North British Railway

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North British Railway crest
Forth Bridge – a joint undertaking of the East Coast companies – NBR had a 35% stake
The Tay Rail Bridge – connecting the NBR's lines in Fife with Dundee and the North

The North British Railway was a British railway company, based in Edinburgh. Established in 1844, its network grew from the original Edinburgh–Berwick-upon-Tweed line (completed in 1846) to serve the East of Scotland. It provided the northernmost part of the East Coast Main Line, and at the Grouping in 1923 the NBR – then the largest railway company in Scotland, and the fifth largest in the United Kingdom – became part of the London and North Eastern Railway. For much of its life it had contended for primacy in Scotland with the generally more profitable Glasgow-based Caledonian Railway, the equivalent Scottish component of the West Coast Main Line.


The North British Railway Company was established in 1844 to build a railway from Edinburgh to Berwick-upon-Tweed, with a branch to Haddington. The line was completed in 1846,<ref name=Thomas1>Thomas, John (1969). The North British Railway: Volume 1 (1st ed.). Newton Abbot: David & Charles. p. 28. ISBN 0 7153 4697 0.</ref> but a continuous rail connection between London and Edinburgh was not available until October 1848;<ref name=Thomas1048>Thomas op cit Vol 1 p 48</ref> the Caledonian having been able to offer a through service via Carstairs since March 1848.<ref name="Thomas1048"/> The fastest trains between the two capitals then took slightly over Template:Frac hours (for both East Coast and West Coast routes),<ref name=Thomas1048/> and the (cheaper) steamship service between Leith and London still took the bulk of the passenger traffic.<ref name=Thomas1043>Thomas op cit Vol 1 p 43</ref> The NBR had no running rights south of Berwick. Mineral traffic (in particular coal from the Lothian coalfield) was the largest source of revenue; an English shareholder blamed the low passenger revenue on the willingness of Scots to travel third-class even when they could afford better.<ref name=Thomas1055>Thomas op cit Vol 1 p 55</ref> (In 1843 23% of English rail passengers travelled first class, 53% second class, 24% third class but the split in Scotland was 9% first class, 33% second class, 58% third class.<ref name=reghistv6ed2>Thomas, John; 2nd edition revised & enlarged by Paterson, Alan J S (1984). Scotland : The Lowlands and the Borders (A regional History of the Railways of Great Britain: Volume 6) (2nd ed.). Newton Abbot: David St John Thomas (distributed by David & Charles). p. 25. ISBN 0-946537-12-7.</ref>)

Extensions giving access to Carlisle and Newcastle[edit]

The first major extension of the system was a branch to Hawick (completed 1849);<ref name=Thomas1041>Thomas op cit Vol 1 p 41</ref> this was subsequently extended (by the Border Union Railway) to give a through route to the West Coast Mainline at Carlisle (1862),<ref name=Thomas1088>Thomas op cit Vol 1 pp 88-96</ref> but the West Coast companies had a secret agreement to continue to route goods traffic to Edinburgh via the (less direct) Caledonian, rather than the NBR's "Waverley Route"and to obstruct/delay goods arriving from Edinburgh via the Waverley Route.<ref name=Thomas1123>Thomas op cit Vol 1 pp 123-124</ref> To obtain access to Carlisle, the NBR had bought the Carlisle and Silloth Bay Railway and Dock Company<ref name="Thomas1088"/> and with it dock facilities at Silloth on the Irish Sea; from there sea transport to Liverpool was possible,<ref name=Thomas1197>Thomas op cit Vol 1 pp 197-200</ref> but for the most part the West Coast blockade was effective and made the Waverley Route little more than a £5M branch line.<ref name=Thomas1123/> From the Waverley Route, a line (initiated by a separate company -the Border Counties Railway- absorbed into the NBR in 1860) also completed in 1862 branched southeastwards to reach Hexham, where it connected with the North Eastern Railway's Newcastle-Carlisle line over which the NBR acquired running rights into Newcastle.<ref name=Thomas1097>Thomas op cit Vol 1 pp 97-100</ref>

Amalgamations gaining access to Tayside and to Glasgow[edit]

