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The railway system of Great Britain, the principal territory of the United Kingdom, is the oldest in the world. The system was originally built as a patchwork of local rail links operated by small private railway companies. These isolated links developed during the railway boom of the 1840s into a national network, although still run by dozens of competing companies. Over the course of the 19th and early 20th centuries, these amalgamated or were bought by competitors until only a handful of larger companies remained (see railway mania). The entire network was brought under government control during the First World War and a number of advantages of amalgamation and planning were revealed. However, the government resisted calls for the nationalisation of the network. In 1923, almost all the remaining companies were grouped into the "big four", the Great Western Railway, the London and North Eastern Railway, the London, Midland and Scottish Railway and the Southern Railway. The "Big Four" were joint-stock public companies and they continued to run the railway system until 31 December 1947.
From the start of 1948, the "big four" were nationalised to form British Railways. Though there were few initial changes to the service, usage increased and the network became profitable. Declining passenger numbers and financial losses in the late 1950s and early 1960s prompted the closure of many branch and main lines, and small stations, under the Beeching Axe. Passenger services experienced a renaissance with the introduction of high-speed inter-city trains in the 1970s. The 1980s saw severe cuts in government funding and above-inflation increases in fares and the service became more cost-effective. Railway operations were privatised during 1994-1997. Ownership of the track and infrastructure passed to Railtrack, whilst passenger operations were franchised to individual private sector operators (originally there were 25 franchises) and the freight services sold outright. Passenger levels have since increased to above the level they had been at in the late-1940s. The Hatfield accident set in motion the series of events that resulted in the ultimate collapse of Railtrack and its replacement with Network Rail, a state-owned, not-for-dividend company.
Although the idea of running freight carts in tracks carved into rock dates back at least as far as ancient Greece and wooden-railed wagonways originated in Germany in the 16th century, the first use of steam locomotives was in Britain. The earliest "railways" were straight and were constructed from parallel rails of timber on which ran horse-drawn carts. These were succeeded in 1793 when Benjamin Outram constructed a mile-long tramway with L-shaped cast iron rails. These rails became obsolete when William Jessop began to manufacture cast iron rails without guiding ledges - the wheels of the carts had flanges instead. Cast iron is brittle and so the rails tended to break easily. Consequently, in 1820, John Birkenshaw introduced a method of rolling wrought iron rails, which were used from then onwards.
The first commercially successful steam locomotive was Salamanca, built in 1812 by John Blenkinsop and Matthew Murray for the 4 ft (1,219 mm) gauge Middleton Railway. Salamanca was a rack and pinion locomotive, with cog wheels driven by two cylinders embedded into the top of the centre-flue boiler.
In 1813, William Hedley and Timothy Hackworth designed a locomotive (Puffing Billy) for use on the tramway between Stockton and Darlington. Puffing Billy featured piston rods extending upwards to pivoting beams, connected in turn by rods to a crankshaft beneath the frames which, in turn, drove the gears attached to the wheels. This meant that the wheels were coupled, allowing better traction. A year later, George Stephenson improved on that design with his first locomotive Blücher, which was the first locomotive to use single-flanged wheels.
That design convinced the backers of the proposed Stockton and Darlington Railway to appoint Stephenson as Engineer for the line in 1821. While traffic was originally intended to be horse-drawn, Stephenson carried out a fresh survey of the route to allow steam haulage. The Act was subsequently amended to allow the usage of steam locomotives and also to allow passengers to be carried on the railway. The 25-mile (40 km) long route opened on 27 September 1825 and, with the aid of Stephenson's Locomotion No 1, was the first locomotive-hauled public railway in the world.
The first public railways were built as local rail links operated by small private railway companies. With increasing rapidity, more and more lines were built, often with scant regard for their potential for traffic. The 1840s were by far the biggest decade for railway growth. In 1840, when the decade began, railway lines in Britain were few and scattered but, within ten years, a virtually complete network had been laid down and the vast majority of towns and villages had a rail connection and sometimes two or three. Over the course of the 19th and early 20th centuries, most of the pioneering independent railway companies amalgamated or were bought by competitors, until only a handful of larger companies remained (see Railway Mania).
The period also saw a steady increase in government involvement, especially in safety matters. The 1840 "Act for Regulating Railways" empowered the Board of Trade to appoint railway inspectors. The Railway Inspectorate was established in 1840, to enquire into the causes of accidents and recommend ways of avoiding them. As early as 1844, a bill had been put before Parliament suggesting the state purchase of the railways; this was not adopted. It did, however, lead to the introduction of minimum standards for the construction of carriages and the compulsory provision of 3rd class accommodation for passengers - so-called "Parliamentary trains".
