British Rail

British state-owned rail transport operator (1948–1997)

British Rail (BR) was the national railway company of Great Britain, from 1948 to 2001. It was created by nationalization under the Transport Act 1947. Britain's railways were returned to private ownership by privatization in 2001.

Ex-Great Western Railway No. 6833 Calcot Grange, a 4-6-0 Grange class steam locomotive, at Bristol Temple Meads station



Great Britain


After the smaller firms were merged in 1923 under the Railways Act 1921, there were four large regional railway companies. The Big Four 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). The Transport Act 1947 made provision for the nationalisation of the network.[1]

The Second World War had caused damage to all the railways. They had lost a large part of their trains, buildings and equipment.

The Transport Act 1947 set out the nationalisation of the rail network, as part of a plan by Clement Attlee's Labour Government to nationalise public transport. The London Underground, some industrial lines and some remaining light railways like Shropshire and Montgomeryshire Railway were again excluded. For a short time, during World War II, the Shropshire and Montgomeryshire Railway line was taken over by the military. After the war the line re-opened to public use in 1946. The Bicester Military Railway had been built by the government in 1941.

The Railways Act 1921 took effect on 1 January 1923. By that date most of the mergers had taken place, some from the previous year. The Railway Magazine in its issue of February 1923 dubbed the new companies as "The Big Four of the New Railway Era".

These "Big Four" were:

See also a list of railway companies involved in the 1923 grouping.

Northern Ireland


The nationalised Ulster Transport Authority (UTA) ran the railways in Northern Ireland from 1948 until 1966. They were then taken over by Translink and called NI Railways, also known as Northern Ireland Railways (Irish: Iarnród Tuaisceart Éireann).[2]

The government of Northern Ireland and Ireland ran the former Great Northern Railway jointly under a Great Northern Railway Board until 1958. Most of the lines in the west of Northern Ireland were closed in the 1960s.

List of railway companies

Example firm Nationalised in 1947? What happened to it
Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch Railway Yes, from 1939 to 1946 Survives.
Snailbeach District Railways No Lorries were more value for money. Closed in 1959.
Shropshire and Montgomeryshire Railway Yes, in 1941 Too remote. Closed in 1960.
Southern Railway (Great Britain) Yes Privatised.
Oxfordshire Ironstone Railway No Closed when the quarry did in 1967.
Great Northern Railway (Ireland) Yes, jointly by Northern Ireland and Ireland in 1948 Most lines in Northern Ireland were closed by 1969. Some were closed in Ireland too.
London Underground Already had been in 1933 Many stations closed between 1936 and 1988.
Great Western Railway Yes Privatised.
London, Midland and Scottish Railway Yes Privatised.
London and North Eastern Railway Yes Privatised.
Bicester Military Railway Built by the government in 1941 Small cuts.

The 1955 Modernisation Plan


In 1955, a major modernisation programme costing £1.2 billion was authorised by the government. The period of nationalisation saw sweeping changes occur as steam trains were scrapped 1968, in favour of diesel trains and electric trains. One third of the network was closed by the highly critical Beeching report of the 1960s.

A major railway survey in April 1961 was used in the writing of a government report on the future of the network. This report was called The Reshaping of British Railways. It was published by the British Railways Board (BRB) in March 1963.[3][4] A third of all passenger trains would be scrapped and more than 4,000 of the 7,000 stations would be closed.

InterCity (or, in the earliest days, the hyphenated Inter-City) was introduced by British Rail in 1966 as a brand-name for its long-haul express passenger services (see British Rail brand names for a full history).

Passenger levels fell steadily from the late 1950s to the late 1970s,[5] but experienced a sharp increase after the introduction of the high-speed Intercity 125 trains in the late 1970s and early 1980s.[6]

Between 1934 and 1975 the Northern line ran the Northern City Line as its Highbury Branch. London Underground gave it to British Rail in 1975,

Before the sectorization of BR in 1982 the system was split into regions. Working around London, they were London Midland Region (Marylebone, Euston, St Pancras and Broad Street), Southern Region (Waterloo, Victoria, Chairing Cross, Holborn Viaduct, Cannon Street and London Bridge), Western Region (Paddington) and Eastern Region (King's Cross, Moorgate, Broad Street, Liverpool Street and Fenchurch Street). This was perceived to be a source of inefficiency, so sectorization made the regions into a single organisation covering all commuter services. At the same time InterCity took over express services and Regional Railways took over regional services. The group was originally called Provincial.

