British Rail: The end of the line as we've known it

Farewell as last regional network goes private
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The journey is over for British Rail. The end of the line came yesterday after the Government announced that the last train-set in public hands was to be given to the coach and rail giant National Express.

The sale of Regional Railways Central - whose network stretches from Wales to Norwich - will put the nation's vast passenger rail network in private hands.

British Rail was nationalised in 1948 by the Atlee government. But its card was marked in the 1960s by Dr Richard Beeching, BR's chairman, who considered it a business not a social service. Since then poor investment - by both Labour and Tory governments - saw the once-proud network become the butt of commuter jokes.

British Rail's ride to the stock market was remarkably quick. Agreements on the preferred bidders have been completed in just over a year. The new owners of the last seven franchises were revealed in just over a fortnight and four companies were sold off in one day. The impending election quickened the pace.

The sale of the Central franchise to National Express, makes the bus group the largest operators of trains in Britain. Privatisation will see Scottish trains run by National Express, an English coach company, and the largest chunk of British Rail in the hands of a French company, Connex.

"Franchising has turned the unified national railway network into a disorganised patchwork of competing companies. This will see network benefits like connecting services fade away replaced by cost cutting and poor service quality," said Jonathan Bray, campaigner with Save Our Railways, a group set up to halt the sell-off.

For some observers, however, the railways should never have left private hands. They point out that entrepreneurs gave birth to the Victorian rail renaissance. The first railway open to the public started in 1825 when George Stephenson's steam locomotive graced the Stockton & Darlington railway line.

The Victorian railways were the engine of progress in the 1800s. But the past has lessons for today's new owners. As competition intensified between private firms, many went bust.

The rise of the railways was cut short by the motor car in the 1920s. This saw the plethora of smaller companies bought up by larger rail firms. In 1923, only four companies were left - Southern, London North Eastern, Great Western and London, Midland, Scottish. As more motorists appeared, the companies cut back their timetables. No less than 3,500 route miles of railway lost their passenger services between 1923 and 1939.

Critics argue that the present structure has created a new series of rail barons prepared to cut services should passengers desert the railways.

Virgin's Richard Branson will own most of the InterCity services, including the 700 miles of West Coast mainline. Anti-privatisation campaigners say that Stagecoach, a bus firm which won one of the largest rail franchises, has provided a "poor" service. Its company, South West Trains, was forced to cancel hundreds of trains this week.

However, this pales into insignificance when one remembers George Hudson - the last "railway king". In 1844, he controlled more than 1,000 miles of railway. His fall was rapid after investors found he had paid more than pounds 290,000 in share dividends to line his own pockets.

Despite its fall, British Rail will have the last laugh. It can only be finally killed by an Act of Parliament - an unlikely event before the general election.