The Necessity of Railway in Britain

Britain still has the 17th largest railway network in the world.

It is one of the busiest railways in Europe, according to Network Rail, with 20% more train services than France, 60% more than Italy, and more than Spain, Switzerland, The Netherlands, Portugal and Norway combined.

In 2016, Government figures suggested there were 1.718 billion journeys on the National Rail network, making the British network the fifth most used in the world

British rail passenger numbers are reaching their highest ever level. Passenger journeys have grown much more quickly than in France and Germany.[Source: GB rail: dataset on financial and operational performance 1997-98 – 2012-13″]

Upgrades to the network, include Thameslink, Crossrail, electrification of lines, in-cab signalling, new inter-city trains and a new high-speed line.

The railway system in Britain is the oldest in the world. Wagonways were built in Britain in the 1560s across the country. The first locomotive-hauled public railway opened in 1825.

Most of the railway track is managed by Network Rail, which in 2016 had a network of 15,799 kilometres (9,817 miles) of standard-gauge lines, of which 5,331 kilometres (3,313 miles) were electrified.

A few cities have transit systems and Underground.

The British railway network is connected with that of continental Europe by an undersea rail link, the Channel Tunnel, opened in 1994.

The system was later built as patchwork of local lines operated by small private railway companies. Over the course of the 19th and early 20th centuries, these amalgamated or were bought by competitors until only a handful of private monopolies remained.

The entire network was brought under government control during the First World War. Successive governments resisted calls for the nationalisation of the network (first proposed by 19th century Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone as early as the 1830s). Instead, from 1 January 1923, almost all the remaining companies were grouped into the “big four”: the Great Western Railway, the London and North Eastern Railway, the London, Midland and Scottish Railway and the Southern Railway companies (there were also a number of other joint railways such as the Midland and Great Northern Joint Railway and the Cheshire Lines Committee as well as special joint railways such as the Forth Bridge Railway, Ryde Pier Railway and at one time the East London Railway). The “Big Four” were joint-stock public companies and they continued to run the railway system until 31 December 1947.

The growth in road transport during the 1920s and 1930s increased competition for the rail companies.Governments supported private road haulage companies and state sector haulage intended for privatisation, through the subsidised construction of roads. The railways entered a period of decline owing to a lack of investment. During the Second World War the companies’ managements joined together, effectively forming one company. A maintenance backlog, poor investment in track and railstock occurred during thjs period. After 1945, the government decided to bring contol over the rail service by the state.


1948 – 1994

From the start of 1948, the “big four” were nationalised to form British Railways (becoming “British Rail”) under the control of the British Transport Commission.

It was divided into six, then five, regional authorities.

Regeneration of track and railway stations was completed by 1954. In the same year, changes to the British Transport Commission, including the privatisation of road haulage, ended the coordination of transport in Britain. The mid-1950s saw the rapid introduction of diesel and electric rolling stock. This was period of rapid growth in the car industry and growth of the road network in competition

Capitalist demand for profitability led to a major reduction in the network during the mid-1960s, with business man, Dr. Richard Beeching, commissioned by the government under Ernest Marples with reorganising the railways.

Many branch lines (and a number of main lines) were closed because they were deemed uneconomic (“the Beeching Axe” of 1963), removing much feeder traffic from main line passenger services. In the second Beeching report of 1965, only the major trunk routes were selected for investment.

The 1980s saw severe cuts in government funding and above-inflation increases in fares. The five geographical Regions were replaced by a Sectored organisation, in which passenger services were organised into InterCity, Network SouthEast and Regional Railways sectors.


British Rail operations were privatised during 1994–1997. Ownership of the track and infrastructure passed to Railtrack, whilst passenger operations were franchised to individual private sector operators (originally there were 25 franchises) and the goods services sold outright (six companies were set up, but five of these were sold to the same buyer).

Rail subsidy per passenger journey for the UK, Germany, France, Italy and Spain Rail subsidies have increased from £2.5bn in 1992-93 to £3.3bn in 2015-16. [BBC News. 22 January 2013].

At the end of September 2003, the first part of High Speed 1, a high-speed link to the Channel Tunnel and onward to France and Belgium. The rest of the link, from north Kent to St Pancras railway station in London, opened in 2007. A major programme of remedial work on the West Coast Main Line started in 1997 and finished in 2009.

