RAIL CHRONOLOGY :
A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE NATIONAL RAIL TIMETABLE AND ITS PREDECESSORS
Page uploaded 11 June 2007, up-dated 3 February 2021
It is said that in Victorian times the two books you could find in virtually every household in Britain were the Bible and Bradshaw. Doubtless, just as many people kept a Bible but rarely read it, the same applied to the Bradshaw. It was there just in case a journey was undertaken and was a useful planning tool.
So what was a Bradshaw? Early railway companies produced their own timetables but George Bradshaw (1801-1853) introduced a single guide to railways in 1839. It became monthly in 1842, each issue had over 1000 pages by the turn of the Century, and it ran for well over 1400 editions until the last appeared in May 1961.
Incidentally it started at 6d. and ended at 12s. 6d. the latter about £10 in 2007 prices, comparable with the final National Rail Timetable’s £12 cover-price.
Before the days of Greenwich Mean Time (imposed 1880) the railways kept London time anyway, and had to show that this was different from local time at all stations en route. Even Bristol’s local time was 15 min adrift and this had to be remembered when catching a train. A 1000 from Bristol to Paddington meant it left Bristol at 1000 London time, yet local clocks would, of course, have always shown Bristol time – except at stations themselves, where clocks were set to London time by utilising the pocket watches of guards who had just travelled down from London. With the potential for major confusion it is perhaps amazing that it took 40 years for GMT to become the legal standard.
Running parallel to all this, the many individual railway companies, about 120 in all, published their own timetables through to the Grouping Act of 1921 and formation of the ‘Big Four’ railway companies in 1923: the London and North Eastern Railway (LNER); London Midland & Scottish Railway (LMS), Great Western Railway (GWR) and Southern Railway (SR).
Between 1923 and Railway Nationalisation in 1948 single-volume timetables were published by the Big Four, although some split their publications into main line and suburban at times. From World War 2 they were small (about A6) with very small print - derived from Bradshaw.
The small format was continued for a few years after Nationalisation by the then-new British Railways, but by 1955 the new BR Regions that replaced the Big Four were producing books of about A5 size and this was to be the standard until 1964. There were six Regions of BR: Southern; Western; London Midland; Eastern; North Eastern and Scottish. However, the North Eastern was merged with the Eastern in 1967.
The Bradshaws which, as mentioned above, ended in 1961, were, in later years, actually the BR timetables put together so that, for example, those for the Western Region, which used table numbers 50 to 191, appeared as W50 to W191, followed by S25, the first table from the Southern’s book - although some Regions’ (such as LM) tables were "condensed" by Bradshaw.
In 1965 a major changed occurred in presentation. Up to then bold type was used merely for main stations, with calls at smaller places in light type, and 12-hour clock had always been used – a nightmare with railways running 24 hours a day. A train departing a station at, say, 1300 - shown as 1.00 - would be column-headed ‘am’ if its journey had commenced before noon and you had to remember that the 1.00 was by now ‘pm’.
The January Western, and other June 1965, timetables all went to about A4 in size, light type meant a connection, and the 24-hour clock became standard – showing that the switch to 24-hour had nothing to do with European legislation, as some today believe!
The bus industry started to switch to 24-hour mode at the same time, but many bus operators remained 12-hour for years – some only changing post-2000 and just a handful still using 12-hour in 2006.
There were other significant changes. British Railways existed throughout until privatisation, but the shortened title ‘British Rail’ was introduced in 1965 and first appeared on most timetables in June. However the Western Region had a major recast of its London suburban services in January, so had a January-June timetable and was actually the first to show the new name.
The famous ‘double arrow’ symbol also appeared in June 1965, and has remained ever since. It is now owned by the Department of Transport who license its use. It appears on stations and a version in a circle forms part of the registered logo of National Rail.
Incidentally, the arrow always points right on the upper and left on the lower line. A reversed double-arrow was used on one side of the funnels of BR’s ships (so that the arrows on each side were mirror images), but was not retained by anyone after the shipping routes were sold.
The greater clarity of the post-‘65 railway timetables had a downside – timetables were very large. The Southern produced three Divisional timetables for two years - SW, Central and SE, the forerunners of today’s operators like South West Trains – but when it went over to a single book in 1968 it was 1100 pages, and heavier than today’s single National Rail Timetable!
‘Inter-City’ was first used as a brand name on locos in 1966 when the first sections of the West Coast Main Line were electrified, but little reference was made to it in timetables. It soon spread to other routes such as to Bournemouth on electrification of that route in 1967, and to Edinburgh-Glasgow by 1971 – though in later years, once the Business Sectors were introduced, the latter two would become Network SouthEast and ScotRail respectively.