The Edinburgh, Perth and Dundee Railway, covering Fife was absorbed into the NBR in 1862.<ref name=Thomas1165>Thomas op cit Vol 1 p 165</ref> Its service from Edinburgh to Dundee was more direct (by 28 miles (45 kilometres)) than the Caledonian route via Stirling and Perth, but involved ferry crossings of both the Firth of Forth and the Firth of Tay removing much of its competitive advantage for both passenger and goods traffic; remedying this was to be a preoccupation of the NBR for the next 25 years.<ref name=Thomas1217>Thomas op cit Vol 1 pp 217-8</ref> The Caledonian and the Edinburgh and Glasgow Railway both had lines between Edinburgh and Glasgow, with East Coast traffic to Glasgow being routed over the E&GR from Edinburgh. The Caledonian and the E&G had made a joint purse agreement (effectively to fix prices, not to compete, and to share revenues in fixed proportions) for traffic between Edinburgh and Glasgow and the prices fixed were such as to make the East Coast route uncompetitive for traffic between England and Glasgow. The NBR countered this by proposing a new line (the Glasgow and North British) to provide better service more cheaply; the E&G attempted to undermine support for this by cutting its prices without agreeing this with the Caledonian. The Caledonian's response drove the E&G to amalgamate with the NBR (in 1864). The NBR now had access to Glasgow, Clydeside and the Lanarkshire coalfield.<ref name=Thomas1116>Thomas op cit Vol 1 pp 116-8</ref>

Branch lines[edit]

The original Edinburgh–Berwick line had had numerous branches added to it by the NBR before it opened; the traffic on these had been uniformly disappointing <ref name=Thomas1037>Thomas op cit Vol 1 pp 37-43 "Branch Line Blunders"</ref> and thereafter the branch line network grew by the formation by local interests (with NBR support) of nominally independent companies which built the branch, leased it to the NBR when built, and, after a few years were absorbed into the NBR.<ref name=Thomas1106>Thomas op cit Vol 1 pp 106 -110 and pp 165-168</ref> This process circumvented Parliamentary Standing Orders which required that any railway Bill brought forward should first have been considered by a 'Wharncliffe meeting' (the Standing Order having been introduced by Lord Wharncliffe) of shareholders of the relevant company, and that meeting should have approved the measure with 80% of votes cast being in favour <ref>"House of Lords Debates 14 June 1852 vol 82 cc 546-8". Hansard Millbank. Retrieved 12 May 2014.</ref> It thus avoided the possibility of NBR expansion being blocked by a minority of disgruntled (or pro-Caledonian) shareholders. This was not a purely hypothetical concern; in the 1870s plans to build a new Glasgow terminus for the NBR's Edinburgh-Glasgow line had to be dropped when the necessary Wharncliffe meeting failed to achieve the required super-majority.

The NBR in 1866[edit]

By these means, the NBR grew to have (by the summer of 1865) about 450 mi (720 km) of route (almost equally divided between double- and single-track) and was working another 40 mi (64 km) of single track (branch companies yet to be absorbed).<ref name=Thomas1246>Thomas op cit Vol 1 pp 246-7</ref> A contemporary book on Scottish industry<ref>Bremner, David (1869). The Industries of Scotland, their Rise, Progress and Present Condition. Edinburgh: Adam and Charles Black. pp. ~560.</ref> reports data which shows it to have achieved rough parity with the Caledonian.

1866 North British Railway Caledonian Railway
Authorised Capital £22,954,087 £23,255,538
Shares £16,687,620 £17,429,181
Loans £6,266,467 £5,826,357
Paid-up £19,178,407 £19,178,407
Traffic receipts £1,374,702 £1,784,717
Passenger £561,185 £638,376
Goods & livestock £813,517 £1,146,341
Passenger trains 158,117 113,512
Passenger train mileage 2,577,614 2,699,330
Passengers 8,196,291 9,127,203
Goods trains 181,839 136,841
Goods train mileage 3,571,335 3,976,179
Livestock (head) not given 900,000
Minerals (tons) 4,118,943 5,691,129
General merchandise (tons) 1,539,506 1,830,759
Rolling stock
locomotives 367 479
passenger carriages and luggage-vans 1261 1068
goods and other waggons 16,277 13,505

Work was underway to add another 150 mi (240 km) to the system and the NBR was starting to plan for building a railway bridge across the Firth of Forth. News that the English Midland Railway, similarly frozen out of cross-border traffic by the West Coast lines had put forward a bill for its own line (the Settle and Carlisle) to Carlisle gave hope that the expected benefits from the Waverley Route might eventually materialise.

