A Walkers History

A Walker's History of the Railways

The sparks effect

Charing Cross today: sturdy Victorian bridge,
modern electric trains
If Beeching made some poor choices about closing lines (see The controversial Dr Beeching), something else that ought to have given him pause for thought was the experience of the lines to the south of London. If you look at a map of the UK rail network pre- and post-Beeching, you will see that the south east suffered relatively few railway closures. Amazingly we can still travel by train to rural spots such as Southease, Wadhurst, Yalding, Edenbridge and Hever that would surely have lost their railway service had they been anywhere else in the country.

The reason for this is twofold. One is the influence of London and people travelling to work and shop there. Today 70 percent of rail journeys in Britain either start or end in London, and this is surely why such rural stations as Stonegate and Pluckley not only still exist but have hourly services to London.

But there is also a reason that a culture of travelling up to London by train developed in the south east and survived into the car era, and that is because Southern Railways – the company that absorbed the London and South Western Railway, the London, Brighton & South Coast, and the South Eastern & Chatham in 1923 – was a pioneer of electrification.

The first electrified railway in the country (and indeed, the world) was the strange little Volks Railway along the seafront in Brighton, which opened in 1883 and still operates to this day. (It was created by Magnus Volks, in case you are wondering about the German name). His technology inspired the City & South London Railway, which ran between the City and Clapham South and is the ancestor of the Northern Line and indeed the whole deep tube system of London Underground.

Originally supposed to be cable-hauled, the City & South London switched to electric locomotives just before opening in 1890, becoming the first proper passenger railway in the country to use them. It was followed in 1893 by the Liverpool Overhead Railway, and in 1898 by the Waterloo & City line (built by the London and South Western Railway – see Terminus wars).

Electric trams were also making an appearance at this time. Trams as a concept had existed since the 1830s (though an early example in the Mumbles in South Wales had entered service as early as 1807), and initially they were horse-drawn. The first electrified tram in the UK (and one of the first in the world) was the Blackpool Tramway along that resort's seafront, opened in 1885 and still operating to this day. However it was from 1900 onwards that electric power became widely available, with a consequent boom in electric trams. In all 102 such systems opened across the country between 1900 and 1904.

These were severe competition for urban railways. They were cleaner and more convenient, with stops in streets rather than at stations. When London tramways were electrified in the early 1900s, traffic on the London, Brighton & South Coast Railway's South London Line from London Bridge to Victoria fell sharply. After the line was electrified in 1909 and dubbed the 'Elevated Electric", traffic bounced back, doubling by 1911.

By this time the deep tube lines that would later become the London Underground had also opened, starting with the Central London Railway (now the Central line) in 1900. By 1907 the core of what was to become the Piccadilly and Bakerloo lines were also in operation, while the City & South London had been extended to Euston. It would later join up with the Charing Cross, Euston and Hampstead Railway (opened in 1907 and widely known as 'The Hampstead Tube') to form the Northern Line. The Metropolitan and District railways had also electrified (see London's Victorian Railways for more detail on all this).

The Paris, Hamburg and Athens metros were all started during this decade, and many electrified suburban and interurban lines were created in the United States. (It was electric 'streetcars' and not the automobile that made Los Angeles the sprawling city it is today.) In the UK one suburban line into Newcastle was electrified in 1904, various lines into Liverpool from 1903 to 1914, and one line into Manchester in 1916.

Following the London, Brighton & South Coast Railway's example on the South London Line, other suburban lines in London were also converted from steam to electric in the 1910s. More details of this are in London's Victorian Railways, but in brief the LBSCR extended its wires to Crystal Palace and Streatham by 1912, while the London and South Western Railway converted its suburban lines to places such as Kingston and Hampton Court between 1913 and 1919. The London and North Western Railway opened the 'New Line' to Watford in 1911 (now partly used by the Bakerloo Line: electrification did not finally reach Euston until 1922, however), as well as electrifying its line from Broad Street (a now demolished station next to Liverpool Street) to Richmond. In all but the last case, electrification was accompanied by a dramatic rise - often a doubling - in traffic.

One might have thought that the logic for going onto to electrify the mainstream railways would have been obvious, but after the grouping of Britain's railways into four large companies in 1923 only Southern Railways really took up this idea. Under the visionary leadership of Sir Herbert Walker it set out to do nothing less than convert its entire system to the new form of traction.

