History timeline

Travel back in time to some of the major moments that defined the railway, shaping nations and the lives of people around the globe.

Go on a journey of discovery

With the expert help of the National Railway Museum, this indicative timeline has been specially created to tell the tale of train travel over the past 200 years or so.

Other milestones will also be highlighted as part of Railway 200.

This timeline includes the historic moment when, on 27 September 1825, George Stephenson’s steam-powered Locomotion No. 1 travelled 26 miles between Shildon, Darlington and Stockton, carrying hundreds of passengers to great fanfare. It set in motion a train of events that changed the world forever.

Early years of rail

A horse-drawn coal wagon on rails
A horse-drawn coal wagon on rails

c1700: Early use of rails for transport

Since ancient times, human ingenuity has led to guided systems of transport that make tasks easier. By the 1700s, miles and miles of wooden track is used to haul coal across the North East of England – with some help from horses too.

1804: Proving steam can power

In Wales, two industrialists make a 500 guinea (£525) bet: can steam power haul 10 tonnes of coal for 10 miles? Cornish engineer Richard Trevithick designs the Pen-y-Darren locomotive – which almost covers that distance by track, taking about 4 hours.

A painting of Richard Trevithick
A painting of Richard Trevithick
An early victorian horse-drawn railway carriage with its passengers
An early victorian horse-drawn railway carriage with its passengers

1807: First paying passengers

Originally built in 1804 to carry limestone from quarries to market, the Swansea and Mumbles Railway swaps cargo for paying passengers, becoming the first to do so. The carriages are guided by iron rails – but horses, not locomotives provide the pulling power.

1808: An entrepreneur enters the ring

In London, Richard Trevithick runs a steam engine on a circular track, to excite investors about the possibilities of locomotive-powered railways. Despite emphasising the fast speeds attainable, he fails to win any investment. However, his ideas inspire others to keep trying.

A mechanical train engine
A mechanical train engine

The growth of passenger travel

A steam-powered locomotive engine sets off, pulling wagons loaded with excited passengers
A painting by Terence Cuneo

1825: Opening of the Stockton and Darlington Railway

On 27 September 1825, near Shildon, a steam-powered locomotive engine sets off, pulling wagons loaded with 450 to 600 excited passengers, and streaming with celebratory banners.

1829: The iconic Rocket

Robert Stephenson’s ‘Rocket’ design goes beyond simply being a successful early engine, becoming an iconic example of what railways can do. Champion of the 1829 Rainhill trials to prove the viability of steam locomotive-powered railways, it’s also present at the Liverpool and Manchester Railway opening in 1830.

Stephenson's Rocket Locomotive
Coloured lithograph showing the Engine House at Swindon
Coloured lithograph showing the Engine House at Swindon

1840s & 1850s: Growth boost for railway towns

Towns with major railway connections, like Swindon, Doncaster and Crewe, begin to grow as the railway industry takes root. From being a small village, Swindon becomes a new modern industrial community within just a few years.

1841: A carriage fit for Royalty

The aunt of Queen Victoria, Dowager Queen Adelaide, takes to the rails in a converted first class carriage to tour northern England. As well as being the first royal carriage, it’s the first adapted for health accessibility – the seats are re-designed for her needs.

Royals continue to travel by bigger and grander trains to meet people over the next century.

Queen Adelaide's saloon railway carriage
A painting of a train carriage travelling in the rain with no roof and the people getting wet

1840s: Roofs for third class passengers

People travelling in third class are at the weather’s mercy until 1844. Before then the ‘open’ carriages have no roofs. Passengers contend with hats and umbrellas blowing away, being scorched by sun, soaked by rain and choked with engine smoke.

1840s: Railway fever – thousands rush to invest

As railways spread across Britain, many small investors take big risks, including the literary Brontë family – who nearly lose everything. Large land and business owners also invest, including several who made their money from slavery.

A portrait of the Bronte sisters
Portrait of the Bronte Sisters

Railways influence law and order, post and art

1842: Edmondson tickets

A stationmaster in northern England designs the classic ‘Edmondson’ train ticket. A small rectangle of card, pre-printed and serial- numbered, it is so fit for purpose that it becomes the design for train tickets all around the world. In its time, it was the best way to record passengers and meet their needs.

