Formerly British Rail and British Railways before that, this is the current collective brand name for the main railway network of the island of Great Britain (Northern Ireland
and the Republic of Ireland have their own separate network with a completely different gaugenote
The British railway system was the first in the world and one of the most developed, but is now somewhat smaller than it was in the past. This was significantly due to a man named Dr. Richard Beeching who helped close down about a third of the network (mostly smaller branch lines, but it also included most of the longer Great Central Railway (GCR) from London to Manchester via Leicester, Nottingham and Sheffield) on grounds of economic non-viability (he proposed further cuts but these were rejected). This didn't really work and some of the lines have since been reopened as railway use has grown, with further reopenings planned or actively campaigned. In addition, there is a controversial proposal to build a up to 250mph (400 km/h) high speed line from London to Manchester, dubbed 'HS 2
', which may or may not see the light of day.
About one-third of the network is electrified, mostly via two different systems- 25,000 volt AC overhead wires, or 750v DC third rail (The London Underground
uses four rails in most cases, with the DLR having a different system). This is due to the history of the network.
Previously a massive batch of 120 privately owned companies
, in 1921 the government amalgamated these into four big networks, known as "The Big Four". These were:
- London, Midland and Scottish Railway (LMS)- the main routes were the London-Glasgow West Coast Main Line (WCML) and the London-Sheffield Midland Main Line (MML). Only electrified suburban lines, such as the Euston-Watford Junction ("Watford DC") line and the North London Line, with other stuff following later. Also ran part of the railway network in Northern Ireland until this was separated out.
- A long-time underdog to the GWR and LNER in terms of locomotive design and organisation, the LMS eventually turned things around under William Stanier, who modernised the railway with engines such as the "Black 5" and the 8F. Less glamorous than the competition, but the modernity and ease-of-maintenance led to LMS locomotives becoming the design basis for BR's "Standard" fleet.
- Great Western Railway (GWR)- developed by the famous Isambard Kingdom Brunel and initially wide gauge (at 2,140 millimetres, equal to seven feet wide), which accounts for the big tunnels. Most well known is the London-Bristol Great Western Main Line (GWML), which, along with the MML, still has not been electrified for the most part (except for shorter portions around London), but is currently being so. The GWR was the only railway to keep its identity after the Grouping.
- GWR inspired much loyalty in its staff and those who used it. Often known as God's Wonderful Railway, and for many years, even after nationalization as the Western Region of British Rail, seemed to go out of its way to be as different from everybody else as possible. Chances are, an idyllic rural branch line in fictional media is probably a GWR line - dark green engine, chocolate-and-cream coaches. The Hogwarts Express is pulled by a repainted GWR engine (5972 Olton Hall... which has the name Hogwarts Castle on screen, which has led to jokes among railway enthusiasts as a 'Castle' is a larger class of engine), and another GWR engine takes the Pevensie children out of London at the beginning of The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.
- London and North Eastern Railway (LNER)- the London-Edinburgh East Coast Main Line (ECML) is its best-known part. It was the second-largest of the Big Four after the LMS. The LNER promoted its express trains, which were pulled by some of the fastest engines in the world.
- Perhaps most famous as the railway of No. 4468 Mallard (reached the steam speed record of 126 miles per hour in 1938) and No. 4472 Flying Scotsman (reached 100 miles per hour). Both designed by Sir Nigel Gresley, they currently live at the National Railway Museum in York, itself a key junction on the LNER network.
- Southern Railway- Electrified its suburban lines with third rail (the sheer presence of the lines there, plus the unsuitable geology means that there isn't much Tube-wise south of the River Thames). It made more money from passengers than from freight thanks to its dense suburban network.
After the Second World War
(where the large number of different networks made the system more resilient than the centrally planned networks of mainland Europe), the network was nationalised and became British Railways (later British Rail). Northern Ireland Railwaysnote
was then created in Northern Ireland to run the system there, and today is still functionally separate from the National Rail system in the rest of the UK.
British Rail operated for most of its life in a regional basis centred on London in a manner analogous to the Big Four with Scotland as a separate region; the old LNER routes became Eastern Region, for example. In 1982, this was 'sectorised' into three groups, called (at the time of privatisation), Intercity, Network SouthEast and Regional Railways. In addition, there were six Passenger Transport Executives that ran local services in the bigger urban areas like Manchester.
