Britain's Railway History
This is of particular significance since Britain in many ways can justifiably claim to have ‘given railways to the world’.
What was to become the world’s standard gauge – 4ft 81⁄2in (1435 mm) – was first established at Willington Colliery near Newcastle-upon-Tyne in 1764.
It was also in Britain that the key technological advances were made – in particular iron (and, later, steel) rails, and the steam locomotive – that allowed the locomotive to be developed as a complete transportation system. The understanding of the interface between the metal rail and wheel has continued to be refined in Britain, leading to significant further international breakthroughs. In addition, innumerable industrial and social changes resulted from the development of the railway – such as the standardisation of time within a state.
Railway companies established hotels, shipping lines, road services and, later, even air and hovercraft services.
Much of this story may be seen interpreted at the
National Railway Museum at York – winner of the
2001 European Museum of the Year (the first
national railway museum to be so honoured), which
houses the largest railway collection of any museum
in the world.
Certainly Britain possesses one of the world’s richest collections of railway records – probably the finest collection of records of any major industry in the world.
Britain’s railways were also unusual, at least in Europe, insofar as the government played little part in their development as a network. By 1914, more than 20,000 route miles existed, built up piece by piece on the initiative of more than 1,000 separateentrepreneurial companies (albeit many were owned and/or operated by larger companies – and the maximum that existed at any one given time was 476, in 1867). Vigorous competition had led to cities, towns, and even many villages boasting railway stations and lines belonging to more than one company. Inevitably, there were many mergers – and some company failures.
Inter-company rivalries gave passengers choice and tended to promote better services on individual routes; as exemplified above, however, they could also lead to the quite unjustified over-provision of facilities.
From the early years of this century, railway companies were already seeing the advantages of working together and began to enter into closer working arrangements. During the First World War there was a high degree of government control. This period exhausted the railways, and after the war was over it was clear that a new approach was needed. In 1923, 150 or so of the main railway companies were grouped into the ‘Big Four’: the Great Western, the London Midland & Scottish, the London & North Eastern, and the Southern. The LMS became the Empire’s largest joint stock company.
Then in 1948, following the further exhaustion of the Second World War, the Big Four were finally nationalised and combined into one organisation: British Railways, part of a new British Transport Commission.
In 1962, a self-standing British Railways Board was formed. Thus from the earliest times, Britain has frequently been at the leading edge of railway organisational, or business organisational, change.