HomeHeritageThe fall and rise of Britain's railways

The fall and rise of Britain’s railways

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This year sees the fiftieth anniversary of Richard Beeching’s ‘The Re-Shaping of British Railways’. Writes Colin Garratt

2013 also sees the thirtieth anniversary of the Serpell Report. These two events mirrored the tempestuous undertones of railway policy in the years following World War Two.

In this eight part series Colin Garratt, of Milepost 92½, outlines the turbulent events which led up to the privatisation of British Rail in 1993, concluding with an analysis of the current situation and where it might be heading.

Part 1: A Rough War

The mid 1930s saw Britain’s railways at their zenith, operating at a high level of efficiency. Safety, comfort, punctuality and speed were self imposed commitments of all true railwaymen. The network was dense and embraced everywhere that was anywhere. Closures were almost unheard of and unimagined.

The last main line to London, the Great Central, which had been built some thirty five years earlier was engineered to the continental loading gauge and it had been intended to link the industrial cities of northern Britain with those of the continent by means of the Great Central and Channel Tunnel on which work had begun as far back as the 1870s.

The blitz on London. William Barlow's arch at St Pancras received a direct hit from the Luftwaffe.
The blitz on London. William Barlow’s arch at St Pancras received a direct hit from the Luftwaffe.

Romantic and Exciting

In the 1930s railways were a widespread source of fascination and were considered to be both romantic and exciting. The LNER A4 Pacifics and the LMS Princess Coronations were the Concordes of their day and worked prestigious Anglo Scottish trains like the Silver Jubilee and the Coronation Scot.

Thousands of people would flock to the trackside to see these magnificent trains pass at speed. In 1932 one of the LMS’s Princess Royal Pacifics ran the 401 miles non-stop from Glasgow to London Euston in 5 hours 44 minutes, an average start to stop speed of 70 mph.

The LMS alone had 67 daily trains scheduled to run at speeds above 60 mph in 1938 whilst the Great Western proclaimed its Cheltenham Flyer to be ‘The Fastest Train in the World’ and on one occasion this express, headed by a Castle Class 4-6-0, ran the 77 miles from London Paddington to Swindon in 56½ minutes, an average start to stop speed of 90 mph.

The most intricate railway network in the world

Despite increasing competition from road transport, the 1930s saw the railway still carrying a vast diversity of freight and the Big Four companies, London Midland & Scottish, London & North Eastern, Great Western and Southern, all operated at a profit.

The system was impeccably maintained. It was the most intricate railway network in the world – a fact of enormous strategic importance in the war that was to come. To be a railwayman was a source of great personal pride. The railway was absolute; if the railway stopped, Britain stopped.

The advent of World War Two plunged the railway into deep crisis. Never again would it assume its rightful supremacy as the nation’s lifeline. The inevitability of war saw the government take control of the railway on September 1st 1939.

Inevitably the network would become a constant target for German bombers and locations such as railway works, running sheds, major stations and marshalling yards were all subjected to relentless bombing by a ruthless enemy, as the Germans attempted to smash the railway into inoperability and with it the nation’s morale.

Air attacks on important installations such as railways invariably wreaked a litany of problems as, apart from the severing of operations, came the risk of fire, which frequently spread to neighbouring buildings. Hundreds of tonnes of masonry could be left hanging in extremely hazardous conditions and not infrequently with people trapped beneath it.

LMS streamlined Princess Coronation Class 4-6-2 No.6220 'Coronation' at Euston with the Coronation Scot in 1937.
LMS streamlined Princess Coronation Class 4-6-2 No.6220 ‘Coronation’ at Euston with the Coronation Scot in 1937.

Damage to installations like electricity, gas and water all brought their special problems, invariably requiring specialist engineers who were in constant demand 24 hours a day.

A Leicester knitwear manufacturer, who got through to London St Pancras – having stood on a heavily laden train which crawled all the way – proceeded to see five clients in the city. She found only one of them in an undamaged building. The other four had all disappeared in an air attack earlier that week.

Unprecedented demands

World War Two was to kill forty five million people, the sheer horror of which was caused primarily by one man. The six year war put unprecedented demands on Britain’s railway network and by the end of hostilities in 1945, the railway was physically and mentally worn out.

It had been the willing workhorse of both the civilian population and the allied forces and the adversities faced were legion, not least the loss of the major workshops, which were given over to the building of munitions.

