by Phil Marsh

Railways immersed in wartime operations 75 years ago

Published: 18th January 2015

How the railways had turned into a vital war machine by early 1940

SEVENTY FIVE years ago, Britain and Europe were at war with Germany and the first four or five months had seen Axis forces move towards the French coast, in sight of Dover just over 20 miles away.

The railways had been quietly preparing for war for a couple of years by Sept 1939 but by the start of 1940, the UK really was on a war footing with the very real threat of invasion across the Channel. Military operations were given priority over ordinary rail operations and looks at how the railways changed at this time.

Comprehensive evacuation plans had been prepared before September 1939 so when war broke out, the railways knew what they had to do. At the onset of war, they were immediately placed under central government command with representatives of each major railway taking a place at the General Manager’s Conference as it was called which. This was part of Railway Executive set up by the Minister of Transport and any two members of the Executive could sign an order to be valid rather than all six members.

The railways were subjected to a financial formulae so far as receipts were concerned. The LMS was allocated 34% of receipts, the LNER 23%, the GWR and SR each 16% and London Transport passenger Board, 11%.

Put that light out

The first thing to remember that was different to the First World War so far as the railways were concerned was that aerial bombardment was a new angle on warfare. Therefore the use of lights had to be limited in railway operations after dark creating a dangerous working conditions for staff. And for locomotive crews, light sheets had to placed between the cab roof and the tender creating horrendous working conditions.

The World’s biggest……

The UK rail network operated the World’s largest dock and hotel network so the importance of these at wartime cannot be understated. Southampton Docks had been modernised a few years earlier and was the largest in the World and very strategically placed.

Train numbers

The official rail usage statistics make interesting reading compared to today as there were 1,158,318,000 passenger journeys made in 1939.These were made on trains that covered 284,946,000 miles while freight trains moved 254,496,000 tons running 133,440,000 miles. For the record, 90,556,000 parcels were also moved by rail in 1939 and there were 42,575 carriages with 2,513,000 seats in service then.

At the start of 1940, Britain’s railways used 19,577 steam locomotives, 2002 railmotor vehicles, 130 steamships and 11,163 horses! The year before, the 76 railway owned docks, wharves and harbours exported 49,342,000 tons of goods while imports totalled 15,886,000 tons. These goods were carried in many of the 646,479 wagons and 18,224 parcel and mail vans and horse trucks. Freight services used 3,946 mechanical horses!

Why do these statistics make interesting reading? Because 1940 started off with 50,555 miles of track on a route mileage of 19,131, about double that of today. There were 6,698 passenger stations, 6,908 goods stations and 581,401 staff were employed by the rail industry and many of these lived in the 49,774 railway owned houses. They earned £105 million in 1939 in rent payments.

The moving force

Britain’s railways were the biggest household removal organisation at this time moving more furniture than anyone else. The contents, animals of farms and factories were also relocated in whole trainloads.

The UK railways grossed just under £1.1billion in 1939 but spent £1,180 billion and this was because of capital investment and the shortfall was met from pension funds and savings accounts, probably not allowed today!

Wartime returns

Despite trains making extra stops and taking longer for their journeys, cheap return tickets were still available at the start of 1940 after being temporarily withdrawn in September 1939. In fact, it was still possible to send luggage in advance – even to the Channel Islands. Sleeper trains and restaurant cars were re-instated and telegrams could also be sent from some services via the on-board staff.

Many freight services were switched to running in daytime because of the blackout restrictions and experiments made with blue bulbs and emergency lighting installed in carriages. Master switches were installed in carriages so if an air raid warning was given, one switch would plunge a train into darkness. Station lamps had shades put on them to stop the light going upwards. Platform edges were painted white as were station pillars and kiosks to helop passengers avoid them in the dark.

Preparing for war, the railways had recently built many high capacity wagons, the largest of which had 56 wheels and could carry 150 tons. Refrigerated transport was also available for perishables.

Railway stations were the base for a huge catering business and hundreds of thousands of military personnel were fed at special prices as refreshment rooms stayed open for long hours. Menus had to be carefully arranged so as not to overcome difficulties of rationing.

British railways, the UK’s best customers in 1940?

The railways in Britain kept hundreds of thousands of people in work – apart from its own workforce. 75 years ago the railways used 14,724,000 tons of coal, 9,273,000 tons of timber, 257,000 tons of rails and 1,334,000 cubic yards of ballast. Other random statistics were the 21,121,000 bricks and 10,000 tons of paint and varnish purchased annually. Fuel use accounted for 31,169,000 gallons and 6,973,000 gallons of lubricating oil were consumed. This all cost over £40 million a year 75 years ago which was a massive spend at the time.

The railway war effort

All railway assets had been turned over to the war effort by the start of 1940 with many staff joining up and the shipping fleet often utilised for military purposes. The many railway works became huge military factories and everyone was urged to make the best use of every piece of coal and every gallon of fuel.

Thousands of railway staff (10%) received Air Raid Precautions’ training and toured the network with specially equipped instruction trains. The railway telephone system was integrated with the Post Office to ensure continuity when bomb damage happened and control offices duplicated for the same reason and new ones built were made bomb proof – as were many signalboxes.

Strategic materials were stockpiled at key locations around the railway network so that war damage could be repaired quickly. Emergency repair trains and cranes were deployed around the network for the same reason.

Five million sandbags were provided as were many air-raid shelters and protective clothing for staff. Ambulance trains had been built by the start of 1940 for use by civilian and military casualties. These carried huge red crosses on the roof and carriage sides.

In the first four months of the war, 8,000 special troop trains operated and railway communications were linked directly with the war office. Every 24 hours on one railway, 500 extra freight trains ran every day at this time.

This experience was to be used in good stead when the evacuation from Dunkirk was needed later in 1940.

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