An old ticket from Saltley to Birmingham
Painting by J. M. W. Turner: Rain, Steam, and Speed - The Great Western Railway
Painting by J. M. W. Turner: Rain, Steam, and Speed - The Great Western Railway

1844: Turner paints the railway

Famous artist J. M. W. Turner paints a picture titled ‘Rain, Steam and Speed – The Great Western Railway’. It shocks viewers at the Royal Academy, who find its contrast of the new mechanical age with the older, slow pace of life very dramatic.

1845: Arresting a murder suspect fleeing by rail

John Tawell boards a train to get away from a murder scene, but a telegraph sent ahead to a train station along the route means police catch him. Telegraphy is developing alongside rail, as are railway police forces, British Transport Police’s predecessors.

A telegraph station with transmitter and receiver
A telegraph station with transmitter and receiver
A group of employees at the Great Western Railway's signal works holding huge GWR clocks
A group of employees, at the Great Western Railway's signal works in Reading, test and repair some of the company's many clocks.

1847: It’s ‘Railway Time’

Because of the railway, Greenwich Mean Time becomes the standard time in Britain. After passenger complaints, rail companies adopt it in order to run punctually on the busy network, and to reduce the risk of accidents. Towns and cities follow – by 1855 about 98% of England and Wales runs on ‘Railway Time’.

1848: Irish mail trains

Railways revolutionise travel and communication between Britain and Ireland. Trains called ‘The Irish Mails’ run day and night to carry mail to and from the ferry between Holyhead in Wales and Dublin in Ireland.

Photograph of the Irish Mail train

Railway expansion and safety improvements – plus holidays by train!

1852: Connecting two cities

Engineers complete the final link between Belfast and Dublin, connecting the two cities by rail. The railway remains open throughout the conflicts and divisions of the twentieth-century, and continues to be an important line of communication between Northern Ireland and the Republic to this day.

A painting of the Boyne Viaduct, that crosses the River Boyne in Drogheda, carrying the main Dublin–Belfast railway line.
A painting of the Boyne Viaduct, that crosses the River Boyne in Drogheda, carrying the main Dublin–Belfast railway line. Construction began in 1853 and was completed in 1855.
Engraving depicting a train crossing the Sursuttee Bridge and Viaduct, India
Engraving depicting a train crossing the Sursuttee Bridge and Viaduct, India

1857: Colonial India and railway expansion

During tumultuous times, India develops the fastest growing rail network in the world. A major uprising against colonial rule occurs, and British railway engineers shelter in fortified stations.

1860s: Holidays by train

In 1860 railways carry 23,000 visitors to the seaside in Blackpool: rail is creating mass tourism. In the 1800s and 1900s, factories closed for part of the summer for maintenance, and workers took their holiday. These were known as Wakes Weeks or, in Scotland, Fairs Fortnights – dates varied by area.

A black and white photo of North Shore, Blackpoolh
North Shore, Blackpool
The Pryce Jones building in Newtown, Powys, Wales
The Pryce Jones building in Newtown, Powys, Wales

1861: Home delivery shopping starts

Businessman Pryce Pryce-Jones, from Newtown in Wales, takes advantage of the rail network and low postage costs to send products, chosen from catalogues, to customers. Known as ‘mail order’, this is a huge success: reaching even very famous people like Florence Nightingale and Queen Victoria.

1876: An accident leads to signalling improvements

Heavy snow jams the signal arm at Abbots Ripton, making it seem like an all clear ahead signal is showing. Thirteen people die in a terrible crash, which wrecks 3 trains. After the accident, signal improvements are made. ‘Danger’ is made the default signal setting.

The railway accident at Abbot's Ripton

Innovation and improvement: dining, sleeping, safety

The new Pullman dining car on the Great Northern Railway

1879: Dining in restaurant cars

The Great Northern Railway starts the first dining car service in Britain. Some medical authorities have concerns, claiming rushed eating will cause fatal indigestion. Fortunately, no deaths are linked to dining car food and the service becomes very popular.

1870s: Bed-seats make sleeping on board more comfortable

People slept on trains from the start of railways: just consider the slow journeys. In 1873 North British Railway’s dedicated sleeping service on the East Coast Main Line launches – the seat flattens into a bed. From the 1880s on, sleeping carriages are built. Services become more glamorous and desirable.

A railway guard shunting, connecting, rolling stock by using special equipment known as a shunter's pole or draft gear

1886: Life-saving safety development: the ‘shunter’s pole’

Mr Tuff of York develops a long, hooked pole allowing vehicles to be coupled together from a place of safety rather than standing between them. A simple invention that saves thousands of lives. Tuff refuses to patent the invention, to help it spread more quickly and save more lives.

