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Our history

Today’s railway represents 200 years of engineering innovation and determination. Network Rail is the most recent chapter in this astounding story.

  • In 1825 the Stockton and Darlington railway opened. Designed for the movement of coal, passenger services ran on the Company’s rails but were pulled by horses.  
  • In 1830 the Liverpool and Manchester Railway opened – the world’s first intercity railway line. It delivered both passenger and freight services by steam locomotive from the start. 
  • The ‘railway mania’ of the 1840s saw unprecedented investment in railway company shares, enabling the rapid development of railway lines. Many lines that make up today’s railway network were authorised for construction in this period. 
  • Throughout the 19th century many aspects of today’s railway were established and standardised; the ‘standard gauge’ distance between tracks, signalling principles, electrified lines and timetabling.
  • In 1923 the main railway companies joined together to create the ‘Big Four’; London, Midland and Scottish Railway, London and North Eastern Railway, Great Western Railway and Southern Railway companies.
  • The railway played a significant role throughout both World Wars, enabling the rapid movement of troops and supplies, as well as supporting communities and industry at home.
  • In 1948, Britain’s railways were nationalised. With its focus on railway modernisation, plans included the electrification of key routes, replacing steam locomotives with diesel and electric and rationalising the network.
  • Between 1965 and 1994 the railway ran under the name ‘British Rail’, managing, operating and maintaining most aspects of the industry. British Rail introduced the famous ‘double arrow’ logo, which still identifies passenger railway services today.
  • On 1 April 1994 Railtrack took control of Britain’s railway infrastructure as part of government legislation to privatise Britain’s railways. Railtrack was listed on the London Stock Exchange and the FTSE100. Passenger and freight services were offered on a franchise basis to private operating companies.
  • On 3 October 2002 Network Rail acquired Railtrack and became the owner and operator of the railway infrastructure. Without any shareholders, all profits are invested directly in railway improvements.
  • In 2014 Network Rail was reclassified as an arm’s length public sector body, with the commercial freedom to manage and develop Britain’s railway infrastructure. Our Board is responsible to the Secretary of State for Transport.

Celebrating rail heritage

The railway was invented in Britain.  We are very proud to be playing our part in its modern story; honouring this legacy while delivering a better railway for the future. From sleepers to stations, every part of our infrastructure has a story to tell. 

Our archive

Our virtual archive is a celebration of the history of our railway infrastructure. Here you can find out more about how the railway was built, some of the great engineers and visionaries involved, as well as the most iconic stations, bridges and tunnels we look after today.

Our corporate archive manages and preserves a large collection of historical documents and engineering drawings relating to the railway infrastructure, as well as a modern business archive documenting Network Rail itself.

You can contact our corporate archive at askthearchivist@networkrail.co.uk