British Railways

British Railways

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  • George Bidder
  • John Blenkinsop
  • Isambard K. Brunel
  • Edward Bury
  • Daniel Gooch
  • Timothy Hackworth
  • William Hedley
  • William Jessop
  • Joseph Locke
  • Matthew Murray
  • John Rastrick
  • George Rennie
  • John Rennie
  • George Stephenson
  • Robert Stephenson
  • Richard Trevithick
  • Charles Vignoles
  • Nicholas Wood
  • William Arrol
  • Henry Booth
  • George Bradshaw
  • Thomas Brassey
  • Edmund Denison
  • Joseph Gurney
  • William Arrol
  • Henry Booth
  • George Bradshaw
  • Thomas Brassey
  • Edmund Denison
  • Joseph Gurney
  • George Hudson
  • William Hulton
  • William James
  • Samuel Laing
  • Edward Pease
  • Joseph Sandars
  • George Hudson
  • William Hulton
  • William James
  • Samuel Laing
  • Edward Pease
  • Joseph Sandars
  • Penydarren
  • Wylam Dilly
  • Novelty
  • Sans Pareil
  • Northumbrian
  • Victoria
  • Iron Duke
  • Puffing Billy
  • The Blutcher
  • Locomotion
  • The Rocket
  • Lancashire Witch
  • Jenny Lind
  • Great Western
  • Surrey Iron Railway
  • Stockton & Darlington
  • Liverpool & Manchester
  • Bolton & Leigh
  • Grand Junction Railway
  • Caledonian Railway
  • Midland Railway
  • Great Western Railway
  • Manchester & Leeds
  • Leeds & Selby
  • York & North Midland Railway
  • Edinburgh & Glasgow
  • North Eastern Railway
  • Swansea & Mumbles Railway
  • Canterbury & Whitstable
  • London & Birmingham
  • London & Greenwich
  • Birmingham & Derby
  • Lancashire & Yorkshire
  • Taff Vale Railway
  • London & Brighton
  • Midland Counties Railway
  • London & Croydon
  • Bristol & Exeter
  • Great Northern Railway
  • London & North Western Railway
  • L& M Railway Company
  • Olive Mount
  • Gradient Profile
  • Moorish Arch
  • Second Class Travel
  • Rainhill Trials
  • Chat Moss
  • Sankey Viaduct
  • First Class Travel
  • Third Class Travel
  • John Cooke Bourne
  • Thomas Bury
  • J. W. Carmichael
  • George Cruikshank
  • William Powell Frith
  • David Octavius Hill
  • John Leech
  • Abraham Solomon
  • J. M. Turner
  • George Walker
  • Wooden Wagonways
  • Rack Railways
  • Kilsby Tunnel
  • Railway Gauges
  • Railway Mail
  • Steam Circus
  • Passenger Carriages
  • Bilsworth Cutting
  • Box Tunnel
  • 1844 Railway Act
  • Thomas Carlyle
  • Joseph Clynes
  • Thomas Creevey
  • Charles Dickens
  • William Huskisson
  • Fanny Kemble
  • Angus Reach
  • Duke of Wellington
  • Birmingham Station
  • Brighton Station
  • Euston Station
  • Liverpool Station
  • London Bridge Station
  • Newcastle Station
  • St Pancras Station
  • York Station
  • Aberdeen
  • Bath
  • Belfast
  • Birmingham
  • Bradford
  • Brighton
  • Bristol
  • Cambridge
  • Cardiff
  • Crewe
  • Chichester
  • Derby
  • Dublin
  • Dundee
  • Durham
  • Edinburgh
  • Exeter
  • Glasgow
  • Gloucester
  • Halifax
  • Hull (Kingston)
  • Leeds
  • Leicester
  • Liverpool
  • London
  • Manchester
  • Merthyr Tydfil
  • Middlesbrough
  • Newcastle
  • Northampton
  • Norwich
  • Nottingham
  • Oldham
  • Oxford
  • Plymouth
  • Portsmouth
  • Preston
  • Sheffield
  • Southampton
  • Stoke
  • Sunderland
  • Swansea
  • Swindon
  • York

The history of the British Railway network is about more than trains. It’s the story of the social fabric of the UK since the turn of the nineteenth century. The story begins in the North-East of England with the industrial revolution’s steam engineers. 1825 sees the opening of the legendary Stockton and Darlington line on Teesside. And it’s not long before the railways are the investor’s darling. The railway boom of the 1840s sees a huge national network started from scratch.

For over one hundred years, steam has its golden age in the UK. And with it, some of the world’s engineering triumphs. Much of the network’s core infrastructure is still with us, from the sweeping curves of Brunel’s Great Western line to the majesty of the Forth Rail Bridge. Britain’s great rail works, from Swindon to Springburn, take steam to the world. And the great railway companies – from GWR to LNER, LMS and beyond – create enduring brands whose memory lives on today.

Key dates in Britain's railway history

September 27 1825: George Stephenson opens the Stockton and Darlington Railroad, moving the 36 wagons of his steam-powered coal train, Locomotion, across nine miles of track in two hours.

May 3 1830: Robert Stephenson's Invicta powers the first regular passenger service in the world, linking Canterbury to the seaside town of Whitstable six miles away.

