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History of British Railways

Last modified: 2020-08-22 by rob raeside
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History of British Railways

The government authority that regulated railways in the United Kingdom was at first "The Board of Trade, the first government department to assume responsibility for railways. Its Railway Department was created in 1840 but some records predate this office. When the Ministry of Transport was created in 1919 it absorbed all of the Board of Trade functions regarding railways.

The industry in general, evolved from individual and private small railway links starting as early as the 1560s, to the railway boom of the 1840s (dubbed "Rail Mania", especially in 1846, where 272 Acts of Parliament were proposed railway lines) and the three final stages that occurred during the XXth century, namely "separation" (open market competition) (before 1923) (when up to 120 different railway companies existed in the country) to "amalgamation" (grouping into the "Big Four", together with minor companies) to "unification" into the British Railways (1948-onwards until the privatisation and split in the mid 1990s).

Several important Acts in this early era include:
Railway Regulation Act 1844: and
Regulation of Railways Act 1868: and
Light Railways Act 1896: and

"Big Four" was a name used to describe the four largest railway companies in the United Kingdom in the period 1923–1947. The name was coined by The Railway Magazine in its issue of February 1923: "The Big Four of the New Railway Era".
The Big Four were:
Great Western Railway (GWR)
London, Midland and Scottish Railway (LMS)
London & North Eastern Railway (LNER)
Southern Railway (SR)
The companies were formed as a result of the Railways Act 1921, in a process known as "The Grouping" (of the railways), which came into effect on January 1, 1923. A number of joint lines remained outside the Big Four, continuing to be operated jointly by the successor companies.

On January 1, 1948 the companies were nationalised to form British Railways as a result of the Transport Act 1947.
Source: and

British Railways
British Railways (BR), which from 1965 traded as British Rail, was the state-owned company first by its parent company, British Transport Commission (BTC) (1948–1962) (which also included various bus companies, ports, canals, and road haulage firms, along with the already publicly-owned London Passenger Transport Board (LPTB) which had overseen London Transport since 1933) created under the Transport Act of 1947 and effectively active since January 1, 1948. Originally a trading brand of the Railway Executive (a Division of the) British Transport Commission, it became an independent statutory corporation in 1962 designated as the British Railways Board (BRB) (1963– October 2001) created under the Transport Act of 1962 and effectively
active since January 1, 1963, that operated most of the overground rail transport in Great Britain between 1948 and 1997. It was formed from the nationalisation of the "Big Four" British railway companies and lasted until the gradual privatisation of British Rail (when British Rail divested all of its operating Railway functions and British Railways Board is still responsible for non-operational railway land, the disposal of which is handled through Rail Property Ltd, a wholly owned subsidiary), in stages between 1994 and November 1997, mainly due to the Railways Act 1993.

In 1993 the government produced a White Paper entitled 'New opportunities for the railways: the privatisation of British Rail' which proposed the privatisation of the British Railways Board. These proposals were passed into law in the form of the Railways Act 1993, and entailed the disintegration of the British Railways Board's activities into 100 separate parts, each one to be sold or franchised separately. Engineering functions and rolling stock were sold, train operation was franchised, and ownership of the infrastructure, such as track, signalling and stations, was passed onto a new organisation, Railtrack. On privatisation, responsibility for track, signalling and stations was transferred to Railtrack (which was later brought under public control as Network Rail) and that for trains to the train operating companies. Railtrack was formed as a separate company which became operational on April 1, 1994, and was privatised in 1996 (it existed until about October 2002 when it was succeeded by Network Rail). In 2002, after experiencing major financial difficulty, most of Railtrack's operations were transferred to the state-controlled non-profit company Network Rail. The first passenger franchises were let in February 1996 (Great Western and South West Trains), and three principal rail freight companies were sold to English, Welsh and Scottish Railway in the same year. The Office of Passenger Rail Franchising (OPRAF) was also established by the Railways Act 1993, in which it was set out that the Franchising Director's responsibilities included negotiating and awarding passenger rail franchises on the basis of competitive tendering, and monitoring ongoing performance. In July 1999, OPRAF operated under the title the Shadow Strategic Rail Authority (SSRA). The SSRA was set up to provide strategic planning, and to promote rail travel and freight transport with the aim to encourage private investments in the railways. In effect the SSRA combined the roles of the British Railways Board (BRB) and OPRAF pending Parliament's approval of the new Railways Bill, which would abolish both the position of Director of Passenger Rail Franchising and OPRAF, and would establish the Strategic Rail Authority (SRA) as its successor body. Following the Transport Act 2000 the SRA came formally into being by shedding its 'shadow' status. Its key role is to promote and develop the rail network and to encourage integration. In addition to the provision of strategic direction, the SRA has responsibility for consumer protection, investment projects, and managing rail franchises. The SRA is currently involved in the process of replacing all the passenger rail franchises that are due to expire by 2004; and in an effort to increase the train operators' incentive to invest in the railways, the SRA has created new long term franchise contracts of up to 20 years. The remainder of Railtrack was renamed RT Group plc and eventually dissolved on 22 June 2010.

