Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
British Railways (BR), later rebranded as British Rail, ran the British railway system, from the nationalisation of the 'Big Four' British railway companies in 1948 until its privatisation in stages between 1994 and 1997.
This period saw massive changes in the nature of the railway network; steam traction was eliminated in favour of diesel and electric power; freight was replaced as the main source of business with passengers and the network was severely rationalised.
The rail transport system in Great Britain developed during the 19th century. After the grouping of 1923 by the Railways Act 1921 there were four large British railway companies, each dominating its own geographic area. These were the Great Western Railway (GWR), the London, Midland and Scottish Railway (LMS), the London and North Eastern Railway (LNER) and the Southern Railway (SR).
London Underground and the Glasgow Subway were independent concerns and there was a small number of independent light railways and industrial railways, but did not contribute significant mileage to the system. Neither were tramways considered part of the system.
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 from 1 January 1948, with the merger of the Big Four, under the control of the Railway Executive of the British Transport Commission (BTC).
The new system was split geographically into six regions along the lines of the Big Four:
- Eastern Region (ER) — southern LNER lines.
- North Eastern Region (NER) — northern LNER lines in England.
- London Midland Region (LMR) — LMS lines in England and Wales.
- Scottish Region — LMS and LNER lines in Scotland.
- Southern Region — SR lines.
- Western Region (WR) — GWR lines.
These regions would form the basis of the BR business structure until the 1980s. They retained a level of independence, though there was also some centralisation.
1955 Modernisation Plan
The 1955 Modernisation Plan, detailed in the British Transport Commission's (BTC) Modernisation and Re-equipment of British Railways argued for spending £1,240 million over a period of 15 years. Services were to be made more attractive to passengers and freight operators, thus recovering traffic which was being haemorrhaged to the roads. There were three important areas:
- Electrification of principal routes
- Large-scale introduction of diesel and electric traction with new coaching stock to replace the steam locomotives of British Railways
- Resignalling and track renewal
The modernisation plan however failed to take into account the effect that mass-road transport would have upon the traditional role of the railways, and as a result much money was wasted by heavy investment in things like marshalling yards, at a time when small wagon-load traffic was in rapid decline.
BR was also hampered by out of date regulations which regulated charges for freight, and also forced the railways to transport unprofitable freight. This hampered the railways abillity to compete with road transport and made profitabillity impossible.
Finances got worse and the plan was reappraised in 1959. The new plan was to speed up modernisation, and rationalisation. This led to mass orders for new diesel types which were then in development, many of which proved unsatisfactory later.
The British Railways Board (BRB) was created in 1962, taking over from the former British Transport Commission (BTC) which, in addition to the railway, was also responsible for the waterways (canals) and road freight transport.
The Beeching Axe and the end of steam
Main article:Beeching Axe
In 1963, BR chairman Dr. Richard Beeching published the Re-Shaping of British Railways calling for major rationalisation of the system. Many rural routes were unprofitable in the face of increasing competition from road hauliers and the private car. The Beeching Axe fell on most branch lines and some main lines. Some of these lines have since become heritage railways.
The early sixties also saw the "Great Locomotive Cull", with mass withdrawals of steam types, and their replacement with diesels, fewer of which were now needed on the now shrinking system. Steam traction last stand came in the North-West of England in August 1968. The use of steam locomotives on independent industrial lines, particularly by the National Coal Board (NCB) continued into the 1970s. Several locomotives were preserved, often having not been scrapped immediately on withdrawal, but most fell victim to the cutter's torch.
From 1958 to 1974 the West Coast Main Line was electrified in stages to the French voltage of 25kV 50Hz AC overhead line electrification . Many commuter lines around London and Glasgow were also electrified, and the Southern Region extended its 750V DC 3rd rail system to the Kent coast. Electrification however, never reached the level to which it was effectively system-wide as on many other European railways.
Steam traction on British Railways ended in August 1968 and the system was rebranded as British Rail. This introduced the double-arrow logo, still used by National Rail to represent the industry as a whole (though some cynics claimed the logo meant the railway "didn't know if it was coming or going"); the standardised typeface used for all communications and signs; and the "rail blue" livery which was applied to nearly all locomotives and rolling stock.
During the 1960s the TOPS system for classifying locomotives and multiple units was introduced, and is the basis of the classification system. Hauled rolling stock continued to carry numbers in a separate series. Also during this time, yellow warning panels , characteristic of British railways, were added to the front of diesel and electric locomotives and multiple units in order to increase the safety of track workers.
In the 1980s, the regions of BR were abolished and the system sectorised into five sectors. The passenger sectors were InterCity (express services), Network SouthEast (London commuter services) and Regional Railways (regional slow services). Trainload Freight took trainload freight, Railfreight Distribution took non-trainload freight, Freightliner took intermodal traffic and Rail Express Systems took parcels traffic. The maintenance and remaining engineering works were split off into a new company, BRML (British Rail Maintenance Limited). The new sectors were further subdivided into divisions. This sectorisation ended the "BR blue" period as gradually new liveries were adopted. Infrastructure remained the responsibility of the Regions until the "Organisation for Quality" initiative in 1991 when this too was transfered to the Train operating sectors of BR. Other developments included the Channel Tunnel and Heathrow Express
- Main article: Privatisation of British Rail
On the advice of the Adam Smith Institute, under John Major's Conservative Government's Railway Act, 1993, British Rail was split up and privatised. This was a continuation of the policy of Margaret Thatcher's Conservative government's privatisation of publicly-owned services. The unpopular Conservative Government was facing a Labour victory at the May 1997 General Election and so privatisation was rushed through and was finished in November 1997.
BR was privatised within the business structure that was in place. Passenger services in each sector were franchised out to private companies, mostly bus operators. National Rail was created to organise ticketing. Freight operations were sold but mostly bought by one company, EWS. Railtrack controlled infrastructure. The Shadow Strategic Rail Authority was created to oversee and advise the government. The British Railways Board remained with some residuary functions.
Privatisation has had mixed results. Passenger growth has been stimulated, but this has been at extra cost to the taxpayer and passengers who have seen steady price increases since 1997. Freight has also increased; however, there is debate as to whether these increases in passengers and freight have been due to privatisation, or simply to an improved economy which usually results in more travel. Some analysts have pointed out that a similar rise in passenger numbers occurred in the late 1980s when the economy was buoyant, only to fall again in the recession of the early 1990s; however, recent passenger-journey numbers have climbed back to the level last seen in the 1950s.
Railtrack's management proved to be incompetent and the Labour government refused to continue to subsidise the losses of shareholders. It went insolvent, was put in receivership and was replaced by a not-for-profit publicly owned Network Rail. Some saw this as the first step towards renationalisation. But given the costs this is unlikely at the present. The Shadow Strategic Rail Authority's power became real when it dropped part of its name, becoming the Strategic Rail Authority (SRA).
The BR network with the trunk routes of the West Coast Main Line, East Coast Main Line, Great Western Main Line, Midland Main Line and East Coast Main Line remaining unchanged. The Beeching Axe fell on many branchlines and some other main lines.
Locomotives and rolling stock
BR inherited a number of locomotives from its constituent "Big Four" companies, the vast majority of which were steam locomotives. BR also built 2537 steam locomotives in the period 1948-1960, 1538 were to pre-nationalisation designs, and 999 to its own standard designs. These locomotives were destined to lead short lives, some as little as only 5 years against a design life of over 30 years, because of the decision to end the use of steam traction in 1968.
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