Electrification of the railways.

Trams in Manchester, about 1920.
Credit: National Railway Museum

In the twentieth century new challenges to the railways’ supremacy in urban areas emerged.

Road travel became less of an endurance test as surfaces improved and soon the development of vehicles powered by electricity or internal combustion engines offered viable alternatives to the steam locomotive.

Carriages were improved to win back customers.

Trams and buses offered convenient stops and cheaper fares, often subsidised by local authorities. The bus and the tram became the preferred means of urban transport and by 1910 twice as many people travelled on trams as by train. The railways were in retreat for the first time, and some passenger services were closed. Carriages were improved to win back customers, but the railways’ most effective response was to electrify suburban lines. Electric trains were faster and more reliable, and when they were introduced on Merseyside, Tyneside and around Manchester they sparked a major growth in suburban living.

During the First World War the London & South Western Railway began electrifying lines from London’s most densely populated southern suburbs. Stung by criticism of the poor remaining steam operated services in the 1920s, its successor, the Southern Railway, expanded the programme. By the mid-1930s it operated the largest electrified suburban network in the world, and its regular services had effectively made suburbs of many towns on the south coast.

However, Britain’s other railway companies proved reluctant to invest in the huge costs of electrif ication. In the 1920s the London & North Eastern Railway chose the cut-price option of improving its suburban steam services, introducing the ‘Jazz trains’. And even when lines were electrified there was no uniform system. Different currents were used across the network, and power was transmitted through both rails and overhead wires.

When a nationwide electrification scheme was proposed in 1931 it was postponed because of high costs, the Depression and then war. Many of its recommendations weren’t implemented until the 1960s.

Background: Class 87