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Home » Research Projects » The Effect of Ownership and Regulation on British Railway Performance, 1850-2006

Timing is Everything

How has the performance of railways in Britain changed in the last 150 years?

“The only way to be sure of catching a train,” said G.K. Chesterton, “is to miss the one before it.” Certainly, the efficiency, reliability and affordability of railway travel has been the subject of much discussion in homes and offices, and on railway platforms, ever since the railways became a significant form of travel over 150 years ago. This study looks at the output of British railways, measured in terms of passenger miles, and speed of travel (including waiting times) from 1850 to 2006.

Over the last century and a half, railways have experienced very different forms of ownership and regulation. At first, railways were privately built using private finance. Gradually, government became more and more involved in fare-setting, integrating and standardising track, and regulating competition. Over the Twentieth Century, railways were under government control in the two World Wars, heavily regulated between those wars, wholly nationalised for fifty years from the 1940s, privatized under a regulator (with separate track and train operating companies) from the mid-1990s, with the track operation being effectively renationalised in the early 2000s.

How important have these various patterns of regulation and ownership (all private, all public, part-private, part-public) been in delivering faster trains as set against levels of investment and general changes in technology?

What the research means for policy-makers and the wider community

Research Methods

The study will use railway timetables to construct indices of train speeds from the start of the railway era to the present day. These will take into account not only nominal route speeds, but directness of journey, waiting times, and the pattern of journeys over the day, selecting the 50 most important rail journeys in Great Britain by numbers of users together with a basket of ‘minor’ journeys. The study will also place a value on the time saved by increasing speeds over the years. Although time saved is not part of national income, it is an important component of the standard of living and lies at the heart of modern transport economics. The researchers will use techniques borrowed from the ‘international trade gravity model’ to place a value to society of improved train speeds. That model offers a well-established methodology for estimating geographical effects such as the way that train speeds effect the distances that commuters travel and consequently how far they can live from their place of work.


Project Outputs and Related Webpages

November 2009: ’Train Times – Are we better than the Victorians at running our railways?’ Britain in 2009, ESRC: 32

Crafts, N., Leunig, T., and Mulatu. A., (2008) ‘Were British railway companies well managed in the early twentieth century?’ , Economic History Review, 61(4) :842-866

Programme Discussion Paper DP0804 Did early utility regulation work? An investigation of British railway regulation prior to the First World War

Media reports on findings from the project are available here.

Research Team

Tim Leunig

Tim Leunig

Timothy Leunig is Lecturer in the Department of Economic History at the London School of Economics. He has a long-established interest in technological change, its adoption and effects, and has recently published on public attitudes to change in ‘Turning NIMBYs into IMBYs’ as well as on the railways in ‘Time is Money: A Re-Assessment of the Passenger Social Savings from Victorian British Railways’.


Nicholas Crafts

Nicholas Crafts

Nicholas Crafts is Professor in the Department of Economics, University of Warwick, and author of many books and academic articles. He recently led an ESRC funded project on “Understanding the Effects of Different Generations of Large- Scale Technological Change”. He is a member of the academic advisory panel to the Eddington Review of Transport and the Economy.