Fares disappeared from timetables in 1968. Until then they were always quoted only in shillings - 128s. 0d. 2nd class single London-Inverness in the 1967 Midland issue, for example. However, where any price was still quoted, the 1970 timetables already had mixed shillings and decimal amounts ready for the 1971 change – restaurants, for example, sold ‘dinner from 17/- (85p)’, about half the price of a cup of tea in 2006!
May 1972 saw the first Parkway station – Bristol Parkway – followed a year later by Alfreton & Mansfield Parkway, though the latter was downgraded in 1994 and is now plain ‘Alfreton’.
The Regional timetables continued until 1974, but the Southern switched to a much smaller format (under A5) in 1970, getting it down to 250 pages. However in 1974 came the biggest change of all: the appearance of the single volume Great Britain Passenger Timetable (GBPTT), essentially today’s National Rail Timetable.
Whilst Bradshaw was 12s. 6d. the six Regional books were only a shilling each – and twice-yearly rather than monthly – so there was no financial advantage in having the single volume. However, the GBPTT, replacing five volumes at 20p (= 4s. 0d.) each, was only 50p for its 1347 pages, and it was to last a year, so was very much cheaper.
Certain trade names pass into normal language – such as to ‘hoover’ the floor – and in Victorian and Edwardian times the term ‘a Bradshaw’ was used to apply to any rail timetable, whoever published it. It was, therefore, natural that BR wanted to use the name Bradshaw for the GBPTT, as the last Bradshaw had appeared only 13 years earlier and the name was still very well known, but apparently there were copyright problems and so it was never pursued.
In a major change, Regions were ignored in the GBPTT and the timetable started afresh with new table numbers. Table 1 was for London-Shoeburyness and then it went round London anti-clockwise reaching table 212 for London-Ramsgate via Faversham. Tables 220-241 covered Scotland and 244-274 shipping services to Ireland and within Scotland. There was a separate (free) International volume too.
These were also the days when copious information was available for the roughly-twenty sleeper routes available nightly and ten Motorail services. Yes, it was possible to get on sleepers in London bound for Liverpool, Manchester, Hartlepool, Grange-over-Sands, Milford Haven and Kilmarnock, plus the ports of Holyhead and Stranraer, let alone to Aberdeen, Inverness and Fort William.
With hindsight it would have been better to space the tables out, giving main lines ‘special’ numbers, for not only did the East and West Coast main lines become tables 26 and 65 (rather than, say, 30 and 70) but as tables split or lines re-opened there were too few spares. However what we have had since is stability, for these table numbers are still with us today after 32 years, perhaps the longest period of timetable stability ever.
Also new was the introduction of topical covers, showing the main development of the day – something sadly lost since privatisation, where a need to be even-handed has prevented anything that might be seen to be giving publicity to one operator. Recent cover pictures have all been empty viaducts and bridges – the cover on the December 2006 issue is of an empty Saltash Bridge and this adorns the last printed edition in May 2007 too. The first, 1974, GBPTT cover showed a Class 87 electric loco-hauled train, new to the West Coast for its extended electrification to Glasgow.
Finally another little-known but significant change took place in the first GBPTT: the end of the use of ‘Weekdays’, rightly considered ambiguous. Timetables previously always had tables for ‘Monday-Friday’ and ‘Saturdays’ but, if the table covered Monday-Saturday, it was always called ‘Weekdays’.
Sadly this lesson has not been learned in general, for too often people still refer to ‘weekdays’, but now usually meaning only Monday-Friday, so proving how ambiguous the word is!
The cover-price became 75p in 1975 and £1.50 in 1976, the latter year’s cover showing the then-new High Speed Train, just introduced on the Western Region.
1976-8 saw the introduction of the Senior Citizen Railcard (now Senior Railcard), the full High Speed Train service on the London-Bristol and South Wales routes, branded ‘Inter-City 125’, and their introduction to the East Coast Main Line.
The next big timetable format change came in 1982 when the GBPTT switched to true A5 size (previous sizes had been imperial) at £2.90 and the International section was hived off as a separate publication.
A5, however, would not be very useful at station enquiry offices which, in those pre-computer days, relied on it to answer every query, so it was accompanied by a staff issue that was A4. This alternative soon became available to the public as a two-volume 1500-page massive tome at £5.50.
1982 had seen the introduction of new Sector Management and the creation of the true InterCity business unit, though it was to be a few more years before InterCity really appeared as a brand and other Sectors like Network SouthEast and Regional Railways came into their own, with the consequent abolition of the Regions. Over these years an Anglia Region appeared, ScotRail was formed as a brand name within Regional Railways, and for a short time there was a Cornish Railways local name too, but these only featured in timetables in relatively small ways – principally the use of column-headings for trains such as IC for InterCity or NE for ‘Network Express’.