As for branding itself however, following nationalisation in 1948 British Railways began to adapt the corporate liveries on the rolling stock it had inherited from its predecessor railway companies. Initially, an express blue (followed by GWR-style Brunswick green in 1952) was used on passenger locomotives, and LNWR-style lined black for mixed-traffic locomotives, but later green was more widely adopted. There was also a logo dubbed "sausage" (or "hot dog") (or totem) in which the name was used over a background in green and white (alternating both colors in font type and background alike). A new logo began to be used since 1949. Development of a corporate identity for the organisation was hampered by the competing ambitions of the British Transport Commission and the Railway Executive. The Executive attempted to introduce a modern Art Deco-style curved logo which could also serve as the standard for station signage totems. BR eventually adopted the common branding of the BTC as its first corporate logo, a lion astride a spoked wheel, designed for the BTC by Cecil Walter Thomas (a British sculptor and medallist) (other sources mention Abram Games instead, a British Graphic Designer); on the bar overlaid across the wheel, the BTC's name was replaced with the words "British Railways". This logo, nicknamed the "Cycling Lion", was applied from 1948 to 1956 to the sides of locomotives, while the oval style was adopted for station signs across Great Britain, each coloured according to the appropriate BR region, using the Gill Sans font first adopted by London and North Eastern Railway (LNER) in 1923.

Esteban Rivera, 24 July 2020

British Rail imagery

[British Railways] image located by Esteban Rivera, 24 July 2020

The "sausage", "hot dog" or totem logo (cropped image from the original, located here:, (source).
"Under its former chief executive (Frank Pick) London Transport had already developed an both a strong corporate image and brand; this being based around the London Transport roundel and consistent application of Johnston Sans typeface across their systems. Subordinate to the British Transport Executive, the Railways Executive oversaw British Railways who came into being without having a corporate identity of its own. With the nationalisation of the railways in 1948, the newly-created British Railways adopted Gill Sans (by Eric Gill) for its corporate identity; the typeface being used on its rolling stock, signage (including stations and signal boxes), rolling stock lettering, posters, publicity and timetables. This was encompassed in British Railways’ design guide" (source:
Esteban Rivera, 24 July 2020

[British Railways] image located by Esteban Rivera, 24 July 2020

BTC Coat of arms (cropped image from the original, located here:, (source).
Description as follows: "Derived from the British Transport Commission Crest this comprised a gold /yellow lion stretching over a railway wheel, which in turn had a ‘British Railways’ nameplate across its centre. The Lion-on-Wheel emblem was reversible meaning the lion always faced forwards on steam locomotives. However, most diesel and electric locomotives had a cab at each end so the lion faced to the left on these; meaning the lion on the sixfoot side of the locomotive did not face direction of travel." (source:
Esteban Rivera, 24 July 2020

[British Railways] image located by Esteban Rivera, 24 July 2020

BTC Coat of arms (stylized version of the above image) (cropped image from the original, located here:, (source)
Esteban Rivera, 24 July 2020

