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Formerly British Rail and British Railways before that, this is the current collective brand name for the main railway network of the island of Great Britain (Stroke Country and Ireland have a separate system with a different gauge).

The British railway system was the first in the world and one of the most developed, but is now somewhat smaller than it was in the past. This was significantly due to a man named Dr. Beeching who helped close down about a third of the network (mostly smaller branch lines) on grounds of economic non-viability (he proposed further cuts but these were rejected). This didn't really work and some of the lines have now been reopened as railway use has grown.

About 40% of the network is electrified, mostly via two different systems- 25,000 volt AC overhead wires, or 750v DC third rail (The London Underground uses four rails in most cases, with the DLR having a different system). This is due to the history of the network.

Previously a massive batch of 120 privately owned companies, in 1921 the government amalgamated these into four big networks, known as "The Big Four". These were:

  • London, Midland and Scottish Railway (LMS)- the main routes were the West Coast Main Line and the Midland Mainline. Only electrified suburban lines, such as the Euston-Watford Junction line, with other stuff following later.
    • A long-time underdog to the GWR and LNER in terms of locomotive design and organisation, the LMS eventually turned things around under William Stanier, who modernised the railway with engines such as the "Black 5" and the 8F. Less glamorous than the competition, but the modernity and ease-of-maintenance led to LMS locomotives becoming the design basis for BR's "Standard" fleet.
  • Great Western Railway (GWR)- developed by the famous Isambard Kingdom Brunel and initially wide gauge, which accounts for the big tunnels.
    • GWR inspired much loyalty in its staff and those who used it. Often known as God's Wonderful Railway, and for many years, even after nationalization as the Western Region of British Rail, seemed to go out of its way to be as different from everybody else as possible. Chances are, an idyllic rural branch line in fictional media is probably a GWR line - dark green engine, chocolate-and-cream coaches.
  • London and North Eastern Railway (LNER)- the East Coast Main Line is the best known part of this.
    • Perhaps most famous as the home of Mallard (the world steam record holder) and Flying Scotsman. Both currently live at the National Railway Museum in York, itself a key junction on the LNER network.
  • Southern Railway- Electrified its suburban lines with third rail (the sheer presence of the lines there, plus the unsuitable geology means that there isn't much Tube-wise south of the River Thames).

After the Second World War, the network was nationalised and became British Railways (later British Rail).

Privatised under the Major government, the track maintenance was recently renationalised after Railtrack replaced most of its skilled engineers with unskilled casual labourers working for £5 an hour, became the first British corporation to be convicted of manslaughter after two fatal train wrecks caused by -surprise surprise- sloppy maintenance and then went bankrupt. This did not make the already controversial decision to privatise the rail network any more popular.

It is now a collection of 26 passenger train operating companies (plus freight companies), which change ownership and name fairly frequently, as networks are merged, split or franchises get revoked early- as in the case of the infamous Connex.

Much of the network is centred around London and the famous rail termini. Some of the relevant lines will described under each.

London Termini and interesting London railway stuff

London has several major railway stations, referenced in media (there's even a case from the Thomas the Tank Engine where engines argue about which station is London, not realising they are all correct). In clockwise order from the West direction, these are the current ones:

  • London Paddington: Departure point for the Great Western line, which is non-electrified bar a section that serves the Heathrow services from there, it's a visually impressive station. The Great Western line is currently operated by First Great Western. Dubbed "Worst Great Western" and "Worst Late Western" by many, it recently suffered a fare strike, has the worst punctuality record in the country and has the government considering pulling the franchise.
    • Where Paddington Bear arrived. There is a statue of him at the station.
    • Features in the second Austin Powers film.
    • The Agatha Christie novel 4.50 From Paddington.
  • London Marylebone. Only six platforms, it provides Chiltern Railways' all-diesel services to Birmingham.
    • As well as playing Paddington a few times, the station has appeared on its own. The most memorable appearance (although it's not stated as since, you can ID it via the timetables) is in the classic in both senses of the word Doctor Who episode "Doctor Who and the Silurians" where a lot of people keel over and die from an alien virus.
    • It's also on the London Monopoly board.
    • It's the only London terminus which Sherlock Holmes never used, even though he supposedly lived just round the corner in Baker Street - because the station hadn't been built when the stories were written.
      • Well, not when some of the stories were written anyway. Marylebone Station opened in 1899, so it pre-dates all of the post-Reichenbach Falls stories.
    • The Beatles departed from this station in A Hard Day's Night.
  • London Euston- Home of the West Coast Main Line, which goes to Scotland via Manchester. The WCML is currently owned by a certain Richard Branson as part of the Virgin network.
  • London St. Pancras International- so close to King's Cross it shares a Tube station (see next entry), it is now the home of the Eurostar services (hence the "International"). Frankly, it needed some love and was recently refurbished as a result.
    • St. Pancras is used as the exterior for King's Cross in the Harry Potter films, since King's Cross isn't that nice externally...
    • In a more interesting example, in a 1995 adaptation of Richard III, set in a fictionalised 1930s England, it is moved to Westminster via special effects and becomes the titular monarch's seat of government.
    • The Midland Hotel, which takes up much of the impressive frontage of the station, is currently being renovated back into a hotel, having served as railway offices for some years and stood empty since the mid-1980s. The Spice Girls' debut video, Wannabe, was filmed in the then-deserted building.
  • London King's Cross. Home of the East Coast Main Line (now owned by National Express under the name National Express East Coast after a franchise yank from the previous owners renationalisaed after the franchise holder unceremoniously pulled out mid-tenure). The London Underground station, King's Cross St. Pancras, is a six line station and the busiest on the network. It's been claimed, probably inaccurately, Boudica is buried there.
    • No discussion of this station is complete without discussing the use and misuse of this station by Harry Potter, where it is the departure point for the Hogwarts Express via Platform 9 3/4. Platforms 9 and 10 in real life not only have no wall between them, they are not even in the ECML part of the station. 4 and 5 are used in filming.
      • JK Rowling has stated that she had got confused when writing the first book and had been visualising the platforms at Euston (which, like King's Cross, are platforms seperated by two rails). There's a certain Fridge Logic here, since if you wanted to travel North or to Scotland, you'd generally leave from Euston not King's Cross.
      • However, there is a half a trolley sticking out of the wall of the building containing tracks 9, 10 and 11 at King's Cross.
    • And it features on the London Monopoly board.
  • London Liverpool Street. Used to be grimy and confusing to get around due to its split-level concourse, but was completely refurbished in the early 1980s and is now bright, airy and spacious. Home of the National Express East Anglia services to the Anglia region, the network was formerly known as "one" (sic), which led to jokes, like "The eleven twenty-one one service". Or confusion, as in "The 1120 "one" service..."
    • Features in the first Mission Impossible film.
    • The most likely terrorist target, given its proximity to the City. Since 9/11, the place has been "attacked" twice in drama, such as in a 2004 Mockumentary that involved the place getting chlorine gassed by terrorists (and bombings on the Tube - one of the real 7/7 attacks took place near Liverpool Street). In fact the station's glass roof was partially shattered by a bomb in the 1980s, but no other damage occurred.
    • It also features on the London Monopoly board.
  • London Fenchurch Street. Has a graceful curved pediment above the entrance. Only four platforms and home to c2c, the rebranded LTS Rail. The London, Tilbury and Southend Line, formerly dubbed "The Misery Line", a moniker it has now lost after new trains were introduced (the Class 312 slam door trains were not nice at all). Fairly nice station- just make sure you go out the right exit if you're transferring to Tower Hill.
    • Features in Monopoly.
    • Where Fenchurch from ~The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy~ was conceived- in the ticket queue.
  • London Cannon Street - a commuter station serving the City of London (ie the financial district) with platforms extending onto the river. The original victorian concourse was replaced by a bland 1960s building, but the red brick walls and towers at the river end have been refurbished.
  • London Blackfriars
    • Currently being refurbished- only two platforms are open, with the Tube station currently closed.
  • London Charing Cross. One of the smaller termini with only six platforms, home to Southeasten Trains services to the south-east of England. The closest station to Trafalgar Square and the West End, it sits on the north bank of the Thames, and can be seen from Waterloo. Southeastern Trains are known for their tendency to shut down their entire network if even a single millimeter of snow is detected, something which naturally pisses off the thousands of commuters who rely on it every day.
  • London Victoria
    • Until the advent of Eurostar and direct connections through the Channel Tunnel, Victoria was where you started your journey to the continent. Regular trains ran to Dover and Folkestone to connect with the channel ferries, not to mention more luxurious trains such as the Golden Arrow and the London extension of the Orient Express network.
  • London Bridge (always called that, since it's the actual name of the nearby bridge) The main part of the station is a terminus, but some lines run past it and on to Waterloo (east) and Charing Cross, or to Cannon Street, or to Blackfriars, St. Pancras and beyond on the Thameslink line. Trivia: the station is right next to London's newest and tallest building (as of 2012), the Shard.
  • London Waterloo. Named after the 1815 battle (before any more French people complain, they should note Gare d'Austerlitz in Paris), it contained Waterloo International, home of Eurostar, until 2007. It also had until World War Two the London Necropolis station next door, a station dedicated to running funeral trains for the London Necropolis company, who ran trains to the Brookwood Cemetery, where over 240,000 people are buried and designed to deal with London's deceased.

British Train-ing

Most of the trains in regular service the network now have automatic doors, while the rest have doors that are locked remotely pre-departure and opened only after arrival. Not counting the Eurostar trains, the fastest ones on the network are the Class 91 "Intercity 225" loco-hauled trains found on the East Coast Main Line, and the Class 390 "Pendolino" units on the West Coast Main Line.

National Rail and its predecessors in popular culture

No discussion of the British rail network is complete without discussing its fans, often known as "trainspotters" (inaccurately applying a sub-type to the whole community). "Trainspotters", people who note train numbers as they go past, are depicted as anorak-wearing geeks, even by other railfans.

  • Monty Python's Flying Circus had a go as well- rather ironically, Palin is himself a trainspotter.
  • Since the beginning of the "War on Terror", and in particular since the 7/7 bombings, the hobby has come under threat. Trainspotters have complained of rough treatment - even harassment - by over-zealous policemen and anti-terror officials. Naturally this state of affairs has proved controversial, and has been reported on by national newspapers on more than one occasion.

These people maintain websites, write books, take photographs and work to restore older trains and closed lines. There is also a considerable amount of slang. They usually do not break the law (sometimes helping in its enforcement and rail safety via reporting stuff).

(This is of course, not just confined to the UK).

Famous works involving British railways are legion:

  • Brief Encounter
  • The Thirty-Nine Steps
  • The Railway Children
  • The Titfield Thunderbolt
  • Several Expys of British locos appear in the game Transport Tycoon.
  • And indeed Thomas the Tank Engine/The Railway Series. The island's railway is a fictional region of British Railways with a greater degree of operating independence accorded to it and the island's baronet as Controller, which is why the mainland dieselization order didn't affect it. Since the railway still turns a profit, well enough has been left alone. The engines are mostly based on British locomotives, for example Gordon is an LNER A3 [like Flying Scotsman], Henry became an LMS Black 5MT after his rebuild, and Thomas himself is an LBSCR E2; in real life, these were all scrapped, making Thomas the Last of His Kind.
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