1844: The introduction of standard gauges for track, opening up the possibility of an interoperable national rail system. Track gauge set at four feet, eight and half inches. However, the Great Western Railway continues to use a much larger seven-foot gauge until 1982.

1863: The world's first underground city service connects Paddington to Farringdon in London. The service is steamy and overcrowded, and rail carriages are drafted in from Great Western in an attempt to keep up with passenger demand.

August 4 1883: Britain's first electric railway opens in Brighton.

1902: Automatic signalling makes its first appearance between Andover and Grateley.

May 22 1915: A train crash at Gretna Green kills 227 people, after a troop train collides with a passenger train.

1923: Four major railway companies are created from the 123 across the country. They are the Great Western Railway, London Midland and Scottish Railway, London and North Eastern Railway, and Southern Railway. By 2002 there will be 25 train operating companies.

February 28 1975: Tube train crashes in a dead-end tunnel in Moorgate underground station, killing 43 people.

November 18 1987: A fire at King's Cross in London kills 31 people. Smoking is banned on London underground trains and stations.

December 12 1988: Three rush-hour trains collide at Clapham Junction, leaving 35 dead.

1994: Railtrack is created by the Conservative government and takes over the running of tracks, signals and stations from British Rail. Rail service begins between London and Paris through the Channel Tunnel.

1996: Railtrack becomes a private firm, subsidised by the government, and floats on the stock market with shares worth 360p.

October 4 1999: A crash at Paddington kills 31 people and injures 400.

October 17 2000: Four people killed in a derailment at Hatfield. The crash leads to an urgent review and upgrade of the national railway infrastructure.

October 7 2001: The government pulls the plug on Railtrack, putting the company into the hands of administrators. Shares are suspended at 280p. The transport secretary, Stephen Byers, proposes that a private, not-for-profit company should take over from Railtrack, effectively renationalising the railways after seven years of privatisation.

January 14 2002: The strategic rail authority unveils its 10-year strategic plan for the railways, including a £4.5bn investment in new trains, improved station facilities, track repair and signalling work.

1812 The first effective locomotive-powered railway

The coal-carrying Middleton Railway, near Leeds, introduced rack-and-pinion locomotives to haul its trains in 1812. Formerly, coal had been transported from the Middleton pits by wagon way, using horse-drawn wagons.

The locomotive’s cylinders drove the pinions through right-angled cranks, so that the engine would start wherever it came to rest.

It is widely considered as being the first commercial railway to make effective use of steam locomotive power, although several accidents in the early years of operation later resulted in the reintroduction of horse haulage.

1830 Opening of the Liverpool & Manchester Railway

The opening of the railway signified the birth of modern railways.

It was the first inter-city railway which used locomotives and the first to offer a timetabled passenger service. Its success and popularity proved the viability of the railways and led to the huge expansion in the ‘railway network’.

The actual opening was, however, marred by the death of MP William Huskisson who was fatally injured when an engine ran over his legs. This is often cited as the first railway fatality.

1841 Thomas Cook runs his first rail excursion

Railways changed people’s leisure habits, allowing large numbers of people to travel cheaply to events and holiday destinations for the first time.

Cook was one of the most successful travel agents to exploit the new mode of transport - originally negotiating with the railway a package deal for a group of temperance campaigners to attend a rally - and there were many others whose businesses were not as long-lived. But excursion trains were far from travelling idylls they were overcrowded, noisy and slow, and early ones even used open wagons.

1842 Queen Victoria makes her first journey by rail (from Windsor to Paddington via Slough)

Persuaded by her husband Albert, an enthusiast for new technology, the Queen expressed her desire to journey to London to the GWR with two day’s notice.

The Morning Chronicle reported the Queen saying “Not quite so fast next time, Mr Conductor, if you please," but the journey convinced her of the merits of the railway and she travelled regularly by train throughout the rest of her reign.

The patronage of the royal family was a significant factor in increasing the popularity of the railways among the general public.

1846 Height of ‘Railway Mania’

Applications for powers to construct and operate a railway were granted to companies by the passing of Private Acts of Parliament. During the height of railway expansion, in 1846, there were 272 Acts of Parliament for proposed railway lines.

The increasing price of railway shares led to a speculative frenzy, but a subsequent economic downturn and overexpansion by the railways led to a deterioration in financial performance.

Thousands of people’s lives changed through their investment in railway shares, and entrepreneurs such as ‘railway king’ George Hudson made spectacular fortunes, and suffered equally spectacular falls.

1847 Greenwich Mean Time adopted by the Railway Clearing House.

The improvements in rapid communication and travel in the early 19th century made accurate and consistent timekeeping increasingly important. In 1847 the Railway Clearing House stated Greenwich Mean Time should be adopted as the time by all stations. This subsequently led to the synchronising of time across the country and a single national time zone being created.

Previously there had been local variations in time. These time inconsistencies made it difficult to create reliable national timetables. The railways encouraged a single standard time to be adopted to improve both efficiency and safety.

1863 Opening of the first underground railway

Although an underground railway linking the City of London with the mainline terminus stations had originally been proposed in the 1830s, construction of the first line, covering 3.75 miles, and 7 stations, between Farringdon Street and Bishop’s Road (Paddington) did not commence until 1860, using a ‘cut-and-cover’ method of tunnel building.

