Rail transport in Great Britain

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For transport in Northern Ireland, see rail transport in Ireland
Class 180 Multiple Unit of First Great Western at speed near Yate, Bristol, England. Top speed is 200 km/h (125 mph)

The British railway system is the oldest in the world. It consists of almost 16,536 km (10,274 miles) of standard gauge track, of which 4,928 km (3,062 miles) is electrified.

Historical overview

Main article: History of rail transport in Great Britain

Great feats of engineering were performed in its creation. Examples from the Victorian era are the building of the Forth Bridge, 1890, or the replacement of 177 miles (285 km) of broad gauge rail with standard gauge in a single weekend from May 21, 1892. Such feats are not things of the past; recent and current examples are the building of the Channel tunnel for the link to the Continental railway systems, and the Channel Tunnel Rail Link from London to the tunnel.

The system was originally built as a patchwork of local rail links operated by small private railway 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 of 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 nationalization of the network (first proposed by William Gladstone as early the 1830s). Instead, from January 1 1923 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 companies. These were joint stock public companies and they continued to run the railway system until December 31 1947.

The growth in road transport during the 1920s and 1930s greatly reduced revenue for the rail companies. Rail companies accused the government of favouring road haulage through the subsidised construction of roads. The railways entered a slow decline owing to a lack of investment and changes in transport policy and lifestyles. There was no new construction after 1914 and a backlog of maintenance had built-up by 1939. The network was again taken under government control during the second World War. The maintenance backlog greatly increased during the war, and the private sector was unable to deal with this after the war ended. After 1945, for both practical and ideological reasons, the government decided to bring the rail service into the public sector.

From the first moment of 1948, the "big four" were nationalised to form British Railways (latterly "British Rail") under the control of the British Transport Commission. Although BR was a single entity, it was divided into five regional authorities in accordance with the existing areas of operation. Though there were no initial changes to the service, usage increased and the network became profitable. Regeneration of track and stations was completed by 1954. In the same year, changes to the British Transport Commission, including the privatisation of road haulage, ended the coordination of transport in the UK. Rail revenue fell and in 1955 the network again ceased to be profitable. The mid-1950s saw the rapid introduction of diesel and electric rolling stock, however the expected transfer back from road to rail did not occur and losses began to mount.

The desire for profitability led to a major reduction in the network during the mid-1960s after the Stedeford Committee, chaired by Dr Richard Beeching, reviewed the railway network (also known as the "Beeching axe"). Many branch lines, particularly in rural areas, were closed because they were deemed inefficient. The closure of stations serving rural communities removed much feeder traffic from the main line passenger services. The closure of many freight depots that had been used by larger industries such as coal and iron led to almost all freight transferring to road haulage. This neutralised any savings made by the closures, and the network began to decline again. The closures were extremely unpopular with the general public at that time, and remain so today.

Although passenger services experienced a brief renaissance with the introduction of high-speed inter-city trains in the 1970s, the decline of the rail network continued. Passenger levels have fluctuated since this time, increasing during periods of economic growth and falling during recessions. The 1980s saw severe cuts in government funding and above-inflation increases in fares. The service became more cost-effective but increasingly unreliable. In the early 1990s the five geographical Regions were replaced by a Sector organisation, where passenger services were organised into Inter City, Network SouthEast, Other Provincial Services sectors, etc. This new organisation showed promise of being a more efficient organisation of the railways, but within a couple of years of its implementation the structure was fragmented by the privatisation process.

British Rail was privatised in 1996. The track and infrastructure was devolved to a company called Railtrack, whilst ticketing and passenger and freight operations were franchised to individual private sector operators (originally 25 passenger and 4 freight operators). The government claimed that privatisation would see an improvement in passenger services: this outcome has not yet been realised, although passenger levels initially increased to the level they had been at in the late-1980s. A series of major rail accidents after privatisation — at Ladbroke Grove, Hatfield, Potters Bar, and Selby — caused widespread loss of confidence in the safety of rail travel.

After the Hatfield crash, speed limits were drastically reduced throughout Britain and train travel was seriously disrupted for months. Railtrack came close to bankruptcy due to the enormous cost of additional safety measures and was effectively re-nationalised, when ownership of the railway system was transferred to the newly-created "not for profit" company limited by guarantee, Network Rail on October 3, 2002. Most of the private rail companies are heavily subsidised but much of the investment has not gone into regeneration or modernisation. However, the government has resisted public pressure to return the network to the public sector.

Geography & infrastructure

Great Britain is an island roughly triangular with an acute apex. The capital, London, is in the south-east. Main railway lines radiate from London in many directions; the major lines are discussed elsewhere (see linkbox, below).

At the end of September 2003 the first part of the Channel Tunnel Rail Link, a high speed link to the Channel Tunnel and on to France and Belgium, was completed, significantly adding to the rail infrastructure of the country. The rest of the link, from north Kent to St Pancras railway station in London, is planned to open in 2007. A major programme of remedial work on the West Coast Main Line is ongoing.

Passenger services

Passenger train services in the UK are, in the main, structured on the basis of regional franchises awarded by the Strategic Rail Authority (SRA) to Train Operating Companies. There were 26 such regional franchises up to April 2004, but the number of different operating companies is smaller as some firms including FirstGroup, National Express and Stagecoach have more than one franchise. In addition a number of local or specialised rail services are allocated by local government, or through other arrangements not involving the SRA. Examples include the Heathrow Express.

