From the Phil Marsh collection

Britain’s railways emerge from long economic depression

Published: 27th January 2014

History repeats itself 80 years on

The UK railways are experiencing terrific growth in usage, and is seen as a new golden age of railways with investment at record levels on our railways. This follows five years of recession and an economic downturn repeating what was happening in the UK 80 years ago, often regarded as the golden age of travel. looks at what was going on in 1934 on and around our railways.

The largest private business in Britain?

At the start of 1934, the railway industry contained £1.1 billion of invested capital with expenditure at £1.15 billion and income at £1.092 billion. The loss was put down to the economic recession and road competition.

Sir James Milne speaking on behalf of the UK railways said that Britain’s railways held the world record for safety, comfort and frequency of trains. There are not many alive today who could argue this either way but has dug out some official railway statistics published in 1934 to consider. Much of this period’s expansion was due to Government policy allowing the railways to improve facilities to help end the recession and reduce unemployment.

The railways were then dominated by the ’Big Four’, the Southern, (SR) London Midland (LMS), the London North Eastern (LNER) and Great Western (GWR) railways and between them they also ran docks, ships, canals, a huge road fleet and many prestigious hotels.

Too fast to claim a speed record?

It was claimed that the Plymouth Ocean Mail Express ran at 102.3mph on May 9, 1904 - then the world’s fastest authenticated speed, since thought to have reached 98mph but not quite the magic 100mph. The GWR ran the world’s fastest scheduled steam train in 1934, ‘The Cheltenham Flyer’ averaging 71.3mph for its journey between Swindon and Paddington. But the summer ‘Flying Scotsman’ was the world’s longest non-stop train between Kings Cross and Edinburgh, a distance of 393 miles.

The LMS ran the main Royal Train and ‘The Royal Scot’ which ran non-stop for 299 miles between Euston and Carlisle all year round. The Southern Railway claimed to operate largest electric service in the World. The GWR boasted that the Goods Shed at Bristol was the largest covered goods station in the World while Europe’s largest marshalling yard was on the LNER at Whitemoor near Peterborough.

Waterloo station was the UK’s largest covering over 24 acres while the longest platform was at Manchester Exchange and Victoria stations at 2194 feet long. And as now, the Severn Tunnel was the longest UK rail tunnel at four miles 628 yards long.

Tickets please

In 1933. 1.101 billion passengers were carried, 16 million of which took advantage of what was called ’Summer Tickets’ priced at a penny a mile for a return trip for up to a month. There were 378 million Day and Half day excursion tickets were sold while 345 million journeys were made by season ticket holders.

Workman’s tickets generated £3 million with 190million journeys made while 400,000 weekly holiday runabout season tickets were sold across 90 different areas generating ticket revenue of £49.4 million. It was claimed that one person travelled over 2000 miles in the Scottish Borders in one week on one of these tickets.

The railways conveyed 87.4 million parcels bringing in £6.5 million while the 21,000 steam locomotives, 1381 electric locomotives and five petrol engines covered 531 million miles on all services between them. The railways used 14 million tons of coal and 21 million bricks a year at this time.

The principle locomotive works could overhaul a locomotive in under a week it was boasted and £15million was to be spent on new locomotives, carriages, wagons and infrastructure in 1934.

The combined population of Leeds, Glasgow, Manchester and Plymouth (2.5 million) could be carried in the 43,000 passenger carriages simultaneously while the 630,000 goods wagons in service would stretch from London to New York if anyone could be bothered to shunt them accordingly!

The rail network totaled 50,800 miles of track of which 1,400 were electrified with six passengers killed on the railways in 1933, considered to be a good year.

Fast goods train network

Over 370 express freight trains operated daily across the UK rail network between all the major points of the network. These were in addition to the thousands of daily goods trains that operated. Registered consignments were carried under the ‘Green Arrow’ brand which provided a secure transit and delivery for the sender at a supplement of 2/6 (12p).

Special wagons were provided for fish, meat, milk, animals, scenery, coal, plate glass and many other items. Refrigerated but ventilated insulated wagons were built and kept cool by being loaded with huge trays of ice keeping perishables fresh. The largest wagon in 1943 had 36 wheels and could carry 160 tons weight.