When this line opened to the public on 10 January 1863, with gas-lit wooden carriages hauled by steam locomotives, it was the world's first underground railway, and eventually became part of the network brought together as London Underground.

1864 The 'Müller Murder'

Thomas Briggs became the first person to be murdered on Britain’s railways in 1864.

The 69-year-old banker was beaten and robbed while he travelled in the first class carriage on the North London Railway. Franz Müller was eventually charged and hanged before a crowd outside Newgate prison.

It created a media sensation, as well as heightening fears about railway safety.

Partly in response to the case, four years later the Regulation of Railways Act led to communication cords linked to the guard's van being placed on non-stop trains travelling more than 20 miles.

1889 Armagh rail disaster

This horrific crash killed 80 people, including many children travelling on a Sunday school excursion train, when an inadequately braked portion of a divided train ran backwards and collided with another service.

Following the accident, the state took a greater role in the safety and regulation of the railways, introducing legal requirements for a number of safety measures. It led to continuous automatic braking ( a brake system that operates along the length of the train, even when the connecting hose is broken) becoming mandatory.

1892 Demise of broad gauge

In 1830s Britain there were two widths, or gauges, of railway track. The engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel favoured rails 7 feet apart (Broad Gauge) on the Great Western Railway, while George and Robert Stephenson used a gauge measuring 4 ft 8 ½ inches (Standard Gauge).

While Broad Gauge had advantages, more lines used the narrower, and cheaper, Standard Gauge system. Over time the advantages of a national standard gauge railway outweighed the benefits of wider tracks. Gradually all broad gauge lines were converted to standard gauge, ending with the Exeter to Truro route in May 1892.

1900 Taff Vale Railway Strike

Workers at the Taff Vale Railway Company, (members of the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants), striking to protest against the company’s treatment of an employee ran a sabotage campaign to disrupt the railways’ daily running by replacement workers.

The following year, the railway company sued the union for damages and won. The ruling outlined that unions could be liable for the loss of profit from strike action.

It is known as one of the key events leading to the formation of the Labour party, which later in a coalition government passed the Trades Disputes Act 1906, overriding the ruling.

1914 Formation of the Railway Executive Committee

When war was declared in 1914, the 130 extant railway companies were taken over by the government in the form of the Railway Executive Committee, consisting of the general managers of the major railway companies. Rolling stock was pooled, workshops were given over to munitions work and locomotives were sent overseas for the war effort.

Railwaymen were encouraged to join the Royal Engineers, contributing to army operations as part of the Railway Operating Division and delivering troops, ammunition and supplies to the front lines.

The operation was seen by some as a pre-cursor to the nationalisation of the railways.

1915 Quintinshill Rail Disaster

The crash involving five trains at Quintinshill, Scotland on 22 May 1915 caused 226 deaths. The majority of the fatalities were soldiers from the Royal Scots regiment, who had been travelling on one of the two trains involved in the initial collision.

The initial investigation laid the blame for the accident with two signalmen, who were later prosecuted and imprisoned for criminal negligence.

Railway safety improvements such as the use of track circuits and signaller reminder devices were introduced to prevent similar railway accidents in the future.

1926 Use of amateurs on the railways during the General Strike

The Trade Union Congress called a General Strike on 4 May 1926 in response to government plans to change working conditions for coal miners.

Two million workers across Britain, including railwaymen, went on strike. The railway companies resorted to recruiting volunteers with no railway experience to act as train drivers and signalmen. These amateurs ran the risk of violence from strikers, and the Flying Scotsman was deliberately derailed in Northumberland. The strike lasted nine days, and the following year the government passed the Trade Disputes Act which outlawed the sympathetic strike action that had created the General Strike.

1950 Campaign to preserve the Talyllyn Railway

Originally built to carry slate to the mid-Wales coast, the Talyllyn Railway was the first railway in the world to be preserved and run as a heritage line by volunteers. Since preservation, the line has been extended and new rolling stock acquired.

The campaign to save the railway marked the beginning of the United Kingdom railway heritage movement, which has grown into a significant part of tourist and local economies, with several hundred heritage railways operating in the UK.

1955 British Railways Modernisation Plan

Intended to bring Britain’s railways up-to-date and to eliminate their deficit by increasing speed, reliability and efficiency, the Modernisation Plan in many respects was a failure, involving expensive mistakes and missed opportunities.

The phasing-out of steam traction engines announced in the plan meant that many steam locomotives were scrapped when only a few years old, and often before a reliable and practical diesel or electric equivalent was available. However, the diesel and electric trains it introduced generally changed travelling conditions for the better for passengers and crew.

1963 Publication of ‘The Reshaping of Britain’s Railways’, known to many as ‘The Beeching Report’

The early growth of railways led to many lines in rural areas which, in some cases, never made a profit.

In 1961 Dr Richard Beeching was appointed Chairman of the British Railways Board, tasked with returning the industry to profitability. His controversial report called for the closure of one-third of the country’s less profitable stations, and the cuts which were eventually made resulted in the loss of many branch lines. Critics accused Beeching of ignoring the social cost of the cuts and increasing dependency on cars. However, Beeching did also equip BR to compete more effectively with road transport for bulk freight traffic.

