British Rail

British Railways
British Rail
State-owned enterprise
IndustryRailway transport, logistics, shipping and rolling stock manufacturer
FatePrivatised
Predecessor
Successor
Founded1 January 1948; 70 years ago (1948-01-01)
Defunct1 February 2001 (2001-02-01)
HeadquartersLondon, England
Area served
Great Britain
Key people
Robert Riddles, Peter Parker, Gerry Fiennes
ProductsRail transport, cargo transport, services
OwnerGovernment of the United Kingdom (100%)
ParentBritish Transport Commission (1948–1962), British Railways Board (1962–2001)
Divisions
Subsidiaries

British Railways (BR), which from 1965 traded as British Rail, was the state-owned company that operated most of the overground 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 designated as the British Railways Board.[1]

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

On privatisation, responsibility for track, signalling and stations was transferred to Railtrack (which was later brought under public control as Network Rail) 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".[2][3] It is now employed as a generic symbol on street signs in Great Britain denoting railway stations, and as part of the Rail Delivery Group's (RDG) jointly-managed National Rail brand is still printed on railway tickets.[4]

During this period the Channel Tunnel was finally built. This had very little to do with BR and was financed by private money. However, the rail network in Britain was finally connected to the railways on the continent. The Channel Tunnel Rail Link CTRL now usually known as High Speed 1 or HS1 was built a little later.

History

British Rail filmstrip showing how the railways were unified under BR.

Nationalisation in 1948

BR steam locomotive: 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[5] 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.[6]

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.[7][citation needed]

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 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.

Regions

British Railways was divided into regions which were initially based on the areas the former Big Four operated in; later, several lines were transferred between regions. Notably, these 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.[8][9]

1955 Modernisation Plan

The report, latterly known as the "Modernisation Plan",[10] 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.[11] 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.[11] 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 programme gave contracts primarily to British suppliers, who had limited experience of diesel locomotive manufacture, and rushed commissioning based on an expectation of rapid electrification; this resulted in numbers of locomotives with poor designs, and a lack of standardisation.[12] At the same time, containerised freight was being developed.[12] 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.[12] A 2002 documentary broadcast on BBC Radio Four blamed the 1950s decisions for the "beleaguered" condition of the railway system at that time.[13]

The Beeching reports

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.[14] This abolished the Commission and replaced it by several separate Boards. These included a British Railways Board, which took over on 1 January 1963.[15]

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.[16]

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.[17][18] 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.[19]

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,[20] and continue to be controversial.[21] A small number of stations and lines closed under the Beeching programme have been reopened, with further reopenings proposed.[22]

A second Beeching report, "The Development of the Major Trunk Routes", followed in 1965.[23] 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.

Post-Beeching

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[24] (equivalent to £0.23 and £0.35 respectively, in 2016[25]).

Passenger levels decreased steadily from 1962 to the late 1970s,[26] and reached a low in 1982.[27] 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 1500 V 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 some 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 David Serpell, was published in 1983. The Serpell Report made no recommendations as such, but did set out various options for the network including, at their most extreme, a skeletal system of less than 2000 route km. This report was not welcomed, and the government decided to quietly leave it on the shelf. Meanwhile, BR was gradually reorganised, with the regional structure finally being abolished and replaced with business-led sectors.[citation needed] This process, known as "sectorisation", led to far greater customer focus, but was cut short in 1994 with the splitting up of BR for privatisation.

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.[28] 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.[28]

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 nationalisation.[29] During the 1980s British Rail ran the Rail Riders membership club aimed at 5- to 15-year-olds.

Prices rose quickly in this period, rising 108% in real terms from 1979 to 1994, as prices rose by 262% but RPI only increased by 154% in the same time.[30]

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