[British Railways] image located by Esteban Rivera, 24 July 2020

BTC coat of arms (variant from an auction house) (cropped image from the original, located here:, (source). In essence, it is the same coat of arms as the previous two, adding the pennant above in grey background displaying three symbols (a hound, a wheel and the lion holding the wheel, representing all modes of transportation ruled by the BTC at the time, which included various bus companies, road hauliers, ports and canals, publicly-owned London Passenger Transport Board (LPTB) which had (since 1933) overseen London Transport). Picture caption reads: "British Transport Commission Coat of Arms from 1956, issued by the College of Arms London and signed".
Esteban Rivera, 24 July 2020

[British Railways] image located by Esteban Rivera, 24 July 2020

BR "cycling lion" logo (located here:,

"British Railways' standard liveries, brochure - July 1949. It took The Railway Executive (British Railways) some time to decide upon 'standardised' liveries for the newly nationalised railways but in 1949 they agreed upon schemes for locomotives, multiple units, coaching stock and a vast variety of other vehicles both rail and road. This brochure, issued by the Railway Pictorial & Locomotive Review, gives a fascinating insight into the corporate identity the Executive adopted. The cover shows the heraldic 'crest', or "totem" the Executive designed (known commonly as the 'hungry' or 'starving lion'!)" (cropped image from the original, located here:
Esteban Rivera, 24 July 2020

[British Railways] image located by Esteban Rivera, 24 July 2020

"Lion-and-Wheel emblem" (also known as Ferret-and-Dartboard) (new BR oval style logo) (cropped image from the original, located here:, (source).
"In 1955 the BTC launched its report titled ‘Modernisation and Re-equipment of British Railways’ commonly known as the Modernisation Plan; this included the replacement of steam locomotives in favour of diesel and electric traction. Accordingly, the BTC revised corporate identity resulting in the Lion-and-Wheel emblem. 1956 saw the use of ‘D’ prefixes on diesel locomotives and the decision to replace the Lion-on Wheel (‘unicycling lion’) crests with the Lion-and-Wheel (‘Ferret-and-Dartboard’). However, many steam locomotives survived with their ‘unicycling lion’ into the 1960s and withdrawal. The description of the logo is as follows: "(it) was essentially a lined circle surrounding a red lion sejant-rampant sitting in a crown holding a wheel. In turn this was placed between lined boxes – the left stating ‘British’ and right, ‘Railways’"(sources: and

There are conflicting reports on the use of the earlier logo since for example FOTW states that it was in use in the period 1949-1965, while other sources dispute such claim, stating it existed (and/or was in use) between 1948-1969 (, and other sources mention 1949-1964 ( Furthermore there's even a source that mentions that the BTC had its own coat of arms granted in 1956, and then transferred to the BRB in 1963 ( which would imply the use of an "old" corporate logo as early as 1963 and then a new logo being used afterwards. That last part being said, the "new logo" - that is, the "double arrow" logo - was then to be the new visual identity and the work of (at least) one (maybe two) years prior to its formal unveiling in 1965.
Esteban Rivera, 24 July 2020

[British Railways] image located by Esteban Rivera, 24 July 2020

"British Railways shipping house flag and railway totems, 1948/49. Part of a brochure describing the nationalised "British Railways" standard liveries, this page show the house flag used for BR's extensive shipping interests as well as the familiar 'hot dog' totem, used for station signs as well as a BR corporate mark, along with the London Transport roundel - LT being part of the British Transport Executive along with BR." (cropped image from the original, located here:
Esteban Rivera, 24 July 2020

[British Railways] image located by Esteban Rivera, 24 July 2020

This graphic compilation in b/w illustrates the early logos used since 1948 until 1964 in chronological order from top to bottom (cropped image from the original, located here:

"During the early 1960s another report, dubbed the "Beeching Report" (for its author Dr Richard Beeching) in 1963, was officially called ‘The Reshaping of British Railways’ which recommended several actions for profitability, which was to bring about yet another change in corporate image. At the time it was "one of the biggest industrial rebranding exercises ever undertaken, and supposedly signposting a bold future, the 1965 rebranding introduced the blue liveries, the famous double arrow logo (symbolising the direction of travel on a double track railway) and a new typeface, ‘Rail Alphabet’ (1965 manual, 1985 manual), which was also adopted by the NHS and the British Airports Authority. The double arrow logo survived the demise of British Rail and is employed as a generic symbol denoting railway stations under the National Rail brand. "The Rail Alphabet was a variant of Helvetica, adapted by Jock Kinneir and Margaret Calvert for optimal readability at stations"
Sources:, and

In the early 1960s the obsolete emblems were used less and less; in most cases plain words were applied on printed matter. With the elimination of the old regions British Railways was ready for further standardization. In order to develop a modern corporate identity the Design Research Unit (DRU) was commissioned in 1964. It was one of the first British design studios that combined architecture with graphic and industrial design.