Upgrades under way: The Thameslink Programme, Crossrail, the Northern Hub and electrification of the Great Western Main Line. Planning for High Speed 2 is underway, with a projected completion date of 2026 for Phase 1 (London to Birmingham) and 2033 for Phase 2. An East Midlands Trains Class 222 Meridian on a London to Nottingham service. These trains are used for InterCity services from London to the East Midlands and South Yorkshire.There is intended to be a service from London Stansted Airport to Birmingham New Street

Passenger services in Great Britain are divided into regional franchises and run by private train operating companies. These companies bid for seven- to eight-year contracts to run individual franchises. Most contracts are awarded by the Department for Transport (DfT), with the exception of Merseyrail, where the franchise is awarded by Merseyside Passenger Transport Executive, and ScotRail, where the DfT awards on the advice of the Scottish Government.

Initially, there were 25 franchises, but the number of different operating companies is smaller as some firms, including FirstGroup and Stagecoach Group, run more than one franchise. In addition, some franchises have since been combined. There are also a number of local or specialised rail services operated on an ‘open access’ basis outside the franchise arrangements. Examples include Heathrow Express and Hull Trains.

In the 2015–16 operating year, franchised services provided 1,718 million journeys totalling (64.7 billion billion passenger km) of travel, an increase over 1994–5 of 117% in journeys (from 761 million) and just over doubling the passenger miles.

The key index used to assess passenger train performance is the Public Performance Measure, which combines figures for punctuality and reliability. From a base of 90% of trains arriving on time in 1998, the measure dipped to 75% in mid-2001. In June 2015 the PPM stood at 91.2% after a period of steady increases in the annual moving average since 2003 until around 2012 when the improvements levelled off.[ Source: “Performance and punctuality (PPM) – Network Rail”.]

Train fares cost 2.7% more than under British Rail in real terms on average.[BBC] For some years, Britain has been said to have the highest rail fares in Europe, with peak-time and season tickets considerably higher than other countries, partly because rail subsidies in Europe are higher.

British railway ticket machines (computerised)

Annual passenger numbers

Stevenage railway station along the East Coast Main Line.

Largs railway station with a Class 380 run by Abellio ScotRail a subsidiary of Nederlandse Spoorwegen.

Below are the total number of passengers using heavy rail transport in Britain. The numbers are calculated from September to August. (This table does not include Eurostar, Heathrow Express, Heathrow Connect or “open access operators” such as Grand Central and Hull Trains)

2004–2005            902,695,324

2005–2006            800,669,217            Increase2.47%

2006–2007            958,095,205            Increase19.66

2007–2008            1,024,602,056            Increase6.94

2008–2009            1,073,753,933            Increase4.80

2009–2010            1,065,386,249            Decrease0.78

2010–2011            1,156,896,521            Increase8.59

2011–2012            1,227,960,111            Increase6.14

2012–2013            1,268,979,546            Increase3.34

2013-2014            1,332,561,756            Increase5.00

2014-2015            1,392,535,310            Increase4.50

2015-2016            1,463,777,211            Increase5.12

[The table is according to the Office of Rail and Road ]

Railway stations

There are 2,563 passenger railway stations on the Network Rail network. This does not include the London Underground, nor other systems which are not part of the national network, such as heritage railways. Most date from the Victorian era and a number are in or on the edge of town and city centres. Major stations lie for the most part in large cities, with the largest conurbations (e.g. Liverpool, Birmingham, Bristol, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Glasgow and Manchester) typically having more than one main station. London is a major hub of the network, with 12 main-line termini forming a “ring” around central London. Birmingham, Leeds, Manchester, Glasgow, Bristol and Reading are major interchanges for many cross-country journeys that do not involve London. However, some important railway junction stations lie in smaller cities and towns, for example York, Crewe and Ely. Some other places expanded into towns and cities because of the railway network. Swindon, for example, was little more than a village before the Great Western Railway chose to site its locomotive works there. In many instances geography, politics or military considerations[citation needed] originally caused stations to be sited further from the towns they served until, with time, these issues could be overcome (for example, Portsmouth had its original station at Gosport).

[Source: Wiki]

High-speed rail in Britain

High-speed rail (above 124 mph or 200 km/h) was first introduced in Britain in the 1970s by British Rail. BR had pursued two development projects in parallel, the development of a tilting train technology, the ‘Advanced Passenger Train’ (APT), and development of a conventional high-speed diesel train, the ‘High Speed Train’ (HST). The APT project was abandoned, but the HST design entered service.

