Privatisation of British Rail

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This article is about the process of privatisation of British Rail. For a discussion of whether the privatisation had a positive or negative impact, see Impact of the privatisation of British Rail

The privatisation of British Rail (BR) was the process by which ownership and operation of the railways of Great Britain passed from government control into private hands. Begun in 1994, it had been completed by 1997.

Historically, the railways had been in state ownership since 1948, with the operating arm BR controlled by the British Railways Board (BRB). Under the Conservative government of Margaret Thatcher elected in 1979, various state owned businesses were sold off, including various functions related to the railways – Sealink ferries and British Transport Hotels by 1984, Travellers Fare catering by 1988 and British Rail Engineering (train building) by 1989.

It was under Thatcher's successor John Major that the railways themselves were privatised, using the Railways Act 1993. The operations of the BRB were broken up and sold off, with various regulatory functions transferred to the newly created office of the Rail Regulator. Ownership of the infrastructure including the larger stations passed to Railtrack, while track maintenance and renewal assets were sold to 13 companies across the network. Ownership of passenger trains passed to three rolling stock operating companies (ROSCOs) – the stock being leased out to passenger train operating companies (TOCs) awarded contracts through a new system of rail franchising overseen by the Office of Passenger Rail Franchising (OPRAF). Ownership and operation of freight trains passed to two companies – English, Welsh and Scottish Railway (EWS) and Freightliner, less than the originally intended six, although there are considerably more now.

The process was very controversial at the time, and its success is hotly debated – with the claimed benefits ranging from a reduced cost to the taxpayer, lower fares, improved customer service, and more investment. Despite opposition from the Labour Party, who gained power in 1997 under Tony Blair, the process has never been reversed wholesale by any later government, and the system remains largely unaltered. A significant change came in 2001 with the collapse of Railtrack, which saw its assets passed to the state owned Network Rail (NR), with track maintenance also brought in house under NR in 2004. The regulatory structures have also subsequently changed.


To 1979[edit]

Historically, the pre-nationalisation railway companies were almost entirely self-sufficient, including, for example, the production of the steel used in the manufacturing of rolling stock and rails. As a consequence of the nationalisation of the railways in 1948 some of these activities had been hived-off to other nationalised industries and institutions, e.g. "Railway Air Services Limited" was one of the forerunners of British Airways; the railways' road transport services, which had carried freight, parcels and passengers' luggage to and from railheads, ultimately became part of the National Freight Corporation, but not until 1969.

A 1950s Mk1-based Class 411 (4-CEP) "slam-door" EMU at London Victoria station, in Network SouthEast livery (March 2003)

The preferred organisational structure in the 1970s was for the BRB to form wholly owned subsidiaries which were run at an arm's-length relationship, e.g. the railway engineering works became British Rail Engineering Limited (BREL) in 1970; the ferry operations to Ireland, France, Belgium and the Netherlands were run by Sealink (U.K.) Ltd, part of the Sealink consortium, which also used ferries owned by the French national railway SNCF, the Belgian Maritime Transport Authority Regie voor maritiem transport/Regie des transports maritimes (RMT/RTM), and the Dutch Zeeland Steamship Company. However, the BRB was still directly responsible for a multitude of other functions, such as the British Transport Police, the British Rail Property Board (which was responsible not just for operational track and property, but also for thousands of miles of abandoned tracks and stations arising from the Beeching Axe and other closure programmes), a staff savings bank, convalescent homes for rail staff, and the internal railway telephone and data comms networks (the largest in the country after British Telecom's), etc.

In 1979 the organisational structure of the BRB's railway operations still largely reflected that of the "Big Four" private railway companies, which had been merged to create British Railways over 30 years previously. There were five Regions (Scotland being a separate region), each region being formed of several Divisions, and each division of several Areas. There was some duplication of resources in this structure, and in the early 1980s the divisional layer of management was abolished with its work being redistributed either upwards to the regions or downwards to the areas.