Railway works the length and breadth of the country were largely engaged in manufacturing armaments and military equipment: tank manufacture at Crewe; guns and gun mountings at Doncaster; shells, bridges and landing craft at Eastleigh and Swindon and aircraft wings at Wolverton.

Repairs to aircraft were also carried out in railway workshops. In addition, the railway had to cede 110,000 staff for military service and whilst outside people were brought in to help relieve the deficiency, including many women, they were inexperienced; a railwayman is not made in a day.

The demands on the system were hard to imagine in today’s context. Many factories went on twenty four hour, seven days a week operation. Raw materials had to be delivered to the places of manufacture and finished products taken out and delivered.

A centralised wagon control centre was established to co-ordinate the availability of one and a half million wagons. The War Office had stores throughout the country necessitating movements from the factory to depots and depots to ports.

Hell on earth

The Black Out, which was strictly enforced, created a hell on earth. One errant fire glow from a locomotive could release a hail of bombs from Hitler’s Luftwaffe, causing untold damage.

The needs of a country at war brought an immense increase in freight traffic.
The needs of a country at war brought an immense increase in freight traffic.

In addition, the war years were characterised by some of the worst weather conditions of the century with frosts and heavy snow for three consecutive seasons. Lines were blocked whilst everything that could freeze froze – points, the brake gear on freight wagons, signal wires snapped, locomotive injectors iced up and grease in the axles of wagons solidified.

In the early days of the conflict, evacuation specials took vast numbers of children from cities to safe residences in the countryside and in 1939, half a million school children were evacuated in four days. Ambulance trains ran throughout the nation and troop trains, each averaging up to five hundred personnel, were a common sight. During the evacuation of Dunkirk over 300,000 military personnel were carried by rail.

A gentler manifestation of war was the ‘Dig for Victory’ campaign whereupon many railway embankments were turned into allotments to help with the ever present risk of food shortages as the Nazis had a plan to starve Britain into submission.

Infrastructure and rolling stock became increasingly run down, as did the locomotives, but the steam locomotive is a simple robust machine of rugged construction, characteristics which enabled it to take inordinate punishment without actually breaking down.

‘The engines which won  the war’

The phenomenal loads carried by such types as Gresley’s V2s on the LNER and Stanier’s Black 5s on the LMS gave rise to these locomotives being known as ‘the engines which won the war’, an appropriate description, especially when one considers the many situations when locomotives were more important than guns. It will ever be remembered that virtually all of Britain’s wartime railway was powered by steam.

And the railway fought back. Fully manned emergency permanent way trains were stabled at strategic junctions throughout the country ready, by day and night to repair bomb damage. Accident wreckage, which today might take three days or more to repair, would often be cleared in a matter of hours with little more shortcoming than a speed restriction.

Throughout the agony of the war years, Britons had one constant thought, D Day, to get back once more across the channel and rid Europe of the Nazi menace. And when that day finally arrived train load after train load of equipment, supplies and men were taken from all over Britain to the eastern ports from which this unparalleled operation would begin.

As George Nash wrote in his magnificent book ‘The LMS at War’; “What about the movement of equipment, munitions, armour and food for the fighting men?

There was porridge for his breakfast, shells for his guns and boots for his feet – beer to bulldozers, pencils to purgatives, saucepans to cement, together with special equipment for service anywhere from the Arctic Circle to the tropical jungles or from the near stratosphere to the depths of the sea.”

So far as the railways were concerned these had to be drawn to or from the ports and also from place to place within the country to keep Britain’s mighty military machine in operation. As Winston Churchill proudly proclaimed, “This was their finest hour”.

Photographs supplied by Milepost 92 1/2


  1. Interesting that the destrucion wrought by us in Germany was followed by a modernisation which brought it to a world-leading position. The destruction wrought by Germany on Briatain’s railways bought some modernisation – but mostly cuts and decline. The opportunity was missed.

  2. Thank you for your kind comments Mike, we think Colin has done an unbelievable job on the 1st article and we look forward to reading the following articles. I will forward your comments onto Colin. Next issue will be out February 8th, feel free to share the article with any friends colleagues or websites you are part of. Paul Curtis Rail Media Group

  3. Somewhat ironic that after the war ended, with our railways worn out and with government subsidies curtailed, Germanys railways, bombed by the RAF to a greater degree of destruction, were rebuilt with moneys donated by the allies, and provided a rail system that was in fact much better than the one we were left with. As were the railways in Holland, France, and Belgium. They valued their rail systems.