Privatised under the Major government
, the track maintenance was ultimately (quite effectively, although the government wouldn't admit it) renationalised after Railtrack decided that it was a shopping mall company which couldn't really be bothered to run a rail network, replaced most of its skilled engineers with unskilled casual labourers working for £5 an hour, 'lost' most records of its infrastructure assets i.e. what was built when and how, became the first British corporation to be convicted of manslaughter after two fatal train wrecks caused by - surprise surprise - sloppy maintenance, deliberately adopted a culture of defiance (its words) to its own regulator, virtually shut down the system in a panic for months to make up the maintenance backlog, and then went bankrupt. This did not make the already controversial decision to privatise the rail network any more popular.
It is now a collection of 24 passenger train operating companies (plus freight companies), which change ownership and name fairly frequently, as networks are merged, split or franchises get revoked early - as in the case of the infamous Connex. These companies frequently incorporate the name of their owner into their name (Arriva Trains Wales or Abellio Greater Anglia) or reference a historical Big Four company (Southern).
Note that the ticket and pricing structure is insanely
complicated and often even railway company staff don't know the best option to offer you for your journey. There are apocryphal reports that one particular journey had 30
different ticket options available to choose from at that time. Your best bet is to use one of the many online ticket finder websites to find the best deal. Beware - some tickets are only valid between the specific stations mentioned - if you alight at a different station, even if it's before the one you were supposed to get off at
you may risk a fine!
The British railway system also has the distinction of hosting the world's most scenic railway journey, as voted by the travel magazine Wanderlust
. The West Highland line, which links Glasgow to the highland port towns of Oban and Mallaig, has held the title for three years, beating the Trans-Siberian Railway and the Cuzco-Macchu Picchu line in Peru. It passes over Rannoch Moor and the Glenfinnan viaduct, where Harry Potter
was attacked by Dementors. In summer, part of the route is covered by regular steam trains marketed as "The Jacobite".
Much of the network is centred around London and the famous rail termini. Some of the relevant lines will described under each.
London Terminals [sic] and interesting London railway stuff
London has several major railway stations, referenced in media (there's even a case from the Thomas the Tank Engine
where engines argue about which station is London, not realising they are all correct). In all, at least twelve
stations in Central London open today can be counted as being "major" termini—rather more than the number in other large cities (for comparison, Paris has six, Berlin four, and New York two). This is in large part because of the aforementioned bit with the large number of railway companies in Britain; each liked to operate its own smaller station rather than gather together in a few larger ones. So we now have twelve big stations. In clockwise order from the West direction, these are the current ones:
- London Paddington: Departure point for the Great Western line, which is non-electrified bar a section that serves the Heathrow services from there, it's a visually impressive station. The Great Western line is currently operated by First Great Western. Dubbed "Worst Great Western" and "Worst Late Western" by many, it suffered a fare strike in 2007-08, has the worst punctuality record in the country and has had the government considering pulling the franchise. Isambard Kingdom Brunel would not approve.
- Where Paddington Bear arrived. There is a statue of him at the station.
- Features in the second Austin Powers film.
- The Agatha Christie novel 4.50 From Paddington.
- There are finally long overdue plans in progress to electrify the GWML to Reading, Oxford, Bristol, and South Wales; this will also include electrifying the Valley Lines around Cardiff.
- London Marylebone. Only six platforms, it provides Chiltern Railways' all-diesel services along the Chiltern Main Line to Birmingham and beyond - it is the only non-electrified London terminus. It was the historic terminus of the Great Central Railway (GCR), which was built to European loading gauge standards and in anticipation of a connection to the Channel Tunnel that never came to fruition. The GCR was closed under Dr. Beeching's "axe", although some of it is now a heritage route.
- As well as playing Paddington a few times, the station has appeared on its own. The most memorable appearance (although it's not stated as such, you can ID it via the timetables) is in the classic in both senses of the word Doctor Who story "Doctor Who and the Silurians" where a lot of people keel over and die from an alien virus.
- It's also on the London Monopoly board.
- It's the only London terminus which Sherlock Holmes never used, even though he supposedly lived just round the corner in Baker Street - because the station hadn't been built when the stories up to and including "The Final Problem" were written (it opened in 1899).
- The Beatles departed from this station in A Hard Days Night.
- London Euston - Home of the West Coast Main Line, which goes to Scotland via Manchester, London Midland services to Birmingham and London Overground trains to Watford Junction. The WCML is currently owned by a certain Richard Branson as part of the Virgin network. The current station is an unpopular 1960s concrete affair that is a controversial replacement for the original that was knocked down along with the famous arch.
- London St. Pancras International - so close to King's Cross it shares a Tube station (see next entry), it is now the home of the Eurostar services (hence the "International"). Frankly, it needed some love and was refurbished as a result in the late 2000s/early 2010s to the point it is now considered one of the best stations in the world. Terminus of the Midland Main Line and InterCity services operated by East Midlands Trains, as well as the High Speed services to Kent operated by Southeastern.
