The railway system of Great Britain, the principal territory of the United Kingdom started with the building of local isolated wooden wagonways starting in 1560s. The system was later built as a patchwork of local rail links operated by small private railway companies in late 18th century. These isolated links developed during the railway boom of the 1840s into a national network, although still run by dozens of competing companies. Over the course of the 19th and early 20th centuries, these amalgamated or were bought by competitors until only a handful of larger companies remained (see railway mania). The entire network was brought under government control during the First World War and a number of advantages of amalgamation and planning were revealed. However, the government resisted calls for the nationalisation of the network. In 1923, almost all the remaining companies were grouped into the “big four”, the Great Western Railway, the London and North Eastern Railway, the London, Midland and Scottish Railway and the Southern Railway. The “Big Four” were joint-stock public companies and they continued to run the railway system until 31 December 1947.
From the start of 1948, the “big four” were nationalised to form British Railways. Though there were few initial changes to the service, usage increased and the network became profitable. Declining passenger numbers and financial losses in the late 1950s and early 1960s prompted the closure of many branch and main lines, and small stations, under the Beeching Axe. Passenger services experienced a renaissance with the introduction of high-speed inter-city trains in the 1970s. The 1980s saw severe cuts in rail subsidies and above-inflation increases in fares and the service became more cost-effective. Railway operations were privatised during 1994-1997. Ownership of the track and infrastructure passed to Railtrack, whilst passenger operations were franchised to individual private sector operators (originally there were 25 franchises) and the freight services sold outright. Since privatisation, passenger levels have since increased to their highest ever level, but whether this is due to privatisation is disputed. The Hatfield accident set in motion the series of events that resulted in the ultimate collapse of Railtrack and its replacement with Network Rail, a state-owned, not-for-dividend company
1995 onwards: Post-privatisation
Since privatisation, numbers of passengers have grown rapidly; by 2010 the railways were carrying more passengers than at any time since the 1920s. and by 2014 passenger numbers had expanded to their highest level ever, more than doubling in the 20 years since privatisation. Train fares cost more than under British Rail.
The railways have become significantly safer since privatisation and are now the safest in Europe. However, the public image of rail travel was damaged by some prominent accidents shortly after privatisation. These included the Southall rail crash (where a train with faulty automatic train protection equipment went through a red light), the Ladbroke Grove rail crash (also caused by a train going through a red light) and the Hatfield accident (caused by a rail fragmenting due to the development of microscopic cracks).
Following the Hatfield accident, the rail infrastructure company Railtrack imposed over 1,200 emergency speed restrictions across its network and instigated an extremely costly nationwide track replacement programme. The consequential severe operational disruption to the national network and the company’s spiralling costs set in motion the series of events which resulted in the ultimate collapse of the company and its replacement with Network Rail, a state-owned, not-for-dividend company.
Since April 2016, the British railway network has been severely disrupted on many occasions by wide-reaching rail strikes, affecting rail franchises across the country. The industrial action began on Southern services as a dispute over the planned introduction of driver-only operation, and has since expanded to cover many different issues affecting the rail industry; as of February 2018, the majority of the industrial action remains unresolved, with further strikes planned. The scale, impact and bitterness of the nationwide rail strikes have been compared to the 1984–85 miners’ strike by the media.
by simon schofield