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 run by Northern Ireland Railways (NIR) in the north and Iarnród Éireann (IE) in the south).
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 now been reopened as railway use has grown.
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). 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, 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, the network was nationalised and became British Railways (later British Rail). Northern Ireland Railwaysnote Briefly called the "Ulster Transport Authority" 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.
Privatised under the Major government, the track maintenance was recently (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, 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 26 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.
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 Termini 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 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 recently suffered a fare strike, has the worst punctuality record in the country and has 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.
There are finally long overdue plans to electrify the GWML to Reading, Oxford, Bristol, and South Wales.
London Marylebone. Only six platforms, it provides Chiltern Railways' all-diesel services along the Chiltern Main Line to Birmingham. 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".
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 were written.
Well, not when some of the stories were written anyway. Marylebone Station opened in 1899, so it pre-dates all of the post-Reichenbach Falls stories.
The Beatles departed from this station in A Hard Day's Night.
London Euston- Home of the West Coast Main Line, which goes to Scotland via Manchester. The WCML is currently owned by a certain Richard Branson as part of the Virgin network.
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 recently refurbished as a result. Terminus of the Midland Main Line and InterCity services operated by East Midlands Trains.
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 (now owned by National Express under the name National Express East Coast after a franchise yank from the previous owners re-nationalised as "East Coast" after the franchise holder unceremoniously pulled out mid-tenure). 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.
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 9 3/4. 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 are 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 seperated by two rails).
However, there is a half a trolley sticking out of the wall of the building containing tracks 9, 10 and 11 at King's Cross.
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. Home of the National Express East 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..."
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 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.
Recently reconstructed, 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 Southeasten 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.
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 newest and tallest building (as of 2012), 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. The eastern end of the station connects with Southwark Underground Station.
Recent proposals have been made for all London-bound sleeper trains terminate at the now-disused International part of the station.
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.
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 opened only after arrival. 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 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.
National Rail and its predecessors in popular culture
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.
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).
Famous works involving British railways are legion:
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.