Transport and leisure


At the start of the twentieth century, there were around 120 private steam railway companies in Great Britain. There was much overlap and duplication, so many of the companies were unprofitable. During the First World War and through to 1921, the government took control of the railways. They played a major role in the war effort, transporting troops and supplies. 

Flying ScotsmanHeyday

The 1921 Railway Act reorganised the railways into four large companies, each serving different parts of the country – the G(reat) W(estern) R(ailway), L(ondon and) N(orth) E(astern) R(ailway), S(outhern) R(ailway) and L(ondon) M(idland and) S(cottish) network . Travelling by train for leisure, to the countryside or seaside, was promoted via iconic advertising and became affordable for the majority, who were otherwise unable to afford a car. However, during the 1920s and 1930s, these companies faced growing competition from road transport as the road network expanded.
During the Second World War, the railways operated as a single company. They again played a major role in the war effort, transporting the masses, particularly since petrol was tightly rationed. In the popular imagination, stations were places of rendezvous, brave departure and tearful reunion. However, by the end of the war the railways were in a poor condition, as there had been little maintenance undertaken. In order to address this, they were put under government control in 1948 and became known as British Railways.

A loss of profitability

In the 1950s, a lot of money was invested in the railways and steam engines were replaced by diesel and electric trains, but they became increasingly unprofitable. Car ownership was rising, so there were fewer passengers, and more and more freight was being transported by lorry. In the mid-1960s, many lines and stations were closed down in an attempt to save money, often referred to as the ‘Beeching cuts’ after the author of two reports which led to the closures. Passenger numbers continued to fall into the 1970s. 


In the 1980s, new, modern trains were introduced and passenger numbers began to revive. The railways became more cost-effective. In the 1990s, UK railways were returned to private ownership. Once again, services were provided by competing companies. Passenger numbers increased dramatically and, by 2010, the railways were carrying more passengers than at any time since the 1920s.

Road transport

Sturdier roads

At the start of the twentieth century, most of Britain's roads had an earthen surface. The only roads with a solid (usually cobbled) surface were those in town centres and those which linked major towns. Road traffic consisted of horses and carts/carriages, bicycles and walkers, sometimes driving animals. Railways were the main way of transporting large numbers of both people and goods.
The development of the internal combustion engine in the early years of the century led to a steady improvement in the quality of roads as car and bus traffic increased. Tarmac was patented as a road surface in 1901. The transport requirements of the First World War stimulated the development of more reliable road transport.

Road use increases

Up to the 1920s, cars were luxury items which could only be afforded by wealthy people. Gradually cheaper, simpler, mass produced vehicles came on to the market and car use expanded rapidly. A famous example of these cheaper cars was the Ford Company's Model T. As a result, in the 1920s and 1930s, the government spent money developing the road network and the compulsory driving test was first introduced in 1935.
During the Second World War, petrol was rationed, so the use of cars was severely restricted. However, as the nation recovered from the war in the 1950s and 1960s, car ownership rose sharply until they were common across all sectors of society, regarded by many as a status symbol. Their increased use also enabled suburbs to spread more widely, with people living at greater and greater distances from their place of employment.

Traffic on the roads

M6 Motorway Cheshire 1969With increasing car ownership (almost universal by the 1980s), British roads became more congested. The old trunk roads linking major cities and bisecting communities were no longer sufficient to carry the increased volume of cars and enlarged size of lorries. In response, the government began to build a motorway network with the first motorway, the M1, opening in 1959. Many motorways have subsequently been widened to cope with increased traffic, as have the older trunk roads.
Car ownership continued to rise throughout the rest of the twentieth century and multi-car households became increasingly common. Communities changed as a response, with the development of out of town shopping and leisure complexes. In rural areas, car ownership has come to be seen as a necessity as public transport services became less economic and declined.


UK coastal resorts

Many seaside resorts and tourist attractions developed in the nineteenth century with the growth of the rail network. Railway companies owned hotels and offered package holidays to places such as Brighton. These resorts were still popular for much of the first half of the twentieth century, when, as most people did not own cars, they relied on trains or coaches to take them away on day trips or on holiday.

Choices further afield

From the 1950s onwards, more and more people owned cars, and they were freer to choose for themselves where they wanted to visit. Some chose to use cross-Channel ferries to get to the mainland of Europe.
At much the same time, air transport was ceasing to be something which only rich people could afford. Package holidays to foreign countries such as Spain became affordable to ordinary people from the late 1960s onwards.
During the second half of the twentieth century, as standards of living rose, people began to holiday in more distant locations throughout the world. One key factor in this development was growing competition in the air industry. The emergence of budget airlines had the effect of lowering the cost of air transport.
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