In 1986 the timetable gave up the annual editions that had had too many supplements issued to keep them up-to-date, and reverted to twice-yearly issues. The first such, in September 1986, oddly reverted to the imperial size used from 1974 to 1981 and this lasted for three issues, until being replaced, in May 1988, by A5, the format it retains to the present day and which, by its last printed edition in May 2007, will have been the standard for almost 20 years.
In the meantime, in 1984 the title changed from Great Britain Passenger Timetable to British Rail Passenger Timetable – 19 years after British Rail had been created as a name! This was further refined to Great Britain Passenger Railway Timetable in May 1994, then, for one edition, in May 1999, Great Britain National Rail Passenger Timetable, before going to the less-wordy National Rail Timetable in September of that year, the title it has retained ever since (without specifying which nation!).
‘National Rail’ used in this sense refers collectively to all the train companies who operate Britain’s railways, excluding entities like London Underground and various locally-owned systems such as the Tyne & Wear Metro.
Second Class was renamed Standard in 1987 whilst 1989 saw electric trains to Leeds as part of the East Coast electrification. Completion to Edinburgh was in 1991.
Notable exceptions to the normal timetable change-dates are few but worthy of mention. The May 1991 timetable was replaced by one dated July, with the winter edition being extended two months to await the major changes associated with the completion of electrification of the East Coast Main Line. The September 1995 to May 1996 timetable was re-issued free in January 1996 owing to so many errors having got into the earlier version.
September 1997 saw the first post-privatisation timetable with operator names at the top of each column. However, the InterCity brand was still used to good effect - ‘IC’ was defined as meaning an ‘inter-city train with two classes, a buffet and seat reservations’, something for which, sadly, current timetables require three symbols rather than one! Note ‘inter-city’ was used rather than the original InterCity. Indeed InterCity disappeared altogether in May 1998 – sad for the country that invented such a famous brand name that is still widely used throughout the rest of Europe.
With the September 1998 timetable needing over 2600 pages, it went to two volumes, repeated in September 2000 when it reached 2800 pages. However when the National Rail Timetable had its largest-ever edition, 2848 pages in September 2001, it came out as a single volume, as it has remained to the end.
The September 2002 edition required so much updating by January that a 992-page supplement was published – the largest ever, and the last supplement of its type to be needed, as the modern ‘acrobat’ files on-line will change as required, and therefore always be up-to-date.
The May 2004 edition was unusual in running to December, in order to meet the new standard European annual change-date. This avoided the need for a new September book, though a 780-page supplement was produced in September to bridge the gap.
The last printed version is dated 20 May to 8 December 2007 - and endorsed on the front cover "FINAL PRINTED EDITION". Thereafter, the timetable will consist solely of "Acrobat" files available on-line at the Network Rail website.
What would George Bradshaw have made of ‘acrobats on the web’? Well, he would no doubt have approved of a system that enables users, in their own homes, and free of charge, to see on demand, and print if required, not only whole tables, but parts of tables, perhaps to take on a journey.
It goes further than that, for, as mentioned earlier, the concept of a supplement will be gone for ever as every table will always be up-to-date. Never again should one have to look at a table to see a train time and then look in a separate publication to see if that train still runs or has been otherwise changed.
There has been some resistance to the change on the grounds that not everyone has access to the Internet, but this must be seen in context. There are just under 25 million households in Great Britain. The current National Rail Timetable is bought by about one in every 2000 of them, whilst the Internet is already used by 60% of them (National Statistics, August 2006).
Of course, with the advent of ‘journey planners’ many people now use those to plan simple journeys, but they only allow a search engine to find the fastest option between two places at a requested time of day. They inevitably often ignore slower, overtaken (and sometimes cheaper) trains and do not offer the same ‘snapshot’ of opportunities that a full ‘matrix’ timetable does.
In that respect, little has changed. Whilst modern inventions like journey planners complement the classic matrix timetable, they do not replace it and the format used today in the National Rail Timetable, although very much clearer and easier to use than was ever the case with ‘Bradshaws’, is essentially the same as was used in Victorian times. Like the wheel, some inventions are almost impossible to improve! Refine, yes – and the railway timetable has seen much of that over the last 167 years – but the concept is sound and will no doubt be with us for decades to come.
THIRTEEN LANDMARKS IN THE HISTORY OF THE BRITISH RAILWAY TIMETABLE SINCE 1948
Barry Doe FCILT
To return to home page or to contact address.