Southern Region of British Railways

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Southern Region of British Railways
British Railways Southern Region station totem for Hither Green.jpg
British Railways Southern Region "totem" station sign for Hither Green railway station
Franchise(s) Not subject to franchising (1 January 1948 – 31 December 1992)
Main Region(s) London, South of England
Parent company British Rail

The Southern Region was a region of British Railways from 1948 until 1992 when railways were re-privatised. The region ceased to be an operating unit in its own right in the 1980s. The region covered south London, southern England and the south coast, including the busy commuter belt areas of Kent, Sussex and Surrey. The region was largely based upon the former Southern Railway area.

Southern steam with the Golden Arrow at Folkestone Harbour.


The Southern Railway was still comparatively profit-making despite World War II, thanks to its extensive third rail DC electrification and the intensive service patterns this allowed for. However, large-scale investment was required in the infrastructure of all of the "Big 4" companies, including the Southern.

The Transport Act 1947 provided for the nationalisation of all heavy rail systems in the UK to allow for this investment and, in theory, to improve the rights of railway workers. The railway companies were amalgamated into British Railways, part of the British Transport Commission, and six geographic and administrative regions were created out of the previous four companies. The Southern Railway, being relatively self-contained and operated largely by electric traction, was incorporated almost intact as the new Southern Region. The acting General Manager of the Southern Railway, John Elliot became the first Chief Regional Officer of the Southern Region.[1]

The Southern Region also inherited some independent light railways, also nationalised at the same time, namely the East Kent Light Railway, the Kent and East Sussex Railway and the North Devon and Cornwall Junction Light Railway.

The region

Richmond Railway Bridge spanning the Thames in Richmond upon Thames.

The Southern Region served southern London, Kent, Surrey, Sussex, Hampshire, the Isle of Wight, eastern Dorset, southern Wiltshire and eastern Berkshire, most of which were either already electrified or at least proposed to be so. There was also an unelectrified service to parts of Devon and north eastern Cornwall, deep in what was Western Region territory, known colloquially as "The Withered Arm".

Central London

The Region's chief stations in Central London were:

Outside London

Outside central London the main stations were:

Southern and Western Regions had important interchanges at Reading in Berkshire and at Exeter St Davids in Devon.

Line and station closures

Freshwater on the Isle of Wight closed in 1953. The "Bluebell line" between East Grinstead and Lewes closed between 1955 and 1958. The lines in Devon and Cornwall were also transferred to Western Region in 1963; most Southern Region services west of Exeter (such as to Bude and Padstow), including the Atlantic Coast Express, ceased in the 1960s. Many "under-used" stations like Walworth Road Goods in southern London, Wilton in Wiltshire, Sheffield Park in Sussex and Kemptown in Brighton, Sussex closed. Sheffield Park became part of the Bluebell Railway preserved line.

The Beeching Axe severely cut the route mileage of most regions but the Southern Region escaped major losses in the London commuter area due to high passenger numbers on its frequent suburban services. The Axe did, however, close some country branch lines such as Tunbridge Wells Central to Three Bridges, Eridge to Polegate, Horsham to Guildford, New Romney to Appledore, the Bexhill West branch, and the Steyning Line, plus many goods yards including Deptford Wharf, Falcon Lane and Walworth Road, amongst others.

The line between Blackfriars and Farringdon was also closed in the 1960s but was reopened in the 1990s.

Holborn Viaduct in central London closed in 1990. As part of the upgrading of the reopened Blackfriars–Farringdon line it was replaced by City Thameslink station which occupies the same site, at a lower level.

As a contrast, Waterloo station had been extensively refurbished and expanded to allow for the development of the Eurostar terminal. These platforms will be turned over to domestic services as international services have moved to St Pancras railway station.

Channel Tunnel planning

The 1973 plan to build a tunnel under the English Channel also included plans to upgrade the infrastructure of the Southern Region between London and the Kent coast.

The plan assumed that the main railhead for "The Chunnel" would be at Ashford Kent station. To that end, rolling stock on the London to Dover via Ashford services was refurbished and heavier rails were laid to allow for longer trains and increased freight.

The 1973 tunnel plan was cancelled in 1975. The 1986 tunnel plan, which was approved and eventually built, used the same assumptions as the 1973 plan and Ashford Kent became Ashford International. By this time the Southern Region had been abolished.

Until 1980 the Southern Region operated the Night Ferry sleeper train (jointly with SNCF) from London Victoria to Paris and Brussels.

Competition with London Underground

The Southern Railway and its predecessor companies have had little competition from London Underground south of the Thames, where the subsoil was largely unsuitable for tunnelling and the mainline railways had extensive networks in place before the underground railways were developed.

The Southern Region however dealt with a different environment, marked by British Rail (BR) and London Underground (LUL) both being state-owned.

