History of rail transport in Great Britain 1995 to date

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This article is part of a series on the History of rail transport in Great Britain

Rail Passengers in Great Britain from 1829-2018

The period from 1995 covers the history of rail transport in Great Britain following the privatisation of British Rail. During this period, passenger volumes have grown rapidly,[1] safety has improved,[2][3] and subsidies per journey have fallen. However, there is debate as to whether this is due to privatisation or to better government regulation. See impact of privatisation for more information. During this period, High Speed 1 and the West Coast Main Line upgrade were completed and more construction projects are currently under way.

Rail subsidies from 1985/86-2016/17, including funding for Crossrail and HS2.[4]

Overall rail subsidies have risen, as shown in the graph, although spend per journey has decreased. Rail subsidies have increased from £2.5bn in 1992-93 to £3.3bn in 2015-16 (in current prices), although subsidy per journey has fallen from £3.32 to £1.89.[5][6] However, this masks great regional variation: for instance, in 2014-15 funding varied from "£1.41 per passenger journey in England to £6.51 per journey in Scotland and £8.34 per journey in Wales."[6]

Due to the increase in passenger numbers and the prospect of high speed rail both within Great Britain and connecting to Europe, this period has been called the start of a new Golden Age of rail travel.[7][8] However quickly increasing passenger numbers have meant many trains are very crowded at peak times.[9] Peak-time fares have increased by over 200% (since privatisation) to deter people from travelling at these times,[5] whereas the price of advance tickets has halved in the same period.[10]

Government policy[edit]

Reform under the Labour government (1997–2010)[edit]

Rail modal share of Passenger Transport (1952–2015)[11]

The Labour government (elected in 1997 after the majority of the privatisation process had been completed) did not completely reverse the railway privatisation of the previous administration. Initially it left the new structure largely in place, however its main innovation in the early years was the creation of the Strategic Rail Authority (SRA), initially in shadow form until the Transport Act 2000 received Royal Assent, as well as the appointment of Tom Winsor as Rail Regulator, who took a much harder line with the rail industry, and Railtrack in particular.[12]

In the wake of the Hatfield rail crash in 2000, Railtrack entered into financial meltdown and the industry was in deep crisis. Labour refused to continue to bail out Railtrack and the company was put into Railway Administration in 2001 and a new company, Network Rail emerged to replace Railtrack in 2002. Since September 2014, Network Rail has been classified as a "government body".[13][14]

The Strategic Rail Authority lasted just five years. Following the passing of the Railways Act 2005, its business was wound up and its functions transferred to the Department for Transport Rail Group and the Office for Rail Regulation.[15] Further changes followed, which saw the government take back a greater degree of control.

Another important development occurred in the aftermath of the Potters Bar accident in May 2002 when a commuter train derailed (coincidentally on the same stretch of the East Coast Main Line as Hatfield) due to poorly maintained points. This resulted in Network Rail taking all track maintenance back in house and the industry went on to enjoy the longest period in modern times without a fatal accident due to industry error. This came to an end in February 2007 when a Virgin Pendolino derailed near Grayrigg in Cumbria, killing one person. The cause of the accident was identical to that in Potters Bar nearly five years earlier – once again calling into question Network Rail's maintenance procedures.

In 2007, the government's preferred option was to use diesel trains running on biodiesel, its White Paper Delivering a Sustainable Railway,[16] ruling out large-scale Railway electrification in Great Britain for the following five years.

Following Gordon Brown's appointment as Prime Minister in 2007, Andrew Adonis was appointed Transport Secretary. He immediately began work on plans for a new high-speed route between London and Birmingham (later known as High Speed 2), which would augment the West Coast Main Line. Adonis also announced plans to electrify the Great Western Main Line from London as far as Swansea, as well as infill electrification schemes in the North West of England to remove diesel traction from certain key routes. Late in 2009, the InterCity East Coast franchise collapsed for the second time in three years when incumbent operator National Express East Coast (NXEC) proved unable to meet its financial obligations. Adonis transferred the franchise to the state-owned Directly Operated Railways to operate the route under its East Coast subsidiary.