It opted to do this with the third rail system used by the London and South Western (chosen to blend in with District line trains with which it shared some tracks) rather than the overhead lines used by the London, Brighton and South Coast Railway and almost every other electrification scheme in the country (and indeed the world, apart from the US). From Southern's point of view the third rail was cheap to install, less intrusive on the landscape, and, crucially, did not take up valuable space in tunnels.

The decision meant that the former LBSCR suburban lines had to be converted from overhead to third rail, but Southern made up for this by electrifying the lines out of London at a great pace. The third rail reached Guildford and Dorking in 1925, for example, and in 1930 it got to Gravesend and Windsor. Reigate, Three Bridges followed in 1932; Brighton on New Year's Day 1933; Seaford, Eastbourne and Sevenoaks (both routes) in 1935; Bexhill, Hastings (via the coast from Brighton), Haslemere and Portsmouth in 1937; Littlehampton and Bognor by 1938 and Maidstone by 1939. By this time Southern had 1,746 miles of electrified track, making it one of the largest such systems in the world.

Wherever electrification reached, passengers experienced what was called “the sparks effect”. Electric trains only needed one driver (instead of the driver, fireman and someone to clean the boilers at the end of the day required for steam locomotives). They did not need to be refuelled and watered, and did not need to turn around on turntables. They could accelerate faster and brake more sharply than steam trains.

Electric trains also made light work of lines on which steam trains had struggled. For example the Guildford to Portsmouth line was not a mainline before electrification because of its challenging gradients. Instead London to Portsmouth expresses went from Victoria via Arundel and the south coast, or from Waterloo via Eastleigh. Eyebrows were therefore raised when Southern decided to electrify what at the time was seen as a dozy branch line. Post-electrification it soon became the principal route.

The London to Brighton line, meanwhile, has three summits (Merstham, Balcombe and the Clayton Tunnel outside Brighton) which were noticeable in steam days but are imperceptible today. Electric trains could routinely do the line at speeds previously managed by only a few prestige expresses.

In all, Walker estimated he could run two and a half times as many electric trains for the same cost as the old steam ones, and Southern responded by increasing the frequency of service. It is from this era that we get the now standard idea of running trains at the same time every hour. Each time a line was electrified Southern produced a proud new timetable, with designer covers and the words “Brighton Electric” or “Portsmouth Electric” blazoned across them.

Electrification worked. Passenger numbers jumped sharply whenever new electric routes opened - by 29 percent in the first year on the Brighton line - and a culture arose that it was quicker to take the train to London than to drive. Southern also promoted the idea of living in the country and working in London, with slogans such as "Live in Kent and be content" and "Live in Surrey, free from worry." Commuter traffic doubled between the First and Second World Wars, and Croydon, Purley, Coulson, Merstham, Redhill, Horley, Gatwick, Haywards Heath, Brighton and Hove all grew as a result. People even commuted from as far afield as Chatham, Alton or Portsmouth.

Allied to this was its promotion of the south as a leisure destination, Southern figuring that people would prefer to buy a house in a place they went for pleasure or on holidays. To this end it produced walking guides for ramblers (see The Golden Age of Railways) and a 1930s brochure called "Evenings by the Sea" – the idea being that you went down to Brighton after work in the summer, or that you lived in Brighton and worked in London.

In short, Southern created the modern railway we use today, and showed how new technology and improved service could boost passenger numbers and profits. Sadly this was not a lesson that was copied by the other big three railway companies of that time. True, some suburban lines were electrified in the north of England in the 1920s. Liverpool ended up with 33 miles of electric railway, and the core of the Mersey lines was also converted. Newcastle had 50 lines of electric railway, now mostly the Tyne and Wear Metro, while Manchester had 13.

But mainline electrification remained elusive. It was recommended by the Weir Commission in 1931 and was looked at by both the Great Western Railway and the London and North Eastern Railway, but rejected by both companies on grounds of cost. Steam continued to rule until the 1960s - a stark contrast to Germany and the US, which both adopted diesels from 1933 onwards, and Italy, Switzerland and Sweden which were electrifying mainlines by the same time.