- In a more interesting example, in a 1995 adaptation of Richard III, set in a fictionalised 1930s England, it is moved to Westminster via special effects and becomes the titular monarch's seat of government.
- The Midland Hotel, which takes up much of the impressive frontage of the station, was renovated back into a hotel and luxury flats shortly after Eurostar moved there, having served as railway offices for some years and stood empty since the mid-1980s. The Spice Girls' debut video, Wannabe, was filmed in the then-deserted building, along with many other films and TV shows (probably its last use before renovation was for some of the Arkham Asylum scenes in Batman Begins).
- London King's Cross. Home of the East Coast Main Line (current operators Virgin Trains East Coast and two open access operators, First Hull Train and Grand Central). The London Underground station, King's Cross St. Pancras, is a six line station and the busiest on the network. It's been claimed, probably inaccurately, Boudica is buried there. Underwent a major renovation in the late 2000s/early 2010s.
- No discussion of this station is complete without discussing the use and misuse of this station by Harry Potter, where it is the departure point for the Hogwarts Express via Platform 9¾. Platforms 9 and 10 in real life not only have no wall between them, they are not even in the ECML part of the station. 4 and 5 were used in filming.
- J. K. Rowling has stated that she had got confused when writing the first book and had been visualising the platforms at Euston (which, like King's Cross, are platforms separated by two rails).
- However, there is a half a trolley sticking out of the wall of the building near platforms 9, 10 and 11 at King's Cross... which is now a tourist trap with long queues to get your photo taken wearing a scarf.
- And it features on the London Monopoly board.
- London Liverpool Street. Used to be grimy and confusing to get around due to its split-level concourse, but was completely refurbished in the early 1980s and is now bright, airy and spacious... except for platforms 11-18. Home of the Abellio Greater Anglia services to the Anglia region, the network was formerly known as "one" (sic), which led to jokes, like "The eleven twenty-one one service". Or confusion, as in "The 1120 "one" service..."
- Features in the first Mission: Impossible film and also in 24.
- The most likely terrorist target, given its proximity to the City. Since 9/11, the place has been "attacked" twice in drama, such as in a 2004 Mockumentary that involved the place getting chlorine gassed by terrorists (and bombings on the Tube - one of the real 7/7 attacks took place near Liverpool Street). In fact the station's glass roof was partially shattered by a bomb in the 1980s, but no other damage occurred.
- It also features on the London Monopoly board.
- London Fenchurch Street. Has a graceful curved pediment above the main entrance. Only four platforms and home to c2c, the rebranded LTS Rail. The London, Tilbury and Southend Line, formerly dubbed "The Misery Line", a moniker it has now lost after new trains were introduced (the Class 312 slam door trains were not nice at all). Fairly nice station- just make sure you go out the right exit if you're transferring to Tower Hill. The only London terminus with no directly-linked tube station, although Aldgate and Tower Hill are quite close.
- London Cannon Street - a commuter station serving the City of London (ie the financial district) with platforms extending onto the river. The original victorian concourse was replaced by a bland 1960s building, but the red brick walls and towers at the river end have been refurbished. Trains using the station have to negotiate a tight curve around Southwark Cathedral, which causes a lot of wear and tear on the wheels.
- London Blackfriars:
- Reconstructed between 2009 and 2012, and now uniquely has platforms running across the River Thames with entrances on both banks.
- Some Blackfriars trains used to be continue northward to a terminus at Holborn Viaduct. This was demolished and replaced by City Thameslink, on the Thameslink route between Blackfriars and St Pancras International.
- London Charing Cross. One of the smaller termini with only six platforms, home to Southeastern Trains services to the south-east of England. The closest station to Trafalgar Square and the West End, it sits on the north bank of the Thames, and can be seen from Waterloo. Southeastern Trains are known for their tendency to shut down their entire network if even a single millimeter of snow is detected, something which naturally pisses off the thousands of commuters who rely on it every day.
- London Victoria: Until the advent of Eurostar and direct connections through the Channel Tunnel, Victoria was where you started your journey to the continent. Regular trains ran to Dover and Folkestone to connect with the channel ferries, not to mention more luxurious trains such as the Golden Arrow and the London extension of the Orient Express network. It still has some international connections, as many tourists use it to go to and from Gatwick Airport because nobody's told them it's cheaper to go from Blackfriars.
- London Bridge (always called that, since it's the actual name of the nearby bridge). The main part of the station is a terminus, but some lines run past it and on to Waterloo East and Charing Cross, or to Cannon Street, or to Blackfriars, St. Pancras and beyond on the Thameslink line. Trivia: the station is right next to London's tallest building (as of 2014), the Shard.
