British Rail

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British Rail (in full, the British Railways Board) was the nationalised railway of Britain from 1948 until the system was privatised piecemeal in the 1990s. It included almost all the standard gauge railways in Great Britain, with the exception of the London Underground, the Tyne and Wear Metro, Merseyrail, tram lines, and some industrial and colliery lines; railways in Northern Ireland were run by a separate authority.


Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher led the drive to privatise British Rail in the 1980s. In attempting to meet government-mandated profitability and efficiency goals, the British Rail Board behaved not simply as the government directed, but rather according to internal needs and initiatives. Even in the early days of movement toward privatization, the board tried to develop its own policies, and, though it soon became clear that full divestiture was to be the goal, events proceeded through various stages, rather than in a forced march along a government-designed path.[1]

Post privatisation

Subsequent to privatisation, Britain's network of tracks and stations has been owned and maintained by Railtrack, and subsequently Network Rail, while passenger train services have been managed by numerous regional Train Operating Companies (TOCs), who lease rolling stock from a number of leasing companies. Rail freight services are operated by rail freight companies.

Although privatisation has brought a huge amount of investment, large efficiency savings and improved infrastructure and services, the government has continued to strangle innovation by heavily regulating companies behaviour, dictating timetables and service patterns as well as fares, though despite this, since privatisation passenger usage and quality of service has soared well above socialised rail systems such as those in France, Spain and the Netherlands.

Efforts by certain rail operators to obtain greater freedom to operate services have met with stiff opposition, with some socialists calling for the entire rail system to be re-nationalised. This agenda came one step nearer to realisation in 2002, when the Labour government of Tony Blair forced Railtrack into bankruptcy, and split its responsibilities between the Strategic Rail Authority and the government controlled company Network Rail.

Further reading

  • Anson, Mike. British Rail 1974-97: From Integration to Privatisation (2004) excerpt and text search
  • Bishop, Matthew, et al. Privatization and economic performance, (1994) 378 pages excerpt and text search
  • Bonavia, Michael R. British Rail: The First Twenty-Five Years‎ (1981) 208 pages
  • Gourvish, Terry, and Mike Anson, British Rail, 1974-1997: From Integration To Privatisation, (2004) 700 pages; excerpt and text search


  1. Terence R. Gourvish, "British Rail's "Business-Led" Organization, 1977-1990: Government-Industry Relations in Britain's Public Sector." Business History Review 1990 64(1): 109-149.