The chain of British Transport Hotels was sold off, mainly one hotel at a time, in 1982. Sealink was sold in 1984 to Sea Containers, who ultimately sold the routes to their current owner, Stena Line. Also catering business Travellers Fare was sold in 1988 to a management buyout team. In 1988 British Rail Engineering Limited was split between the major engineering works, which became BREL (1988) Ltd, and the (mostly smaller) works that were used for day-to-day maintenance of rolling stock, which became British Rail Maintenance Limited (BRML). BREL (1988) Ltd was soon sold to the Swiss-Swedish conglomerate ASEA Brown-Boveri, which renamed the company ABB Transportation. A merger between ABB Transportation and Daimler Benz created ADtranz on 1 January 1996; ADtranz was subsequently taken over by the Canadian-owned conglomerate, Bombardier.

For reasons of efficiency and to reduce the amount of subsidy required from government British Rail undertook a comprehensive organisational restructuring in the late 1980s. The new management structure was based on business sectors rather than geographical regions, and first manifested itself in 1982 with the creation of Railfreight, the BRB's freight operation, and InterCity, though the Inter-City branding had been carried on coaching stock since the early 1970s. Commuter services in the south-east came under the London & South East sector, which would become Network SouthEast in 1986. Services in Scotland were operated by ScotRail, and Provincial sector handled local and rural routes. The regional management structure continued in parallel for a few years before it was abolished. Sectorisation was generally regarded within the industry as a great success, and it was to have a considerable effect on the way in which privatisation would be carried-out.

British Rail Class 59 (59001 in revised Foster Yeoman livery)
Private ownership of locomotives marked the start of a new era in railfreight haulage

In 1985 what may in retrospect be viewed as the harbinger of private rail operation occurred when the quarry company Foster Yeoman bought a small number of extremely powerful 3600 hp locomotives from General Motors' Electromotive Division (GM-EMD), designated British Rail Class 59, to operate mineral trains from their quarry in Wiltshire. Although owned and maintained by Foster Yeoman, the Class 59s were manned by British Rail staff. During acceptance trials, on 16 February 1986 locomotive 59001 hauled a train weighing 4639 tonnes – the heaviest load ever hauled by a single non-articulated traction unit. Foster Yeoman's class 59s proved extremely reliable, and it was not long before quarry company ARC and privatised power generator National Power also bought small numbers of Class 59s to haul their own trains.

Also in 1986, the possibility of breaking up British Rail was explored when discussions were held with Sea Containers, later the franchise operators of GNER, concerning the possible takeover of the railway on the Isle of Wight. However, the discussions proved abortive.

In Sweden in 1988 the State Railways, Statens Järnvägar, was split into two – Banverket to control the track network, and SJ to operate the trains. This was the first time a national railway had been split in this manner, and it allowed local county authorities to tender for local passenger services to be provided by the new train operators that appeared. The Swedish system appeared to be very successful initially, although some train operators subsequently went bankrupt. The Swedish experiment was watched with great interest in other countries during the 1980s and 1990s.

The narrow gauge Vale of Rheidol Railway in Aberystwyth, Mid Wales was unique in Britain, being the only steam railway to be operated by British Rail. In 1988, The Department of Transport started the process of privatising the line. Later that year it was announced the line had been purchased by the owners of Brecon Mountain Railway, becoming the first part of British Rail to be privatised.


In 1991, following the successful Swedish example and wishing to create an environment where new rail operators could enter the market, the European Union issued EU Directive 91/440.[1] This required of all EU member states to separate 'the management of railway operation and infrastructure from the provision of railway transport services, separation of accounts being compulsory and organisational or institutional separation being optional', the idea being that the track operator would charge the train operator a transparent fee to run its trains over the network, and anyone else could also run trains under the same conditions (open access).

In Britain, Margaret Thatcher was replaced by John Major as leader of the Conservative Party at the end of 1990. The Thatcher administration had already sold off nearly all the former state-owned industries, apart from the national rail network. Although the previous Transport Secretary and arch-Thatcherite Cecil Parkinson had advocated some form of privately or semi-privately operated rail network, this was deemed 'a privatisation too far' by Thatcher herself.[2] In its manifesto for the 1992 general election the Conservatives included a commitment to privatise the railways, but were not specific about how this objective was to be achieved.[3] Contrary to opinion polls, they won the election on 9 April 1992 and consequently had to develop a plan to carry out the privatisation before the Railways Bill was published the next year. The management of British Rail strongly advocated privatisation as one entity, a British Rail plc in effect; Cabinet Minister John Redwood "argued for regional companies in charge of track and trains" but Prime Minister John Major did not back his view;[4] the Treasury, under the influence of the Adam Smith Institute think tank advocated the creation of seven, later 25, passenger railway franchises as a way of maximising revenue. In this instance it was the Treasury view that prevailed.


