This week, we’re wrapping up our series on the great nationalisations of Euro rail travel with a fourth instalment on the United Kingdom. While it may resemble, in certain respects, what happened in Italy, Spain and France, it was also a very unusual case. The first is that the country was the last of the four to nationalise its network, despite it being considered the oldest in the world. Another is that, as we mentioned in a previous edition of this newsletter, is currently in the process of reconsidering some aspects of nationalisation, at least in part.
The story of the British railways starts with carriages mounted on tracks made of wood, then metal, and pulled by horses. And it was on the British Isles that the first passenger service in the world was launched in 1807 by Oystermouth Railway, still pulled by horses. The first steam locomotive, called the Salamanca, got up and running in 1812, run by the Middleton Railway and linking the coal mines of Middleton with the city of Leeds.
Starting in the 1830s, and in particular the 1840s, the number of lines being built in the country exploded. Loads of private companies sprung up, without much care or consideration for whether their itinerary would be popular or profitable. But England immediately fell in love with trains and all those with the power and means to build lines started throwing money at this new mode of transport. So much so, the press were soon talking about ‘railway mania’, which was a natural follow-up to the previous ‘canal mania’.
But the network that derived from this mania wasn’t very well linked up, comprising as it did lots of individual lines that were cut off from each other. That problem led the government to introduce new legislation on the subject in 1840, creating the Railway Inspectorate, which was charged with investigating train accidents, as well as setting out recommendations as to how to avoid them. In 1844, a proposed law went even further, by nationalising the entirety of the railways, though it was to be rejected by the British parliament, which clearly wasn’t ready to take such a measure. Regulations on the construction of passenger carriages were, however, adopted as a result of this proposal.
The British railways continued to develop very gradually, right up to the First World War, when it was provisionally put under state control, for obvious logistical reasons. But once again, despite so many voices calling for nationalisation, the conservative fringe in parliament managed to prevent this happening, despite the various advantages that had been unveiled by the state organisation of the railways. On January 1 1923, another law put the network under the control of four big railway companies called The Big Four : the Great Western Railway, the London and North Eastern Railway, the London, Midland and Scottish Railway and the Southern Railway. There were only a handful of lines that weren’t integrated into those four major actors in the British rail network.
The next war would further push the British government along the route towards nationalisation. With the world at war once again, the leaders of the Big Four decided to team up and cooperate as a single entity. The trains were not only a way to carry goods and passengers. They were also a way to get the public away from the Nazi bombardments and to transport military equipment to strategic positions.
Once the war was over, the country was left with a network partially in ruins. One thing became very clear: the private sector couldn’t get it back in a fit state by itself. So in 1948 every single British line was brought under the control of British Railway. This was in turn operated by the British Transport Commission. This new entity was charged with rebuilding the network – a job that was finally completed in 1954. And although it made very few changes to the general organisation of the lines, it managed to make the British railways profitable in just a few years. And we’ve already told you what happened next in our series on the great ‘openings-up’ of the railways.