous related businesses including road haulage

Following semi-secret discussions on railway finances by the government-appointed Stedeford Committee in 1961, one of its members, Dr Richard Beeching, was offered the post of chairing the BTC while it lasted, and then becoming the first Chairman of the British Railways Board.[11]

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.[12][13] The proposals, which became known as the "Beeching Axe", were dramatic. A third of all passenger services and more than 4,000 of the 7,000 stations would close. Beeching, who is thought 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.[14]

Most of the closures were carried out between 1963 and 1970 (including some which were not listed in the report) while other suggested closures were not carried out. The closures were heavily criticised at the time,[15] and continue to be controversial.[16] A small number of stations and lines closed under the Beeching programme have been reopened, with further reopenings proposed.[17]

A second Beeching report, "The Development of the Major Trunk Routes", followed in 1965.[18] This did not recommend closures as such, but outlined a "network for development". The fate of the rest of the network was not discussed in the report.


The basis for calculating passenger fares changed in 1964. In future, fares on some routes—such as rural, holiday and commuter services—would be set at a higher level than on other routes; previously, fares had been calculated using a simple rate for the distance travelled, which at the time was 3d per mile second class, and 4½d per mile first class[19] (equivalent to £0.23 and £0.34 respectively, in 2016[20]).

Passenger levels decreased steadily from 1962 to the late 1970s,[21] but experienced a renaissance with the introduction of the high-speed InterCity 125 trains in the late 1970s and early 1980s.[22] Network improvements included completing electrification of the Great Eastern Main Line from London to Norwich between 1976 and 1986 and the East Coast Main Line from London to Edinburgh between 1985 and 1990. A main line route closure during this period of relative network stability was the 1500V DC-electrified Woodhead Line between Manchester and Sheffield: passenger service ceased in 1970 and goods in 1981.

The 1980s and 1990s saw the closure of a number of railways which had survived the Beeching Axe a generation earlier, but which had seen passenger services withdrawn. This included the bulk of the Chester and Connah's Quay Railway in 1992, the Brierley Hill to Walsall section of the South Staffordshire Line in 1993, while the Birmingham to Wolverhampton section of the Great Western Railway was closed in three phases between 1972 and 1992.

A further British Rail report, from a committee chaired by Sir

Upon sectorisation in 1982, three passenger sectors were created: InterCity, operating principal express services; London & South East (renamed Network SouthEast in 1986) operating commuter services in the London area; and Provincial (renamed Regional Railways in 1989) responsible for all other passenger services.[23] In the metropolitan counties local services were managed by the Passenger Transport Executives. Provincial was the most subsidised (per passenger km) of the three sectors; upon formation, its costs were four times its revenue.[23]

Because British Railways was such a large operation, running not just railways but also ferries, steamships and hotels, it has been considered difficult to analyse the effects of nationalization.[24] During the 1980s British Rail ran the Rail Riders membership club aimed at 5–15 year olds.


Rail Blue colours - Class 40 40128 with blue and grey coaching at Llandudno in 1982

Following nationalisation in 1948, British Railways began to adapt the corporate liveries on the rolling stock it had inherited from its predecessor railway companies. Initially, a GWR-style Brunswick green was used on passenger locomotives, and LNWR-style lined black for mixed-traffic locomotives, but later green was more widely adopted.[25][26]

Development of a corporate identity for the organisation was hampered by the competing ambitions of the British Transport Commission and the Railway Executive. The Executive attempted to introduce a modern, curved logo which could also serve as the standard for station signage totems. Due to its similarity to a hot dog, it became known as the "flying sausage". BR eventually adopted the common branding of the BTC as its first corporate logo, an Art Deco-style motif of a lion astride a spoked wheel, designed for the BTC by Cecil Thomas; on the bar overlaid across the wheel, the BTC's name was replaced with the words "British Railways". This logo, nicknamed the "Cycling Lion", was applied from 1948–1956 to the sides of locomotives, while the sausage logo was adopted for station signs across Great Britain, each coloured according to the appropriate BR region.[27]

In 1956, the BTC was granted a heraldic achievement by the College of Arms and the Lord Lyon, and then BTC chairman Brian Robertson wanted a grander logo for the railways. BR's second corporate logo (1956–1965), designed in consultation with Charles Franklyn, adapted the original, depicting a rampant lion emerging from a heraldic crown and holding a spoked wheel, all enclosed in a roundel with the "British Railways" name displayed across a bar on either side. This emblem soon acquired the nickname of the "Ferret and Dartboard". A variant of the logo with the name in a circle was also used on locomotives.[27]