Reform under the Coalition government (2010–2015)[edit]

After the 2010 General Election, the new Conservative led Coalition continued Labour's rail policies largely unaltered after a pause to review the finances. There was continuing support for the High Speed 2 scheme and further developing plans for the route, although great debate still rages over the scheme's benefits and costs. Whilst initially showing scepticism towards the electrification schemes of the Great Western route, they later gave the project its backing and work began formally in 2012. Plans were also mooted to electrify the remainder of the Midland Main Line.

In 2012, the franchising system again came under criticism when FirstGroup successfully ousted Virgin Trains as operator of the InterCity West Coast franchise. Virgin initially pursued a judicial review against the decision, citing the fact that First's bid was even more ambitious than the one which had scuttled National Express East Coast less than three years earlier. Before the review took place however, newly installed Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin scrapped the entire bidding process for the franchise and granted Virgin an extension to its contract when "severe technical flaws" were discovered in the original bidding competition.

The Conservative government (2015–present)[edit]

The Government has moved towards allowing more competition on the intercity network through open access operators. In 2015 it approved a service run by Alliance Rail to operate between London and Blackpool, and in 2016 it allowed FirstGroup to run open access services on the East Coast Main Line from 2021 under the operating name East Coast Trains.[17][18]

Much debate continues over annual fare increases, although the government has now pledged to keep regulated rail fare increases at Retail Prices Index (RPI) inflation for the remainder of this Parliament.[19] In addition much debate has continued over the financing of various rail schemes driven primarily by the huge cost and time overrun on the GWML route modernisation and electrification scheme. In connection with this, and to coincide with the Chancellor's Autumn statement in November 2015, the Bowe and Hendy reports were produced.[20][21]

In March 2016, the National Infrastructure Commission said that Crossrail 2 should be taken forward "as a priority" and recommended that a bill should pass through Parliament by 2019 and the line should be open by 2033.[22] Crossrail 2 is a North-South railway through London, similar to the East-West railway Crossrail which is currently under construction.

Since April 2016, the British railway network has been severely disrupted on many occasions by wide-reaching rail strikes, affecting rail franchises across the country.[23] The industrial action began on Southern services as a dispute over the planned introduction of driver-only operation,[24] and has since expanded to cover many different issues affecting the rail industry;[23] as of February 2018, the majority of the industrial action remains unresolved, with further strikes planned.[25] The scale, impact and bitterness of the nationwide rail strikes have been compared to the 1984–85 miners' strike by the media.

In July 2017, Chris Grayling, the secretary of state for transport announced a number of electrification schemes were to be suspended indefinitely citing the disruptive nature of electrification works and the availability of bi-mode technology. The schemes included aspects of the GWML including Cardiff to Swansea, the Midland Mainline from Kettering to Sheffield via Derby and Nottingham and Oxenholme to Windermere in the Lake District.[26]

In February 2018, the five-year plan was published by Network Rail with significant investment though much of this was for renewals and smaller projects rather than major projects.[27][28]

Infrastructure projects[edit]

Completed projects[edit]

The British railway system continues to be developed. Contemporary projects include:

  • The West Coast Main Line upgrade was a long-term project covering a series of technical aspects. Improvements included the four-tracking (from three) of the Trent Valley (a bypass of the West Midlands), redesigning the layout of several junction/stations e.g. Rugby and other associated work to increase line speed. This culminated in tilting trains at 125 mph being extended to Glasgow in 2005. The cost overruns of the programme are infamous - attributed to wide scope of programme (the promise to Virgin to build a 140 mph railway which would require moving block signalling) and poor project management by the defunct Railtrack.