Main article: Railways Act 1993

As a precursor to the main legislation, the British Coal and British Rail (Transfer Proposals) Act 1993 was passed on 19 January 1993. This gave the Secretary of State the power to issue directions to the British Railways Board to sell off assets, something which the board was unable to do until then.

The Railways Bill, published in 1993,[5] established a complex structure for the rail industry. British Rail was to be broken up into over 100 separate companies, with most relationships between the successor companies established by contracts, some through regulatory mechanisms (such as the industry-wide network code and the multi-bilateral star model performance regime). Contracts for the use of railway facilities – track, stations and light maintenance depots – must be approved or directed by the Office of Rail Regulation, although some facilities are exempt from this requirement. Contracts between the principal passenger train operators and the state are called franchise agreements, and were first established with the Office of Passenger Rail Franchising (OPRAF), then its successor the Strategic Rail Authority and now with the Secretary of State for Transport.

The passage of the Railways Bill was controversial. The public was unconvinced of the virtues of rail privatisation and there was much lobbying against the Bill. The Labour Party was implacably opposed to it and promised to renationalise the railways when they got back into office as and when resources allowed. The Conservative chairman of the House of Commons Transport Committee, Robert Adley famously described the Bill as "a poll tax on wheels";[6] however Adley was known to be a rail enthusiast and his advice was discounted. Adley died suddenly before the Bill completed its passage through Parliament.[citation needed]

The Railways Bill became the Railways Act 1993 on 5 November 1993, and the organisational structure dictated by it came into effect on 1 April 1994. Initially, British Rail was broken up into various units frequently based on its own organisational sectors (Train Operating Units, Infrastructure Maintenance Units, etc. - for more details see below) still controlled by the British Railways Board, but which were sold off over the next few years.

Domestic system[edit]

As implemented[edit]

Sticker affixed to ticket machines in the run-up to privatisation detailing how the new "National Conditions of Carriage" supersede any pre-printed ticket and poster information.

The original privatisation structure, created over the three years from 1 April 1994, consisted of passing ownership and operation of the railway to a variety of private companies, regulated by two public offices, Rail Regulator and Director of Passenger Rail Franchising. The Railtrack company would the infrastructure owner, to whom various other companies would sub-contract maintenance work. Various other companies would lease and/or operate trains.

In preparation for full privatisation, BR was split up into various parts. Provision of passenger services was split up into twenty-five passenger train operating units (TOUs), known as Shadow franchises, split by geographical area and service type. For freight services, six freight operating companies (FOCs) were created - three geographical units for trainload freight (Mainline Freight in the south-east, Load-Haul in the north-east and Trans-Rail in the west), plus Railfreight Distribution for international and wagonload trains, Freightliner (UK) for container-carrying trains, and Rail Express Systems for parcels and mail trains. British Rail Infrastructure Services (BRIS) took responsibility for the engineering requirements of the railway. BRIS was subsequently organised for privatisation on the basis of seven infrastructure maintenance units (IMUs), which maintained the railway, and six track renewal units (TRUs), which replaced rail lines, both organised geographically.

Railtrack was the first company created. It took over ownership of all track, signalling and stations. Railtrack let out most of the 2,509 stations to the franchised passenger train operators, managing only a handful (12, later 17) of the largest city termini itself. Since maintenance and renewal of the infrastructure was to be sub-contracted (to the private purchasers of the IMUs and TRUs), Railtrack's directly-employed staff consisting mostly of signallers. Three newly created rolling stock leasing companies (ROSCOs) (Angel Trains, Eversholt Rail Group and Porterbrook) were allocated all British Rail's passenger coaches, locomotives, and multiple units. Completion of the privatisation process involved converting the passenger TOUs to Train Operating Companies (TOCs) through the process of franchising, performed in the first instance on a lowest cost bidder wins basis. Freight locomotives and wagons were not passed to ROSCOs, instead being owned directly by the freight train operators. Full privatisation of the freight operators saw five being bought immediately and merged into what became known as the English Welsh and Scottish Railway (EWS) (now DB Schenker), leaving just Freightliner as the only other ex-BR freight business to be privatised to someone other than EWS.

