of railways in Great Britain

The Railway Network

The idea of the railway traces it origins to Roman times, possibly earlier, when stone paved roads were set with strips of long, smooth stones to accommodate chariot wheels.

16th Century mine wagons
Engraving from the Cosmographie Universelle of Sebastien Munster (1552)
showing a hand-propelled mine wagon running on rails

By the 16th Century, even before the industrial revolution was fully under way, mining engineers used tramroads fitted with wooden rails, to ease the movement of loaded mine wagons (known as trams or drams). Early examples would have had no guidance system and the drams would have been steered by hand to keep them on the rails. Later examples had pegs fixed to the wagons running in grooves formed by parallel boards for guidance.

Around 1603 a tramroad was built to carry coal from mines near Strelley to Wollaton, near Nottingham. Innovatively, the rails were fitted with side boards so that they would guide normal wagon wheels. This is widely regarded as the first true railway in the world and is the earliest for which documentary evidence exists, although there are some indications that a similar line in Shropshire may have been earlier.

By the mid-17th Century tramroads were fairly common and continued to be so through the 18th century, so that by the start of the 19th Century they often ran for considerable distances, taking mineral products (notably coal) from their source to the point of consumption, or in some instances to a canal wharf for onward carriage by boat. At that time, the wagons were hauled by horses but, in 1804, Richard Trevithick demonstrated the first practical steam locomotive engine. By 1812, steam haulage was in regular commercial service on the Middleton Railway, near Leeds.

Middleton Railway
Detail from an aquatint The Collier by George Walker
showing Blenkinsop’s locomotive Salamanca at work on the Middleton Railway
(Image licensed under Creative Commons)

The first public railway as we know it today carrying passengers and freight was the Stockton & Darlington Railway in 1825. By 1839, when the Midland Counties Railway became the first railway to reach my home town of Derby, a considerable mileage of lines was already established around the country.

Railway development in Great Britain was piecemeal, each line being promoted by a private company. Serveral large, long distance operators did exist, and these did take over some of the smaller branch lines, but by the early 20th Century the country was still covered by a patchwork of small railway companies.

After the First World War, economic pressures forced many small railways into decline. The Government felt obliged to take action, but the political mood at that time was not in favour of state ownership of the railways, even though that expedient had been tried with some success in other countries. Instead, in 1923 almost all the railways in the country were grouped into four new companies (the “Big Four”):

The Second World War took another great toll on the railways and on the state of the national economy in general, with the result that in 1948 the railways were nationalized as British Railways.

In the mid-1950s plans were put in hand for extensive modernization of the railways, but by the early 1960s it was clear that many rural railways had outlived their usefulness and would have to go. The result was the infamous Beeching Report of 1963 which led to widespread closures over the next few years. Undoubtedly the Report had its flaws (one could cite the apparent absurdity of closing one of the most modern lines in the country, from Manchester to Sheffield via Woodhead, or the withdrawal of passenger services from Mansfield to leave it the largest town in the UK, probably in Europe, without a passenger train service, just to name two examples) but it did have the desired effect of pruning out much of the “dead wood” from the network. Contrast the situation in France, where rural branch lines have died out by a slow, painful and expensive process of attrition, with much the same end result.

Meanwhile, British Railways was relaunched with a new image as British Rail, and modernization continued. Steam was phased out by the end of the 1960s in favour of diesel and electric traction.

Trains passing
East Midlands Trains HST and later Class 222 Meridian DMU
passing near South Wingfield, Derbyshire in 2009
(Image by Phil Sangwell from Wikimedia Commons)

By the 1970s, it was clear that existing outdated passenger stock was quite inadequate for an increasingly discerning travel market. This led to two projects: the Advanced Passenger Train (APT) and the High Speed Train (HST). APT is now mainly remembered for the difficulties which dogged its development, but there is little doubt that it could have been made to work; indeed, some of the technology ultimately found its way into the Italian Pendolino, a variant of which is re-equiping parts of the UK network in the 21st Century. However, APT was too sophisticated and expensive a solution for its time. HST, with its well proven, largely off-the-shelf technology, was the preferred option. It went on to become one of the most successful and popular trains of all time, and the 35 year old sets still clock up millions of revenue miles today.