The prototype HST, the British Rail Class 252, reached speeds of 143.2 mph, while the main fleet entered service limited to a service speed of 125 mph, and were introduced progressively on main lines across the country, with a rebranding of their services as the InterCity 125.

Class 390 Pendolino fleet designed for 140 mph maximum speed of service were still built and entered service in 2002, but operation limited to 125 mph.

The first implementation of high-speed rail up to 186 mph in regular passenger service in Britain was the Channel Tunnel Rail Link (High Speed 1), when its first phase opened in 2003 linking the British end of the Channel Tunnel at Folkestone with Fawkham Junction in Kent. This is used by international only passenger trains for the Eurostar service, using British Rail Class 373 trains. The line was later extended all the way into London St Pancras in 2007.

After the building of the first of a new British Rail Class 395 train fleet for use partly on High Speed 1 and parts of the rest of the UK rail network, the first domestic high-speed running over 125 mph (to about 140 mph) began in December 2009. These services are operated by the Southeastern franchise.

For replacement of the domestic fleet of Intercity 125 and 225 trains on the existing national network, the Intercity Express Programme was announced. In 2009 it was announced the preferred rolling stock option for this project was the Hitachi Super Express family of multiple units, and they are expected to enter service from 2017 on the Great Western Main Line and 2018 on the East Coast Main Line. The trains will be capable of a maximum speed of 140 mph with “minor modifications”, with the necessary signalling modifications required of the Network Rail infrastructure in Britain likely to come from the phased roll out of the Europe-wide European Rail Traffic Management System (ERTMS).

High Speed 2

Following several studies and consultations on high-speed rail, in 2009 the UK Government formally announced the High Speed 2 project. This study began on the assumption the route would be a new purpose-built high-speed line, from London to the West Midlands, via London Heathrow, relieving traffic on the West Coast Main Line, and would use conventional high-speed rail technology as opposed to Maglev. The rolling stock would be capable of travelling on the existing Network Rail infrastructure if required, and the route will intersect with the existing West Coast Main Line (WCML). A second phase of the project is planned to reach further north to Manchester, Sheffield and Leeds, as well as linking into the WCML, the Midland Main Line and the East Coast Main Line.

High Speed 3

In June 2014, Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne proposed a high-speed rail link High Speed 3 (HS3) between Liverpool and Newcastle/Sheffield/Hull. The line would utilise the existing route between Liverpool and Newcastle/Hull and a new route from to Sheffield will follow the same route to Manchester Victoria and then a new line from Victoria to Sheffield, with additional tunnels and other infrastructure.

High-speed rolling stock

In August 2009 the speeds of the fastest trains operating in Great Britain capable of a top speed of over 125 mph were as follows:

Name Locomotive class Type Max. recorded speed (mph (km/h)) Max. design speed (mph (km/h)) Max. speed in service (mph (km/h))
Eurostar, e320 374 EMU 219 (352) 200 (320) N/A
Eurostar, e300 373 EMU 209 (334.7) 186 (300) 186 (300)
Javelin 395 EMU 157 (252)[21] 140 (225) 140 (225)
InterCity 225 91 Electric Loco 162 (261) 140 (225) 125 (200)
Pendolino 390 EMU 162 (261)[22] 140 (225) 125 (200)
InterCity 125 43 (HST) Diesel Loco 148 (~240) 125 (200) 125 (200)
Adelante 180 DMU 125 (200) 125 (200) 125 (200)
Voyager 220 DEMU 125 (200) 125 (200) 125 (200)
Super Voyager 221 DEMU 125 (200) 125 (200) 125 (200)
Meridian/Pioneer 222 DEMU 125 (200) 125 (200) 125 (200)
Class 67 67 Diesel Loco 125 (200) 125 (200) 125 (200)

In 2011 the fastest timetabled start-to-stop run by a UK domestic train service was the Hull Trains 07.30

Rapid transit

A number of towns and cities have rapid transit systems. Heavy rail underground technology is used in the London and Glasgow Underground systems while the Merseyrail system in Liverpool shares some characteristics. Light rail with some underground sections exist in Newcastle upon Tyne on the Tyne and Wear Metro and in the London Docklands. The light rail systems in Nottingham, Sheffield, Manchester, Croydon, Birmingham/Black Country and Edinburgh use a combination of street running tramways and, where available, reserved right of way or former conventional rail lines in some suburbs.