  • High Speed 1, a project to construct a 67-mile high-speed rail line from London to the British end of the Channel Tunnel, and involving a great deal of complex civil engineering including a 1404-yard bridge over the River Medway, a 2-mile tunnel under the Thames near Dartford, a 2-mile tunnel through the North Downs, 12-mile twin tunnels running into central London, a major new railway station extension to St Pancras Station in London, and a complex redesign and rebuild of the King's Cross St Pancras tube station. The southern phase 1 of the project opened in September 2003, and northern phase 2 opened in November 2007.
  • The electrification of both the Liverpool to Manchester line and Liverpool to Wigan lines were completed in 2015 and electric Class 319 trains (on the Liverpool to Manchester Airport service) and Class 350s (on the Manchester Airport to Scotland services) have replaced diesel units.
  • Electrification of the Cross-City Line to Bromsgrove has been completed, allowing electric trains to run by summer 2018.[29][30]



  • The Welsh Assembly Government re-opened the Vale of Glamorgan Line between Barry and Bridgend in 2005 and the Ebbw Valley Railway between Ebbw Vale Parkway and Cardiff Central in 2008. An extension of the line to Ebbw Vale Town opened in 2015.

Current developments[edit]

  • High Speed 2 (HS2) is a planned[32][33] high-speed railway which will initially link the cities of London and Birmingham, followed by further extension to North West England and Yorkshire. Construction of the first phase of HS2 began in 2017 with a planned opening date of 2026, while completion of the entire network is expected in 2033. Phase One of HS2 will run between London Euston and the proposed new Birmingham Curzon Street station. Phase two will create two branches: a western leg to Manchester Piccadilly, and an eastern leg to the proposed Leeds New Lane station via the East Midlands Hub (serving Derby, Nottingham and Leicester) and Meadowhall Interchange (serving Sheffield).
  • The Thameslink Programme started in 2009 and is expected to be completed in May 2018. The project includes the lengthening of platforms, station remodelling, new railway infrastructure (e.g. viaducts) and additional rolling stock, which will allow Govia Thameslink Railway to expand their Thameslink services further north and south.
  • The Northern Hub is a rail project across Northern England aimed at stimulating economic growth by increasing train services, reducing journey times and electrifying lines between the major cities and towns in the north.[34] The project was announced as the Manchester Hub, entailing a series of upgrades to cut journey times between cities in Northern England by alleviating rail bottlenecks around Manchester.[35][36] Central to the project is the resolution of rail bottlenecks around Manchester city centre allowing more capacity and faster journey times between the northern cities. The construction of two through platforms at Piccadilly will allow an increase to 14 trains per hour from 10. Manchester Victoria station is being modernised to become the east-west rail interchange in northern England. Trains from the north east to Manchester Airport will use a new section of railway, the £85 million Ordsall Chord, between Manchester Victoria and Manchester Oxford Road to access Manchester Piccadilly and continue to the airport without the need to reverse at Piccadilly and without conflicting movements at the station throat. Services from Liverpool to Leeds and beyond will be diverted from the Cheshire Lines route via Warrington Central and Manchester Piccadilly to the electrified line via Newton-le-Willows and Manchester Victoria.
  • On the Great Western Main Line, Network Rail plans to spend £5 billion[37] on modernising the GWML and its South Wales branch plus other associated lines like the North Cotswolds[38] which was completed in 2011. The modernisation plans were announced at separate times but their development time-scales overlap each other to represent a comprehensive modernisation plan for the Great Western and its associated lines during the second decade of the 21st century. The modernisation includes: electrification, resignalling, new rolling stock and station upgrades. According to Network Rail, the modernisation started in June 2010 and will end in 2017.[39] On 8 November 2016 the government announced that several elements of the Great Western Main Line electrification programme would be indefinitely deferred due to cost overruns and delays.[40][41] This was confirmed by Chris Grayling in July 2017 stating specifically Cardiff -Swansea electrification was cancelled and bi-mode availability made this possible without disruptive electrification works.[26]
  • Crossrail is a 118-kilometre (73-mile) railway line under construction in London and its environs. It is expected to begin full operation in 2019 with a new east-west route across Greater London. Work began in 2009 on the central section of the line—a new tunnel through central London—and connections to existing lines that will become part of Crossrail.[42] Crossrail's aim is to provide a high-frequency commuter/suburban passenger service that will link parts of Berkshire and Buckinghamshire, via central London, to Essex and South East London.
  • Scotland
    • The Edinburgh to Glasgow Improvement Programme or "EGIP" is an initiative started by the Scottish Government to upgrade the main railway line between Edinburgh and Glasgow via Falkirk High by 2016. The route via Shotts will follow in 2018. It is expected to cost around £650 million. Both these schemes dates have not and will not be met. In May 2017 a further delay was announced due to a safety critical component on the via Falkirk High route needing to be replaced.[43]
    • There is also a rolling programme of electrification in Scotland that will see the lines from Edinburgh and Glasgow electrified to Stirling, Dunblane and Alloa.
  • Wales
    • The Welsh Assembly Government proposes to extend the Ebbw Valley line between Ebbw Vale and Cardiff into Newport in the future. The Assembly Government is also looking into opening the Hirwaun to Aberdare route in the Cynon Valley.