The Rail Regulator (the statutory officer at the head of the Office of the Rail Regulator (ORR)) was established to regulate the monopoly and dominant elements of the railway industry, and to police certain consumer protection conditions of operators' licences. He did this through his powers to supervise and control the consumption of capacity of railway facilities (his approval was needed before an access contract for the use of track, stations or certain maintenance facilities could be valid), to enforce domestic competition law, to issue, modify and enforce operating licences and to supervise the development of certain industry-wide codes, the most important of which is the network code. ORR's role only covered economic regulation; crucially reviewing every five years the access charges Railtrack could charge train operators for the operation, maintenance, renewal and enhancement of the national railway network. Safety regulation remained the responsibility of the Health and Safety Executive. The first Rail Regulator was John Swift QC.

The Director of Passenger Rail Franchising took responsibility for organising the franchising process to transfer the 25 TOUs to the private sector and then develop the re-franchising programme for the future. The first Director of Passenger Rail Franchising was Roger Salmon.

Subsequent changes[edit]

Post-privatisation, the structure of the railways has remained largely the same, and the system is still based on competition between private operators who pay for access to the infrastructure provider and lease rolling stock from the ROSCOs.

A major change has been in the actual owner of the infrastructure. The aftermath of the Hatfield rail crash in 2000 led to severe financial difficulties for Railtrack and just under a year later the company was put into a special kind of insolvency by the British High Court at the direction of the government. The circumstances of that were very controversial, and eventually led to the largest class legal action in English legal history. The administration led to instability in its share price, and on 2 October 2002 a new organisation, Network Rail, bought Railtrack PLC from its parent Railtrack Group PLC. Network Rail has no shareholders and is a company limited by guarantee, nominally in the private sector but with members instead of shareholders and its borrowing guaranteed by the government. In 2004, Network Rail took back direct control of the maintenance of the track, signalling and overhead lines, although track renewal remained contracted out to the private sector.

Management of the passenger franchising system has changed, with the functions of the Director of Passenger Rail Franchising being replaced in 2001 by the Strategic Rail Authority (SRA), whose remit also included the promotion of freight services. The SRA was in turn was abolished in 2006 in favour of direct control by the Department of Transport's Rail Group. Overall, the system of franchising has proceeded as designed, with franchises being either retained or transferred dependent on performance. On two occasions, passenger franchises had to be taken temporarily into (indirect) government ownership, South Eastern Trains (2003–2006) and East Coast (2009–2015). Over time, some franchises have been merged and contract lengths have been extended; additionally, under the devolution programme, other government bodies have been given input into franchise terms – the Scottish Government with ScotRail, the Welsh Government in Wales and Borders, as well as the Mayor of London and the various passenger transport executives for the services in their respective areas. Since 2005 the Department for Transport has been using the community railway designation to loosen the regulations and lower the costs and increase usage of certain socially necessary routes and services, although these remain within the TOC structure.

In both the freight and passenger sectors, a small number of open access operators (non-franchised operators of trains) have also emerged and disappeared. In terms of train ownership, the three ROSCOs continue to exist as originally established, although some now lease freight locomotives and wagons to the FOCs. They have been joined by a variety of small-scale train owners ready to let old railway stock on short-term leases. Also, Railtrack and its successor Network Rail have also purchased some rolling stock themselves.

The regulatory structure has also evolved; in line with changes to the regulation of other privatised industries, the position of Rail Regulator was abolished in 2004, replaced by a nine-member corporate board called the Office of Rail Regulation, incorporating responsibility for safety regulation, previously the remit of the Health and Safety Executive.