1965 Launch of the new British Rail corporate identity

One of the biggest industrial rebranding exercises ever undertaken, and supposedly signposting a bold future, the 1965 rebranding introduced the blue liveries, the famous double arrow logo (symbolising the direction of travel on a double track railway) and a new typeface, ‘Rail Alphabet’, which was also adopted by the NHS and the British Airports Authority.

The double arrow logo survived the demise of British Rail and is employed as a generic symbol denoting railway stations under the National Rail brand.

1994 The Channel Tunnel opens

The Channel Tunnel has added a new dimension to European business and leisure travel, and linked mainland UK and continental Europe for continuous travel for the first time. It has driven the development of High Speed rail lines in Britain. However, the idea of a tunnel was first conceived in the early 19th century and the idea of some kind of ‘fixed link’ spanning the Channel goes back to the Romans. Ideas have included boats lashed together, a string of artificial islands and several bridges, as well as numerous tunnel schemes preceding the eventual completion of the Channel Tunnel.

2007 Launch of ‘High Speed 1’, the first high speed line

Subject to impassioned economic and environmental debate during its construction, HS1 is Britain’s first genuine high speed line, with speeds of 186mph possible in some sections. As well as high speed services through the Channel Tunnel, it has enabled Kent-London Javelin commuter services to reach speeds of 140mph, and also allows European container freight to reach London for the first time.

HS1’s success is playing a major part in the debates around HS2, the proposed high speed link from London to the North.

ɻut what about the railways . ' ​​The myth of Britain's gifts to India

Apologists for empire like to claim that the British brought democracy, the rule of law and trains to India. Isn’t it a bit rich to oppress, torture and imprison a people for 200 years, then take credit for benefits that were entirely accidental?

Last modified on Sat 25 Nov 2017 03.27 GMT

M any modern apologists for British colonial rule in India no longer contest the basic facts of imperial exploitation and plunder, rapacity and loot, which are too deeply documented to be challengeable. Instead they offer a counter-argument: granted, the British took what they could for 200 years, but didn’t they also leave behind a great deal of lasting benefit? In particular, political unity and democracy, the rule of law, railways, English education, even tea and cricket?

Indeed, the British like to point out that the very idea of “India” as one entity (now three, but one during the British Raj), instead of multiple warring principalities and statelets, is the incontestable contribution of British imperial rule.

Unfortunately for this argument, throughout the history of the subcontinent, there has existed an impulsion for unity. The idea of India is as old as the Vedas, the earliest Hindu scriptures, which describe “Bharatvarsha” as the land between the Himalayas and the seas. If this “sacred geography” is essentially a Hindu idea, Maulana Azad has written of how Indian Muslims, whether Pathans from the north-west or Tamils from the south, were all seen by Arabs as “Hindis”, hailing from a recognisable civilisational space. Numerous Indian rulers had sought to unite the territory, with the Mauryas (three centuries before Christ) and the Mughals coming the closest by ruling almost 90% of the subcontinent. Had the British not completed the job, there is little doubt that some Indian ruler, emulating his forerunners, would have done so.

Divide and rule . an English dignitary rides in an Indian procession, c1754. Photograph: Universal History Archive/Getty Images

Far from crediting Britain for India’s unity and enduring parliamentary democracy, the facts point clearly to policies that undermined it – the dismantling of existing political institutions, the fomenting of communal division and systematic political discrimination with a view to maintaining British domination.

In the years after 1757, the British astutely fomented cleavages among the Indian princes, and steadily consolidated their dominion through a policy of divide and rule. Later, in 1857, the sight of Hindu and Muslim soldiers rebelling together, willing to pledge joint allegiance to the enfeebled Mughal monarch, alarmed the British, who concluded that pitting the two groups against one another was the most effective way to ensure the unchallenged continuance of empire. As early as 1859, the then British governor of Bombay, Lord Elphinstone, advised London that “Divide et impera was the old Roman maxim, and it should be ours”.

Since the British came from a hierarchical society with an entrenched class system, they instinctively looked for a similar one in India. The effort to understand ethnic, religious, sectarian and caste differences among Britain’s subjects inevitably became an exercise in defining, dividing and perpetuating these differences. Thus colonial administrators regularly wrote reports and conducted censuses that classified Indians in ever-more bewilderingly narrow terms, based on their language, religion, sect, caste, sub-caste, ethnicity and skin colour. Not only were ideas of community reified, but also entire new communities were created by people who had not consciously thought of themselves as particularly different from others around them.

Large-scale conflicts between Hindus and Muslims (religiously defined), only began under colonial rule many other kinds of social strife were labelled as religious due to the colonists’ orientalist assumption that religion was the fundamental division in Indian society.

Muslim refugees cram aboard a train during the partition conflict in 1947 . the railways were first conceived by the East India Company for its own benefit. Photograph: AP

It is questionable whether a totalising Hindu or Muslim identity existed in any meaningful sense in India before the 19th century. Yet the creation and perpetuation of Hindu–Muslim antagonism was the most significant accomplishment of British imperial policy: the project of divide et impera would reach its culmination in the collapse of British authority in 1947. Partition left behind a million dead, 13 million displaced, billions of rupees of property destroyed, and the flames of communal hatred blazing hotly across the ravaged land. No greater indictment of the failures of British rule in India can be found than the tragic manner of its ending.

