A Bit of History
The history of the British railway system will practically reflect the evolution of the rail transportation system. The system also reveals the impact, it experienced, of changing times and trends of the socio-economic political scenario. Of course, technology also factored in the change. The very first railway-like tracks were in fact laid as wagon-ways in Britain. These wagonways were actually wooden tracks where a horse was used to drag a wagon on it. The first recorded above ground railway or wagonway was built between October 1603 and September 1607. It was built by Huntingdon Beaumont, coal mining partner of the landlord Percival Willoughby. By 1821 horses had been replaced by steam power. As found on the Allotment to Percy Main sector. In 1789, the Englishman named William Jessup designed the first wagons with flanged wheels. After establishing the public steam railways, the wagonways disappeared or got connected to the nearest railway point.
The railway system in the UK is the oldest in the world. Known as the Wollaton Wagonway it was around 2 miles long running from the mines at Strelley to Wollaton in Nottinghamshire, England. This is generally acknowledged as the first surface wagonway, and opened on 1st October, 1604. This system operated for some 15 years and was dismantled after bankruptcy. The evolution of the railways is really an interesting story. It came about because of the difficulties of road travel or goods transportation, mostly animal drawn, on crude roadways, in the early days. It also shows the strength and achievements of human endeavour and enterprise.
The railway system can be undoubtedly credited with assisting economic development very significantly. The first recorded use of this system was in hauling of goods and materials. It would have been impossible to reach this level of modern development without the infrastructure of the railway system. It was the British who pioneered the development of the steam engine. It led to construction of the mainline railway system. A key factor to boost the industrial revolution because the railways reduced shipping costs. Traffic shifted from the canals to the railways.
An Englishman was the first to patent a passenger road locomotive. He was Julius Griffiths, and in 1921. The first railroad to carry goods and passengers (on regular schedules), using locomotives designed by English inventor George Stephenson was Stockton & Darlington Railroad Company, started in September, 1825. Stephenson moved to the Liverpool and Manchester Railway, together with his son Robert, where he built (between 1826-29) the legendary Rocket. This marked the beginning of an era on railway tracks.
Rapid expansion of the rail system took place between 1861 and 1888. From 1852, the bulk of the income was through freight. Safety standards, signalling and vehicle technology improved. By the end of the century, trains ran regularly. Speeds exceeded 70 mph. The railway boom of the 1940s saw 2,441 miles of railway lines built. Nearly 30 million people were being carried. The railways offered opportunity and popularity. Acts of Parliament supported it. The railway system began to conform to standards of speed, comfort, timetabling and affordable rates. Excursion trips became part of British social life. Queen Victoria herself lent patronage to it. She made her first journey in 13 June, 1842. The Queen became a regular user of the railways.
Nationalisation & Denationalisation of tracks
The isolated chunks of railway lines were embraced into a national network, with dozens of competing companies still running the trains. The railway system underwent a change in ownership. The entire network was brought under government control during the First World War. In 1923 almost all the remaining companies were grouped into the Big Four. They were the Great Western Railway, the London and North Eastern Railway, the London, Midland and Scottish Railway and the Southern Railway. They as joint stock companies ran the railway system until 31st December, 1947. Thereafter there were few initial changes to the railway system. The network became profitable as usage increased.
It was in 1948 that the British Railway (trade name- British Rail) was formed under the British Transport Commission and operated most of the rail transport in Great Britain between 1948 to 1997. Few changes were made in the railway system. Traffic and usage increased to make it profitable. By 1954 regeneration of track and stations were finished. In 1954, the British Transport Commission underwent changes and Road Haulage was privatised . In 1955 revenue for British Rail fell. The network became unprofitable. Alternative modes of transport, like the roadways, competed with trains. The replacement of steam locomotives by diesel and electric rolling stock cost millions of pounds. Successive governments failed to make it profitable. Change of fortunes, once again. Government investment was restricted and cutbacks made.
The Northern Ireland Railways is the state owned railway operator of Northern Ireland. The other being the East Coast. It does not belong to the National Rail Network of Great Britain.