1890: Forth Bridge opens

The bridge is the first major steel construction in Britain. It was built to carry the railway line across the Firth of Forth, west of Edinburgh. Commemorative coins are issued. Today it’s a UNESCO World Heritage site.

View of Forth Rail Bridge at sunset railway bridge over Firth of Forth near Queensferry in Scotland
View of Forth Rail Bridge, the world’s longest cantilever bridge, Scotland, United Kingdom

Stephenson gauge becomes universal, and women workers

Photograph of train leaving Paddington station

1892: Track standardisation

Officials and onlookers crowd Paddington Station to see the last Broad Gauge Engine start its journey. An overflowing boiler makes it look as though the engine is crying, and a band plays it off. Meanwhile along the route thousands of workers wait to adjust the track in one huge weekend-long job, finally connecting Britain’s mainline railways in one standard gauge.

1900s: Electric commuter trains

Suburban living, with good housing design and green spaces, served by city railways, becomes popular. The Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway and Southern Railway’s electric trains are a perfect match: very well suited to ‘stop, start, stop’ requirements. Electric trains create a rush of development around the capital, creating new suburbs.


Southern Electric poster showing a train travelling from London to 'Home' with the text 'A straight line - the quickest between two points'
A photo of the members of the Bermondsey branch of the National Union of Railwaymen
Members of the Bermondsey branch of the National Union of Railwaymen

1913: National Union of Railwaymen forms

Many smaller trade unions come together to provide a collective voice for hundreds of thousands of rail industry workers. They lobby employers, run sickness and support clubs, and fundraise for children of railway workers killed or injured on the network.

1914 to 1945: WW1, WW2 and the railway

In both world wars thousands of women work on the railways, as men leave to fight on the front lines. In the Second World War railways sustain heavy bomb damage as the enemy recognises and targets their vital role in the war effort.

An abstract painting of a person cleaning out a steam train

The Big Four form, rail saves lives, leisure time served by train

A poster of the Western Highlands

1923: LNER, LMS, GWR, and Southern

The ‘Big Four’ railway companies – LNER (London and North Eastern Railway), LMS (London, Midland and Scottish Railway), GWR (Great Western Railway), and Southern – are created following the Railways Act of 1921. This combines many small companies into four larger ones, aiming to improve services for customers.

1923: FA Cup Final services

The railways run 145 special services to bring 270,000 fans to see Bolton Wanderers play against West Ham United at the new Wembley Stadium in London. Since football began, railways have galvanised the sport. Many teams, including Manchester United, have their origins in railway employee clubs.

The crowd spills on to the pitch during the 1923 FA Cup final between Bolton Wanderers and West Ham United
The crowd spills on to the pitch during the 1923 FA Cup final between Bolton Wanderers and West Ham United
Poster of Gleneagles Hotel Perthshire

1924: The Gleneagles Hotel and golf resort opens

The Caledonian Railway commissions the grand Gleneagles Hotel and golf resort in Perthshire, Scotland. Railways went on to shape the modern game of golf, popularising courses, carrying hordes of spectators to tournaments, and marketing holidays based around the game.

1938: Kindertransport

LNER Railway Police officers meet the first child migrants escaping the Nazi regime, as they disembark at Harwich on the English coast.

Poignantly, they come over on a ship called the TSS Prague – the children are mainly from Czechia (formerly The Czech Republic), where their parents are forced to remain. Many more Jewish children make it to safety on Kindertransport services run by railway companies, crossing the channel from continental Europe on railway ferries.

Many never saw their parents again.


Kindertransport memorial by Frank Meisler at the Gdansk Central
Kindertransport memorial by Frank Meisler at the Gdansk Central
A photograph of a film projector
A film projector

1930s: Railways on the screen

In 1935, Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps is one of many films to be inspired by the power and popularity of railways. Trains appear in comedies and romances as well as thrillers and action films, reflecting their central position in public consciousness.

1930s: The art of railway marketing

Railway services start to employ famous artists to brand their vehicles, services and stations, adding a dash of romance and adventure to train travel. The Great Western Railway is particularly interested in marketing Cornwall as a holiday destination, comparing it to Italy for climate, culture and sights.

