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The History of Kent

Copyright Kent Past 2010

History of Southern Railway

he Southern Railway (SR) was a railway company established in the 1923 Grouping. It linked London with the Channel ports, South West England, South coast resorts and Kent. The railway was formed by the amalgamation of several smaller railway companies, the largest of which were the London & South Western Railway (LSWR), the London, Brighton and South Coast Railway (LBSC) and the South Eastern and Chatham Railway (SECR).

The railway was noted for its astute use of public relations and a coherent management structure headed by Sir Herbert Walker. At 2,186 miles, the SR was the smallest of the 'Big Four' railway companies and, unlike the others, the majority of its revenue came from passengers rather than freight. It created what was, at that time, the world's largest electrified railway system and the first electrified InterCity route (London--Brighton). There were two Chief Mechanical Engineers; Richard Maunsell between 1923 and 1937 and Oliver Bulleid from 1937 to 1948, both of whom designed new locomotives and rolling stock to replace much of what was inherited in 1923. The SR played a vital role in the Second World War, embarking the British Expeditionary Force, during the Dunkirk operations, and supplying Operation Overlord in 1944; because the railway was primarily a passenger network, its success was an even more remarkable achievement.

The SR operated a number of famous named trains, including the Brighton Belle, the Bournemouth Belle, the Golden Arrow and the Night Ferry (London - Paris and Brussels). The West Country services were dominated by lucrative summer holiday traffic and included named trains such as the Atlantic Coast Express and the Devon Belle. The company's best-known livery was highly distinctive: locomotives and carriages were painted in a bright Malachite green above plain black frames, with bold, bright yellow lettering. The SR was nationalised in 1948, becoming the Southern Region of British Railways.

The formation of the SR was rooted in the outbreak of the First World War, when all railway companies were taken into government control. Many members of staff joined the armed forces and it was not possible to build and maintain equipment at peacetime levels. After the war, the government considered permanent nationalisation but instead decided on a compulsory amalgamation of the railways into four large groups through the 1921 Railways Act, known as the Grouping. The resultant amalgamation of the four south coast railways to form the SR meant that several duplicate routes and management structures were inherited. The LSWR had most influence on the new company, although genuine attempts were made to integrate the services and staff after 1923. The rationalisation of the system led to the downgrading of some routes in favour of more direct lines to the channel ports, and the creation of a co-ordinated, but not necessarily centralised form of management based at the former LSWR headquarters in Waterloo station.

In addition to its railway operations, the SR inherited several important port and harbour facilities along the south coast, including Southampton, Newhaven and
Folkestone. It also ran services to the harbours at Portsmouth, Dover and Plymouth. These had come into being for handling ocean-going and cross-channel passenger traffic and the size of the railway-owned installations reflected the prosperity that the industry generated. This source of traffic, together with the density of population served in the London suburbs ensured that the Southern would be a predominantly passenger-orientated railway.

In 1929, the third-rail electrification of the London suburban network was completed. The introduction of electric multiple units (EMUs) on principal suburban routes ensured fast, efficient commuter services into London and increased the volume of commuter traffic. The SR's commitment to electrification made the railway more innovative in its approach to handling traffic than its rivals; compare the SR's legacy with the absence from the Great Western Railway of even a single electrified route.

The intensive commuter system located within a small geographical area made the SR a natural candidate for electrification and the LSWR and LBSCR had already introduced it in the London area before the Grouping. However, the two schemes were incompatible, as the LBSCR adopted a 6,600V AC overhead system (similar to that used by the Midland Railway for their Lancaster to Morecambe trial section), whilst the LSWR used a 660V DC third rail standard. After the Grouping, comparisons between the two systems were made and the LSWR system was adopted as standard for the whole system. This was because it had the advantage of being cheaper to install and the lack of catenary equipment meant that bridge and tunnel clearances were not affected.

Most of the area immediately south of London was converted, together with the long-distance lines to Brighton, Eastbourne, Hastings (via the LBSCR line), Guildford, Portsmouth and Reading, between 1931 and 1939. This was one of the world's first modern mainline electrification schemes. On the former SECR routes, the lines to
Sevenoaks and Maidstone were electrified by 1939. The routes to the Kent coast were next in line for electrification and would have been followed by the electrification of the Southampton/Bournemouth route. The Second World War delayed these plans until the late 1950s and late 1960s respectively.
The post-Wall Street Crash affected South Eastern England far less than other areas. The investment the company had already made in modernising the commuter network ensured that the SR remained in good financial health relative to the other railway companies despite the Depression. However, any available funds were devoted to electrification programme, and this marked the end of the first period under Chief Mechanical Engineer (CME) Richard Maunsell when the SR led the field in steam locomotive design. The lack of funds affected the development of new, standardised motive power, and it would take until the Second World War for the SR to take the initiative in steam locomotive design once again.

Holiday makers using the lines to the Channel ports and the West Country were replaced with troops during this period, especially with the threat of a German invasion on the south coast in 1940. Before hostilities, 75% of traffic was passenger, compared with 25% freight; during the war roughly the same number of passengers was carried, but freight grew to 60% of total traffic. A desperate shortage of freight locomotives was remedied by CME Oliver Bulleid, while the volume of military freight and soldiers moved by a primarily commuter and holidaymaker carrying railway was a breath-taking feat.

When the threat of invasion receded, the area served by the Southern Railway became the marshalling area for troops preparing to invade Normandy in Operation Overlord, and once again, the railway played its part by providing a link in the logistics chain. This came at a cost, as the SR's location around London and the Channel ports meant that it was subjected to heavy bombing, whilst permanent way, locomotive, carriage and wagon maintenance was deferred until peacetime.

After a period of slow recovery in the late 1940s, the war-devastated company was nationalised along with the rest of the railway network in 1948 and incorporated into British Railways. The SR retained a separate identity as the Southern Region of British Railways. The Southern Railway Company continued to exist as a legal entity until it went into voluntary liquidation on 10 June 1949. Many lines in London and Kent had been damaged during the war and much rolling stock was either damaged or in need of replacement. Just prior to nationalisation, the SR had started a vigorous renewal programme, and this was continued throughout the early 1950s.


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