The "Beeching Axe"
In 1960s Dr. Richard Beeching was given the task by government to reorganise the railways. It came to be known as the Beeching Axe. The reorganisation led to the closure of many branch lines and secondary routes, which were seen uneconomic. Rural stations were closed. Feeder lines were thus removed from main line passenger services. Other Feeder line passenger services were stopped. Freight depots used for coal and iron were closed. The closures were and still remain extremely unpopular with the public, even today. Passenger levels declined from the late 1950s to the late 1970s.
Interestingly with the introduction of high speed intercity trains in the 1970s, passenger services went up. Severe cuts in government funding wee made in the 1980s. Above inflation increase in fares made the service more cost effective. During 1994-1997, railway operations were once again privatised. Railtrack PLC, owned the track and infrastructure. Passenger operations were franchised. Freight services were sold outright. Passenger levels began to increase.
Coming of Network Rail
Following a series of accidents, the public image of the railways suffered. The Southall rail accident happened when a train went through a red light signal. A faulty automatic train protection equipment was blamed. The Ladbroke Grove rail accident happened similarly. Investigation revealed that the Hatfield accident was caused by the rail fragmenting due to microscopic cracks formed. The Hatfield accident had an impact on the whole system. It occurred on 17th Oct, 2000 at Hatfield, Hertfordshire. Checks were carried and cracks were found throughout tracks in the country. Speed restrictions were enforced which caused disruption of services. Spiralling costs of track replacement and a series of events resulted in the collapse of Railtrack and the ownership passing to Network Rail. This is a state owned company not-for-dividend, technically a private company limited by guarantee. Its principle asset being Network Rail Infrastructure, a company limited by shares. Its clients are the Train Operating Companies (TOCs) and Freight Operating Companies (FOCs). Both customers provide services on the NRI infrastructure, sharing responsibility to deliver train services to the public. Whether the company Network Rail is a public sector entity is still not delimitated. But it functions like a private sector company. The fact is that its debts are underwritten by government. The government does not wish it to be classified as a public sector entity, as the company's debts (over £20 billion) would be considered as public expenditure.
The new Chief Executive of Network Rail is David Higgins who succeeds Iain Coucher, who is stepping down on 1 February, 2011. Presently David Higgins is non-executive Director of Network Rail.
The railway system must be considered a valuable infrastructure. It may be run on commercial principles, but it remains a valuable and viable land transportation alternative to roadways. It is an alternative resource to future mass transit transport and has a legacy behind it. It could be an answer to both long or short distance travel, strategically cost effective and environmentally less damaging means of public transport. In fact many lines closed have been restored and reopened as heritage railways in the UK. Some have been relaid as narrow-gauge but majority are standard-gauge. The Railway system in Great Britain, as of 2006 consists of 16,264 Kilometres in standard-gauge , of which 5,361 kilometres are electrified. The tracks are single, double or quadruple. UK's railway is connected to the European continent by an undersea rail opened in 1994, called the Channel Tunnel. It is one of the busiest lines in Europe. Plans are on to introduce more high speed train routes, which is gaining popularity.
The London Underground rapid transit system is another good example of a unique, popular railway system. This is the oldest underground railways in the world. It was in 1863 that the first section was opened. The network is commonly called the Tube. The Underground has 402 kilometres of track and 270 stations. It is the second longest metro system in the world. More than 1 billion passenger journeys were recorded in 2007.
Future Promise on Track
The political will to go for high-speed trains and new railway infrastructure in a planned manner should be revived, if the UK is to see its next phase of development. The experiments made and lessons learnt in the past should provide the understanding that the modern railway system is a combination of private enterprise and public initiatives. Meanwhile, Eurostar and other high-speed lines, like of France and Spain, on the European continent have proved that they can compete with aviation.
The next era of train or railway would be dictated by technological factors and austerity. When the railway system shifted to diesel-electric locomotives, it set new standards and flagged off a new era. Magnetic Levitation, or Maglev, for trains holds a promise. Low pressure tubes for it to travel through vast regions at very high speeds is another proposition. They use electric power and so leaves hardly a carbon footprint. Other technological innovations, models and futuristic propositions are being deliberated upon for this millennium. So in theory we should be prepared for the next phase of the transport revolution. If an international initiative can be developed to deliberate and optimise on such transportation solutions, it would lead to a better world.