- London Waterloo. Named after the 1815 battle (before any more French people complain, they should note Gare d'Austerlitz in Paris), it contained Waterloo International, home of Eurostar until 2007. It also had (until World War II) the London Necropolis station next door, a station dedicated to running funeral trains for the London Necropolis company, who ran trains to the Brookwood Cemetery, where over 240,000 people are buried and designed to deal with London's deceased. Waterloo East is a smaller station, between London Bridge and Charing Cross as noted above. It is connected to the main station by a footbridge, while the eastern end of the station connects with Southwark Underground Station.
- Part of The Bourne Ultimatum is filmed there.
- It was used a few times for Run for the Border plots in The Bill when Waterloo International was there.
- In Mr. Bean's Holiday, the title character sets out from here.
- Recent proposals have been made for all London-bound sleeper trains terminate at the now-disused International part of the station... instead it will be brought back into regular use for South West trains.
- The footbridge to Waterloo East used to carry trains; there's a scene early in The War of the Worlds where it's being used for a troop train.
All these stations, again, are in Central London
. Paddington, Marylebone, Charing Cross, and Victoria are in the City of Westminster; Euston, St. Pancras, and King's Cross are in the Borough of Camden; Liverpool Street, Fenchurch Street, Cannon Street, and Blackfriars are in the City; London Bridge is in Southwark; and Waterloo is in Lambeth.
In the late 1960s, British Rail bought the TOPS computer system from Southern Pacific to keep track of its rolling stock. They allocated numbers to their locos, ships (yes, they did own some ships through their Sealink ferry business) and multiple units in a numbering system that survives with some changes to this day - The Other Wiki
has more information
. In addition, the Southern Region inherited a multiple unit system from the Southern Railway that still sort of survives today in unofficial form and you will generally hear the Southern classification used for these units in favour of the TOPS one.
Most of the trains in regular service the network now have automatic doors, while the rest have doors that are locked remotely pre-departure and can be opened only after arrival. Bizarrely, to leave a non-retrofitted Mk3 carriagenote
you must open the window, lean out of it, and use the door handle on the outside - much to the confusion of uninformed tourists. Not counting the Eurostar trains, the fastest ones on the network are the Class 91 "Intercity 225" loco-hauled trains found on the East Coast Main Line, the Class 390 "Pendolino" units on the West Coast Main Line, and fastest of all (at 140mph top speed) Southeastern's Class 395 "High-Speed" or "Javelin" trains, which partly use domestic sections of Eurostar track with overhead wiring, and partly third-rail commuter lines at slower speeds.
Common trains to see on the network today are:
- The Turbostar (Class 168, 170-172) DMU/ Electrostar EMU family (Class 357, 375-379, 387) - replaced a larger number of older classes post-privatisation; the variants have different ends to them, but they all combine good top speed with comfort and air condition.
- Networker Family - known under this as they were developed for the BR 'Network South East' sector covering London and SE England in the late 1980s (best known for its three-stripe livery) and intended to the third generation multiple units, but a poor economy in the early 1990s hindered orders. Have distinctive round front ends.
- Pacers - What you get when you stick a Leyland bus body on train wheels. Unpopular, uncomfortable, ugly and have been around a lot longer than planned; they aren't really suitable for modern use (unless refurbished, they can't be used after 2019 due to the Disability Discrimination Act) and their crash protection is dubious. Intended for rural use, they're now common commuter units in the North, Wales and the South West.
- 'Second Generation' multiple units - based on the Mark 3 coach, these older sliding door units (such as the Sprinter family, found in the provinces) are still common for longer distance journeys, albeit getting long in the tooth.
- Class 43 (HST) power car - the world's fastest diesel locomotive, the 'Intercity 125' (always operated as two power cars with a number, varying between franchise, of Mark 3 coaches between them) is nearing the end of its life, but is still very common, especially on the Great Western line.
- Mark 3 coaches - still very common on long-distance routes, usually hauled by a locomotive with a driving trailer at the other end or sandwiched between two HST power cars - the HST versions are not compatible with other Mark 3 stock). These include the above-mentioned manually operated doors and in most cases, toilets that flush directly onto the track... which is why there are signs telling you to flush them while stationary.
- They were also sold to Ireland, but have now been retired.
- Can be distinguished from the older (still around on limited numbers) Mark 2 coaches by counting the big windows - they have eight on each side, the shorter Mark 2 has seven.