BR built 2537 steam locomotives from 1948 to 1960, some to pre-nationalisation designs and some to its own, new, standard designs. Eventually BR chose to end the use of steam trains in 1968.

The official report known as the "Modernisation Plan"[7] of December 1954 was intended to bring the railway system into the 20th century. The aim was to increase speed, reliability, safety and line capacity, by making the railways more attractive to passengers and freight operators. The important areas were:

Long-distance trains from Marylebone began to be cut back from 1958 after the line was given from BR Midland Western to the BR Midland Region. Then BR Midland Region thought it was an unnecessary rival of their Midland Main Line.[8] By 1960 there were no daytime trains running to destinations north of Nottingham and only a few still ran at night.[8] Many Express services were cut.[8] By 1963, local stopping services beyond Aylesbury were cut. In 1965 freight services were ended.[8] Between 1963 and 1966 only a few remaining long distance services stayed in use. A large part of the former Great Central Railway was closed as part of the 'Beeching axe'. This meant that Marylebone was now used only by local trains to Aylesbury and High Wycombe. After the 1960s, lack of investment meant the station itself became run down.

New diesel trains

Diesel Class 47 loco No.47100 with the trademark Stratford T.M.D. silver roof

Some of the early models were of poor quality and design, but many later kinds proved their worth in time.

British Rail Class 127 diesel trains were chosen to operate on the services from Marylebone usually to places such as High Wycombe, Aylesbury and Banbury which are on the Chiltern Main Line and Great Central Main Line (now the London to Aylesbury Line). Strangely, the 115 were under Table 115 in the British Rail timetable. They were similar to British Rail Class 127, but were superior as the class had larger windows, better seats, lights and wall surfaces. Both classes were made in the early 1960s.

The British Rail Class 47 (originally Brush Type 4) is a class of British railway diesel-electric locomotive that was developed in the 1960s by Brush Traction. Their reliable and trusted service lasted well in to the 2000s. Some are still working in 2018.

British Rail gave Class 52 to the class of 74 large diesel-hydraulic locomotives built for the Western Region of British Railways between 1961 and 1964. All were given two-word names, with the first word being Western, and so the type was nicknamed Westerns.

The British Rail Class 207 (or 3D) versatile diesel-electric multiple units were built by BR at Eastleigh in 1962.

New electric trains

First Capital Connect Class 313 no. 313060 at Kings Cross railway station

Some of the early models were of poor quality and design, but many later kinds proved their worth in time.

The British Rail Class 423 (or 4Vep) electric multiple units were built by BR at York Works from 1967 to 1974. They feature manually opening doors next to every seating row and mostly found working outer suburban services in South London, and rural services in Kent and Sussex, up to replacement in 2005.

The British Rail Class 303 is a type of electric multiple unit. They are also known as Blue Train units, since they were originally painted blue all over. They were first used in 1960 for the electrification of the North Clyde and the Cathcart Circle lines in Strathclyde.

The British Rail Class 73 electro-diesel locomotives are very unusual in that they can operate from a 750 V DC third-rail supply, but also have a diesel engine to allow them to work on non-electrified routes.

The British Rail Class 86 was the standard electric locomotive built during the 1960s. It was made after the repeated testing of the earlier classes like the 81 and 85. The tests led to a much improved loco design.

The British Rail Class 312 is a type of alternating current (AC) electric multiple unit (EMU) built in 1966–1974[9] intended for use on outer-suburban passenger services. It was the last class of multiple unit to be constructed to the British Rail Mark 2 body shell, and also the last with slam doors. Their passenger seats were an improvement on former types.

