Privatisation : The Railway Revolution?

Today’s blog was written by John McGoldrick, Curator of Museum Collections, and looks at the privatisation of Britain’s railways – a process that began 20 years ago today. 

Exactly 20 years ago to this day, the first building blocks in the privatisation of Britain’s railways were put in place with the birth on 1st April 1994 of Railtrack – the body responsible for running the railway infrastructure.  Details of the new structure first appeared in Transport Secretary, John McGregor’s White Paper New Opportunities for the Railways which was unveiled in July 1992.  Over the preceding decade, British Rail seemed to be establishing itself as a well run concern, especially with its profit-making InterCity sector which ran frequent high speed services.

National Railway Museum Intercity

Painting of an Intercity train

Railtrack was subsequently privatised by public flotation in 1996.  The process of dividing up the role of operating trains into discreet franchises was longer-winded.  These were to be awarded after a biding process to the respective Train Operating Companies (TOCs).  Franchising was also delayed by a legal challenge from the Save our Railways pressure Group.  Responsibility for rolling stock went to Rolling Stock Companies (ROSCOS).  By 1997, Britain’s railways were effectively privately run.

National Railway Museum Railtrack

A Railtrack sign from our collection

The privatisation of this hugely complex industry inevitably generated massive controversy.  Critics protested – and continue to do so – about public funds being allocated to private companies to run franchises.  Others point to growing investment and greater adaptability in today’s industry.  Wherever the truth lies, it is clear that Britain’s railways look to be facing an exciting period of development with major projects like Crossrail, HS2 and the electrification of many routes linking cities in the North of England.

The double arrow flag, or arrows of indecision if you prefer, pictured below from the Museum’s collection no longer flies over railway buildings.  However, the logo unleashed on a reluctant public in 1966 still endures today as the commonly accepted railway symbol.

National Railway Museum British Rail

British Rail flag from our collection

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