It was also possible to move house by rail with an average of 50 householders moving home by rail every day. Possessions were packed and taken by rail in special wagons and passengers were given a 33% discount on their fares for the move! Insurance was offered for these removals as it was for almost anything. Livestock could be covered for rates between 1/4p to 4d a head and 10.9 million animals were moved by rail in 1933.

Space could be rented in goods depot warehouses or in wagons depending on requirements. The railways at this time had 26 million square feet of warehouse accommodation and encouraged construction of private sidings for businesses.

A total of 242 million tons of goods was moved by the railways made up of 40.7 million tons of general merchandise, 41.6 million tons of minerals and a massive 159.7 million tons of coal and other fuels. Freight services covered 122 million miles between 1200 railhead centres.

Darling buds of May or Special traffic

Seasonal goods traffic was important to the railways with 6,800 tons of spring flowers moved and it was estimated that there were 60,000 blooms per ton. These were transported principally from the Channel and Scilly Isles and Lincolnshire across the UK.

In the summer, 20,000 trucks of fruit were moved from the Hereford and Worcester area with Hampshire’s strawberries weighing 3,900 tons took up 3,500 wagon loads and East Anglian strawberries using 700 trucks in all.

Fish was a big user of rail with Grimsby generating 200,000 tons of traffic and 220,000 tons from Hull with Fleetwood bringing another 70,000 tons to the rail network. The Scottish catch was moved south in express fish trains to be delivered direct to London hotels or to Billingsgate. Other express goods trains carried Scottish meat produce to southern markets in refrigerated vans. Meat and fish carried weighed in at 431 million tons a year while fruit and vegetables weighed a total of 46.8 million tons.

Glass lined tank wagons carried 190 million gallons of milk annually between the producing areas to conurbations weighing 187 million tons. It was claimed that the average household paid 4 ½ d in rail transport costs for their weekly food consumption.

Over 7.5 million meals were taken on trains in 1933 in 600 restaurant cars while more were served at stations and at the 79 railway owned hotels.

The railways’ road and sea services

The railways operated 6,500 road vehicles and 556 ‘mechanical horses’ which were used in depots and deliveries around town.

The UK’s major docks were under railway ownership with Southampton claimed to be the busiest passenger port with 550,000 passengers annually and the most modern with 7,000 feet of new quayside opening. Grimsby docks covered 37 acres and had just been expanded in 1934. Many of the 76 railway owned docks also boasted dry-dock facilities for ship repairs as well as storage and factory space.

Railway owned ships weighed a total of 77,222 tons made up of a fleet totaling 147 ships which worked around the UK coast to Ireland and Europe. Train ferries operated to Europe as a result of World War 1 military requirements and day trips to European ports were common at this time.


The statistics given show how many people were employed in the various areas of the railways but this is not an all-inclusive list covering all railway staff.

Clerks. 68,000

Drivers. 31,000

Firemen. 29,000

Permanent Way. 52,000

Porters. 34,000

Shunters. 16,000

Signalmen. 24,000

Workshop staff. 96,000

Liverpool street station in the UK at rush hour

Help and advice with train travel in the UK

Train travel in the UK should be a pleasure, not a headache. So if you’re taking a train on the UK railway, start your journey here. We’ve lots of hints, tips and advice to help you find your way around, travel smoothly and arrive in style by train.

Read more

eurostars passing at 375mph from the drivers seat in france


Welcome to our #railchat page. Our #railchat discussions take place over on Twitter, with our resident expert Phil Marsh. If you would like to get involved, please do join us, and use the dedicated hashtag #railchat. See our previous discussions below:

Read more

Old steam train in Shanty Town Museum

Locomotives & Engines

Our rail network would be nothing without them. From Stephenson's Rocket to British Rail Class 92 and beyond, explore the facts, information and anecdotes behind the steam, diesel and electric locomotives that built the age of the train.

Read more


Latest Tweets


Edinburgh Castle

Edinburgh to London Kings Cross by Train

Book in advance with and save 85% advanced bookings.

From £21.00

Buy now

Millenium Dome, London

Birmingham New Street to London Euston by Train

Book in advance with and save 92% on advance bookings.

From £6

Buy now

You may also like...



Follow us on Twitter and become part of our rail community! is the easy way to buy cheap train tickets online.



Control your business fuel costs with a supermarket fuel card – free to apply, no ongoing account charges and no monthly minimum spend.