Million tonnes of rail freight moved in the UK from 1983 to 2017.

There are four main goods operating companies in the UK, the largest of which is DB Cargo UK (formerly DB Schenker formerly English Welsh & Scottish (EWS)). There are also several smaller independent operators including Mendip Rail. Types of freight carried include intermodal — in essence containerised freight — and coal, metals, oil, and construction material.

Freight services had been in steady decline since the 1930s. Since 1995, however, the amount of freight carried on the railways has increased sharply. The Department for Transport’s Transport Ten Year Plan calls for an 80% increase in rail freight measured from a 2000–1 base.[ “The Government’s Ten Year Transport Plan” (PDF).

Statistics on freight are specified in terms of the weight of freight lifted, and the net tonne kilometre, being freight weight multiplied by distance carried. 116.6 million tonnes of freight was lifted in the 2013–4 period, against 138 million tonnes in 1986–7, a decrease of 16%.[2013-14 Quarter 4 Statistical Release – Freight Rail Usage (PDF). Office of Rail Regulation. 22 May 2014.] However, a record 22.7 billion net tonne kilometres (14 billion net ton miles) of freight movement were recorded in 2013-4, against 16.6 billion (10.1 billion) in 1986–7, an increase of 38%.[2013-14 Quarter 4 Statistical Release – Freight Rail Usage (PDF). Office of Rail Regulation. 22 May 2014.] Coal makes up 36% of the total net tonne kilometre, though its share is declining.[ “Rail trends factsheet, Great Britain: 2014 – Publications – GOV.UK”] Rail freight has increased its market share (by net tonne kilometres) from 7.4% in 1998 to 11.1% in 2013.[ “Display Report”. Office of Rail and Road – National Rail Trends Portal.] Recent growth is partly due to more international services including the Channel Tunnel and Port of Felixstowe, which is containerised.

A loss to the rail freight industry in Britain was the custom of the Royal Mail, which from 2004 discontinued use of its 49-train fleet, and switching to road haulage after a near 170-year-preference for trains. Mail trains had long been part of the tradition of the railways in Britain, Although Royal Mail suspended the Mail train in January 2004, this decision was reversed in December of the same year, and Class 325s are now used on some routes including between London, Warrington and Scotland.

Train leasing services

At the time of privatisation, the rolling stock of British Rail was sold to the new operators, as in the case of the freight companies, or to the three ROSCOs (rolling stock operating companies) which lease or hire stock to passenger and freight train operators. Unlike other major players in the privatised railway system of Britain, the ROSCOs are not subject to close regulation by the economic regulatory authority. Since privatisation in 1995, the ROSCOs have faced criticism. They are acting as an oligopoly to keep lease prices high.

In July 2004, the Department for Transport’s White Paper on the future of the railways contained a statement it was dissatisfied with the operation of the rolling stock leasing market and believed there may have been excessive pricing on the part of the ROSCOs.

Three companies took over British Rail’s rolling stock on privatisation:

Angel Trains – owned by a consortium of private equity investors, mainly comprising pension funds and insurance companies, and has 4,400 vehicles in the UK.

Eversholt Rail Group – owns a fleet of over 4,000 vehicles and is owned by a consortium including 3i Infrastructure and Morgan Stanley.

Porterbrook – leases some 3,500 locomotives, trains and freight wagons; owned by a consortium including Deutsche Bank, Lloyds TSB (who withdrew in October 2010) and BNP Paribas.

A number of other companies have since entered the leasing market:

Sovereign Trains – a company that forms part of the same group as the open-access operator Grand Central. Sovereign Trains owns the rolling stock operated by Grand Central.

QW Rail Leasing – a joint venture between the National Australia Bank and SMBC Leasing and Finance to provide the EMU rolling stock to London Overground.

Diesel Trains – in March 2009, the Department for Transport also launched its own ROSCO to order 202 new diesel train carriages for the Thames Valley area, around Bristol and on longer distances in northern England. The trains were due to enter service by 2012 for train operators First Great Western, First TransPennine Express and Northern Rail. However, in August 2009 the order was cancelled due to the planned electrification of the Great Western Main Line and Diesel Trains was later dissolved in July 2012.

