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  More than 5000 entries on the history, culture and life of Britain (published in 1993 by Macmillan, now out of print)

More than 5000 entries on the history, culture and life of Britain (published in 1993 by Macmillan, now out of print)

The use of wooden rails to smooth the passage of coal wagons in the collieries of northeast England goes back to the 16C, and cast iron rails and wheels offered increased efficiency by the 18C. The first *steam engines were too heavy to be used for traction, but in the early 19C several public railways opened using horses; the first was the Surrey Iron Railway Company in 1803, running between Wandsworth and Croydon (now both within London). The introduction of *Puffing Billy in 1813 signalled the direction in which railways would develop. Landmarks thereafter were the *Stockton and Darlington (1825) and the *Liverpool and Manchester railway (1830). By 1838 there were 89 companies in Britain operating some 800km/500m of line. There were uneasy cycles of boom and slump (see George *Hudson), but the era of cheap public travel had arrived.

By 1921 there were 120 companies and about 39,000km/24,000m of track. The Railway Act of that year combined these companies into four groups: the GWR (Great Western), the LMS (London, Midland and Scottish), the LNER (London and North Eastern) and the SR (Southern Railway). These four were in their turn nationalized in the Transport Act of 1947, eventually becoming known jointly as British Rail.

The reduction of the rail network began with the rise of the car but was much hastened by the Beeching Report of 1963 (officially The Reshaping of British Railways), in which the chairman of the British Railways Board, Richard Beeching, recommended the reduction of the surviving 29,000km/17,800m of route open for traffic by more than 50% and the closure of 2300 stations (out of more than 6000). His proposals were not implemented in full, but in the early 1990s there remained only about 16,500km/10,250m of route open for passenger traffic and some 2500 stations.

In 1994 the government prepared the railways for *privatization, by dividing up the system in a complex and controversial scheme. A new public body, Railtrack, owns the infrastructure (railway lines and signalling), and leases use of the lines to the purchasers of franchises for the routes and regions.

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