From late Georgian steam engineers, to the multi-billion pound civil engineering project of High Speed 1, Britain’s railways have a fascinating and inspiring tale to tell. Learn more about its development.
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.
The legacy of steam and post-war austerity begin to bite in the late 1940s. Nationalised as British Railways in 1947, as one of the ‘commanding heights’ of the economy, the massive steam network becomes a drain on the country’s resources. Rationalisation comes ahead of the end of steam, in the early 1960s, creating a network size and shape that is recognisable today.
Steam’s end finally comes in 1968, as electrification and diesel programmes are pushed ahead by successions of reforming governments. But the rapid extension of the motorway network and the increasing affordability of private cars bring their own problems for rail in the 1970s and 80s. The railways fought back with the introduction of the first High Speed Trains (HSTs).
The new century, with its expanding population and clogged roads, sees a rail renaissance with increased passenger numbers and a new generation of over 20 ambitious private operators. But it’s not all plain sailing. As fares rise, some struggle to meet rising passenger expectations. But, with the promise of dedicated high speed rail now becoming a reality, there is the genuine prospect of rail’s second golden age.