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.

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STEAM at Swindon: a worthy tribute to the GWR

Steam, Swindon

STEAM, Swindon

As a child, I enjoyed going to the Great Western Railway Museum in Swindon. I loved seeing famous engines such as City of Truro and Lode Star – and the setting of a former chapel seemed appropriate given the almost spiritual devotion the GWR inspired.

That small museum was replaced in 2000 by STEAM, a magnificent new museum based in  part of Swindon’s famous old railway works. It’s far more interactive than the old one, and visitors get the chance to drive a train and operate a signal box.

We visited for the second time yesterday. Owen, four, is still unsettled by loud noises, so he wasn’t so impressed by the sound effects, but he loved the various hands-on play areas. We built miniature versions of Saltash, Maidenhead and Culham bridges! And he enjoyed introducing his Brio Duck pannier tank and Toad brake van to their real life counterparts. (Duck, below.)

Duck, meet Duck... GWR panniers

Duck, meet Duck… GWR panniers

The highlight of STEAM is walking underneath 4073 Caerphilly Castle, one of the GWR’s most famous engines. It’s fascinating to glance up to see the machinery of an express engine and tender above you. Curiously and appropriately, this GWR icon spent time in the old loco works in Caerphilly. My sister remembered being taken to see it there – and sure enough, Eric Mountford’s book about the works shows 4073 being repaired at Caerphilly in September 1959.

Through North Star's frame

Through North Star’s frame

STEAM has an excellent shop and cafe. And it’s next to the Outlet Village, including the National Trust’s cafe and exhibition.

Here’s my video of our visit.

STEAM, Swindon

A short history of time in Britain

It’s hard to imagine Britain having different time zones. Yet it’s well under 200 years since Britain had the same time across the nation.

The railways created the need for the whole of Britain to be on the same time. When life moved at a horse’s pace, it didn’t matter that Cardiff time was some 15 minutes behind London’s. Time was local – determined by a sundial. But when the steam engine took people hundreds of miles within hours, the idea of a common time became urgent. Railway time or London time was the result.

Brunel’s Great Western Railway provided the impetus, along with the electric telegraph. In November 1840, the GWR adopted Greenwich Mean Time for its timetable, followed by almost all our railways by 1848. It meant that Bristol was no longer 10 minutes behind London. By 1855, almost all towns in Britain had adopted the unified time, although this only had legal force in 1880. Within 50 years of the GWR’s move, most major countries followed suit, although larger countries did so with multiple time zones.

Bristol time. Photo: Rod Ward, via Wikipedia.

Yet to this day, Bristol’s Exchange clock shows two minute hands: one for London time, the other for Bristol time. It’s a timely reminder of the days when time was a moveable concept in these islands.