Nor did Britain work to promote democratic institutions under imperial rule, as it liked to pretend. Instead of building self-government from the village level up, the East India Company destroyed what existed. The British ran government, tax collection, and administered what passed for justice. Indians were excluded from all of these functions. When the crown eventually took charge of the country, it devolved smidgens of government authority, from the top, to unelected provincial and central “legislative” councils whose members represented a tiny educated elite, had no accountability to the masses, passed no meaningful legislation, exercised no real power and satisfied themselves they had been consulted by the government even if they took no actual decisions.

As late as 1920, under the Montagu-Chelmsford “reforms”, Indian representatives on the councils – elected by a franchise so restricted and selective that only one in 250 Indians had the right to vote – would exercise control over subjects the British did not care about, like education and health, while real power, including taxation, law and order and the authority to nullify any vote by the Indian legislators, would rest with the British governor of the provinces.

Democracy, in other words, had to be prised from the reluctant grasp of the British by Indian nationalists. It is a bit rich to oppress, torture, imprison, enslave, deport and proscribe a people for 200 years, and then take credit for the fact that they are democratic at the end of it.

A corollary of the argument that Britain gave India political unity and democracy is that it established the rule of law in the country. This was, in many ways, central to the British self-conception of imperial purpose Kipling, that flatulent voice of Victorian imperialism, would wax eloquent on the noble duty to bring law to those without it. But British law had to be imposed upon an older and more complex civilisation with its own legal culture, and the British used coercion and cruelty to get their way. And in the colonial era, the rule of law was not exactly impartial.

Crimes committed by whites against Indians attracted minimal punishment an Englishmen who shot dead his Indian servant got six months’ jail time and a modest fine (then about 100 rupees), while an Indian convicted of attempted rape against an Englishwoman was sentenced to 20 years of rigorous imprisonment. In the entire two centuries of British rule, only three cases can be found of Englishmen executed for murdering Indians, while the murders of thousands more at British hands went unpunished.

The death of an Indian at British hands was always an accident, and that of a Briton because of an Indian’s actions always a capital crime. When a British master kicked an Indian servant in the stomach – a not uncommon form of conduct in those days – the Indian’s resultant death from a ruptured spleen would be blamed on his having an enlarged spleen as a result of malaria. Punch wrote an entire ode to The Stout British Boot as the favoured instrument of keeping the natives in order.

Political dissidence was legally repressed through various acts, including a sedition law far more rigorous than its British equivalent. The penal code contained 49 articles on crimes relating to dissent against the state (and only 11 on crimes involving death).

Rudyard Kipling, ‘that flatulent voice of Victorian imperialism would wax eloquent on the noble duty to bring law to those without it’. Photograph: Culture Club/Getty Images

Of course the British did give India the English language, the benefits of which persist to this day. Or did they? The English language was not a deliberate gift to India, but again an instrument of colonialism, imparted to Indians only to facilitate the tasks of the English. In his notorious 1835 Minute on Education, Lord Macaulay articulated the classic reason for teaching English, but only to a small minority of Indians: “We must do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern a class of persons, Indians in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals and in intellect.”

The language was taught to a few to serve as intermediaries between the rulers and the ruled. The British had no desire to educate the Indian masses, nor were they willing to budget for such an expense. That Indians seized the English language and turned it into an instrument for our own liberation – using it to express nationalist sentiments against the British – was to their credit, not by British design.

The construction of the Indian Railways is often pointed to by apologists for empire as one of the ways in which British colonialism benefited the subcontinent, ignoring the obvious fact that many countries also built railways without having to go to the trouble and expense of being colonised to do so. But the facts are even more damning.

The railways were first conceived of by the East India Company, like everything else in that firm’s calculations, for its own benefit. Governor General Lord Hardinge argued in 1843 that the railways would be beneficial “to the commerce, government and military control of the country”. In their very conception and construction, the Indian railways were a colonial scam. British shareholders made absurd amounts of money by investing in the railways, where the government guaranteed returns double those of government stocks, paid entirely from Indian, and not British, taxes. It was a splendid racket for Britons, at the expense of the Indian taxpayer.

The railways were intended principally to transport extracted resources – coal, iron ore, cotton and so on – to ports for the British to ship home to use in their factories. The movement of people was incidental, except when it served colonial interests and the third-class compartments, with their wooden benches and total absence of amenities, into which Indians were herded, attracted horrified comment even at the time.

Asserting British rule during the war of independence, also known as the Indian mutiny, 1857. Photograph: Universal History Archive/Getty Images

And, of course, racism reigned though whites-only compartments were soon done away with on grounds of economic viability, Indians found the available affordable space grossly inadequate for their numbers. (A marvellous post-independence cartoon captured the situation perfectly: it showed an overcrowded train, with people hanging off it, clinging to the windows, squatting perilously on the roof, and spilling out of their third-class compartments, while two Britons in sola topis sit in an empty first-class compartment saying to each other, “My dear chap, there’s nobody on this train!”)