The 1980s were bad for railways in the UK. Huge downturns in bulk freight traffic, the economic climate of the country and, above all, a political will that did not seem to include much of a future for the railways, led to more radical action being necessary; and by the 1990s steps were put in place to privatize the railways once more. Privatization is part of EU policy, but Britain has chosen to go about it in a rather more complex way than most other countries. The operation had many critics and was not without considerable difficulties, but benefits to the end user in terms of improved services, improved reliability of service and better trains are now being seen.

1994 saw the official opening of the Channel Tunnel, making the railways of Britain truly part of the European network for the first time. Now, in the 21st Century, railways are back in favour as a mode of transport, largely on account of their “green” credentials. Over the coming decades, many existing lines are to be enhanced or improved to allow higher speeds, greater capacity, and with electrification better efficiency. Major urban works are in hand with new lines such as Crossrail in London. And High Speed Rail has at last begun to develop in this country; High Speed 1 connecting the Channel Tunnel to central London opened in 2007, and plans for High Speed 2 to the Midlands and the North are well in hand. There is good cause to be optimistic for the future of railways.

Railway Industry

As a pioneer in the introduction of railways, Britain became a world leader in railway industry. Even today, Britain’s railway products have a strong and respected place in the world market.

Locomotives and Rolling Stock

In the early days, locomotives and stock were supplied by private companies such as that founded by Robert Stephenson. However, most of the major railway companies in Great Britain soon had their own locomotive, carriage and wagon works. The private companies survived by supplying to industrial lines and overseas railway companies. This situation prevailed into the 1950s, British Railways having inherited an extensive works capacity from the “Big Four” companies.

The 1955 Modernization Plan called for a huge program of diesel and locomotive manufacture, which was not only beyond the capacity of the British Railways works but also to an extent outside the sphere of expertise of works conceived in the steam age. The works were modified to cope with the new traction, but this could not happen fast enough for the modernization plan and many locomotives were ordered from private manufacturers: Brush, Beyer Peacock, Birmingham RCW, English Electric, Metropolitan Vickers and North British, to name a few. Diesel and electric multiple units came from the British Railways works, and from private manufacturers such as Birmingham RCW, Gloucester Carriage & Wagon and Metropolitan Cammell.

As part of the preparations for privatization, the British Rail works were formed into a new company, British Rail Engineering Limited, later simply Brel Limited. Industry generally was hard hit during the run up to privatization, because there was little or no investment in equipment. Many firms closed down or left the industry altogther, Brel itself was reduced from a dozen or so sites around the country to just a handful.

In the 1990s, things started looking up with inward investment from multinational companies. Brel became part of ABB, a consortium of Swedish ASEA and Swiss Brown Boveri. The famous Metropolitan Cammell works at Washwood Heath near Birmingham were acquired by Alstom, while the York works of Brel were sold to the American freight vehicle manufacturer, Thrall Car, later to become part of Trinity Industries.

Unfortunately, in the early 21st Century a number of events combined to conspire against a proposed rapid development of the UK network, not least the collapse of the privatized infrastructure owner Railtrack. With a shrinking UK market, the multinationals started to pull out, leaving Bombardier Transportation, who had purchased the ailing ABB, as the only major British rolling stock supplier. It has manufacturing facilities in Derby and Wakefield, and maintenance facilities at strategic locations throughout the country.


Signalling Control Centre
Interior of a modern signalling control centre
(Image licensed under Creative Commons)

Famous names in early railway signalling such as Saxby & Farmer and Mackenzie & Holland are no longer with us, nevertheless Britain has a vigorous, succesful and innovative signalling industry with a continuous history dating back to the 19th Century.

Saxby & Farmer became part of the Westinghouse Brake & Signal Company. More recently, the signalling arm of that company became part of Invensys Rail. In late 2012, the UK based company was sold to the German group Siemens.

In the 1920s the American company General Railway Signal set up a UK subsidiary, Metropolitan Vickers-GRS. This later became AEI-GRS and is now part of Alstom Signalling.

Bombardier Transportation is a relative newcomer to the British scene, drawing largely on the experience of its continental subsidiaries but now with an established presence in this country.


British Rail Research was always recognized as a world leader in cutting edge railway technology. Privatization has led to a proliferation of small consultancy firms retaining and building upon much of the former expertise. Many of these are now based in Derby, the former home of the Railway Technical Centre, headquarters of British Rail Research.

Back to Top
Railways Home
Railways in Britain
Glyn Williams’ Home

© 2000-2016 Glyn Williams