Light Railways Act 1896

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Light Railways Act 1896[1]
Long titleAn Act to facilitate the Construction of Light Railways in Great Britain.
Citation59 & 60 Vict. c.48
Territorial extentEngland and Wales and Scotland[2]
Royal assent14 August 1896
Commencement14 August 1896[3]
Text of statute as originally enacted
Text of the Light Railways Act 1896 as in force today (including any amendments) within the United Kingdom, from

The Light Railways Act 1896 (59 & 60 Vict. c.48) was an Act of the Parliament of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland (as it then was). Before the Act each new railway line built in the country required a specific Act of Parliament to be obtained by the company that wished to construct it, which greatly added to the cost and time it took to construct new railways. The economic downturn of the 1880s had hit agriculture and rural communities in the United Kingdom especially hard and the government wished to facilitate the construction of railways in rural areas, especially to facilitate the transport of goods. The 1896 Act defined a class of railways which did not require specific legislation to construct – companies could simply plan a line under the auspices of the new Act, and, having obtained a Light Railway Order, build and operate it. By reducing the legal costs and allowing new railways to be built quickly the government hoped to encourage companies to build the new 'light railways' in areas of low population and industry that were previously of little interest to them.

A light railway is not a tramway but a separate class of railway. The creation of the act was triggered by a combination of problems with the complexity of creating low cost railways that were needed at the time for rural areas, and the successful use of tramway rules to create the Wisbech and Upwell Tramway in 1882 which was in fact a light railway in all but name.

The Light Railways Act did not specify any exceptions or limitations that should apply to light railways; it did not even attempt to define a 'light railway'. However, it gave powers to the Light Railway Commissioners to include 'provisions for the safety of the public... as they think necessary for the proper construction and working of the railway' in any light railway order (LRO) granted under the Act. These could limit vehicle axle weights and speeds - a maximum speed of 25 miles per hour (mph) is often associated with the Light Railways Act but no speed limit is specified in the Act. However, limits were particularly needed when lightly laid track and relatively modest bridges were used in order to keep costs down. LROs could also exempt light railways from some of the requirements of a normal railway – level crossings did not have to be protected by gates, but only by cattle grids, saving the cost of both the gates and a keeper to operate them. It did not exclude standard-gauge track, but narrow gauge tracks were used for many railways built under its provisions. Many of the railways built under the auspices of the Act were very basic, with little or no signalling (many ran under the 'one engine in steam' principle).

A number of municipal and company-owned street tramways were built or extended by the Act, in preference to the Tramways Act 1870. The procedure of the 1896 Act was simpler, permission easier to obtain (local authorities had the right to veto lines under the 1870 legislation), and there was a 75% savings on rates payable as compared to a tramway.

The Light Railways Act was never a great success. By the 1920s the use of road transport killed the majority of these little railways although some survived thanks to clever management and tight financial control.

Until the Transport and Works Act 1992 introduced transport works orders, heritage railways in the UK were operated under light railway orders.

Railways built under the act[edit]

Railways operated under the Act[edit]

A number of railways have, over the years, been built on private land and called names that end in Light Railway. These have not needed parliamentary powers or a light railway order. The name has only reflected light nature of the railway. Many miniature railways are named in this way.

Railways authorised under the act, but not built[edit]


  1. ^ Light Railways Act 1896, section 29
  2. ^ The Light Railways Act 1896, section 27
  3. ^ The Act came into force on the date on which it received royal assent because no other date was specified: Acts of Parliament (Commencement) Act 1793
  4. ^ Bosley, Peter (1990). Light railways in England and Wales. Manchester: Manchester University Press. p. 182. ISBN 9780719017582.