Nor were Indians employed in the railways. The prevailing view was that the railways would have to be staffed almost exclusively by Europeans to “protect investments”. This was especially true of signalmen, and those who operated and repaired the steam trains, but the policy was extended to the absurd level that even in the early 20th century all the key employees, from directors of the Railway Board to ticket-collectors, were white men – whose salaries and benefits were also paid at European, not Indian, levels and largely repatriated back to England.

Racism combined with British economic interests to undermine efficiency. The railway workshops in Jamalpur in Bengal and Ajmer in Rajputana were established in 1862 to maintain the trains, but their Indian mechanics became so adept that in 1878 they started designing and building their own locomotives. Their success increasingly alarmed the British, since the Indian locomotives were just as good, and a great deal cheaper, than the British-made ones. In 1912, therefore, the British passed an act of parliament explicitly making it impossible for Indian workshops to design and manufacture locomotives. Between 1854 and 1947, India imported around 14,400 locomotives from England, and another 3,000 from Canada, the US and Germany, but made none in India after 1912. After independence, 35 years later, the old technical knowledge was so completely lost to India that the Indian Railways had to go cap-in-hand to the British to guide them on setting up a locomotive factory in India again. There was, however, a fitting postscript to this saga. The principal technology consultants for Britain’s railways, the London-based Rendel, today rely extensively on Indian technical expertise, provided to them by Rites, a subsidiary of the Indian Railways.

Mother and children . the British left a society with 16% literacy, a life expectancy of 27 and over 90% living below the poverty line. Photograph: Bettmann/Bettmann Archive

The process of colonial rule in India meant economic exploitation and ruin to millions, the destruction of thriving industries, the systematic denial of opportunities to compete, the elimination of indigenous institutions of governance, the transformation of lifestyles and patterns of living that had flourished since time immemorial, and the obliteration of the most precious possessions of the colonised, their identities and their self-respect. In 1600, when the East India Company was established, Britain was producing just 1.8% of the world’s GDP, while India was generating some 23% (27% by 1700). By 1940, after nearly two centuries of the Raj, Britain accounted for nearly 10% of world GDP, while India had been reduced to a poor “third-world” country, destitute and starving, a global poster child of poverty and famine. The British left a society with 16% literacy, a life expectancy of 27, practically no domestic industry and over 90% living below what today we would call the poverty line.

The India the British entered was a wealthy, thriving and commercialising society: that was why the East India Company was interested in it in the first place. Far from being backward or underdeveloped, pre-colonial India exported high quality manufactured goods much sought after by Britain’s fashionable society. The British elite wore Indian linen and silks, decorated their homes with Indian chintz and decorative textiles, and craved Indian spices and seasonings. In the 17th and 18th centuries, British shopkeepers tried to pass off shoddy English-made textiles as Indian in order to charge higher prices for them.

The story of India, at different phases of its several-thousand-year-old civilisational history, is replete with great educational institutions, magnificent cities ahead of any conurbations of their time anywhere in the world, pioneering inventions, world-class manufacturing and industry, and abundant prosperity – in short, all the markers of successful modernity today – and there is no earthly reason why this could not again have been the case, if its resources had not been drained away by the British.

If there were positive byproducts for Indians from the institutions the British established and ran in India in their own interests, they were never intended to benefit Indians. Today Indians cannot live without the railways the Indian authorities have reversed British policies and they are used principally to transport people, with freight bearing ever higher charges in order to subsidise the passengers (exactly the opposite of British practice).

This is why Britain’s historical amnesia about the rapacity of its rule in India is so deplorable. Recent years have seen the rise of what the scholar Paul Gilroy called “postcolonial melancholia”, the yearning for the glories of Empire, with a 2014 YouGov poll finding 59% of respondents thought the British empire was “something to be proud of”, and only 19% were “ashamed” of its misdeeds.

All this is not intended to have any bearing on today’s Indo-British relationship. That is now between two sovereign and equal nations, not between an imperial overlord and oppressed subjects indeed, British prime minister Theresa May recently visited India to seek investment in her post-Brexit economy. As I’ve often argued, you don’t need to seek revenge upon history. History is its own revenge.

1948 – 1994: British Rail [ edit | edit source ]

The network recommended by "Beeching II" plans

From the start of 1948, the railways were nationalised to form British Railways (latterly "British Rail") under the control of the British Transport Commission. Η] Though there were few 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 hasty introduction of diesel and electric rolling stock to replace steam in a modernisation plan costing many millions of pounds but the expected transfer back from road to rail did not occur and losses began to mount. ⎗] This failure to make the railways more profitable through investment led governments of all political persuasions to restrict rail investment to a drip feed and seek economies through cutbacks.

The desire for profitability led to a major reduction in the network during the mid-1960s. Dr. Richard Beeching was given the task by the government of re-organising the railways ("the Beeching Axe"). ⎘] ⎙] This policy resulted in many branch lines and secondary routes being closed because they were deemed uneconomic. The closure of stations serving rural communities removed much feeder traffic from main line passenger services. The closure of many freight depots that had been used by larger industries such as coal and iron led to much freight transferring to road haulage. The closures were extremely unpopular with the general public at that time and remain so today.