- Mark 3 based multiple units, such as the Class 442 Wessex Electrics... currently used on Gatwick Express services from Victoria, which they are pretty unsuitable for (Southern is getting new trains to replace them)
It is common for trains to be 'cascaded' as one operator gets some new trains and passes its old ones to someone else; combined with franchise changes, the change from region to sector-based operation in BR in the 1980s and general new paint jobs, a train can easily go through four or five different liveries in its lifetime.
Notable retired trains include:
- Class 42/43 (Warship Class) - diesel-hydraulic locos introduced in 1958, these were licenced modifications of the West German V200s for the smaller loading gauges of the UK. All bar two were named after Royal Navy ships, Their career was short; BR became prejudiced against hydraulic and they couldn't haul new coaching stock - they left service in 1971.
- Class 55 'Deltic' - known for their distinctive sound from their two-stroke engine, these diesels were a major improvement in East Coast performance; they were clocking 100mph regularly from 1963. After their replacement by the HST, six have preserved and still do railtours.
- Class 117 DMU - A popular and long-running three-car unit (entered service 1959, finally retired 2000), a number of these can be found on heritage lines.
- Class 421 '4-CIG' (Corridor Brig'hton - IG being the old SR telegraph code for Brighton) EMU - one of the Southern Region's most common 'slam-door units' with 166 built; these entered service in 1964 and didn't finally leave it until 2010; four have been preserved.
- There were 22 versions with a buffet car in place of the trailer coach; these were known as '4-BIG'.
- LMS Stainier Class 5 aka 'Black Five' - 842 of these steam locos were built for mixed traffic work and survived into the BR era; 18 ended up preserved and remain highly popular for railtours.
It's important to note two things about British trains, especially when writing fiction:
National Rail and its predecessors in popular culture
- Britain has historically the most heavily restricted 'loading gauge' to rail width in the world, which basically means that the trains tend to be less wide and less tall than those on the continent; this can cause issues when shipping freight between countries and indeed the first Eurostar trains, the Class 373, are slightly smaller versions of the TGV designed for use on British lines in the south of England that the service ran through until the opening of High Speed 1. This has also precluded the widespread adoption (or indeed much adoption at all) of double-decker trains, the only example being the two 4DD EMUs built for the Southern Railway in 1949; they weren't very successful, but stayed in service until 1971, well into the BR era.
- The standard platform height is 915mm (give or take 25mm) compared with the much lower heights in many other countries - you will only have to make one step up to the train when boarding as opposed to the two or three elsewhere.
No discussion of the British rail network is complete without discussing its fans
, often known as "trainspotters" (inaccurately applying a sub-type to the whole community). "Trainspotters", people who note train numbers as they go past, are depicted as anorak-wearing geeks, even by other railfans.
- Monty Python's Flying Circus had a go as well - rather ironically, as Michael Palin is himself a trainspotter.
- Since the beginning of the "War on Terror", and in particular since the 7/7 bombings, the hobby has come under threat. Trainspotters have complained of rough treatment - even harassment - by over-zealous policemen and anti-terror officials. Naturally this state of affairs has proved controversial, and has been reported on by national newspapers on more than one occasion.
These people maintain websites, write books, take photographs and work to restore older trains and closed lines. There is also a considerable amount of slang. They usually do not break the law (sometimes helping in its enforcement and rail safety via reporting stuff).
(This is of course, not just confined to the UK.)
Linked to all of this is the very active 'heritage' railway scene in the UK, which got started in the 1960s as BR removed steam from the main line and Beeching was removing lines from the passenger maps. A good number of old locomotives were saved from scrapping by a Barry Island owner who decided it made more economic sense to sell them to the preservation movement than cut them up. Many of these run on (mostly) single-track heritage lines that are reopened passenger lines, where they have been joined by ex-BR locomotives and some Diesel Multiple Units, but there are companies that do fairly expensive steam tours on the mainline, something guaranteed to make regular users gawp in amazement.
Famous works involving British railways are legion:
- Brief Encounter
- The 39 Steps
- The Railway Children
- The Titfield Thunderbolt
- Several Expys of British locos appear in the game Transport Tycoon.
- And indeed Thomas the Tank Engine/The Railway Series. The island's railway is a fictional region of British Railways with a greater degree of operating independence accorded to it and the island's baronet as Controller, which is why the mainland dieselization order didn't affect it. Since the railway still turns a profit, well enough has been left alone. The engines are mostly based on British locomotives, for example Gordon is an LNER A3 [like Flying Scotsman], Henry became an LMS Black 5MT after his rebuild, and Thomas himself is an LBSCR E2; in real life, these were all scrapped, making Thomas the Last of His Kind.