British Rail Class 313 electric multiple units were built by BREL at York Works from 1976 to 1977, thus the first second-generation EMUs to be constructed for British Rail. They were capable of both drawing power via 25 kV AC overhead, or 750 V DC third-rail. They were the first units in Britain to have fully automatic couplers which allowed both physical coupling and also the connection of control electric and air supplies to be carried out without the driver's need to leave the cab. Their passenger seats were also an improvement on former types.

The Beeching report

The remains of Rugby Central Station on the former Great Central Railway was closed under the Beeching Axe.

During the late 1950s, railways continued to worsen, and in 1959 the government acted, limiting the amount the British Transport Commission (BTC) could spend on British Rail.

The government proposed that many services could be provided more cheaply by buses, and said that most abandoned rail services would have their places taken by bus services. Only main lines would be untouched. Many other minor lines would be cut back or scrapped.

The business man Lord Beeching saw South Wales as a failing industrial region. So it lost the majority of its network. Since 1983 it has experienced a major rail revival, with new stations such as Llanharan reopening. Four lines reopened within 20 miles (32 km) of each other: Abercynon–Aberdare, Barry–Bridgend via Llantwit Major, Bridgend–Maesteg and the Ebbw Valley Line via Newbridge.

The station at Laurencekirk on the mainline between Arbroath and Aberdeen was shut in 1967, but 42 years later in May 2009 it reopened. Other reopened stations include Gretna Green, Dyce and New Cumnock – all closed in the mid-1960s.

Haddenham in Buckinghamshire lost its little-used station in 1963,[10] but a more popular station opened in 1987 as the town grew.[11]

A major part of the report proposed that British Rail electrify some major main lines and the use of containerised freight traffic instead of outdated and uneconomic wagon-load traffic. Some of these plans were eventually adopted, however, such as the creation of the Freightliner concept and further electrification of the West Coast Main Line from Crewe to Glasgow in 1974. Also the staffs' terms and conditions were improved over time.

Since the Beeching cuts of the 1960s, road traffic levels grew heavily in some areas. This has come close to gridlock. Furthermore, in recent years there have been record high levels of passengers on the railways. A modest number of the railway closures have therefore been reversed.

In addition a small but significant number of closed stations have reopened, and passenger services been restored on lines where they had been closed or removed. Many of these were in the urban metropolitan counties and towns where Passenger Transport Executives have a role in promoting local passenger rail use.

A notable reopening was the Robin Hood Line in Nottinghamshire, between Nottingham and Worksop via Mansfield, which reopened in the early 1990s. Before the line reopened, Mansfield had been the largest town in Britain without a railway station.

The Serpell Report


Profits from the railways began to fall in the early 1980s. In 1983, the civil servant Sir David Serpell wrote what became known as the Serpell Report.[12] He wanted even more cutbacks.

In the early 1980s there was a proposal to close Marylebone and divert British Rail services via High Wycombe into nearby Paddington. There was also a plan to extend the Metropolitan Line to Aylesbury, so London trains via Amersham would be sent to Baker Street. Marylebone station was to be converted into a bus and coach station. London Underground said the Metropolitan Line could not cope with any more trains and was full up. However these plans were deemed stupid and clumsy, and were quietly dropped.

The Pacer and Express Sprinter trains


The funding of BR was reduced so they created the cheaper Pacer trains. The British Rail Class 143 is a diesel multiple unit, part of the Pacer family of trains introduced between 1985 and 1986. They originally worked around North East England but were later transferred to Wales.[13] It was made out of bus parts put on to lorry chassis and train wheels. Earlier units proved to be unreliable, but later units were of a better design.

The British Rail Class 156 "Super-Sprinter" diesel multiple units were built from 1987 to 1989 to replace elderly First Generation "Heritage" DMUs (like the Class 127 units) and locomotive-hauled passenger trains.

As funding increased before privatisation the successful British Rail Class 158 Express Sprinter was made. It is a type of diesel multiple unit (DMU) train. They were built for British Rail between 1989 and 1992 by BREL at their Derby Works.

The Clapham Junction railway crash


On 12 December 1988, three commuter trains crashed, just south-west of Clapham junction station, in London. 35 people died and more than 100 were injured.[14] British Rail's 30-year-old vintage Mark 1 carriages were found out to be dangerous and the broken signalling equipment was fixed and improved.