Channel Tunnel infrastructure and services[edit]

Privatisation of British Rail occurred as the same time as the Channel Tunnel project linking Great Britain with France reached completion, with the tunnel itself being officially opened on 6 May 1994. Key parts of the project were a passenger rail service through the tunnel, dubbed Eurostar, and the building of a new high speed railway on the British side, the 109-kilometre (68 mile) Channel Tunnel Rail Link (CTRL), to link the tunnel to London.

With the CTRL still at the planning stage, Eurostar trains began operating on 14 November 1994 over the existing railway, with operations on the British sections of the track being done by European Passenger Services (EPS), a subsidiary set up by British Rail. To manage construction of the CTRL, British Rail had also set up another subsidiary, Union Railways. In 1996, in line with the rest of the privatisation process, the government signed a contract with the private company London and Continental Railways (LCR) to build the CTRL, and as part of that deal LCR became the owner of both EPS and Union Railways; LCR renamed EPS as Eurostar (UK) Ltd (EUKL), thus ending British Rail's input in the project.

As the project progressed, due to financial difficulties both LCR and its subsidiaries underwent various changes in financing, structure and planning, with the government and Railtrack (later Network Rail) becoming involved in the various plans and projects. In 2007, the second stage of the CTRL was finally completed (the CTRL being rebranded at that point as High Speed 1). By 2009 the government had assumed full control of LCR, announcing its intention to privatise it to recoup its investment; this was achieved in two stages, with the 2010 sale of a 30-year concession to own and operate HS1, and the 2015 sale of the British stake in the Eurostar operator (renamed in 2009 to Eurostar International Limited, EIL).

Through a subsidiary established in 2003, Network Rail is the maintainer of the infrastructure of HS1. Domestic passenger services are operated on parts of HS1 as part of the Integrated Kent Franchise, these commenced in 2009, operated by franchisee Southeastern.


The impact of privatisation has been debated by the public, media and the rail industry ever since the process was completed. The major topics concern whether or not the process has achieved its central aims of increasing levels of investment, performance, and customer satisfaction while reducing the cost to the tax-payer. Safety also became a major issue after the Hatfield rail crash in 2000 and the Potters Bar rail crash in 2002 exposed flaws in the post-privatisation maintenance regimes.

Political positions post-privatisation[edit]

Since privatisation, both the subsequent party (or parties) of government in Britain, as well as the official opposition and other political parties, have all offered various levels of support for the post-privatisation system, as well as proposals for reform, up to and including renationalisation in various forms.


The Conservative government of John Major lost the 1997 general election, replaced by Labour. it did not fulfill its earlier commitment to keep the railways in the public sector. Instead, it left the new structure in place, even completing the privatisation process with the last remaining sales.

In 2004, the Labour Party Conference voted by 2 to 1 in favour of a TSSA motion calling on the government to take the TOCs back into public ownership as franchises expired. The policy was however immediately ruled out by the then Transport Secretary Alastair Darling.

After 13 years in power, Labour lost the 2010 general election, which resulted in a coalition government formed by the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats. The coalition agreement made no mention of reform, instead preferring to focus on building a new high speed line.

In 2013, 20 years after rail privatisation, Secretary of State for Transport Patrick McLoughlin celebrated "20 years of rising investment" and "of extraordinary growth on our railway" and declared that the only plans of the Opposition are "opposing competition, letting union bosses call the shots and cutting off private investment". According to him: "that would mean higher fares, fewer services, more crowding, an industry once again in decline. It would be a tragedy for passengers."[7]

At the 2015 general election, the Conservatives regained power outright, at the expense of their Lib-Dem coalition partners.

Official opposition[edit]

In July 2006 the Conservative Party's shadow transport spokesman, Chris Grayling, admitted that the 1996 split of the rail industry into track and train components was a mistake which had increased costs: "We think, with hindsight, that the complete separation of track and train into separate businesses at the time of privatisation was not right for our railways. We think that the separation has helped push up the cost of running the railways—and hence fares—and is now slowing decisions about capacity improvements. Too many people and organisations are now involved in getting things done—so nothing happens. As a result, the industry lacks clarity about who is in charge and accountable for decisions.".[8]

In 2007 the Conservative Party were consulting upon options for the future. Several changes have been proposed including a shift to regional operators owning the track and trains for their regions. In their view the separation of track ownership from the service providers had proved a failure, and "the separation has helped push up the cost of running the railways'.[9] Such a shift would represent a return to the old British Rail model, but implemented by non-government organisations and franchise holders. However, critics say that were such a model to be applied to basic rail infrastructure, it would risk replicating the original mistake of the 1993 Railways Act – which fragmented the operation of train services among two dozen different operators. Many of these share infrastructure, and run competing services. Such a plan would be unworkable without the prior consolidation of existing franchises into just a small handful of regional operators.

