Britain’s railways are notoriously ill-organised, thanks to the Major government’s privatisation process of 1994-97, in which operating companies hired trains from rolling-stock companies and ran them on track owned by a nationalised entity. (Sir John Major himself suggested simply reviving the “Big Four” grouping of 1922, which on reflection doesn’t seem such a bad idea compared with what we’re now stuck with.)
The early railway builders quickly dismissed the idea of having independent operators running on railway lines, like the eighteenth-century turnpikes, and Gladstone’s Railway Regulation Act of 1844 provided for the possibility of nationalising the railway system even as it was being built.
But the Victorians put their faith in competition, and Britain’s railways grew willy-nilly, leading to a confusion as profound as the 21st-century British rail system.
This is evident in Nottingham, where throughout the nineteenth century two competing railway companies, the Midland and the Great Northern, ran from separate stations a short distance away from each other, on Station Street and London Road respectively.
In 1879, under the auspices of the ponderously named Great Northern & London & North Western Joint Railway, a third company, the London & North Western Railway, began running passenger services into London Road Station and delivering goods to a purpose-built station at Sneinton.
Then in 1900, a fourth company, the Great Central, built the magnificent Victoria Station, which it shared with the Great Northern, in a cutting in the centre of town.
The Great Northern built a duplicate London Road station, which they named High Level, to distinguish it from their original station, latterly Low Level, which the L&NWR continued to use for their services to Market Harborough via Saxondale Junction, Bottesford and Melton Mowbray.
This absurdity continued until 1944, when the former L&NWR trains were diverted into Nottingham Midland and the Low Level station became a goods depot.
Much of this has since been swept away. There is now only one station in Nottingham, the former Midland, though it serves trains run by three separate modern operating companies. The lines into Low Level were taken up in the 1970s, and after a fire in 1996 Thomas Chambers Hine’s imposing 1857 building was restored and refurbished as a health club.
But it’s a mistake to think that the way we run British railways in the 21st century is any more bizarre than the travellers’ chaos that the Victorians created.