The zeal for modernisation in the Beeching era drove the next rebranding exercise, and BR management wished to divest the organisation of anachronistic, herdaldic motifs and develop a corporate identity to rival that of [27][26]

The uniformity of BR branding continued until the process of sectorisation was introduced in the 1980s. Certain BR operations such as Inter-City, Network SouthEast or Railfreight began to adopt their own identities, introducing logos and colour schemes which were essentially variants of the British Rail brand. Eventually, as sectorisation developed into a prelude to privatisation, the unified British Rail brand disappeared, with the notable exception of the Double Arrow symbol, which has survived to this day and serves as a generic trademark to denote railway services across Great Britain.[27]


Despite being nationalised in 1947 "as one of the ‘commanding heights’ of the economy",[28] British Rail was not profitable for many years, probably most or all[29] with narrow income (according to different sources).[30] In fact there were examples (even during the 1990s), according to newspapers, that public subsidy was counted as profit.[31] As early as 1961, British Railways were losing £300,000 every day.[32] It was thought that most of the nationalised railways, excluding some freight services, may, like any other privatised business with no income in the UK, cease to operate .[33] In fact the nationalisation saved private business, helping investors who often achieved income in previous decades (e.g. 1870-1912).[34] Other usual discussion arguments cites the role of British rail as a sole transport option for many rural areas. However, after "The Beeching Report" many connections to towns and villages were cut, (whilst car ownership was growing) and public transport was nothing or based on coaches.[35] Despite increase in cars and also road fuel prices since the 1990s, British Rail remained unprofitable.[36]

British Rail Investment

British Rail rebuilt London Liverpool Street in 1991, opened by H.M. Queen Elizabeth II. British Rail constructed a new station at Stansted Airport in 1991. British Rail re-opened the line to Aberdare in 1988 and the Maesteg Line in 1992. Electrified the line to King's Lynn in 1992. In 1988, an Advert for British Rail directed by Hugh Hudson was made called 'Britain's Railway' and shows some of the most iconic railway structures in Britain including the Forth Rail Bridge, Royal Albert Bridge, Glenfinnan Viaduct and London Paddington station.[37]

Privatisation of British Rail

Between 1994 and 1997, British Rail was privatised.[38] Ownership of the track and infrastructure passed to Railtrack on 1 April 1994; afterwards 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).[39]

The Waterloo and City line had been part of BR Network SouthEast and was not included in the privatisation. It was transferred to London Underground in December 1994. The remaining obligations of British Rail not mentioned above were transferred to BRB (Residuary) Ltd.

At the time privatisation of British Rail was proposed by the Conservative government in 1992 many bodies opposed the process, including the Labour party and the rail unions. The Labour party initially proposed to reverse the nationalisation process;[40] however the New Labour manifesto of 1997 did not propose to reverse privatisation but opposed Conservative plans for privatisation of the London Underground.[41]

Rail unions have been historically opposed to the privatisation; however in 2004 ASLEF general secretary, Lew Adams stated on a radio phone-in program: "All the time it was in the public sector, all we got were cuts, cuts, cuts. And today there are more members in the trade union, more train drivers, and more trains running. The reality is that it worked, we’ve protected jobs, and we got more jobs."[42]

Accidents and incidents


The former BR network, with the trunk routes of the West Coast Main Line, 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 Scotland and Wales where the control of railway passenger services is devolved from central government. However, in England passenger trains have returned to Mansfield, Corby, Chandlers Ford, the reopened line to Aylesbury Vale Parkway and there are numerous other proposals to restore services, such as Oxford-Milton Keynes/Aylesbury, Lewes-Uckfield, Bristol-Portishead and Plymouth-Tavistock. In London, Tyne and Wear, Greater Manchester, the West Midlands and Nottingham urban light-rail systems have taken over the routes of some former BR routes.

In Wales, the Welsh Assembly Government successfully supported the re-opening to passenger services, of the Ebbw Valley Railway reopened between Ebbw Vale Parkway 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 Government have reinstated the lines between Hamilton and Larkhall, Stirling and Alloa, and Airdrie to Bathgate. The biggest line reinstatement project was the rebuilding of part of the former Waverley Route from Edinburgh to Carlisle as the Borders Railway.[43]

Preserved Railway Lines

On its creation British Railways included the narrow gauge Vale of Rheidol Railway in Wales. Although built as a working railway, this line was by that time already principally a tourist asset. British Rail continued to operate the line, using steam locomotives, well beyond the withdrawal of standard gauge steam. The line's three steam locomotives became the only steam engines to receive TOPS serial numbers, and the only steam engines to be painted in BR Rail Blue livery, and to carry the double arrow logo. The Vale of Rheidol Railway was privatised in 1989, and continues to operate as a private heritage railway.