Passenger levels decreased steadily from the late fifties to late seventies. ⎚] Passenger services then experienced a renaissance with the introduction of the high-speed Intercity 125 trains in the late 1970s and early 1980s. ⎛] The 1980s saw severe cuts in government funding and above-inflation increases in fares, and the service became more cost-effective.

Between 1994 and 1997, British Rail was privatised. ⎜] Ownership of the track and infrastructure passed to Railtrack, passenger operations were franchised to individual private sector operators (originally there were 25 franchises) and the freight services sold outright (six companies were set up, but five of these were sold to the same buyer). ⎝] The Conservative government under John Major said that privatisation would see an improvement in passenger services. Passenger levels have since increased to above the level they had been at in the late 1950s, ⎞] though whether this is as a result of any actual improvement in passenger services is moot.

History and heritage

The British Airways Heritage Collection has existed since the formation of British Airways. It was formed to preserve the records and artefacts of British Airways' predecessor companies BOAC, BEA, BSAA and the pre-war Imperial Airways Limited as well as British Airways Ltd.

The collection comprises an extensive document archive recording the formation, development and operations of these companies and British Airways as well as memorabilia and artefacts.

Over 400 uniforms from the 1930s to the present day are preserved, as well as a large collection of aircraft models.

A historically important library of thousands of photographs is also available as well as probably the most complete set of aviation posters in the UK.

Many of the photographs and posters from the collection are now available to view in our website galleries. Copies of these photographs and posters are also available to purchase.

Heritage Centre

The British Airways Heritage Centre situated within British Airways Waterside Corporate Headquarters is manned by volunteers whose dedication, together with the generosity of donations of artefacts from many staff and former colleagues, has built the collection to what it is today.

The Heritage Centre is open for visitors and we look forward to welcoming you to see our collection. We welcome information, guidance and advice on the collection, particularly first-hand experiences from those who have played some part in our history.

Railway Industry

As a pioneer in the introduction of railways, Britain became a world leader in railway industry. Even today, Britain’s railway products have a strong and respected place in the world market.

Locomotives and Rolling Stock

In the early days, locomotives and stock were supplied by private companies such as that founded by Robert Stephenson. However, most of the major railway companies in Great Britain soon had their own locomotive, carriage and wagon works. The private companies survived by supplying to industrial lines and overseas railway companies. This situation prevailed into the 1950s, British Railways having inherited an extensive works capacity from the “Big Four” companies.

The 1955 Modernization Plan called for a huge program of diesel and locomotive manufacture, which was not only beyond the capacity of the British Railways works but also to an extent outside the sphere of expertise of works conceived in the steam age. The works were modified to cope with the new traction, but this could not happen fast enough for the modernization plan and many locomotives were ordered from private manufacturers: Brush, Beyer Peacock, Birmingham RCW, English Electric, Metropolitan Vickers and North British, to name a few. Diesel and electric multiple units came from the British Railways works, and from private manufacturers such as Birmingham RCW, Gloucester Carriage & Wagon and Metropolitan Cammell.

As part of the preparations for privatization, the British Rail works were formed into a new company, British Rail Engineering Limited, later simply Brel Limited. Industry generally was hard hit during the run up to privatization, because there was little or no investment in equipment. Many firms closed down or left the industry altogther, Brel itself was reduced from a dozen or so sites around the country to just a handful.

In the 1990s, things started looking up with inward investment from multinational companies. Brel became part of ABB, a consortium of Swedish ASEA and Swiss Brown Boveri. The famous Metropolitan Cammell works at Washwood Heath near Birmingham were acquired by Alstom, while the York works of Brel were sold to the American freight vehicle manufacturer, Thrall Car, later to become part of Trinity Industries.

Unfortunately, in the early 21st Century a number of events combined to conspire against a proposed rapid development of the UK network, not least the collapse of the privatized infrastructure owner Railtrack. With a shrinking UK market, the multinationals started to pull out, leaving Bombardier Transportation, who had purchased the ailing ABB, as the only major British rolling stock supplier. It has manufacturing facilities in Derby and Wakefield, and maintenance facilities at strategic locations throughout the country.


Interior of a modern signalling control centre
(Image licensed under Creative Commons)

Famous names in early railway signalling such as Saxby & Farmer and Mackenzie & Holland are no longer with us, nevertheless Britain has a vigorous, succesful and innovative signalling industry with a continuous history dating back to the 19th Century.

Saxby & Farmer became part of the Westinghouse Brake & Signal Company. More recently, the signalling arm of that company became part of Invensys Rail. In late 2012, the UK based company was sold to the German group Siemens.

In the 1920s the American company General Railway Signal set up a UK subsidiary, Metropolitan Vickers-GRS. This later became AEI-GRS and is now part of Alstom Signalling.

Bombardier Transportation is a relative newcomer to the British scene, drawing largely on the experience of its continental subsidiaries but now with an established presence in this country.


British Rail Research was always recognized as a world leader in cutting edge railway technology. Privatization has led to a proliferation of small consultancy firms retaining and building upon much of the former expertise. Many of these are now based in Derby, the former home of the Railway Technical Centre, headquarters of British Rail Research.

Bex and Dan learn all about the future of Britain's roads and railways!