Timeline of improvements[edit]


  • May: The Todmorden Curve reopened, allowing direct trains to operate between Manchester and east Lancashire. The Curve had been closed in 1965 with the tracks lifted in 1972.[44]
  • December: Apperley Bridge station reopened, after being closed in 1965. It is the first of two stations between Leeds and Shipley in West Yorkshire to be reopened.[45]


Class 700 Desiro City



Dates after December 2018 are plans, not events, and are subject to extensive revision.

Class 800 Super Express






  • Services due to start running on the western section of the East West Rail from Oxford to Bletchley.[108]
  • * ETCS signalling will be installed on the ECML between London and Peterborough.[109]

Present locomotives and rolling stock[edit]

Diesel locomotives[edit]

Image Class Operator(s) Image Class Operator(s)
D3551 Class 08 at Swanage Station.JPG
Class 08 DB Cargo UK
Riviera Trains
Great Western Railway
DRS 20308.jpg
Class 20 Direct Rail Services
Harry Needle Railroad Company
GB Railfreight
Class 31 D5830.jpg
Class 31 Devon & Cornwall Railways
Network Rail
Class 33 33107, Waterloo, 18 December 1978.jpg
Class 33 West Coast Railways
Class 37 Colas Rail
Direct Rail Services
West Coast Railways
BREL Class 43 No 43003 (9471677137).jpg
Class 43 CrossCountry
Great Western Railway
Network Rail
London North Eastern Railway
East Midlands Trains
Brush Class 47 No 47237 (9471675507).jpg
Class 47 Direct Rail Services
West Coast Railway
Riviera Trains
Colas Rail
Class 56 Colas Rail
UK Rail Leasing
Devon & Cornwall Railways
DRS Class 57, 57309 "Pride of Crewe", Preston railway station (geograph 4499522).jpg
Class 57 Direct Rail Services
West Coast Railways
Great Western Railway
Hugh llewelyn 59 206 (5600826158).jpg
Class 59 DB Cargo UK
GB Railfreight
Mendip Rail
60059 & Kamikaze Buzzard , Claycross Tunnel (7119449631).jpg
Class 60 Colas Rail
DB Cargo UK
GBRf Class 66, 66729 "Derby County", Huyton railway station (geograph 4512009).jpg
Class 66 Colas Rail
DB Cargo UK
Direct Rail Services
GB Railfreight
Class 67 Wrexham.jpg
Class 67 DB Cargo UK

Colas Rail

Class 68 - 68008 At DRS Open day.jpg
Class 68 Direct Rail Services
Chiltern Railways
Freightliner Class 70, 70003, Crewe railway station (geograph 4019497).jpg
Class 70 Freightliner
Colas Rail
73201 at Woking.jpg
Class 73* GB Railfreight
Network Rail

* BR Class 73 is an electro-diesel locomotive which allows electrified and non electrified route workings.