A poster of the beach with the words 'The Cornish Riviera'

A speed record, and railway nationalisation

A photgraph of the Mallard in the National Railway Museum

1938: Mallard sets a new world steam record

The streamlined LNER locomotive Mallard pulls a test car carrying several railway engineers, who lie flat down on the shaking floor. It reaches an incredible 126 miles per hour, a record still unbeaten today.

1946: ‘Thomas the Tank Engine’ by Rev. W. Awdry

The cheeky blue tank engine makes his debut in one of the first of the author’s stories. Awdry was fascinated by railways, and based their voices on what he imagined engines ‘said’ to each other as they puffed up a hill near his home.

Thomas the Tank Engine children books
A person putting up a poster with the words Transport Act 1947 on
Bill sticker putting up a poster, 30 December 1947. On 1 January 1948, the four major railway companies were amalgamated by nationalisation and became known as British Railways.

1948: Nationalisation of the railways

On the stroke of midnight drivers sound their steam whistles in an atmospheric celebration. The post-war Labour government nationalise the railways on 1 January, as part of their sweeping changes to industrial Britain.

1950s: An attempt to modernise is made

The Modernisation plan by railways and government aims to bring the network up to date in the post-war world. Despite many good ideas and new technologies, internal disputes and ever-increasing costs cause the project to falter.

A black and white photo of a first generation diesel multiple unit train
black and white photo of steam locomotive train - E.R. Class J39 0-6-0 64827 on an up freight passing Godley East Junction May 1954

1950s: Delivering the goods

Until the mid-twentieth century, freight was the railways’ main income. Reducing delivery times and increasing market size brought the costs down, changing lifestyles and diets rapidly. Dairy, meat and fish could be delivered everywhere, quickly: so fish and chips, beef, fresh veg and milk become British staples.

Diesel starts and steam stops, rail reforms, branding, and music

1950s: Diesel trains launch

Diesel trains had operated on Britain’s railways since the 1920s. They really get going in the post-war period. For some rail managers they’re just a stand-in until electrification – for others the solution itself. Passengers and drivers view diesel as a new, modern and, importantly, clean transport mode.

1957: Train driver awarded George Cross medal

John Axon receives Britain’s highest civilian bravery award, for giving his life to prevent further loss of life after a brakes failure. He stayed on the train to give warning signals, but ordered his fireman from the cab to safety. Six railway workers have received the George Cross for bravery at work.

George Cross medal
George Cross medal
A photograph of the Evening Star train

1960: Evening Star and the end of steam on the mainline

Among the last steam engines to be made, Evening Star rolls off the production line in Swindon at a time when thousands of steam engines are being broken up and scrapped. The wistful name lends a poetic air to the end of the steam era. It was already destined for preservation when withdrawn from service in 1965.

1963: The Beeching Report is published

Dr. Richard Beeching is appointed to oversee a controversial period of change. Over 2,000 stations and 5,000 miles of track are marked for closure. Beeching becomes a hated figure for many, while others see him as a necessary moderniser. Some reforms, including containerisation, are still active today.

Dr Beeching holding up a British Railway book wearing a suit
Dr Beeching
Curved glass roof of Liverpool Lime Street mainline railway station with the Double Arrow symbol, Liverpool, England, UK

1965: The British Rail Corporate Identity

Perhaps the most iconic piece of branding in British history, this 1965 manual is soon a touchstone for anyone interested in modern design. Of the many innovations it introduces, the Double Arrow, designed to appear the same at high speed as stationary, is the most recognisable. It’s still used today.

1960s and beyond: Music and the railways

Musicians and music-lovers travel by rail around Britain – trains even host live music. Train travel and stations have inspired countless performers such as The Beatles, The Kinks, Blur and Paul Simon.

An old photo of Paul McCartney of the Beatles and Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones sat opposite each other on a train at Euston Station
Paul McCartney of the Beatles and Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones sit opposite each other on a train at Euston Station, waiting for departure to Bangor.

Bravery is recognised, technology, female drivers, preservation, and 150th birthday

1966: Asquith Xavier successfully challenges racism

West Indian immigrant Asquith Xavier is rejected from a guard job at Euston because of an internal ban on non-white employees. He takes his case to the British Railways Board. This leads to an investigation and the introduction of equal opportunities for people of colour working at major stations.

A black and white old looking photo of a person called Asquith Xavier standing in front of a train wearing a rail uniform
Asquith Xavier in rail uniform
Two trains in a station

1970s: Advances in rail technology

British Rail’s research wing at the Rail Technical Centre at Derby takes on new experts and equipment, including a supercomputer from IBM, to develop rail improvement ideas. This leads to computer organisation, tilting technologies and attempts at higher speeds.