The entire network was brought under government control during the First World War and a number of advantages of amalgamation and planning were revealed. However, the Conservative members of the wartime coalition government resisted calls for the formal nationalisation of the railways (first proposed by William Ewart Gladstone as early as the 1830s) in 1921.
On 1 January 1923, almost all the railway companies were grouped into the Big Four: the Great Western Railway, the London and North Eastern Railway, the London, Midland and Scottish Railway and the Southern Railway companies. A number of other lines, already operating as joint railways, remained separate from the Big Four; these included the Somerset and Dorset Joint Railway and the Midland and Great Northern Joint Railway. The "Big Four" were joint-stock public companies and they continued to run the railway system until 31 December 1947.
The competition from road transport during the 1920s and 1930s greatly reduced the revenue available to the railways, even though the needs for maintenance on the network had never been higher, as investment had been deferred over the past decade. Rail companies accused the government of favouring road haulage through the construction of roads subsidised by the ratepayer, while restricting its ability to use flexible pricing because it was held to nationally-agreed rate cards. The government response was to commission several inconclusive reports; the Salter Report of 1933 finally recommended that road transport should be taxed directly to fund the roads and increased Vehicle Excise Duty and fuel duties were introduced. It also noted that many small lines would never be likely to compete with road haulage. Although these road pricing changes helped their survival, the railways entered a period of slow decline, owing to a lack of investment and changes in transport policy and lifestyles.
During the Second World War, the companies' managements joined together, effectively operating as one company. Assisting the country's 'war effort' put a severe strain on the railways' resources and a substantial maintenance backlog developed. After 1945, for both practical and ideological reasons, the government decided to bring the rail service into the public sector.
From the start of 1948, the railways were nationalised to form British Railways (latterly "British Rail") under the control of the British Transport Commission. Though there were few initial changes to the service, usage increased and the network became profitable. Regeneration of track and stations was completed by 1954. In the same year, changes to the British Transport Commission, including the privatisation of road haulage, ended the coordination of transport in the UK. Rail revenue fell and, in 1955, the network again ceased to be profitable. The mid-1950s saw the hasty introduction of diesel and electric rolling stock to replace steam in a modernisation plan costing many millions of pounds but the expected transfer back from road to rail did not occur and losses began to mount. This failure to make the railways more profitable through investment led governments of all political persuasions to restrict rail investment to a drip feed and seek economies through cutbacks.
The desire for profitability led to a major reduction in the network during the mid-1960s. Dr. Richard Beeching was given the task by the government of re-organising the railways ("the Beeching Axe"). This policy resulted in many branch lines and secondary routes being closed because they were deemed uneconomic. The closure of stations serving rural communities removed much feeder traffic from main line passenger services. The closure of many freight depots that had been used by larger industries such as coal and iron led to much freight transferring to road haulage. The closures were extremely unpopular with the general public at that time and remain so today.
Passenger levels decreased steadily from the late fifties to late seventies. Passenger services then experienced a renaissance with the introduction of the high-speed Intercity 125 trains in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The 1980s saw severe cuts in government funding and above-inflation increases in fares, and the service became more cost-effective.
Between 1994 and 1997, British Rail was privatised. Ownership of the track and infrastructure passed to Railtrack, passenger operations were franchised to individual private sector operators (originally there were 25 franchises) and the freight services sold outright (six companies were set up, but five of these were sold to the same buyer). The Conservative government under John Major said that privatisation would see an improvement in passenger services. Passenger levels have since increased to above the level they had been at in the late 1950s,  though whether this is as a result of any actual improvement in passenger services is moot.
The railways have become significantly safer since privatisation.[clarification needed] However, the public image of rail travel was severely damaged following some significant accidents after privatisation. These included the Southall rail crash (where a train with faulty automatic train protection equipment went through a red light), the Ladbroke Grove rail crash (also caused by a train going through a red light) and the Hatfield accident (caused by a rail fragmenting due to the development of microscopic cracks).
Following the Hatfield accident, the rail infrastructure company Railtrack imposed over 1,200 emergency speed restrictions across its network and instigated an extremely costly nationwide track replacement programme. The consequential severe operational disruption to the national network and the company's spiralling costs set in motion the series of events which resulted in the ultimate collapse of the company and its replacement with Network Rail, a state-owned, not-for-dividend company.
As franchisees (most notably GNER) have over-bid to renew their franchises, it is believed that some will have wiped out their profitability in the light of rising subsidy repayments back to the Exchequer. If the franchise holders withdraw, responsibility for operating trains will go back to the Department of Transport, further fuelling calls for a full-scale re-nationalisation. However, the recently terminated Connex South Eastern franchise, while "nationalised" as South Eastern Trains until the end of the franchise period, was subsequently re-franchised as Southeastern.
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