One reason, perhaps, was that for the other big three railway companies freight was a much more important part of their business, and the benefits of electrification here were less obvious. On LNER in 1931 freight accounted for half of all train miles, for example. At the same time Southern had 24,500 passenger train miles and just 3,000 of freight.

As it happens, the British approach was probably an advantage during the Second World War when steam trains could be far more flexible in getting around bomb damage than electric ones. Their use of coal, which Britain had in abundance, rather than imported oil was also a major plus. But when the network was being rebuilt after the war, modernisation of locomotives should have been a priority. Instead a cash-strapped Britain Railways opted for the technology it knew and built an astonishing 2000 steam locomotives between 1948 and 1960. All of these which were to be scrapped by the mid 1960s when steam was finally phased out.

The post-war period did at least see a resumption of electrification in the south east. Wiring the lines out of Liverpool Street had been considered as early as 1905 and again in 1925, but had been rejected on grounds of cost. A plan agreed in 1935 was scuppered by the Second World War. Work finally started in the late 1940s, with the Shenfield line converted by 1949 and others from 1955 onwards. Even so, Cambridge was not reached until 1970 and Norwich not till 1987.

Under the 1955 British Rail Modernisation Plan electrification on the Southern network also resumed, with the Kent coast line from Gillingham to Ramsgate and Faversham to Dover given a third rail in 1959, Sevenoaks to Canterbury West and Dover following in 1961, and Basingstoke to Bournemouth in 1967.

That still left Tonbridge to Hastings and the line to East Grinstead. The decision had been taken not to electrify the former in 1938 because its narrow tunnels (see South East to Dover) would have meant it would have needed special rolling stock. Instead these lines were converted from steam to diesel in the 1960s and were not electrified until 1986 and 1987 respectively (the narrow tunnel problem being solved by making the lines through them single track, a cause of delays ever since).

Other lines which would have been electrified had not the Second World War not intervened were not so lucky, however, and were closed in the Beeching cuts (sometimes despite having better passenger numbers than electrified lines, though in general passenger numbers on non-electrified lines continued to decline despite the revival on electrified ones).

Two surprise survivors in this category are the Ashford to Hastings and Hurst Green to Uckfield lines, which are still diesel-hauled to this day (See Lines we lost and A miraculous survivor). Only one electrified line in the south east was closed by Beeching - that from Haywards Heath to Horsted Keynes via Ardingly - now disused but owned by the Bluebell Railway.

On the rest of the network post-war electrification was confined to two trunk routes to the north. In 1959, as part of the British Rail Modernisation Plan of 1955, work started on the west coast mainline. London to Manchester and Liverpool was converted by 1965, Birmingham by 1967, and Crewe to Glasgow by 1974. The east coast mainline got the same treatment from 1985 onwards, with wires reaching Leeds in 1989 and Edinburgh in 1991.

Electrification then did not resume until the 2010s, starting with one of the routes between Glasgow and Edinburgh. Conversion of the lines out of Manchester is also now underway, with the first electric train to Liverpool running in March 2015 and other lines - including the one to Blackpool - now in the works. Manchester to Leeds is expected to be completed by 2022.

In the south, electrification of the Great Western lines out of Paddington has started, though target dates for the completion of this work keep slipping. The current prediction is for electric services to Swindon by 2017 and to Bristol Parkway and Cardiff by 2018. Other parts of the project have been delayed to 2019-24, including Didcot to Oxford, Bath to Bristol Temple Meads and the Henley and Marlow branches, while plans to extend the electrification to Swansea seem to have been shelved. The direct route to Plymouth will only be electrified as far as Newbury.

Delays have also hit plans to convert the Midland mainline from Bedford (from where electrified Thameslink services already run to St Pancras) to Nottingham, Derby and Sheffield. Wires are now expected to reach Corby and Kettering by 2019, with the rest of the route to follow by 2023.

In the south east there is talk of electrifying Hurst Green to Uckfield, as well as Reigate to Guildford and Ash to Wokingham to allow electric trains to run from Reading to Gatwick. Ashford to Hastings could also be converted under a plan to run high speed trains to Hastings. But these are medium-term aspirations rather than concrete plans.

Despite these delays, it now seems established that electrification is the future of the UK's railways, but there are still vast areas of the network to convert. What would Sir Herbert Walker have made of it all?

© Peter Conway 2010-2017 • All Rights Reserved