A picture of a green historic and a blue and white BR Regional Railways Mk1 carriage. They are in Crewe goods yard in the year 2000. The old Mark 1 carriages were being removed at the time of privatisation.



The British government under John Major said that privatisation would help passenger services, but this did not happen until much later.

The Scottish Government have re-opened the lines between Hamilton and Larkhall, Alloa and Stirling and is working on a link from Airdrie to Bathgate. The biggest line-reopening project is the former Waverley railway Edinburgh to Borders line.[15]

The Welsh Assembly Government has re-opened the Vale of Glamorgan Line between Barry Bock and Bridgend in 2005. The Ebbw Valley Line reopened between Ebbw Vale and Cardiff in the year 2008. It will later go on to services to Newport in Gwent in 2011. The Barry–Bridgend route was closed after the Beeching report of March 1963. The line's passenger service was officially shut down in June 1964, but freight continued until the late 1990s.

Some English stations like Corby and Mansfield were reopened after privatisation. Yet more stations were reopened by British Rail in Scotland, England and Wales before privatisation when the railway was run properly.

Train fares cost more than under British Rail.[16]

The split up for privatisation


Regional Railways was one of the three passenger sectors of British Rail. It was created in the year 1982. It finished operation in 1996, two years after privatisation. In the privatisation of British Rail, InterCity trains were divided up into several franchises. The Caledonian Sleeper are transferred to ScotRail, now First ScotRail.

A High Speed Train power car (loco) and coach in the InterCity 'swallow livery' at Penzance
A First North Western British Rail Class 156 train at Romiley Junction station, near Manchester in the year 2001. It is in its former Regional Railways livery.

Since privatisation, the number of companies has changed a number of times as rules have changed and the areas covered altered. The companies that took over passenger rail services include:

Railway working area Location Company
Midland Mainline East Midlands East Midlands Trains
Great North Eastern Railway East Coast East Coast operator
Virgin CrossCountry Cross country and InterCity trains CrossCountry
ScotRail Scotland First ScotRail (now called ScotRail Scotland's Railway)
Great Western Trains South Wales, Wessex and the Thames Valley First Great Western
Wales and West* Wales and Wessex (The West Country) First Great Western and Arriva Trains Wales
Arriva Trains Northern North East England and Yorkshire First TransPennine Express and Northern Rail
First North Western North West England and North Wales First TransPennine Express and Northern Rail
Chiltern Railways North West London, western Hertfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Coventry and Birmingham Chiltern Railways
Silverlink (originally called 'North London Railways')** east and north London; western Hertfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Bedfordshire, Northamptonshire, Coventry and Birmingham London Overground and London Midland
West Anglia Great Northern (WAGN)*** in North London North East London, East Anglia and eastern Hertfordshire split between First Capital Connect and National Express East Anglia
Great Eastern in East London, North East London, Essex and Suffolk now part of National Express East Anglia
Anglia Railways, East London North East London and East Anglia Now part of 'One Railway' (now renamed National Express East Anglia)
Thameslink South London, North London, Bedfordshire, central Hertfordshire, Cambridgeshire, West Sussex and Surrey First Capital Connect
Thames Trains West London, Wessex and the Thames Valley First Great Western
LTS East London and south Essex c2c
Connex South Eastern South East London, Kent and Sussex South Eastern Trains then Southeastern
Gatwick Express London Victoria Station to Gatwick Airport Southern
Virgin Trains (West Coast) West Coast Virgin Trains
Connex South Central Surrey, Sussex, the South Coast and South London Southern
Merseyrail Electrics Merseyside Arriva Trains Merseyside
South West Trains in South West London, Surrey, Berkshire, Hampshire, Sussex and the West Country South West Trains
Island Line in the Isle of Wight South West Trains
Central Trains The English Midlands and Central Wales London Midland Cross Country and East Midlands Trains
Waterloo & City line The Waterloo & City line London Underground took over the short underground line called the Waterloo & City line
Express Parcels Services Nationwide Parcels and railway run postal services of the Royal Mail (the U.K.’s Post Office)
Essex Express South Essex c2c
Load-Haul Nation wide freight
Freightliner Nation wide freight
Rail Express Systems Nation wide Mail and railway-run postal services of the Royal Mail (the U.K.’s Post Office)
Trainload Freight Nation wide freight
Railfreight Distribution Nation wide freight
Trans-Rail Nation wide freight
Mainline Freight Nation wide freight
SeaLink Ferries Nation wide Ferry ships to places like the Isle of Wight. This one is now run by Wight Link. Others firms run other ferries
A First Great Eastern Class 312 units nos. 312718 and 312721 at Kirby Cross railway station