1970s: The Railway Preservation Movement

Starting small in the 1950s and ’60s, in the ’70s the movement’s mission to save engines and carriages for the nation gains momentum. Groups of enthusiasts and key individuals work with British Rail to preserve vehicles and stretches of line. These become today’s Heritage Railways, enjoyed by millions.

A steam train leaves Consall Station and crosses the Caldon Canal on the Churnet Valley Railway, Leek, Staffordshire, UK
Postage stamp for the 150th anniversary of the Stockton and Darlington Railway
Postage stamp for the 150th anniversary of the Stockton and Darlington Railway

1975: 150th anniversary of the Stockton and Darlington Railway

British Rail celebrates the 150th anniversary of the Stockton and Darlington Railway in style. A cavalcade of vehicles, both heritage and cutting-edge technology, takes place at Shildon and there are events and celebrations at railway sites around the country.

1979: First female train drivers

Karen Harrison applies to the British Rail driver training programme, signing her application K. Harrison. At interview stage, bosses realise she’s not a man. Karen qualifies as one of the first female drivers, but workplace recognition is a challenge. She is supportive of female and LGBTQ+ colleagues at work.


Explore rail careers

A black and white photo of Karen Harrison woman wearing a train driver uniform
Karen Harrison in train driver uniform
Two trains sat at a train station

1986: New Intercity design

Although operating as a brand name for British Rail since the 1960s, Intercity gets a redesign and becomes a sleek new face for the railways in the 1980s. Fast, new Intercity 125 trains are emblazoned with a new executive livery, which is supported by an award-winning advertising campaign.

Channel tunnel opens, British railway speed record, and privatisation

Two people reaching through a whole in the channel tunnel, one holding a UK flag and one holding a French flag

1990: The Channel Tunnel - British and French engineers meet under the sea

On 1 December 1990 there is a literal breakthrough as British and French teams connect the service tunnel beneath the Channel. Engineers shake hands through the breach. Four years later the Channel Tunnel opens for rail traffic, the culmination of over 150 years of railway plans for an undersea line.

1994: Privatisation of the railways

A Conservative government begins a railway privatisation process, discussed since the 1980s. Private firms take over running rolling stock, services, infrastructure and networks. No one involved in the original talks is entirely happy with the resulting compromise, made over years of changes.

Three trains at Liverpool Street station
Eurostar train

2003: Eurostar sets the UK train speed record

Thanks to HS1, Eurostar set 373 313/14 becomes the UK’s train speed record holder achieving 208mph (334.7km/h) near Boxley in Kent. Eurostar is effective at encouraging environmentally friendly travel between Britain and Europe. Flights taken between London and Paris reduce by half from 1996 to 2019. St Pancras later gets rebuilt as a ‘destination station’.

WiFi, ticketless payment, a greener railway

Two people using laptops on board a GNER train

2003: WiFi on trains begins 

GNER becomes the first company to roll out WiFi on passenger trains, after a successful trial. This helps thousands work as they travel and surf the net. It’s the latest in a series of passenger-focused innovations over the years, which have included radio, cinema, catering and other services.

2013: Digital and smartphone ticketing

Trials begin for full digital ticketing on the mainline network. This improves how passengers move through major stations, but reveals the uneven technology spread across the network and among the travelling public.

A person using a smart phone to scan their ticket at a train station
Northolt Tunnel 'Boring Machine' is lowered into place. It is a big round blue object being lowered in to a large round hole.
HS2's Northolt tunnel - Tunnel Boring Machine Emily is lowered into place

2020: Renewal

The railway continues to modernise, starting work on HS2 between London and Birmingham. Covid, the global pandemic, hits hard but the core benefits of rail travel remain in place and recovery follows

2024: Greener rail travel

The railway is due to be net-zero for carbon emissions by 2045 in Scotland and by 2050 in England and Wales. This transformation aims to switch people to rail from more polluting types of transport and to carry more cargo by rail, helping Britain to meet its net-zero targets.

A large green train with 'I am a climate hero' written on the side
Railway 200

2025: 200 years and counting

A year-long celebration of how the railway has shaped Britain: its achievements, its future, its opportunities and its people. The railway moves towards a simpler, better, greener future for everyone.

Find out more about plans for Railway 200

Created in partnership with the

Railway Museum