The main trunk of the British railway network was largely the result of promotion undertaken by private companies in two bursts of speculative activity from 1836 to 1837 and from 1845 to 1847. Growth and development continued in the second half of the 19th century and early 20th century, a period marked by the tendency of profitable railway companies to absorb less successful railway and canal companies.
Government involvement in the railways in Britain developed from the 1840s when the Board of Trade assumed responsibility for railways. In the later 19th century, legislative control developed in response to the increasing monopoly power of the railway companies.
At the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, the government assumed direct involvement in the running of the railways through a Railway Executive Committee which consisted of the general managers of the ten leading companies under the direction of the Board of Trade. In 1919, the Ministry of Transport assumed responsibility for the direct running of the railways.
The railways were restored to private hands by the Railways Act of 1921, but the Railways Amalgamation Tribunal (1921-1924) set up by the Act of 1921, looked toward the grouping of the companies around main line operations and anticipated the fomation of the 'big four' companies which were established by 1923.
In 1939, the government again took direct control through a Railway Executive Committee, under the direction of the Ministry of Transport. This committee consisted of the general managers of the four main-line groups and the chairman of the London Passenger Transport Board. This control continued after the war until the four main-line railway companies were taken into public ownership under the Transport Act 1947 and absorbed into British Railways which came into existence on 1 January 1948.
Great Western Railway
The GWR was incorporated by the Great Western Railway Act 1835 which empowered that company to construct and run a railway between a field called Temple Mead in the Parish of Temple (otherwise Holy Cross) in the City and County of Bristol to a junction with the London and Birmingham Railway (L&B) at a field sited between the Paddington Canal and the turnpike road between London and Harrow in the Parish or Township of Hammersmith with branches to Trowbridge and Bradford (Wiltshire). The GWR would have reached the centre of London via the London and Birmingham Railway using the London and Birmingham Railway's station at Euston.
The proposal to terminate at Euston caused problems as the engineer of the GWR, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, was an advocate of the board gauge (seven feet and one quarter of an inch), whereas the L&B's engineer, Robert Stephenson, preferred the Standard Gauge (four feet, eight and a half inches). The GWR therefore decided to divert the London end of its railway to Paddington and this diversion was authorised by the Great Western Railway (Diversion to Paddington) Act 1837. Between the two above acts, the GWR had obtained another one in 1836 to make slight deviations in the original scheme.
The main line was opened in several stages, the first being between Paddington (a station sited on the west side of the present Bishops Bridge) and Taplow on 4 June 1838. Followed by: Maidenhead to Twyford, 1 July 1839; Twyford to Reading, 30 March 1840; Reading to Steventon, 1 June 1840; Steventon to Faringdon Road (now Challow), 20 July 1840; Bristol to Bath, 31 August 1840; Faringdon Road to Hay Lane, 17 December 1840; Hay Lane to Chippenham, 31 May 1841 and Chippenham to Bath 30 June 1841 which completed the through route.
The GWR went on to obtain many other acts which extended its own railway and absorb many other companies, the most notable of which were: the Shrewsbury and Chester Railway in 1854; South Wales Railway in 1863; West Midlands Railway also in 1863; Bristol and Exeter Railway in 1876; South Devon Railway and West Cornwall Railway both in 1878; Cornwall Railway in 1889 and the Cornwall Minerals Railway in 1896. In fact by the time of the Grouping on 1 January 1923, the GWR had control of over one hundred former railways giving it a system of just under 2,900 miles extending from Paddington to Penzance, Fishguard, Aberystwyth, Chester and Wolverhampton. Other significant changes included the extension of the London end into the present Paddington Station in 1851 and the abandonment of the Broad Gauge for the Standard Gauge (completed by 1892).
On 1 January 1923, the railways in Britain were grouped to form four large companies and of those old companies, only the GWR retained its identity, in fact it was enlarged with the addition of some thirty-one companies including such substantial concerns as the Barry Railway, Cambrian Railway, Cardiff Railway, Rhymney Railway and Taff Vale Railway. The GWR carried on its business until nationalisation on 1 January 1948 when it became the Western Region of British Railways.
London and North Eastern Railway Company
The LNE was formed from the amalgamation of various railway companies after the Railway Act of 19 August 1921. The LNER was incorporated as from 1 January 1923 under the North Eastern, Eastern and East Scottish Group Amalgamation Scheme 1922, dated 30 December 1922, and vested in the British Transport Commission as from 1 January 1948 under the Transport Act of 6 August 1947.