Lloyds TSB General Leasing – in April 2009, Lloyds TSB entered the rolling stock market by funding the purchase of 30 new EMU trains for National Express East Anglia.

Beacon Rail Leasing,[39] owns Class 68 and Class 88 locomotives, as well as Class 220 and Class 221 DMUs.[40]

UK Rail Leasing, owns some Class 56 locomotives

[show] v t e

British Rolling Stock Companies (ROSCOs)

Spot-hire companies provide short-term leasing of rolling stock.

MiddlePeak Railways, a locomotive hire & lease company with a stock of locomotives similar to Class 08 & NS 0-6-0 600 Class shunting locomotives, other locomotives, rolling stock & parts. GL Railease owned by GATX Capital, and Lombard, a subsidiary of the Royal Bank of Scotland. Harry Needle Railroad Company Ltd, an industrial and main line locomotive hire and overhaul company. Operates Class 08 shunting locomotives, and Class 20 locomotives. Riviera Trains, a spot-hire company with a fleet of Class 47 locomotives. This company works closely with DB Cargo UK. West Coast Railway Company, a spot-hire and railtour-operator with a stock of Class 37 and Class 47 locomotives, as well as the rebuild Class 57 locomotive.

Railways in Great Britain are in the private sector, but they are subject to control by central government, and to economic and safety regulation the State.

In 2006, using powers in the Railways Act 2005, the Department for Transport took over most of the functions of the now wound up Strategic Rail Authority. The DfT awards passenger rail franchises, and, once awarded, monitors and enforces the contracts with the private sector franchisees. Franchises specify the passenger rail services which are to be run and the quality and other conditions (for example, the cleanliness of trains, station facilities and opening hours, the punctuality and reliability of trains). Some franchises receive a subsidy from the DfT for doing so, and some are cash-positive, which means the franchisee pays the DfT for the contract.

The other regulatory authority for the privatised railway is the Office of Rail and Road (previously the Office of Rail Regulation), which, following the Railways Act 2005, is the combined economic and safety regulator. It replaced the Rail Regulator on 5 July 2004. The Rail Safety and Standards Board still exists, however; established in 2003 on the recommendations of a public inquiry, it leads the industry’s progress in health and safety matters.

The principal modern railway statutes are:

  • Railways Act 1993
  • Competition Act 1998 (insofar as it confers competition powers on the Office of Rail and Road)
  • Transport Act 2000
  • Railways and Transport Safety Act 2003
  • Railways Act 2005

Railway industry

  • Statutory authorities
  • Office of Rail and Road
  • Department for Transport

Notified Bodies

  1. Rail network and signalling operations
  2. Railtrack (1996–2002)
  3. Network Rail (2002–) – (A “not for dividend” company limited by guarantee)

Other national entities

Association of Train Operating Companies – ATOC

Institution of Railway Operators

Rail Freight Group

Rail Passengers Council and Committees

Rail Safety and Standards Board – RSSB

The Railway Forum

Railway Mission

Railway Study Association

Passenger operators in Britain

Current passenger operators

The following operate the National Rail network.