Six sub-brands also occurred in the early 2000s:

*Wales and Borders, now part of Arriva Trains Wales.

*Wessex Trains, now part of First Great Western.

** Silverlink Metro, now London Overground.

** Silverlink County, now part of London Midland.

*** West Anglia, now part of National Express East Anglia.

*** Great Northern Electrics, now part of National Express East Anglia.


The British Rail "double arrow" logo was said to show direction of travel on a double track railway on a railway map and was nicknamed "the arrow of indecision".[17] It is now employed as a general symbol on street signs in Great Britain, but not in Northern Ireland, denoting railway stations, and as part of the Association of Train Operating Companies (A.T.O.C.)'s joint-managed National Rail brand, still being printed on railway tickets.[18]

Labour relations


Sometimes strikes happened among British Rail staff, over staff pay, safety, working hours and alike. There were several strikes in the late 1970s, but decreased after privatisation. There were also several other strikes in the late 1970s. Other firms like the UK's coal mines also struck at this time.



  1. Her Majesty's Government (1947). "Transport Act 1947". The Railways Archive. (originally published by Her Majesty's Stationery Office). Retrieved 2006-11-25.
  2. Ag Taisteal le Translink Archived 2009-03-18 at the Wayback Machine. Translink (in Irish)
  3. British Transport Commission (1963). "The Reshaping of British Railways - Part 1: Report". The Railways Archive. (originally published by Her Majesty's Stationery Office). Retrieved 2006-11-25.
  4. British Transport Commission (1963). "The Reshaping of British Railways - Part 2: Maps". The Railways Archive. (originally published by Her Majesty's Stationery Office). Retrieved 2006-11-25.
  5. The UK Department for Transport Archived 2004-10-17 at the Wayback Machine (DfT), specifically Table 6.1 from Transport Statistics Great Britain 2006 Archived 2008-09-08 at the Wayback Machine (4MB PDF file)
  6. Marsden, Colin J. (1983). British Rail 1983 Motive Power: Combined Volume. London: Ian Allen. ISBN 0-7110-1284-9.
  7. British Transport Commission (1954). "Modernisation and Re-Equipment of British Rail". The Railways Archive. (Originally published by the British Transport Commission). Retrieved 2006-11-25.
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 8.3 "The Great Central Railway in 2002 - History". Archived from the original on 2013-12-24. Retrieved 2010-09-05.
  9. Marsden (1982), page 42
  10. Mitchell, Vic; Smith, Keith (September 2002). Princes Risborough to Banbury. Western Main Lines. Midhurst: Middleton Press. ISBN 1-901706-85-0.
  11. Mitchell & Smith
  12. The Railways Archive :: Railway Finances - Report of a Committee chaired by Sir David Serpell KCB CMG OBE
  13. "TheRailwayCentre – Class 143". Archived from the original on 2005-03-08. Retrieved 2010-05-26.
  14. Hidden Inquiry Report (PDF), from The Railways Archive
  15. "Waverley Rail Project route". Archived from the original on 2009-09-04. Retrieved 2010-05-20.
  16. "Train fares cost more than under British Rail". Daily Telegraph. 1 December 2008. Retrieved 7 July 2015.
  17. Shannon, Paul. "Blue Diesel Days". Ian Allan Publishing. Archived from the original on 2008-12-01. Retrieved 2008-11-16.
  18. Her Majesty's Government (2002). "The Traffic Signs Regulations and General Directions 2002 (SI 2002:3113)". Retrieved 2009-03-27.