In the 2002–3 operating year SRA franchised services provided 976 million journeys totalling 39.7 billion passenger kilometres of travel, which was an increase over 1986–7 of 32% in journeys (from 738 million) and 29% in passenger kilometres (from 30.8 billion). On the other hand, taking a longer term view the number of journeys in 2002–3 was lower than for the 1950–60 period; the passenger kilometres figure, after being a flat from 1965–1995, surpassed the 1947 figure for the first time in 1998, and continues to rise steeply.

The key index used to assess passenger train performance is the Public Performance Measure which combines figures for punctuality and reliability. Performance against this metric has been expecially poor since mid-2000. From a base of 90% of trains arriving on time in 1998, the measure dipped to 75% in mid 2001, and by the end of the 2002–3 period, had only recovered to 80%.

The real increase in rail fares after accounting for inflation over the 1995–2004 period was 4.7%.

Average rolling stock age — thought to be an indicator of passenger comfort — fell slightly from the third quarter of 2001–2 to the third quarter of 2003–4, from 20.7 years old, to 19.3 years old.

See List of UK Train Operating Companies

Freight services

There are four main freight operating companies, the largest of which is English, Welsh and Scottish Railway (EWS). There are also several smaller independent operators including Mendip Rail. Types of freight carried include intermodal — in essence containerised freight — and coal, metals, oil, and construction material. Freight services have been in steady decline since the 1950s, although the Department for Transport's Transport Ten Year Plan calls for an 80% increase in rail freight measured from a 2000–1 base.

Statistics on freight are specified in terms of the weight of freight lifted, and the net tonne kilometre. being freight weight multiplied by distance carried. 87 million tonnes of freight was lifted in the 2002–3 period, against 138 million tonnes in 1986–7, a decrease of 37%. 18.7 billion net rail kilometres of freight movement were recorded in 2002–3, against 16.6 billion in 1986–7, an increase of 13%.

A symbolic loss to the UK rail freight industry was the custom of the Royal Mail, which from 2004 is discontinuing use of its 49-train fleet, and switching to road haulage after a near 170 year preference for trains. Red liveried mail trains have long been part of the tradition of the UK railways, not least because of the film Night Mail, for which W. H. Auden wrote the poem of the same name.


Leasing services

File:Class 47 railway locomotive - Fragonset Black livery - Victoria Water railway station - 280404.jpg
Class 47 railway locomotive, hired from Fragonset Railways, Virginia Water railway station, April 2004

A proportion of the rolling stock of British Rail was sold off to companies that lease or hire stock to passenger and freight operators, as well as to National Rail and railway maintenance companies. Leasing is relatively commonplace in public transportation, since it enables operating companies to avoid the complication associated with raising sufficient capital to purchase assets; instead, assets are leased and paid for from ongoing revenue.

There are three major leasing companies, and a number of smaller operations:

Leasing Companies

Spot-Hire Companies

Template:British Rail Spot Hire Companies

Statutory framework

UK railways are run at arm's length from the government, through two government organisations, both of which have statutory powers under various Acts of Parliament (such as the Railways Act 1993, the Competition Act 1998 and the Transport Act 2000), and both of which receive Directions and Guidance from the Secretaries of State for Transport.

The two organisations share the same purpose, but have different jurisdictions; the two entered into a concordat in February 2002 to clarify demarcation and communications issues.

The Strategic Rail Authority is the statutory strategic planning and coordinating body for the rail industry, and the guardian of passenger and freight interests. It determines strategy for passenger and freight train services, let and manages franchises to operators, and enforces consumer protection franchise licence conditions. Following the 2004 Rail Review, the SRA is to be wound up and its responsibilities transferred to the Government and Network Rail.

The Office of Rail Regulation has as its principal functions to regulate Network Rail's stewardship of the national rail network infrastructure, and to hold train operating companies accountable to the terms of their operating licence. It replaced the Office of Rail Regulation in 2004.

In addition, safety in the railway industry is regulated and enforced by the Health and Safety Executive, and the National Audit Office provides audit reports on Network Rail to the House of Commons.

See also: Structure of the rail industry in the United Kingdom.

Local metro systems

A number of towns and cities have metro systems: Template:Britishmetros

UK railway stations

Most UK railway stations date from the Victorian era and are located on the edge of town centres. Major stations are generally in large cities, with a particular concentration in London, but some important railway junction stations lie in smaller cities, for example Crewe station and Carlisle station.

Template:UK Major Railway Stations Template:UKrailwaystations

Railway Industry

Statutory authorities

Network rail & signalling operations

Other national entities

Regional entities

See Passenger Transport Executive

Train franchises (and operating company)

(excluding metro companies such as London Underground and Tyne & Wear Metro)

Freight railway companies

Open access operators and other non-franchised passenger operators

Early railway companies (1820s–1840s)

Grouping (1923–1947)

Under the Railways Act 1921 the majority of the railway companies in Great Britain (and few in Northern Ireland) were grouped into four main companies, often termed the Big Four: the grouping took effect from 1 January 1923. The Big Four were:

For a comprehensive list see List of railway companies involved in the 1923 grouping

Heritage and private railways

There are a number of private and heritage railways in Britain.

A list of British heritage and private railways is available.

See also


External links

fr:Système ferroviaire britannique