London Underground's services were advanced over Southern Region (and other) tracks, either through dual-running or by ceding BR tracks to LUL. The LUL service to Wimbledon for instance slowly replaced the former Southern Region service. Tramlink took over the Wimbledon to Croydon West via Mitcham line in 2000.

The Waterloo & City line (nicknamed 'The Drain' by both staff and users), British Rail's only "Tube" service, was given over to London Underground upon privatisation BR in 1994.

Further Electrification

A 4 CEP electric multiple unit in Jaffa Cake livery on the 1066 electric service to Hastings in 1986.

The Southern Railway had adopted a plan to convert all lines east of Portsmouth to third rail electric traction in November 1946, to be completed by 1955.[2] This plan would have included several branch and secondary lines that were subsequently closed such as the Bluebell and Steyning lines and also those secondary and branch lines in the area which were later dieselized such as the Marshlink and Oxted-Uckfield lines. This plan was, however, overtaken by the Transport Act 1947 which brought about the creation of British Railways.

Kent Coast

The first new scheme to be adopted by the Southern Region was implemented in two Phases. Phase I. covering the former London Chatham and Dover routes between Gillingham and Ramsgate and Gillingham and Dover. was approved by the British Transport Commission in February 1956, and public services began in June 1959.[3] Phase II. Covered the former South Eastern Railway lines in Kent and was opened in June 1962.[4]

Isle of Wight

Owing to restricted clearances existing electric stock could not be used on the railways of the Isle of Wight. The surviving line between Ryde and Shanklin was therefore electrified in March 1967 using converted stock originally built for London Electric Railway in 1921.[5] These became British Rail Classes 485 and 486. During the mid 1980s these were replaced by Class 483, which were also rebuilt from former London Underground stock.

South Western Main Line

The first phase of South Western Main Line (beyond the London suburbs) was electrified in 1967 and included the services from London Waterloo station to Southampton and Bournemouth. In 1988 electrification was extended all the way to Weymouth.[6]


Owing to restricted clearances through tunnels existing electric stock could not be used on the twin tracks of the former South Eastern Railway line between Tonbridge and Hastings. On 28 October 1983, it was announced that the Hastings Line was to be electrified, with single track through the tunnels. Electrification was completed, and the full timetable service commenced on 12 May 1986.

Oxted and East Grinstead

The former London, Brighton and South Coast Railway and the South Eastern Railway joint line between Croydon and Oxted, and the LB&SCR line to East Grinstead was electrified in 1987. But the branch line to Uckfield remains operated by diesel multiple units.


The Southern Region was abolished in 1991 because British Rail had decided to move from regional management to business sectors. The Region was divided between two of the new passenger businesses: Network SouthEast and InterCity. When the British Rail passenger services were franchised in 1996 and 1997 the lines of the former region were divided between South West Trains, Thameslink, Island Line (on the Isle of Wight), Gatwick Express, and the Network SouthCentral and South Eastern franchises, both initially awarded to Connex and rebranded Connex South Central and Connex South Eastern. In 2002 the Connex Southern franchise was also awarded to Govia and rebranded Southern. In 2003, the government took back control of the Connex Southeastern franchise and operated it as South Eastern Trains until it was franchised to Govia as Southeastern in 2006. As part of a general reorganisation of franchises, Island Line was merged with the much larger South West Trains franchise in 2005 to form the South Western franchise, Thameslink became part of First Capital Connect in 2006, and Gatwick Express was merged with Southern in 2007. The North Downs Line was run by Thames Trains and now by First Great Western primarily connecting Reading to Gatwick Airport.

In May 2014 the government announced that Govia had been selected to operate the new Thameslink Southern & Great Northern franchise (TSGN), including the South Central franchise which Govia were already operating under the 'Southern' brand. On 26 July 2015 the South Central franchise ended and its services were incorporated into TSGN franchise; Govia announced that they would continue to use the Southern and Gatwick Express brands.[7]

In August 2017, South Western Railway commenced operating the South Western franchise.[8]

Trains and rolling stock

Class 411 (4-CEP) "slam-door" EMU at London Victoria station, in Network SouthEast livery (March 2003)

At the time of its creation the Southern Region still had large numbers of steam locomotives It also owned three locomotive works at Ashford, Brighton, and Eastleigh, two carriage works (Eastleigh and Lancing) and a wagon works at Ashford. Most of these closed before privatisation, and the remainder have since. Unlike the other regions of British Railways, the Southern Region did not rush to withdraw its steam locomotives, using them right up to the completion of largescale electrification. Consequently, the Southern Region was the last region in Britain to regularly use steam on high speed expresses, and also the last region to have a steam operated branch line. Steam traction over the region finally ended in July 1967, to be replaced by a combination of Electric multiple units, Diesel-electric multiple units, diesel and electro-diesel locomotives.

The region had ordered large fleets of slam-door electric rolling stock with Mark I bodies in the 1950s and 1960s, but some Southern Railway-style units survived until the mid-1990s.