In 2012 the Labour leader Ed Miliband hesitantly suggested the Party may put a promise to renationalise the railways in their 2015 general election manifesto.[10] The policy was later dropped in favor of keeping the current system in place and creating a government-backed Intercity franchise to compete with the other train operators.[11]

In 2015, the Labour Party elected Jeremy Corbyn as its leader. He favours bringing the railways back into public ownership.[12] At his first party conference as leader, Corbyn proposed taking each franchise back into public ownership as they came to the natural end of their contracts (i.e. without exercising break clauses), leading to a third of the railway being publicly owned by the end of his first full Parliament in 2025.[13]


As of 2011, the Green Party and TUSC (Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition) call for renationalisation of the network.[14] The Scottish Labour Party and the Scottish Greens advocated for the renationalisation of the First ScotRail contract, which was instead awarded to Abellio by the Scottish government in 2014.[15] SNP Transport Minister Keith Brown said "Scotland's railway has attracted a world leading contract to deliver for rail staff and passengers."[15]

The Green Party of England and Wales committed to Renationalisation in their 2015 Manifesto,[16] reconfirming this at their Autumn conference in Birmingham in September 2014. Caroline Lucas' Private Member's Bill calls for the end of franchising altogether. Lucas argues allowing the individual franchises when they expire or when a company fails to meet its franchise conditions to fall back into public ownership will avoid expensive compensation to the rail companies, saving over £1 billion per year for the public.[17][18]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Rail Transport and Interoperability (overview of directive 91/440)". European Union. Retrieved 6 July 2007. 
  2. ^ Coleman, Paul (October 2005). "Anyone seen the invisible hand?" (pdf). Rail Professional. Rail Professional Ltd. pp. 14–15. Retrieved 6 July 2007. 
  3. ^ "The Best Future for Britain: 1992 Conservative Party General Election Manifesto". Conservative Party. 1992. Retrieved 6 July 2007. 
  4. ^ "The train cannot always take the strain". 
  5. ^ Her Majesty's Government (1903). "Railways Act 1993". The Railways Archive. (originally published by Her Majesty's Stationery Office). Retrieved 2006-11-26. 
  6. ^ "After Railtrack, what next for PPP?". BBC Online. 2001-10-14. Retrieved 2009-04-15. 
  7. ^ 20 years since rail privatisation, speech on
  8. ^ "Tories change policy on railways". BBC Online (BBC). 17 July 2006. Retrieved 25 April 2007. 
  9. ^ "A Government without a clear strategy on rail has no chance of being credible on climate change". Retrieved 12 June 2007. 
  10. ^ Helm, Toby (30 June 2012). "Labour backs calls to return railway network to public control". The Guardian (London). 
  11. ^ "". 
  12. ^ Dathan, Matt (7 August 2015). "Labour leadership: Jeremy Corbyn pledges to renationalise the Big Six energy firms". The Independent. Retrieved 14 September 2015. 
  13. ^ The Guardian (25 September 2015). "Unions urge Jeremy Corbyn to pledge to speed up rail re-nationalisation". 
  14. ^ "Green Party wants full railway renationalisation". Retrieved 9 January 2011. 
  15. ^ a b FirstGroup loses ScotRail franchise BBC News 8 October 2014
  16. ^ ",-urges-caroline-lucas/". 
  17. ^ "Why not... nationalise the railways?". BBC. 11 July 2013. Retrieved 16 June 2015. 
  18. ^ Gary Dunion (26 June 2013). "Caroline Lucas. bill to renationalise the railways published today". Bright Green. Retrieved 16 June 2015. 

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