The Big Four Rail Companies

For over twenty years there was 4 rail companies in Britain that held the lion’s share of track and train ownership. These were commonly referred to as the “Big Four”.  What were these companies and how did they influence rail transportation of the day and into the future?

The Great Western Railway (GWR)
Linking the capital, south west, Wales and the midlands, The GWR was formed in 1833 as a direct result from government directive law from the Houses of Parliament. Running off a broad gauge of 7ft the challenge for the engineers and the man in charge, Isambard Brunel was to overcome the differing and undulating countryside of rural England and Wales.


The route to the south west was the main domestic train route for UK holiday goers. Stations at Minehead, Torquay, St. Ives and Newquay all transported thousands of families each year.

The famous trains of the day ran on the line including the The Flying Dutchman and Cornwall’s Rivera Express. In 1947 the GWR was integrated with other big three into British Railways.

The London, Midland and Scottish Railway (LMS)
In 1923 the LMS was formed which was the biggest rail company out of the four. Covering vast mileage across the UK the company had many distinguished engineers and also invested heavily into other areas of transportation. Even in the early 20s, the company was always looking innovate. The steel carriages replaced the partial wood/steel frames that had been used for 30 years previously.

lms logo

The newer carriages were stronger, safer and more durable. There were still over 20 serious accidents on the LMS including the famous Lichfield rail accident which unfortunately killed and injured over 40 people.

London and North Eastern Railway (LNR)
For over 25 years the LNER operated rail lines that were located in the east and north of London, a massive area and second only to LMS in terms of size. To put this in to perspective the company owned over seven and a half thousand trains, 20k plus worth of carriage stock and even 6 electric prototype trains.

The company also had consistency in leadership. For over 15 years it was led by Sir Ralph Wedgewood, a very intelligent man who was educated at Cambridge. There was a train named after him but tragically it was destroyed in the war.

Covering the midlands, east and north-east of England; the LNR also bought into canals, docks and piers. Even hotels were snapped up in an attempt to monopolise all types of business related to Britain’s transport network.

The Southern Railway (SR)
Although being the smallest rail company of the big four, the SR was extremely important. Most of its profits were generated by passenger travel where holiday makers and business men frequently used the service.

The SR was the first to implement a commercial electric line which linked Brighton and London further evidence that this was a forward thinking company; at one point it also had two not one chief mechanical engineers. With famous trains like the Brighton Belle and Golden Arrow gracing the SR it is a train enthusiast’s delight to further understand the history and importance of this rail company.