Operator Type Franchise Parent(s) Passenger satisfaction[1] Start date Expiry date Replaced
Abellio ScotRail Franchise ScotRail Abellio 87% 1 April 2015 31 March 2025 First ScotRail
Arriva Rail London TfL concession London Overground Arriva UK Trains 13 November 2016[2][3][4] 26 May 2024 London Overground Rail Operations
Arriva Trains Wales Franchise Wales & Borders Arriva UK Trains 82% 8 December 2003 13 October 2018[5] Wales & Borders
c2c Franchise Essex Thameside Trenitalia 81% 26 May 1996 10 November 2029 Network SouthEast
(London, Tilbury & Southend Division)
Caledonian Sleeper Franchise Caledonian Sleeper Serco 31 March 2015 31 March 2030 First ScotRail
Chiltern Railways Franchise Chiltern Railways Arriva UK Trains 91% 21 July 1996 21 December 2021[5] Network SouthEast(Chiltern Division)
CrossCountry Franchise New CrossCountry Arriva UK Trains 86% 11 November 2007 December 2019[6] Central Trains(Birmingham – Stansted & Cardiff – Nottingham route)
Virgin CrossCountry
East Midlands Trains Franchise East Midlands Stagecoach 86% 11 November 2007 August 2019[6] Central Trains(Liverpool – Norwich & East Midlands routes)
Midland Mainline
Eurostar Open access Eurostar International Limited 14 November 1994  
Grand Central[7] Open access Arriva UK Trains 96% 18 December 2007 December 2026[8]  
Greater Anglia Franchise East Anglia Abellio(60%)
77% 16 October 2016[9] October 2025[6] National Express East Anglia
Great Western Railway Franchise Greater Western FirstGroup 84% 1 April 2006 April 2020[6] First Great Western
First Great Western Link
Wessex Trains
Heathrow Connect Open access Heathrow Airport Holdings
83% 12 June 2005 May 2018[10]  
Heathrow Express Open access Heathrow Airport Holdings 91% 23 June 1998  
Hull Trains Open access FirstGroup 94% 25 September 2002 December 2029[11]  
Merseyrail Merseytravelcontract Merseyrail Serco-Abellio 90% 20 July 2003 19 July 2028[5] Arriva Trains Merseyside
Northern Franchise Northern Arriva UK Trains 82% 1 April 2016 31 March 2025[12] Northern Rail
Southeastern Franchise Integrated Kent Govia 69% 1 April 2006 December 2018[6] South Eastern Trains
Southern / Thameslink and Great Northern Franchise Thameslink, Southern & Great Northern Govia 69% 14 September 2014 September 2021[6] First Capital ConnectSouthern
South Western Railway Franchise South Western FirstGroup(70%)
MTR Corporation(30%)
20 August 2017 18 August 2024[6] South West Trains
TfL Rail TfL concession Crossrail MTR Corporation 79% 31 May 2015 30 May 2023 Greater Anglia(Liverpool Street – Shenfield)
TransPennine Express Franchise TransPennine Express FirstGroup 87% 1 April 2016 31 March 2023[6] First TransPennine Express
Virgin Trains East Coast Franchise InterCity East Coast Stagecoach(90%)
Virgin Group(10%)
88% 1 March 2015 31 March 2020[13][14]
(originally 31 March 2023[15])
East Coast
Virgin Trains West Coast Franchise InterCity West Coast Virgin Rail Group 92% 9 March 1997 April 2019[16] InterCity(West Coast Division)
West Midlands Trains Franchise West Midlands Abellio(70%)
JR East(15%)

Regional entities

  • Transport for West Midlands)
  • TfGM (Transport for Greater Manchester)
  • Merseytravel
  • Metro (West Yorkshire Metro)
  • Nexus (Tyne and Wear Passenger Transport Executive)
  • Travel South Yorkshire (South Yorkshire Passenger Transport Executive)
  • SPT (Strathclyde Partnership for Transport)
  • TfL (Transport for London)


Stockton and Darlington Railway (1825) – First steam-hauled passenger railway in the world.

Canterbury and Whitstable Railway (1830) – First steam-hauled passenger railway to issue season tickets.

Liverpool and Manchester Railway (1830) – First InterCity passenger railway.

Grand Junction Railway (1833) – The line built by the company was the first trunk railway to be completed in England, and arguably the world’s first long-distance railway with steam traction.

London and Greenwich Railway (1836) – First steam railway in the capital, the first to be built specifically for passengers, and the first elevated railway.

London and Birmingham Railway (1837) – First Intercity line to be built into London.

Midland Counties Railway (1839)

Birmingham and Derby Junction Railway (BDJR) (1839)

North Midland Railway (1840)

Taff Vale Railway (1840)

Workers’ Opposition

Trade unions


The railways are one of the most heavily unionised industrial sectors in Britain.

  • Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen – ASLEF
  • National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers – RMT
  • Transport Salaried Staffs’ Association – TSSA



National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers


Founded            1990 with 83,854 (2015) members.

Mick Cash, General Secretary

RMT is a British trade union covering the transport sector.

The RMT was the fastest growing trade unions under the leadership of Bob Crow, with membership increasing from 57,000 in 2002 to over 80,000 members in the United Kingdom, Ireland and the Crown Dependencies today.

The RMT was formed in 1990 through a merger of the National Union of Railwaymen (NUR) and the National Union of Seamen (NUS) to create a single transport industry trade union.

The predecessor unions to the National Union of Railwaymen and the National Union of Seamen were founding members of the original Labour Representation Committee.

The RMT announced in 2009 that it would be standing a slate of candidates in the 2009 European Parliament elections under the banner of No to EU.