Since much of the Southern Region slam door fleet reached the end of its design life of 35–40 years in the 1990s, it was replaced by sliding door stock, much of it after privatisation, although BR started to replace inner suburban trains from the later 1970s.

BR also built a fleet of electric units for service between Waterloo and Bournemouth in the 1980s, with Mark III bodies and plug, rather than sliding, doors. These Class 442 units have now been transferred to the Brighton Main Line, and since 14 December 2008 have been used on some Gatwick Express services from Victoria, which are run by the Southern franchise.

The last slam door units ran in November 2005. New safety regulations which prohibited the use of trains with slam doors (unless equipped with secondary or "central" locking) were postponed by a year until the last examples could be withdrawn. Exceptionally, some slam door units were allowed to stay in service for another couple of years by special derogation on the Lymington Harbour "heritage" branch.

Some Mark I units have been preserved by South West Trains after being withdrawn in 2005. Diesel trains ran on the Exeter route and a small fleet of Diesel-electric multiple units, known by enthusiasts as "thumpers" because of their distinctive engines, ran on the remaining non-electrified routes: the "Oxted" line to Uckfield and the Ashford–Hastings line.

The lines in the Isle of Wight used elderly steam engines cascaded from the mainland for many years, but in 1966 the Southern Region acquired some redundant "Standard" tube stock from London Transport. Most lines in the island had been closed in the 1950s and early 1960s, but the remaining route from Ryde to Shanklin was electrified to normal Southern Region third rail specification, and the "Standard" tube stock converted (from the LT standard of third and fourth rail) so that it could be run on the line. In the 1980s these trains were replaced by more redundant LT tube stock, this time dating from 1938.

Major accidents

A lack of investment and focus on infrastructure maintenance and collision safeguards across institutions led to a marginal improvement in the net rate of fatal incidents compared to the same (non-British Rail) period before nationalisation, which reduced potential passengers' confidence.[9] The British railway industry failed to keep track with the safety regime of its aviation industry, which by the 2000s became its national precedent and contributed to a swift decline in fatalities.[9]

On 2 December 1955, 11 passengers died and 41 were injured when an electric passenger train from Waterloo to Windsor and Chertsey (dividing at Staines) collided with the rear of a steam hauled goods train. The accident occurred in thick fog and was caused by irregular block instrument operation by the signalman at Barnes Junction.

On 4 December 1957, 90 passengers died and 173 were injured in a collision in thick fog near Lewisham in south London, which also caused the collapse of an overhead rail bridge on to the wreckage below. The number of deaths was the third highest ever in a British railway accident.

On 5 November 1967, 49 people died and 78 were injured when a train from Hastings to Charing Cross was derailed by a track defect outside Hither Green station. Among the survivors was Robin Gibb of the Bee Gees.

On 12 December 1988, 35 people died and 100 were injured when three trains collided near Clapham Junction because a signal circuit had been wrongly wired.

On 4 March 1989, 6 people died and 94 were injured when two trains collided at Purley railway station when one passed a red signal.

Later heritage lines

As to lines closed during the time the region existed, some are preserved railways, mainly the Watercress Line, Bluebell Railway, Spa Valley Railway, East Kent Railway, Kent and East Sussex Railway, Isle of Wight Steam Railway, Swanage Railway and Dartmoor Railway.

The Swanage Railway in 1979.
The reopened Swanage Railway with a signal to proceed.


  1. ^ "Retirement of Sir John Elliot from L.T.E. Chairmanship". Railway Gazette International. Vol. 110. 20 March 1959.
  2. ^ Moody, (1968) pp.124-5.
  3. ^ Moody, (1968) pp.164-74.
  4. ^ Moody, (1968) pp.174-81.
  5. ^ Moody, (1968) pp.212-4.
  6. ^ Moody, (1968) pp.214-23.
  7. ^ "Govia wins Thameslink, Southern & Great Northern rail franchise". 23 May 2014. Retrieved 23 May 2014.
  8. ^ First MTR joint venture wins South Western franchise Railway Gazette International 27 March 2017
  9. ^ a b Professor John Uff QC FREn. "The Southall Rail Accident Inquiry Report" (PDF). HSE Books. Retrieved 7 November 2011.
  • Ball, MG. British Railways Atlas Ian Allan Publishing 2004.
  • London Railway Atlas Railway Clearing House, London 1935
  • Dudley, G. Why Does Policy Change? - Lessons from British Transport Policy 1945-99 Routledge 2001
  • Daniels, Gerald David; Dench, Leslie Alan (May 1973) [1964]. Passengers No More (2nd ed.). Shepperton: Ian Allan. ISBN 0-7110-0438-2. OCLC 2554248. 1513 CEC 573.
  • Hoyle,R The Atmospheric Southern Corhampton Kevin Robertson 2007 ISBN 0-9554110-5-X
  • Moody, G.T. Southern Electric 4th edition; Ian Allan Publishing 1968 ISBN 0-7110-0017-4
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