Part 1: A Brief History of British Rail
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.
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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.
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.
Part 2: A brief history of British Rail – The London Underground