Other preserved lines, or Heritage railways, have reopened some lines previously closed by British Rail. These range from picturesque rural branch lines like the Keighley and Worth Valley Railway to sections of mainline such as the Great Central Railway. Many have links to the National Rail network, both station interchange, for instance the Severn Valley Railway between Kidderminster and Kidderminster Town, and physical rail connections like the Watercress Line at Alton.

Although most are operated solely as leisure amenities some also provide educational resources, and a few have ambitions to restore commercial services over routes abandoned by the nationalised industry.


British Railways operated a number of ships from its formation in 1948 on a variety of routes. Many ships were acquired on nationalisation, and others were built for operation by British Railways or its later subsidiary, Sealink. Those ships capable of carrying rail vehicles were classed under TOPS as Class 99.

Sealink MV St David berthed in Larne.


Hovercraft services run by Seaspeed.

Successor companies

A First North Western Class 156 at Romiley Junction station, near Manchester in the year 2001. It is in its former Regional Railways livery.

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 was sold to 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 goods 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 goods 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:


Since Privatisation, many Groups have campaigned for the Renationalisation of British Rail, most notably 'Bring Back British Rail'. Various interested parties also have views on the future shape of the privatised British railways.

The renationalisation of the railways of Britain continue to have popular support. A poll in 2012 showed 70% support for renationalisation.[44]

Due to rail franchises lasting sometimes over a decade, full renationalisation would take years unless compensation was paid to terminate contracts early. The former Green Party leader Caroline Lucas has submitted a Private Member's Bill calling for individual franchises, when they expire or when a company fails to meet its franchise conditions, to fall back into public ownership, this will avoid expensive compensation to the rail companies.

When the infrastructure owning company Railtrack ceased trading the Labour government set up a not for dividend company Network Rail to take over the duties rather than renationalise this part of the network. However On 1 September 2014, Network Rail was reclassified as a central government body, adding around £34 billion to public sector net debt. This reclassification had been requested by the Office for Budget Responsibility to comply with pan-European accounting standard ESA10.[45]


In 1989, the ITV Sketch Show Spitting Image made a parody of Hudson's British Rail advert on the plans of the Conservative British Government to privatise the railways featuring numerous of the show's puppets (including the show's portrayal of former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher), numerous BR trains and landmarks and even a cardboard cutout of Thomas the Tank Engine.[46]

See also

Divisions, brands and liveries
Classification and numbering schemes
Rolling stock


  1. ^
  2. ^
  3. ^
  4. ^
  5. ^
  6. ^
  7. ^
  8. ^ a b Loft, Charles (2013) Last Trains - Dr Beeching and the Death of Rural England ISBN 9781849545006
  9. ^ a b c
  10. ^
  11. ^ "Back to Beeching", BBC Radio 4, 27 February 2010
  12. ^
  13. ^
  14. ^ Richard Beeching "The Reshaping of British Railways",p.15
  15. ^ "The Economics and Social Aspects of the Beeching Plan"—Lord Stoneham, House of Lords, 1963
  16. ^
  17. ^ "Move to reinstate lost rail lines", BBC, 15 June 2009
  18. ^
  19. ^
  20. ^ UK CPI inflation numbers based on data available from Gregory Clark (2015), "The Annual RPI and Average Earnings for Britain, 1209 to Present (New Series)" MeasuringWorth.
  21. ^ The UK Department for Transport (DfT), specifically Table 6.1 from Transport Statistics Great Britain 2006 (4MB PDF file)
  22. ^
  23. ^ a b
  24. ^
  25. ^ Brian Haresnape Railway Liveries. BR Steam 1948-1968
  26. ^ a b Height & Cresswell 1979.
  27. ^ a b c d Jackson 2013.
  28. ^
  29. ^
  30. ^ British Railways 1948-73: A Business History, T. R. Gourvish
  31. ^
  32. ^
  33. ^
  35. ^
  36. ^
  37. ^ "Britain's Railway Advert"
  38. ^
  39. ^
  40. ^
  41. ^
  42. ^
  43. ^
  44. ^
  45. ^
  46. ^ "Britain's Railway (but not for long)"

Further reading

  • , on nationalization 1945-50, pp 236–83

External links

  • British Railways Board history
  • BRB (Residuary) Ltd.
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