The RMT then became a founding member of the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition, a left wing political party which has contested the 2010 and 2015 general elections.

RMT is in favour of the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union in the 2016 referendum on the subject.

In July 2015, the RMT endorsed Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign in the Labour Party leadership election.

The RMT represents the majority of London Underground staff, as well as many other workers in the London public transport network. The RMT has had a number of disputes with Transport for London and private sector contractors Metronet and Tube Lines over pay, safety, pensions and job security on the Underground. These disputes have often resulted in industrial action, leading to periods of travel disruption in the capital over the last decade.



The RMT is affiliated to a number of political organisations and trade union confederations. In the United Kingdom and Ireland the RMT is affiliated with the TUC, the Scottish Trades Union Congress, the Wales Trades Union Congress and the Irish Congress of Trade Unions. Internationally the RMT is affiliated to the European Transport Workers Federation and the International Transport Workers Federation, as well as the World Federation of Trade Unions.

Politically the RMT is affiliated with the left wing political party the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition, in which it co-founded and encourages members to participate. [“Rmt Conference Unanimously Votes To Continue Support For Tusc”].The RMT is also affiliated to the Labour Representation Committee, a pressure group that aims to promote traditional socialist principles within the Labour Party. [“LRC Affiliates”. Labour Representation Committee]. In 2014, the RMT joined the Solidarity with the Antifascist Resistance in Ukraine (SARU) campaign in support of the Communist Party of Ukraine and the Donbass People’s Militia against the EU and NATO-backed Ukrainian government. [“RMT union denounces Western support for Kiev – supports antifascist resistance – Solidarity with the Antifascist Resistance in Ukraine”. Retrieved 2016-02-06 for wiki]

RMT Transport Policy


RMT has active parliamentary groups at Westminster, ihe Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly. They work with the union to pursue a progressive transport and employment agenda in their respective legislatures based on the following principles:

·         Public ownership and public accountability of the rail network

·         Increased employment of UK seafarers

·         Opposition to the London Underground PPP

·         Repeal of anti-trade union legislation and the promotion of rights at work

 RMT supports many campaigning organisations in the UK. Support for these campaigns is integral to RMT’s wider vision of a society based on freedom, peace and social justice. Decisions on affiliations are made by the union’s annual general meeting and council of executives, who are fully accountable to the membership.


Source: RMT –

It can be seen that the union has no political programme outlined as such and is mainly an economic defence organisation. It has some points that are political, though, such as privatisation and anti-trade union law. The commendable main political issue on its statute is Public ownership and accountability.

National Union of Railwaymen (NUR)

The NUR was founded in 1913 and was a trade union of railway workers before mergong to form RMT.

The NUR itself, was an industrial union founded in 1913 by the merger of the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants (founded 1872), the United Pointsmen and Signalmen’s Society (founded 1880) and the General Railway Workers’ Union (founded 1889).

The NUR represented the majority of railway workers, but not white-collar workers, who were members of the Railway Clerks’ Association (founded 1897, later the Transport Salaried Staffs’ Association). NUR membership was open to drivers and firemen but most chose instead to be members of the Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen (founded 1880).

In 1914 the NUR joined forces with the National Transport Workers’ Federation and Mining Federation of Great Britain to form the Triple Alliance,

In 1919 the NUR and ASLEF jointly organised the 1919 United Kingdom railway strike, which prevented a proposed wage reduction and won an eight-hour maximum working day.

The NUR had 408,900 members in 1945, making it the fifth largest union in Britain. Its membership fell to 369,400 in 1956 and 227,800 in 1966.

In 1990 the NUR merged with the National Union of Seamen to form the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT) and ceased to exist as a separate union.

Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen (ASLEF)

ASLEF was founded 1880 and   has 21,191 (2015) members. It is affiliated to the TUC, STUC, Wales TUC, ITF and the Labour Party. Mick Whelan is the General Secretary ASLEF is a British trade union representing train drivers. It is part of the International Transport Workers’ Federation and the European Transport Workers’ Federation.

In 1865, North Eastern Railway footplatemen founded a union called the Engine Drivers’ and Firemen’s Society.

In 1872, an industrial union, the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants, was founded reported having 17,247 members, but by 1882, this had declined to 6,321.