Electric locomotives[edit]

Image Class Operator(s) Image Class Operator(s)
86613 and 86610 at Ipswich.JPG
86 InnoTrans 2016 – DRS Class 88 (29818726855).jpg 88
90049 at Ipswich.JPG
91101 at Kings Cross.jpg
92001 'Victor Hugo' at Crewe Works.jpg
73201 at Woking.jpg
EuroTunnel Class 09 Number 9825.jpg
Eurotunnel Class 9

a BR Class 73 and 88 are electro-diesel locomotives which allow both electrified and non electrified route workings.

Diesel multiple units[edit]

Image Class Operator(s) Image Class Operator(s)
142041 Northern Rail Castleton East Jcn.jpg


150246 at Plymouth.JPG
156427 at Carlisle.JPG
158798 at Doncaster.JPG


Chiltern train at Kidderminster.jpg


170433 at Edinburgh Waverley.JPG


175111 'Brief Encounter' at Crewe.jpg
180110 at Bath Spa.JPG
185103 at Castleton East Junction.jpg
Virgin trains 221113 glasgow.jpg


AC electric multiple units[edit]

Image Class Operator(s) Image Class Operator(s)
314212 at Patterton.jpg


317655 at Cambridge.JPG


321901 at Doncaster.JPG


323225 at Manchester Piccadilly.JPG
Train at Ilkley.JPG


British Rail Class 334 005.jpg
345002 - Ilford E.M.U.D.jpg
350240 Birmingham New Street.jpg
357036 at Southend Central.jpg
360111 at Ipswich.jpg
FirstCapitalConnect Unit365505.jpg
Hugh llewelyn 3231 & 3999 (6678334547).jpg


379001 at Norwich 8 January 2011.jpg


380101 at Glasgow Central.jpg
Class 387 at Luton.jpg
390029 'City of Stoke-on-Trent' at Birmingham New Street.JPG

Dual AC/DC electric multiple units[edit]

Image Class Operator(s) Image Class Operator(s)
313203 at Brighton.jpg


319003 x London St Pancras.JPG
350120 Rugeley 2010-06-22.JPG
Unit 378149 at Crystal Palace.JPG


Unit 395008 at Ebbsfleet International.JPG
700110 - London Blackfriars 3T13.JPG
Reading - SWT 707004+707006 on test (GWR 166220).JPG

DC electric multiple units[edit]

Image Class Operator(s) Image Class Operator(s)
BBC South Today at London Waterloo.jpg
444008 and 450003 at Woking (11894151656).jpg


SWT Class 455 refurbished.jpg
456006 at East Dulwich.jpg
458 526 leaving Waterloo.jpg
Charing Cross station MMB 25 376019.jpg
Southeastern 465002 at Lewisham 22 February 2011.jpg


507011 Liverpool South Parkway.jpg


Bi-mode diesel/electric multiple units[edit]

Image Class Operator(s)
Class 800 in testing 2015.jpg


Image Model Operator(s) Image Model Operator(s)
Mk 2F TSO 6035 at Carlisle.JPG
British Rail Mk 3 42199 at Kings Cross.jpg
British Rail Mark 4 De-Branded.jpg
British Rail Mark 3A SLEP 10590 at Penzane.JPG
BR Mk III Sleeper

Details of withdrawn locomotives and rolling stock : See article Withdrawn British Rail stock

Future rolling stock[edit]

Image Class Operator(s) Type Image Class Operator(s) Type
Mark 5 Coaches Coaching stock 195 DMU
331 EMU
Class 385 render.jpg
385 EMU
397 EMU


769 Bi-mode 777 DC EMU
Class 800 in testing 2015.jpg


Bimode (802)

EMU (801)

See also[edit]


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  107. ^ "Chancellor accepts East West Rail targets and strengthens plans with extra cash". www.railtechnologymagazine.com.
  108. ^ "£1.8 billion Network Rail deal to see faster trains with more capacity between Peterborough and London King's Cross".

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