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A Brief History of British Rail

01 Aug


Britain’s railway system is the oldest in the world, with the first locomotive-hauled public railway opening in 1825. Since then, British railway has grown and changed dramatically, beginning with a steam locomotive travelling along a 40km route, and progressing to 28 different rail operators covering a total distance of 15,760 km between 2552 stations in the present day. Power over the railways has changed hands many times over the years, being privately owned initially, then government run during World War I and finally back to being privately owned in the 1990s. 

The history of the British railway is vast and impressive. Advances in understanding and technology across the globe have resulted in Britain having the fifth most used rail network in the world. This blog will take us through some of the key developments in rail over the last 200 years. 

Where it all started

The first steam locomotive to carry passengers travelled along the Stockton and Darlington line in September 1825. Designed by George Stephenson, the locomotive hit a top speed of 15mph but unfortunately wasn’t the success Stephenson had hoped for, with horses being drawn in to assist transporting the passengers while the locomotive could only carry the freight.

This momentous landmark in history was closely followed by the opening of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway in 1830, once again led by one of Stephenson’s steam locomotives - the rocket- which travelled at 30mph. This railway was the first inter-city line in the world, and transported both passengers and haulage. As you can imagine, it caused great excitement among local people, so much so that entrepreneurs began furiously submitting applications for more railway schemes to Parliament. By 1936, the Liverpool line was extended by a further 1.1 miles to reach Liverpool Lime Street station. 

The 1840s was a definitive decade of evolution for British rail. Over the 10-year period, 4,600 miles of track were laid across the country, connecting isolated seaside towns to main cities, encouraging seaside holidays and also allowing quicker transportation of farmers’ goods and fish. 

Changing hands

During World War I, the entire rail network was brought under government control and many lines became amalgamated. By 1923, there were 4 railway companies, nicknamed ‘The Big Four’; the Great Western Railway; the London and North Eastern Railway; the London, Midland and Scottish Railway and the Southern Railway companies. 

In the 1930’s rail companies suffered from a lack of investment and competition from road travel, meaning growth during this period was slow. During World War II, leaders from the big four collaborated effectively, operating as one single rail company, but by 1948 the entire rail system became nationalised. The 1950s saw the introduction of diesel and electric rolling stock, replacing traditional steam trains. Passenger numbers steadily decreased until the 1970s. However,  the introduction of the high-speed Intercity fleet once again gave a boost to British Rail.

By 1997 the system had become privatised for the second time. Following the decision to privatise the network, passenger numbers have continued to grow significantly, with over 1.69 billion passengers traveling on British rail in 2015-16. 

The London Underground 

It wasn’t just British rail that was developed in the 1800s, the first parts of the London Underground were also established during this time. The first component of the London Underground, the Thames Tunnel, opened in 1843. The construction was led by Sir Marc Brunel, assisted by his son Isambard Kingdom Brunel and a team of miners. The tunnel went between Rotherhithe and Wapping under the River Thames, with horizontal tunnel shafts travelling from either end of the tunnel in treacherous conditions. Many workmen were killed and injured in the process as a result of serious flooding. 

In 1865 the East London Railway Company purchased the Thames Tunnel for £200,000, and in 1869 the first train passed through the tunnel. It went on to become part of the London Underground system, and remains in use today, incorporated into the London Overground. 

The first train to run on the London Underground was between Paddington and Farringdon Street in 1863. The Metropolitan Railway was granted permission to build this 6km track at the cost of £1 million. The train which made the first journey was a steam locomotive hauling wooden carriages. On its opening day, the train carried 38,000 passengers and over the course of the year this number reached 9.5million. 

Some other key milestones in the development of the London Underground include:

  • 1884: Completion of the Circle line

  • 1890: The first deep-level electric railway opens

  • 1900: Central line opens, travelling from Shepherd’s Bush to Bank

  • 1905: Electrification of the District and Circle lines

  • 1906 – 1907: This period saw the addition of numerous lines including parts of the Bakerloo, Piccadilly and Northern.

  • 1933: The Underground Group and the Metropolitan Railway become part of the London Passenger Transport Board.

  • 1948: The London Passenger Transport Board is nationalised to become the London Transport Executive

  • 1969: Victoria line opens

  • 1971: The last steam locomotive runs

  • 1979: Jubilee line is added to the network

  • 2003: The Oyster card is introduced 

  • 2007: passenger number hits 1 billion over the year for the first time

The history of British Rail has been remarkable, beginning with the ingenuity of a few engineers in the early 1800s, and morphing into one of the most complex and advanced systems in the world. Today, the rail network is central to British transportation, and is a key method in the daily commutes of many. It continues to develop thanks to the innovative work of engineers across the world, and the future of rail looks incredibly exciting. 

Are you a rail professional looking to make your mark on the future of British rail? Take a look at all the rail opportunities we have available in the UK, or email the team to discuss your experience and ambitions. 

Tagged In: Technical
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