British Railways in the 20th Century

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The Era of the Big Four

During World War I, the British railway network was placed under the command of the Railway Operation Division of the British War Office.

The Mallard Locomotive

The Mallard Locomotive

This demonstrated the advantages of running the railways with fewer companies. Following the end of the war, it was agreed that in order for the British railway network to develop more efficiently, fewer railway companies were needed.

Nationalisation was considered and rejected by both the line owners and the government. A compromise was reached with the signing of the Railway Act 1921, which reorganized all of Britain’s railway lines into four companies.(HM Government (1921). “Railways Act 1921“. The Railways Archive. (originally published by HMSO).

  • London, Midlands and Scottish Railway
  • Great Western Railway
  • London and North Eastern Railway
  • Southern Railway

This grouping was first proposed in the 1850s and lasted from January 1, 1923 until December 31, 1947. Some railways would continue to operate outside of these umbrella groups and would be known as joint railways. Meanwhile, the major lines were referred to as the Big Four.(R. Tourret (November 2003). GWR Engineering Work, 1928-1938. Tourret Publishing,)

Britain in The Golden Age of Passenger Trains

Although they did not compete for routes, there was stiff competition among Britain’s four major railway lines to attract passengers. Competition between the London, Midlands and Scottish Railway and the London and North Eastern Railway was particularly fierce.

LMS’s Mallard and LNER’s Flying Scotsman service often raced each other to Scotland. As a result, the Mallard set a number of speed records in the 1930s and was advertised as the fastest steam locomotive in the world.(Nock, O.S. (1982). A History of the LMS. Vol. 2: The Record Breaking ‘Thirties, 1931-1939. George Allen & Unwin.)

The Big Four Compete with the Automobile

In the 1920s, the automobile came of age. This was stimulated by the fact that the British government had large numbers of surplus trucks and vans left over from World War I. Additionally local authorities began building more roads to accommodate the increase in traffic.

As a result the railways’ profit margins began to suffer, particularly as a result of the proliferation of road-based trucking companies. The trucking companies were able to offer significantly lower prices than the railways, while offering door-to-door delivery. In the meantime, the railways were bound by their original charters from the 1840s and 50s to act as common carriers. This meant that they were unable to refuse unprofitable cargoes and were not able to lower their transportation costs.(O.S. Nock (1967). History of the Great Western Railway Volume Three 1923-48.)

Toward Nationalisation

A series of Royal Commissions in the 1930s were not able to produce an adequate solution to the problem, although Neville Chamberlain, then the Chancellor of the Exchequer, increased the vehicle excise duty in Britain. The trucking companies were now paying all of the Annual Road Fund. The situation had been reversed, but before the railways could capitalize on the gains that they had made, World War II broke out. The railways were not released from their common carrier obligations until 1957.

During World War II, the Big Four joined together, effectively operating as one company. The British railway network saw more use between 1939 and 1945 than at any other point in its history.

The system also suffered heavy damage from German air raids, particularly around London and Coventry. Additionally, the system fell into disrepair because only the most vital maintenance work was done during the war.

Following the end of the war, it was decided that the costs of repairing the network could not be borne by the private sector and the decision was made to nationalise the British railway network in 1947. (O.S. Nock (1967). History of the Great Western Railway Volume Three 1923-48. Ian Allen) 

During World War I, the British railway network was placed under the command of the Railway Operation Division of the British War Office.

This demonstrated the advantages of running the railways with fewer companies. Following the end of the war, it was agreed that in order for the British railway network to develop more efficiently, fewer railway companies were needed.

Nationalisation was considered and rejected by both the line owners and the government. A compromise was reached with the signing of the Railway Act 1921, which reorganized all of Britain’s railway lines into four companies.(HM Government (1921). “Railways Act 1921“. The Railways Archive. (originally published by HMSO).

  • London, Midlands and Scottish Railway
  • Great Western Railway
  • London and North Eastern Railway
  • Southern Railway

This grouping was first proposed in the 1850s and lasted from January 1, 1923 until December 31, 1947. Some railways would continue to operate outside of these umbrella groups and would be known as joint railways. Meanwhile, the major lines were referred to as the Big Four.(R. Tourret (November 2003). GWR Engineering Work, 1928-1938. Tourret Publishing,)

Britain in The Golden Age of Passenger Trains

Although they did not compete for routes, there was stiff competition among Britain’s four major railway lines to attract passengers. Competition between the London, Midlands and Scottish Railway and the London and North Eastern Railway was particularly fierce.

LMS’s Mallard and LNER’s Flying Scotsman service often raced each other to Scotland. As a result, the Mallard set a number of speed records in the 1930s and was advertised as the fastest steam locomotive in the world.(Nock, O.S. (1982). A History of the LMS. Vol. 2: The Record Breaking ‘Thirties, 1931-1939. George Allen & Unwin.)

The Big Four Compete with the Automobile

In the 1920s, the automobile came of age. This was stimulated by the fact that the British government had large numbers of surplus trucks and vans left over from World War I. Additionally local authorities began building more roads to accommodate the increase in traffic.

As a result the railways’ profit margins began to suffer, particularly as a result of the proliferation of road-based trucking companies. The trucking companies were able to offer significantly lower prices than the railways, while offering door-to-door delivery. In the meantime, the railways were bound by their original charters from the 1840s and 50s to act as common carriers. This meant that they were unable to refuse unprofitable cargoes and were not able to lower their transportation costs.(O.S. Nock (1967). History of the Great Western Railway Volume Three 1923-48.)

Toward Nationalisation

A series of Royal Commissions in the 1930s were not able to produce an adequate solution to the problem, although Neville Chamberlain, then the Chancellor of the Exchequer, increased the vehicle excise duty in Britain. The trucking companies were now paying all of the Annual Road Fund. The situation had been reversed, but before the railways could capitalize on the gains that they had made, World War II broke out. The railways were not released from their common carrier obligations until 1957.

During World War II, the Big Four joined together, effectively operating as one company. The British railway network saw more use between 1939 and 1945 than at any other point in its history.

The system also suffered heavy damage from German air raids, particularly around London and Coventry. Additionally, the system fell into disrepair because only the most vital maintenance work was done during the war.

Following the end of the war, it was decided that the costs of repairing the network could not be borne by the private sector and the decision was made to nationalise the British railway network in 1947. (O.S. Nock (1967). History of the Great Western Railway Volume Three 1923-48. Ian Allen)

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