The Design Research Unit (DRU) was one of the first generation of British design consultancies combining expertise in architecture, graphics and industrial design. It was founded by the managing director of Stuart Advertising Agency, Marcus Brumwell with Misha Black and Milner Gray in 1943. It became well known for its work in relation to the Festival of Britain in 1951 and its influential corporate identity project for British Rail in 1965. The BR Corporate Identity Manual issued in 1965 was originally designed by Angela Reeves (source:

A new logo constituted the starting point of the house style. DRU created some 50 design variants, from which the British Railways Board's Design Panel finally picked two: one incorporating two circles and an arrow, and one consisting of parallel lines and double arrows.
After the first design had leaked out prematurely, the second one was selected. This 'two-way track symbol', soon known as the double arrow, was designed by DRU's 25-year-old Gerry Barney. Along with the new logo the name was shortened to British Rail."
Sources:,, and

Regarding the logo and visual identity of British Railways, "the British Rail current "double arrow" logo is formed of two interlocked arrows showing the direction of travel on a double track railway and was nicknamed "the arrow of indecision" (modern source, though not the original explanation of the expression: "Blue Diesel Days" (book) by Paul Shannon, published in 2007, It is now employed as a generic symbol on street signs in Great Britain denoting railway stations, and as part of the Rail Delivery Group's (RDG) jointly managed National Rail" being a true icon. The new (and current) British Rail corporate identity and first modern logo (the interlocked arrows) was issued available since January 1965 as this poster shows: (Source). This logo was in use in the period January 1965-1994.
Sources: and

Images below carry the following notice: "Copyright British Rail Corporate Identity Manual and Information Sheets Copyright © Secretary of State for Transport 2011. All materials on this website are reproduced with the permission of the Department for Transport. Reproduction of any part of this website without prior permission is prohibited. Please note the British Rail ('double arrow') symbol is a registered trade mark in the name of the Secretary of State for the Department for Transport. See Using the Double Arrow Symbol ( for further information (by ATOC and Rail Delivery Group, RDG)".
Esteban Rivera, 24 July 2020

The British Rail Corporate Identity Manual comprised four volumes, using the MULT-O 23-ring binder system. The four binders were issued in three installments: Binder 1 (not numbered), issued in July 1965, contained information on Basic Elements (symbol, logotype, lettering and colour). Binder 2, issued in November 1966, contained guidance on Printed Publicity plus some additional sheets for insertion into Binder 1, and future insertion into Binders 3 and 4, which were issued together in April 1970, together with additional sheets for the first two binders. Binders 3 and 4 contained information on architecture and signposting, rolling stock, lineside equipment, road vehicles, ships, liner trains, uniforms, stationery, miscellaneous and appendices (including an index) although two sections were ultimately to remain empty" (all images are from the following source:

[British Railways] [British Railways] [British Railways]  images located by Esteban Rivera, 24 July 2020
[click on images for larger versions]

Basic elements (logo description) (Manual issued on April 1965).
Original images:

[British Railways] [British Railways] [British Railways] [British Railways]  images located by Esteban Rivera, 24 July 2020
[click on images for larger versions]

Basic elements (symbol image b/w, color, Manual issued on April 1965)
Basic elements (symbol image b/w, Manual issued on April 1985)
House Flag (first version, featuring obverse and reverse) (Manual issued on April 1965)

[British Railways] [British Railways] [British Railways] images located by Esteban Rivera, 24 July 2020
[click on images for larger versions]

House Flag (blue variant) (, featuring obverse and reverse) (Manual issued on January 1966)
Symbol (logo) in UK colors (bottom image) (, Manual issued on May 1980). This particular image served as the front cover for a design case study in the book British Rail Design Book, by James Cousins (1987) edited by the "Danish Design Council", as seen here: and here:
Color codes for "Rail blue" (BR Publicity Blue, the official name, is matched by Coates Bros. Inks Ltd. Permanent Brilliant Blue. Letterpress P22018) and "Rail red" (BR Publicity Red, the official name, is matched by Coates Bros. Inks Ltd. Permanent Brilliant Blue. Letterpress P18050) (, Manual issued on April 1965)."

