When was the golden era of British railways? It seems a truth widely acknowledged is that this was the 1920s and 1930s, the time of Flying Scotsman and the Royal Scot, of romantic streamlined expresses steaming across the nation and of brilliant British engineering. This was definitely not the golden era of railways, but more on this later.
Ah you might say, are you going to make some clever argument that we are in fact living in a railway golden era? No, I’m not, though that is far closer to the truth than the previous guess.
A few more cynical readers might suppose that the golden era was that of British Rail, with the railways not being run for profit, but instead for the good of the nation. This is not the case either, and again, more on this later.
No, if there was a golden era on British railways, it was between about 1890 and 1914. This may be an era of railways you’re less familiar with, so let me fill you in. At this time, the railways were run by many, many vertically integrated (owning track and train) companies, far too many to list here. Some of these companies were very small, in particular light railways, perhaps owning a few miles of track and small items of rolling stock. They might not even own their locomotives – many were bought on hire purchase.
However, some of these companies were relatively large. During this period, the London and North-Western Railway (LNWR) was the largest commercial enterprise in the entire British Empire, and hugely profitable. The LNWR was by no means unique – the Great Western, the Midland and the Lancashire & Yorkshire were also large companies, making handsome profits.
These companies between them had built enormous mileages of track. This was the era of maximum track mileage – there have never been more railways in this country. Barely a village or hamlet was left without a rail connection, and, since there was no real alternative to railway travel for long distances, many of these lines survived where they wouldn’t today.
Furthermore, there was genuine competition in this era. The companies making up the East Coast Mainline (the Great Northern and North Eastern Railways) competed vigorously with the companies making up the West Coast Mainline (the LNWR and the Caledonian) for traffic to Scotland, resulting in races to the North and never before seen speeds. Adding to the competition was the Midland Railway, which also ran services to Scotland via the slower but more picturesque Settle and Carlisle route.
During this period, the big companies upgraded many of their trains enormously. Where previously trains had no toilets or lighting, and you had to stay in your compartment, modern express trains now featured electric lights, flushing toilets and corridor connections. That corridor connection proved handy – you could now take a stroll to a restaurant or buffet car, where you could eat fine food on the move.
All this advancement continued until the First World War. The war put the railways under never-before-seen pressure, and for the first time under government control. This is a topic for another time, but suffice to say World War One was not a happy experience for the railways, during or after.
What of the supposed golden era? Well, I will grant you that the streamliners of the 1930s were faster than anything seen previously on British railways, but they were an operational headache, because most trains were much slower. This was an era where for most passengers, little had changed in decades, and certainly speeds hadn’t improved. Trains were mostly dirty, old and slow, especially freight trains.
Road and soon air competition nibbled away and the companies (the big four, the London North Eastern (LNER), London, Midland & Scottish (LMS), the Great Western (GWR) and the Southern (SR)) struggled to keep their heads above water. Lines began to be closed, and the trend had been set for the rest of the century. Then the Second World War put an end to what hopes they may have had of investment (more on this in future).
The British Rail era (1965 to 1994 – the railways had been nationalised in 1948, but British Rail wasn’t the company name until 1965) was certainly not a golden era. The railways were in poor financial health and were reliant on government subsidies, and investments, when they did come, were minimal and failed to address underlying problems. Great strides were made in efficiency, and the business sectors of the late BR era proved relatively successful, but passenger numbers were way down.
Mind you, this is a topic ripe for debate. If you have your own ideas, or you’ve spotted something I’ve missed, I would love to hear about it in the comments.