By the end of the 1870s, many UK railway companies had increased the working week from 60 to 66 hours, a 12-hour working day was common and wages had been reduced. The Great Western Railway had not increased wages since 1867, had increased the working day from 10 to 12 hours in 1878 and then reduced wages for all but the most junior drivers and firemen in 1879. In 1879, almost 2,000 GWR locomotive drivers and firemen signed an ASRS petition to the GWR Board of Directors requesting a restoration of the 1867 conditions of service and rates of pay. The GWR reacted by refusing to meet the ASRS representatives and dismissing several of the petitioners from their jobs. (Repoted by Raines 1921 and McKillop 1950)

As a result of this defeat, in 1879, drivers and firemen from Griffithstown, Pontypool, South Wales, started to organise to form a craft union separate from the ASRS. At the time there were similar moves in parts of England towards founding an enginemen’s union. A large number of drivers and firemen met in Birmingham met on 9 December 1879 and resolved to form a National Society of Drivers and Firemen. There was a similar move by Manchester, Sheffield and Lincolnshire Railway drivers and firemen at Sheffield, whom the Pontypool group called “the first founders of the Society”. The Sheffield branch opened on 7 February 1880 with William Ullyott, one of its leaders, as the first member. Pontypool branch followed on 15 February, led by Charles H. Perry,   one of the drivers who had unsuccessfully petitioned the GWR board the previous year. ASLEF officially records Perry as its founder. In the remainder of 1880 ASLEF opened branches at Tondu, Liverpool and Leeds (April), Neath (May), Bradford (June), and Carnforth (July).

In August 1911, the ASRS, ASLEF, the United Pointsmen’s and Signalmen’s Society (founded 1880) and the General Railway Workers’ Union (founded 1889) jointly called the United Kingdom’s first national rail strike.

In 1913, the ASRS, GRWU and UPSS duly merged to form the National Union of Railwaymen.

During the First World War the cost of living increased rapidly. From July 1914 to September 1915, for example, food prices rose 37%. For the duration of the War, the government was in control of the railways. Wages were increased, but at a slower rate than the rise in the cost of living. NUR and ASLEF responded jointly, and forced the Board of Trade to award wage increases in September 1916 and April 1917. In March 1919, the coalition government indicated that it intended to review the War Wage, with a view to reducing it at the end of the year. The NUR and ASLEF started a second national railway strike in September 1919,] which in nine days won both a change in pay policy and the reduction of the working day to eight hours.

( Raines 1921 and McKillop 1950)

After 1919, control of the railways was returned to the companies, and in 1923, the Railways Act 1921 merged about 120 of Great Britain’s railways into four large regional companies. In December 1923, the new companies presented proposals that included some reductions in locomotive men’s pay and conditions. Negotiations broke down and ASLEF ordered its members to strike.

ASLEF and the NUR were prominent participants in the 1926 general strike that sought to prevent British coal companies from reducing mineworkers’ pay and conditions.

In 1955, ASLEF struck against British Railways for seventeen days in a pay dispute. In 1982, both ASLEF and the NUR opposed BR proposals for flexible rostering.

There have also been local disputes with individual railway operators such as those with London Underground in 1982, 1989 and 1996.

[Rose 1986]


The record of membership numbers is not complete,

1881 – 651

1892 – 6,710

1901 – 10,502

1910 – 19,800

1913 – 32,200

1919 – 57,184

1939 – 53,325

1946 – 71,842


2011 – 18,500+

2014 – 20,364

2017 – 21,791

Necessity for change on the railways

The most significant development would be to transform the substance of the railways from a thing in itself into a thing for us. The essence of the necessity at present is transport that serves capital and not labour. It reveals the ensemble of human relations involved in its maintenance and its usage. It must become a pro-social product of society that is a service for the people.

The first aspect of the political agenda involves organisation of the Workers’ Opposition to assert Public ownersip and Control. It must achieve this aim by guaranteeing Public Right over Monopoly Right. Therefore not only opposition to privatisation but all railway assets and functions switching to full Public ownership and control.

Public transport is a Right. It is a requirement for freedom of movement of human beings and a material and cultural need. In essence Public transport supports the social economy, essential services, effective distribution of the social product. In reality it would best serve society if it was free at the point of use so that there is little or no claim on workers’ wages through fares, adding also to the price of delivering goods. In this way the claims against any new value added to the social product would not go elsewhere but where it belongs, into the pockets of those workers who produce the wealth.



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