Also, there are (partial) corporate identity manuals dated April 1965, as seen here: (source) which show the symbol (logo) and font type (

Additionally there are online scanned images of all the Corporate Identity Manuals here (all from this source:
- BR Corporate Identity Manual:
- BR Corporate Identity Manual Volume 1:
- BR Corporate Identity Manual Volume 2:
- BR Corporate Identity Manual Volume 3:
- BR Corporate Identity Manual Volume 4:

"Following the 1994 privatisation of British Rail, the new infrastructure owner Railtrack Ltd adopted Gill Sans as its corporate typeface for its press releases and report covers including its annual reports. Even then, a further irony was the disappearance of Railtrack Ltd (in favour of Network Rail Infrastructure Ltd - NRIL) although some operators have since used Gill Sans."

Under the Transport Act 2000 the Office of Passenger Rail Franchising was abolished and the majority of BRB's functions were transferred to the Strategic Rail Authority's wholly owned subsidiary BRB (Residuary) Limited. With the dissolution of the SRA under the Railways Act 2005, BRB (Residuary) became a wholly owned subsidiary of the Secretary of State for Transport. While the Transport Act allowed for BRB to be abolished. BRB (Residuary) Ltd (BRBR) was abolished with effect from September 30, 2013.
Esteban Rivera, 24 July 2020

Strategic Railway Authority (SRA)

The Strategic Rail Authority was a non-departmental public body in the United Kingdom set up under the Transport Act 2000 to provide strategic direction for the railway industry. It came into effect on February 1, 2001. The Director of Passenger Rail Franchising and the British Railways Board were both abolished and their functions transferred to the Strategic Rail Authority. It was abolished by the Railways (Abolition of the Strategic Rail Authority) Order 2006, its functions being absorbed by the Department for Transport or the Office of Rail Regulation (now the Office of Rail and Road).
The Office of Rail Regulation on July 5, 2004 by the Railways and  Transport Safety Act 2003 (

Additional sources and resources include:
Railways Archive (includes Acts of Parliament, accident reports, publicity material, financial & economic reports, strategy documents, technical documents, white papers and more):
National Archives - Railways:
National Archives - Railway workers information prior to 1947:
National Archives - Railways' records of private railway companies before they were nationalised in 1947:
National Railway Museum: (which redirects to its current website:
Locomotion, part of the Science Museum Group (SMG) - formerly the National Museum of Science and Industry (NMSI):
Railway Heritage Committee (RHC) (1996 - March 31, 2013) (succeeded by the Railway Heritage Designatory Advisory Board):
Railway Heritage Designatory Advisory Board (RHDAB) (April 1, 2013 - onwards):
"Britain’s Railways, a Short History":
British Railways Board - Administrative History (retrieved from National Digital Archive of Datasets (NDAD)):
Railway Heraldry (part of the Science Museum Group (SMG) featuring many railways Coats of Arms:
RETOURS railway history and design, article: "Spearheading Design Corporate Identities for European railway companies" (
British Transport Police History Group (BTP History Group): preserving the history of railway, dock and canal policing:
Boocock, Colin (2000): "Railway Liveries BR Traction 1948-1995". Ian Allan: Shepperton, Surrey Haresnape, Brian revised by Boocock, Colin (1989): "Railway Liveries BR Steam 1948-1968".
Ian Allan: Shepperton, Surrey Jackson, Tanya (2013): "British Rail: The Nation’s Railway". The History Press: Stroud, Gloucestershire
Lawrence, David (2016): "British Rail Designed 1948-97". Ian Allan: Addlestone, Surrey

Esteban Rivera, 24 July 2020