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Britain’s Digital Railways, in association with the Royal Academy of Engineering Ingenious scheme

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History of railways (British Empire)

In Canada, the national government strongly supported railway construction for political goals. First it wanted to knit the far-flung provinces together, and second, it wanted to maximize trade inside Canada and minimize trade with the United States, to avoid becoming an economic satellite. The Grand Trunk Railway of Canada linked Toronto and Montreal in 1853, then opened a line to Portland, Maine (which was ice-free), and lines to Michigan and Chicago. By 1870 it was the longest railway in the world. The Intercolonial line, finished in 1876, linked the Maritimes to Quebec and Ontario, tying them to the new Confederation.

Anglo-entrepreneurs in Montreal sought direct lines into the U.S. and shunned connections with the Maritimes, with a goal of competing with American railroad lines heading west to the Pacific. Joseph Howe, Charles Tupper, and other Nova Scotia leaders used the rhetoric of a "civilizing mission" centered on their British heritage, because Atlantic-centered railway projects promised to make Halifax the eastern terminus of an intercolonial railway system tied to London. Leonard Tilley, New Brunswick's most ardent railway promoter, championed the cause of "economic progress," stressing that Atlantic Canadians needed to pursue the most cost-effective transportation connections possible if they wanted to expand their influence beyond local markets. Advocating an intercolonial connection to Canada, and a western extension into larger American markets in Maine and beyond, New Brunswick entrepreneurs promoted ties to the United States first, connections with Halifax second, and routes into central Canada last. Thus metropolitan rivalries between Montreal, Halifax, and Saint John led Canada to build more railway lines per capita than any other industrializing nation, even though it lacked capital resources, and had too little freight and passenger traffic to allow the systems to turn a profit. [1]

Den Otter (1997) challenges popular assumptions that Canada built transcontinental railways because it feared the annexationist schemes of aggressive Americans. Instead Canada overbuilt railroads because it hoped to compete with, even overtake Americans in the race for continental riches. It downplayed the more realistic Maritimes-based London-oriented connections and turned to utopian prospects for the farmlands and minerals of the west. The result was closer ties between north and south, symbolized by the Grand Trunk's expansion into the American Midwest. These economic links promoted trade, commerce, and the flow of ideas between the two countries, integrating Canada into a North American economy and culture by 1880. About 700,000 Canadians migrated to the U.S. in the late 19th century. [2] The Canadian Pacific Railway, paralleling the American border, opened a vital link to British Canada, and stimulated settlement of the Prairies. The CPR opened even more connections to the South. The connections were two-way, as thousands of American moved to the Prairies after their own frontier had closed.

Two additional transcontinental lines were built to the west coast--three in all--but that was far more than the traffic would bear, making the system simply too expensive. One after another, the federal government was forced to take over the lines and cover their deficits. In 1923 the government merged the Grand Trunk, Grand Trunk Pacific, Canadian Northern and National Transcontinental lines into the new the Canadian National Railways system.

Since most of the equipment was imported from Britain or the U.S., and most of the products carried were from farms, mines or forests, there was little stimulation to domestic manufacturing. On the other hand, the railways were essential to the growth of the wheat regions in the Prairies, and to the expansion of coal mining, lumbering, and paper making. Improvements to the St. Lawrence waterway system continued apace, and many short lines were built to river ports.


India provides an example of the British Empire pouring its money and expertise into a very well built system designed for military reasons (after the Mutiny of 1857), and with the hope that it would stimulate industry. The system was overbuilt and much too elaborate and expensive for the small amount of freight traffic it carried. However, it did capture the imagination of the Indians, who saw their railways as the symbol of an industrial modernity—but one that was not realized until a century or so later.

The British built a superb system in India. However, Christensen (1996) looks at of colonial purpose, local needs, capital, service, and private-versus-public interests. He concludes that making the railways a creature of the state hindered success because railway expenses had to go through the same time-consuming and political budgeting process as did all other state expenses. Railway costs could therefore not be tailored to the timely needs of the railways or their passengers.

By the 1940s, India had the fourth longest railway network in the world. Yet the country's industrialization was delayed until after independence in 1947 by British colonial policy. Until the 1930s, both the Indian government and the private railway companies hired only European supervisors, civil engineers, and even operating personnel, such as locomotive drivers (engineers). The government's "Stores Policy" required that bids on railway matériel be presented to the India Office in London, making it almost impossible for enterprises based in India to compete for orders. Likewise, the railway companies purchased most of their matériel in Britain, rather than in India. Although the railway maintenance workshops in India could have manufactured and repaired locomotives, the railways imported a majority of them from Britain, and the others from Germany, Belgium, and the United States. The Tata company built a steel mill in India before World War I but could not obtain orders for rails until the 1920s and 1930s.

Known Bugs

The legend will display some companies not currently on the map, but whose extent includes the area you’re looking at.

Occasionally tiles (square areas) of the map disappear. This is an issue with Google’s serving of the map tiles. Unfortunately, you might have to clear your browser cache to force Google to provide the tiles again.

Occasionally a whole region of the map disappears. This is a due to a time-delay in the map being sent from my webhost to Google. This might not correct until the next day. If the problem persists please let me know.

Watch the video: The Story of the British Railways Garratts (November 2022).

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