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The History of Kent

Copyright Kent Past 2010

History of Southern Region

he Southern Region (SR) was a region of British Railways following nationalisation in 1948. It ceased to be an operating unit in its own right in the 1980s and was wound-up at the end of 1992. It 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.

The Southern Railway was still comparatively profitable, 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 Four' 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 SR also inherited some independent light railways, 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 SR served south London, Kent, Surrey, Sussex, Hampshire, the Isle of Wight, east Dorset, south Wiltshire and east Berkshire, most of which were either already electrified or at least proposed to be so. There was also a non-electric service to parts of Devon and north east Cornwall, known colloquially as 'The Withered Arm'.

The formerly busy Blackfriars goods yard and wharf had closed between 1935 and 1947. 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 the 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 south London, Wilton in Wiltshire, Sheffield Park in Sussex and Kemptown in Brighton, closed. Sheffield Park became part of the Bluebell Railway preserved line.

The Beeching Axe severely cut the route mileage of most regions but the SR 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,
Paddock Wood to Hawkhurst, 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 although 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 are being turned over to domestic services as Eurostar has moved to St Pancras railway station.

The 1973 plan to build a tunnel under the English Channel also included plans to upgrade the infrastructure of the SR between London and the Kent coast. The plan assumed that the main railhead for 'The Chunnel' would be at Ashford 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 became Ashford International. By 1989, SR had been abolished, due to impending privatisation.

The SR was abolished in 1989 because BR had decided to move from regional management to business sectors. The Region was divided between two of the new passenger businesses: Network South East and InterCity. When the BR 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 South Central and South Eastern franchises, both initially awarded to Connex. Later the Connex franchises were inherited by Govia, which operates Southern and Southeastern. As part of a general reorganisation of franchises, Island Line was merged with the much larger South West Trains franchise in 2005, Thameslink became part of First Capital Connect in 2006, and Gatwick Express was merged with Southern in 2007.

At the time of its creation the SR 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 large-scale electrification. Consequently, the SR was the last region in Britain to use steam, regularly, 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. 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 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 late 1970s. The last slam door units ran in late 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.

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