Tuesday, 28 July 2020

Before the Big 4

The "Big 4" railway companies were the iconic Great Western Railway (GWR) [1], London Midland Scottish (LMS), London North Eastern Railway (LNER) and Southern Railway (SR). To many people they still evoke the classic age of steam. However the era of the Big 4 railway companies was a brief one, just twenty four years. Their formation was part of a trend for consolidation in the British railway industry, a consolidation that eventually doomed them away.

In the earliest days of the railways (as we known them now) in the early nineteenth century, railway companies were pretty small. Usually a route between two main destinations was built by a company and operated by them. Examples included the Liverpool & Manchester Railway which ran the first scheduled passenger trains powered by steam in 1930 [2] between Liverpool and Manchester.

As the railway network expanded in the mid-19th century dozens, soon hundreds of companies were formed. There were over a thousand separate railway companies in total [3]. These companies began to amalgamate to save costs and due to ambition. By the late 19th century some of these amalgamated companies such as the London North Western Railway (LNWR) and North Eastern Railway (NER) had become huge companies, the LNWR was the largest joint stock company in Britain by the end of the century. But even with amalgamation there were still around 120 railway companies by the advent of the First World War, many making considerable losses.

The companies fell under state control during the war, afterwards the government decided to remodel the industry to stem losses and remove the duplication of routes and services that had arisen during the break neck race to built lines in the 19th century. The government, after some debate, published the 1921 Railways Act which would create four regionally based groupings of railway companies [4][5], this became the Big 4. In 1923 names like the LNWR, Midland Railway and South Eastern Railway ceased to exist as they were merged into one of the four new larger companies. A new golden age of railways began?

Well not really. Railway finances were still troublesome, the LNER suffered from this more than the other companies. By the end of 1930s the LNER was a financial basket case, the LMS and GWR not that far behind. Following another period of state control in the Second World War the Big 4 were abolished at the end of 1947 and the railways were nationalised as British Railways.

Over the next few weeks we will look at some of these railway companies that existed before the Big 4. We will look how they formed, often from smaller scale amalgamations themselves and what legacy they may have left.
No. 66 of the North Eastern Railway

No. 245 of the London South Western Railway

[1] The Great Western Railway existed before 1923 (it was one of the earliest railway companies founded in 1833), although it was also amalgamated with other companies it was able to retain it's name and identity
[2] Anthony Dawson, "The First Train on the Liverpool & Manchester Railway", Back Track (Vol. 34 No. 7, July 2020). p. 380
[3] W.E. Simnett, Railway Amalgamation in Great Britain (Railway Gazette, 1923) p. 2
[4] Ibid. p. 35
[5] Not all railway companies were amalgamated, a small number survived independent. The London local railway companies were amalgamated themselves into what became London Transport at a later date.