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North British Railway   (1844–1923)

North British Railway crest

Did you know?

The North British Railway’s rivalry with their neighbour the Caledonian Railway didn’t stop at the tracks. Their competitiveness also stretched to building the grandest hotels as well as controlling steamers on the Clyde and Loch Lomond.

From a modest start, the North British Railway provided a vital link in building an east coast mainline that would stretch from London to Aberdeen. Engineering on its railway lines was often pioneering and included the first major works in Britain to be made of steel and of concrete. Their bridges over the Tay, the Forth and their viaduct at Glenfinnan are major parts of the Scotland route today.

Early railway speculators had always believed in a railway which would stretch along the east coast from London into Scotland. The North British Railway obtained its Act of Parliament on 4 July 1844, authorising it to build a line from Edinburgh to Berwick via Dunbar. Work on the 57 miles of track started immediately and opened to traffic on 18 June 1846. The North British Railway route was joined with the main line in England by the Royal Border Bridge in 1850.

By the mid 1860’s the North British Railway was the largest of the Scottish railway companies, having acquired a number of strategic lines through amalgamation and take over of smaller rivals. Despite fierce opposition from the Caledonian Railway, the North British acquired the Edinburgh & Glasgow Railway in 1865. This provided the North British Railway with a route to the west and a terminus at Glasgow Queen Street. It marked the start of a fierce rivalry with the Caledonian Railway that would last for many years.

Despite the Company’s expansion, the route though the east coast of Scotland on the North British Railway was not a convenient one for passengers as their journeys were broken by having to take ferries over the Firths of Forth and Tay. As a result, the North British Railway was loosing out to its rival the Caledonian who had a shorter route to the city of Aberdeen. Railway supremacy in Scotland would be granted to the company that managed to bridge these two formidable stretches of water.


Significant bridges

It was the North British Railway who bridged the Tay in June 1878. However, poor design and construction led to the central portion of the bridge collapsing in a severe storm on 28 December 1879. Its reputation seriously compromised, the company vowed to rebuild the bridge. WH Barlow, a civil engineer who investigated the cause of the original bridge collapse was appointed to advise the company and design a New Tay Bridge which opened in 1887.

In the same period a consortium of railway companies including the North British Railway was planning a bridge across the Firth of Forth. Work had begun on a bridge designed by Thomas Bouch, the engineer for the original Tay Bridge. After that bridge collapsed, work on the Forth stopped immediately. New plans for a double cantilevered design by Sir John Fowler and Benjamin Baker were accepted, and the magnificent Forth Bridge was opened in 1890, the first major structure in Britain to be made of steel.

Completion of the Tay and Forth bridges gave the North British Railway a continuous east coast railway route from Edinburgh to Dundee and Aberdeen. As a result, the company’s Waverley Station in Edinburgh became seriously overcrowded. To improve capacity, the North British Railway rebuilt Waverley between 1892 and 1902, along with quadrupling the line through Princes Street Gardens and building additional tunnels under the Mound and Calton Hill.


To the West Highlands

With its position on the east coast of Scotland secure, the North British Railway turned its attention to the west. Opened by the North British Railway in 1894, the West Highland Railway ran from Craigendoran to Fort William. In the same year authorisation was given for the West Highland Extension which would continue the line to Mallaig. This extension was completed in1901, with pioneering concrete work on viaducts at Glenfinnan, Lochailort and Morar by Robert McAlpine & Sons, Glasgow.

By 1923 when the North British Railway became part of the London & North eastern railway, the company owned the largest track mileage of any Scottish railway company.



The North British Railway Act authorises a line to be built between Edinburgh and Berwick.



The Edinburgh to Berwick line opens.



The ‘Waverley Route’ from Edinburgh to Carlisle is opened. This line is closed in 1969.



The Company amalgamates with the Edinburgh & Glasgow Railway.



Authorisation is obtained to build the Tay Bridge.



After the Company encounters some financial difficulty, an amalgamation with rivals the Caledonian Railway is discussed, but is rejected by shareholders.



The Forth Bridge Company is established between four partners; the North British, the North Eastern, the Great Northern and Midland railway companies. Authorisation is given to build a bridge across the Forth.



The first Tay Bridge opens.



December: the Tay Bridge disaster. As a result of the bridge collapse, all work on the Forth Bridge is abandoned.



Authorisation is obtained to build a new bridge over the Tay.



Work on the new Forth Bridge starts.



The New Tay Bridge is opened.



The West Highland Railway between Craigendoran and Fort William is authorised.



The Forth Bridge is opened



Waverley Station is rebuilt, work is completed in 1902.



The West Highland Railway is opened



The West Highland Extension to Mallaig is authorised.



The West Highland Extension to Mallaig is opened and includes the Glenfinnan Viaduct.



The North British Railway becomes a part of the London & North Eastern Railway.

Elevation and section (coloured)

Forth Bridge, Fife | Bridges and Viaducts

The Forth Bridge is a celebrated Scottish landmark, and a milestone in the development of railway civil engineering. It was the first major structure in Britain to be made of steel and its construction resulted in a continuous East Coast railway route from London to Aberdeen. 
Read more



Tay Bridge, Dundee | Bridges and Viaducts

A key structure in the Scottish railway route, the Tay Bridge brought increased travel and trade opportunities to the east coast of Scotland. Out of the Tay Bridge disaster of 1879 a new structure emerged which set new standards for bridge building in Britain. 
Read more


Seal of the Newcastle and Berwick Railway, 1845

Newcastle and Berwick Railway | Companies

A short lived company, the Newcastle and Berwick Railway was responsible for the construction of a crucial part of today’s east coast mainline. 
Read more


Signature of WH Barlow, c1866

William Henry Barlow  (1812 - 1902) | People

WH Barlow was a civil engineer known for his large scale engineering projects in the late nineteenth century. He was responsible for the magnificent train shed roof at St Pancras station, the largest in the world when constructed. In the wake of disaster he designed the new Tay Bridge, setting new standards for civil engineering. His investigations into steel and the engineering of girders led to the design of the Forth Bridge, one of the most impressive railway structures in the world. 
Read more

Comments & Suggestions (3)

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I think it's fantastic that Network Rail are publishing information on the old companies that haven't existed in nearly a century.  This particular article was interesting as while I knew already that the current Forth bridge is the result of the Yay bridge collapse, I did not know that the NBR had already started construction on a bridge over the Forth before the Tay bridge collapse. I'm looking forward to seeing NR release more of these articles.

Posted by Stuart, Tuesday, February 28, 2012.

 It would be nice to see a map of the NBR lines included in this article and the opening/closing of stations included in the timeline,

Posted by Peter Munro, Saturday, March 10, 2012.

 Would it be a good idea to include a link to the North British Railway study group? Lots more info there........ Very pleased to find your archive site.

Posted by Brian Macdonald, Monday, February 10, 2014.

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See also

Tweed Contract South Abutment &c of the Tweed viaduct

Royal Border Bridge, Berwick upon Tweed

The Royal Border Bridge was the last link in completing a continuous railway line running between London and Edinburgh. Designed by Robert Stephenson, the bridge was a more traditional masonry structure than its contemporaries the High Level and Britannia bridges, but it is one that has stood the test of time.Read more

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