Centenary of Britain’s Big Four railways

The Times marks LNER’s 100th birthday

The LNER rail company has been celebrating its centenary this week, with this splendid video:

I admire the company’s enterprising PR spirit. But there’s more to this 100th birthday than you’d think reading an @LNER tweet. The current LNER is just five years old, taking over rail services on the east coast main line in 2018. The new operator revived the name of the historic LNER, which was created on 1 January 1923 when some 120 British railway companies were grouped into the ‘Big Four’: GWR, LNER, LMS and Southern Railway. Those iconic brands disappeared exactly 25 years later when the railways were nationalised. Yet their enduring appeal led to three of the famous names being revived by privatised-era rail operators: GWR, Southern and LNER. (The reborn LNER scrapped the conjunction in the old name, London and North Eastern Railway.)

The British government’s 1920 white paper that led to the 1923 grouping

It is striking that the aim of the grouping was to make the railways more efficient, and to eliminate direct competition ‘as far as possible’. Indeed, Winston Churchill spoke in favour of nationalising the railways in 1918, but changed his mind by the time the 1945 Labour government nationalised the Big Four as British Railways. The eventual amalgamation created just four groups rather than the seven suggested in 1920.

LNER – 1923 edition

The original LNER was always short of money. It was essentially a freight railway, with over 60 percent of its traffic revenue coming from goods traffic, compared with 26 percent for the Southern. It suffered terribly from the Great Depression and the collapse of the industrial traffic between the wars. As a result, LNER shareholders received a fraction of the compensation received on nationalisation in 1948 by their GWR and Southern counterparts.

Yet for a freight railway, the LNER was brilliant at creating a glamorous image with its famous expresses and locomotives, especially Flying Scotsman, and the streamlined A4s, seen above in York in 2013, culminating in Mallard’s 126 mph world speed record for steam in 1938. Its enduring appeal was illustrated by Mallard being an answer in a TV quiz show the Weakest Link over New Year 2023. It’s ironic: the most prestigious train driving duties were termed the top link!

The greater Great Western

The Great Western Railway was the only major railway company to survive the grouping in 1923, as celebrated in the cartoon above published in the South Wales News (via @RWLDproject). It took over a host of smaller rural railways in England and Wales, and the intense network of South Wales companies created to carry Welsh steam coal traffic from pit to port. One of those Welsh companies, the Taff Vale, had a boardroom in Cardiff to rival the GWR’s, reflecting the riches that flowed from the transport of ‘black gold’. By 1923, however, the heyday of the coal trade had passed for good, although that wasn’t obvious at the time.

The GWR marks a genuine centenary, 1935

Unlike LNER in 2023 (and the 15 year old LMS in 1938), the GWR celebrated a genuine centenary in 1935, with elegant ‘centenary’ coaches and a birthday edition of its in-house magazine, above. This reflected the GWR’s pioneering use of PR and marketing to tell its story and attract customers for its rail services and hotels. Yet by 1935 the GWR was no longer the innovator it had been earlier in the century. The (original) LNER and LMS dominated the media with their battle for the world rail speed record, with LNER’s Mallard winning the crown in 1938. By contrast, the GWR rested on its admittedly impressive laurels, especially its magnificent safety record. Throughout the era of the Big Four, rail accident reports repeatedly urged the other companies to replicate the GWR’s automatic train control, which applied a train’s brakes if a driver passed a signal without doing so. But the nationalised BR only took action after the terrible Harrow & Wealdstone and Lewisham disasters in the 1950s.

LMS: the biggest of the Big Four

The London, Midland & Scottish Railway was a giant. It was said to be the largest private enterprise business in the world, with over a quarter of a million employees and almost 7,000 miles of railway. It took several years for the LMS to emerge as a unified entity under the outstanding figure of Josiah Stamp as president in 1926, his title unusually following the American model of business organisation.

Stamp joined the LMS from chemicals giant ICI, like the future boss of British Railways Dr Richard Beeching. He had a knack for asking fundamental questions that no one had bothered to raise, such as why the LMS’s heaviest passenger trains were hauled by two engines unlike those on the GWR and LNER, which were single-headed. As a result, the LMS quickly produced the Royal Scot class of engines to abolish the expense of double-heading. The railway’s performance was later totally transformed by Sir William Stanier, one of the greatest locomotive engineers of the 20th century, whose Duchess class pacifics were a worthy rival to the LNER’s magnificent A4s.

Yet Stamp’s lack of railway experience came with drawbacks, as it did for Beeching 35 years later. The LMS leadership was successful in driving efficiency, yet failed to create true team spirit. Unlike Herbert Walker at the Southern, Stamp did not realise the importance of staff morale in a service industry like the railways. The LMS was a hugely centralised organisation that was infamous for its penny-pinched. It sent out letters on paper that could have been mistaken for coming from ‘a poverty-stricken corner shop’ in Michael Bonavia’s vivid phrase in The Four Great Railways (1980). The company was equally unstrategic in its profound lack of interest in electrification, with just a few short, minor lines electrified between the wars.

LMS 8F at Barry, 1979

The LMS, like the rest of the Big Four, passed into history 75 years ago. But several of its magnificent 8F and Black 5 locomotives served to the very last days of steam on British Railways in August 1968. Happily 8F 48305, which I photographed at Barry scrapyard in 1979, was later restored and is still hauling trains in the 2020s.

The enterprising Southern

Echoes of the Southern Railway, Barry, 1982

For all the glamour of the LNER and LMS high speed trains, and the GWR’s stately heritage, the smallest of the Big Four was arguably the most impressive. The Southern Railway was often mocked by its rivals as a mere tramway with no problems, but its success was a tribute to its far-sighted general manager Sir Herbert Walker. Walker stepped up a programme of electrification of its London commuter rail network and later, in 1933, the mainline to Brighton, opened on the Southern’s 10th birthday. The Southern’s foresight looks even more impressive a century on, when far too many of Britain’s railways await the wires, especially in Wales.

Farewell to the Big Four

On new year’s day 1948, the Big Four railways were replaced by British Railways (BR). While many mourned the loss of the old companies, others rejoiced that Britain finally had its own state railway.

The old companies’ locos and rolling stock took on the new identity of the nationalised rail network. The photo above of an ex GWR engine in Barry scrapyard in Wales shows two BR logos – the older symbol has been revealed after 20 years of corroding Welsh sea air. (The Southern loco earlier in this post has both BR logos and the original SOUTHERN legend.)

BR itself passed into history in the 1990s with rail privatisation: the last BR train ran in April 1997. We’ve seen a dizzying succession of rail brands over the years since, including GNER, WAGN, Connex, Virgin Trains, LTS Rail, C2C, Thames Trains, Arriva Trains Wales, South West Trains, Wrexham & Shropshire, Greater Anglia, East Midlands Trains – and Silverlink, whose name still makes me shudder 21 years on, thanks to the ordeal of commuting on its trains from Tring to London during the winter of 2001/2002…

Further reading

If you’re interested in the Big Four railways, I recommend The Four Great Railways by Michael Bonavia, published by David & Charles in 1980, and still available second hand. Bonavia worked for the LNER and later held senior roles in BR, so provided an expert view of the grouping era. He also wrote a history of BR’s first quarter century: British Rail: the First 25 Years.

More recently, transport historian and commentator Christian Wolmar has published a complete history of BR: British Rail A New History.

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