Plight train - the rail network and passenger journeys

The Rail network and passenger journeys

Full print version, including charts and tables

Passenger transport by rail has its origins in 1820s Northern England, spurred by the work of industrial engineers like George Stephenson, who developed the first locomotive capable of travelling faster than galloping horses.

The importance of the railways as a public good, or perhaps as a means to facilitate the movement of labour to growing industrial centres, was recognised early on. An 1844 Act of Parliament required every route to run a basic (i.e. third-class), affordable service.

Between 1848 and 1899 the length of the railway in Great Britain tripled, from less than 5,000 miles to over 18,000 miles. The growth in infrastructure was accompanied by rising numbers of passengers. The 28m journeys taken in 1844 had increased to 288m by 1870, and 1.4bn by 1908.

Though the growth infrastructure had slowed by the start of the 20th century, the rail network in 1908 and 1948 would have reached from London to Perth (Western Australia) and back, stretched
out. But by 2012, the intrepid passenger would have been stranded on the coast of Western Australia. The major catalyst for this paring back of the network was the publication in 1963 of the Beeching Report, which concluded that:
“… after the post-war growth of competition from road transport, it is no longer socially necessary for the railways to cover such a preponderant part of the total variety of internal transport services as they did in the past.”

The report accelerated route closures, and within seven years, the network was a third shorter than it had been in 1963, and 50% of stations were put out of service, including Chorlton-cum-Hardy, Trouble House Halt and Windmill End.

The 20th century ended, unexpectedly, with a boom in rail travel that has continued into the 21st. More journeys are now being taken than at any time since 1927, and the priority afforded to the motor car in transport policy has receded. The high-speed line from London to Birmingham, if it goes ahead, will represent the largest investment in overland rail since the Victorian era, and a small number of the branch routes closed under Beeching have been reopened. The shadow of Beeching’s axe may no longer be cast so ominously over the UK’s branch lines, but a return of the slow train from Oswestry to Buttington still looks like a distant prospect.

Track and travel
The chart shows the total length of the rail route and the number of passenger journeys in Great Britain.

 The chart shows the total length of the rail route and the number of passenger journeys in Great Britain

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