  4. Colin, have just re read this piece whilst having lunch. Congratulations on this article, You truly have painted pictures in my mind with this piece. Wonderfully written and I look forward to next months piece.

  5. No investment was carried out on Britains railways post-war due to higher priorities such as housing, accommodation for the people of this country, rebuilding and diverifying industry outputs, etc. Then of course we had to pay back the USA following “lend lease” etc. and as I understand it, we may have had to pay financial reparations to of all places Germany to assist them to rebuild. Begs the question did we get any reparations for the damage Germany did to our Cities, industry and infrastructure? On the face of it yet more poor political decisions or lack of them perhaps? Just as in recent years, complete lack of anticipation of growth factors, predicted traffic demands and no pressures on private companies and financial institutions to fund infrastructure improvements or invest in new stock.

  6. It has taken a number of generations for British realization, that the Heritage of the brilliant Victorian Engineers Stephenson, BRUNEL and the American Mr TRAM, stll have prime relevance to U.K. Transport Needs.

    Despite major council/partners incompetance, on-street running Trams will once more be on Edinburgh’s Streets; Ken Livingstone’s pre-planned Cross-River Tram Project will be running on London’s Streets, as Boris Johnson does an ‘about-turn’ to his cancellation of this intelligent-scheme. Even Boris has praised Croydon’s Tram-Link Success.

    The BRUTALITY of the 1960s Ernest (M 1) Marples (Marples-Ridgway) Minister of Transport / DR Richard BEECHING / Private-Motorist Road Lobby
    “Smashing-To-Smithereens” One-Third of the UK Rail Network – most of it irretrievably Lost for Ever, without any (Net) Cost Savings.

    Victorian Brilliance of the RAILWAYS and ON-STREET TRAMWAYS – nearly lost for-ever – are now accepted, as being vital to save us from Grid-Lock Traffic Congestion Frustrations.

    Modern High-Speed TRAINS and up-dated 2013 TRAM Technology twinned-together, are our salvation.

    • My ERRATA – the reference to the American Mr TRAM should ,of course,
      be MR TRAIN – which quirkily, just happened to be his real Surname.My Train-of-thought whilst typing was ‘off-the-rails’. The puns I do not excuse, they are at least Tony Blackburn standard.

  7. The Luftwaffe DAMAGED our railways, but they didn’t destroy them – that was done much later……..in the 1960’s and 1970’s by short-sighted politicians and bean counting bureaucrats. Theirs was an attitude of such philistine proportions that even the Nazi’s would have been shocked at the casual, even sadistic pleasure that was taken in their destruction by Beeching and his paymasters – the governments of first Macmillan, then Douglas-Home, and then Wilson.

    But this continued into the 1970’s (under Heath, then Thatcher) when it was no longer sleepy rural lines and stations that were got rid of, but major city termini such as the old Birmingham Snow Hill, Liverpool, and Manchester Central stations, Glasgow St Enoch, the Victoria stations in both Nottingham and Sheffield, and London’s Broad Street. But there were others aswell that were needlessly destroyed. These were truly grand stations, and in the case of the original Snow Hill station – breathtaking, like a smaller version of St Pancras.

    It was all an act of national vandalism undertaken by people who squandered our rail heritage given to us by the Victorians. It was as if the country was suffering a particularly bad midlife crisis, or rather mid-century crisis – and in the haste to build roads and motorways, they completely ignored the value that railways could still provide, as the view then was that railways would be dead by the 80’s or certainly by 2000.

    The low point of Britain’s railways wasn’t the 60’s, but the 70’s. Look at any pictures of railways and stations in the 1970’s and you almost always see a sad looking delapidated station hald falling to bits and with gaping holes in its roof, weeds growing in the tracks and platforms aswell. The 1970’s were definitely the nadir for railways in the UK for sure, but that decade was grim for manufacturing and many other things too, yet we continue to romanticise the 1970’s. In truth the decade was pretty awful and sumped up a broken country, that was destroying itself but lacked the ability to see what it was doing at the time.

    There was no foresight when it came to the railways in the 60’s and 70’s as people in power just thought roads were the future and roads was where money should go, not the railways. I like to think we have a different attitude now though I’m not totally convinced of this, and there are still some people in power who would rather the railways just withered away.

    Look at Germany’s railways and then look at ours, They never lost hope in their railways and have always had pride in them. Our railways were once as good and as well maintained as theirs are now. I would like to think that one day we’ll see pride in our railways again, but even if this were to happen, it’s decades away.


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