The crisis of 1866[edit]

The NBR had managed to finance this expansion, and still pay a good dividend. There were two reasons for this; it had cut expenditure on maintenance of existing lines and rolling stock maintenance to the bare minimum (if not beyond), and it had paid the dividend out of capital and hidden this by what a subsequent Committee of Investigation described to NBR share holders as ..

not merely deliberate falsification of the accounts from year to year so as to show to the shareholders and divide among them a revenue which was not in existence and was known not to have been earned; but it was a careful and most ingenious fabrication of imaginary accounts, begun and carried on from time to time for the purpose of supporting the falsified half yearly statements of revenue and the general misrepresentation of affairs<ref name=Thomas1125>Thomas op cit Vol 1 pp 125-138; quote is on p 135</ref>

When this was revealed in September 1866 by auditors (tipped off by a new company secretary), the board and the company chairman were voted out of office, and the policy of the company changed to deal with the crisis. The new chairman was John Stirling of Kippendavie, at that point a director of the Caledonian Railway.<ref>Thomas, op cit Vol 1 p 138</ref>

Joint-Purse Agreement with the Caledonian[edit]

The new board deferred payment of dividends on debentures until it had raised fresh capital, and sought an accommodation with the rival Caledonian Railway. Having first (November 1867) attempted to reach a traffic sharing agreement (where traffic on competing lines was shared in a fixed proportion), the NBR reached a 'joint-purse' agreement (where the actual traffic was unconstrained, but the resulting gross revenues were shared in a fixed proportion) with the Caledonian.<ref>Thomas 'op cit' gives no details of the agreement and how it was reached (nor indeed of how it broke down), but the NB directors published the text of the agreement as "North British Railway - The Joint Purse Agreement". Glasgow Herald. 23 January 1868. p. 2., with reports of the subsequent shareholders' meetings (both Caledonian and NBR) appearing as consecutive items ("Caledonian Railway - The Joint Purse Agreement with the North British Company" and "North British Railway" respectively on page 6 of the Glasgow Herald of 1 February 1868 </ref> Revenues were to be shared according to the gross revenues of the two railways in the 18 months to January 1868, - roughly 55:45 in the Caledonian's favour. However the agreement broke down in little over a year. Over the reference period the NB's revenues had on the one hand been depressed by the Caledonian's effective blockade of the Waverley route for traffic routed south of Carlisle, but on the other supported by aggressive pricing. The agreement ended the price war between the two railways but not the Waverley blockade; consequently gross traffic revenues then divided even more in the Caledonian's favour. The NB's understanding was that the agreement provided for upward revision of the NB's share to fully compensate for the past blockade of the Waverley route; the Caledonian differed on the details of this, and withheld any balancing payment to the NB until this was resolved. The NB took legal action to force the Caledonian to retain sufficient profit to make the balancing payment when agreed, but could not obtain a court hearing until after the Caledonian had paid its increased profits out in dividends (April 1869). The Caledonian had warned against legal action, saying that they would argue the agreement to be unenforceable, because illegal; when the case was heard they argued that the agreement was in fact a traffic-sharing one (because a joint-purse agreement would have been illegal) and there was no liability for balancing payments. The judge who eventually heard the case upheld the NB view of the agreement (both before and after the dispute both companies referred to the agreement as 'the joint purse agreement'), but refused them any prior claim on the Caledonian's revenues.<ref>"The Joint-Purse Agreement of the North British and Caledonian Railways - Note of Suspension and Interdict Refused". Glasgow Herald. 7 May 1869. p. 4.</ref> The original agreement had clearly broken down and attempts to reach a revised agreement were unsuccessful. A committee of NB shareholders reported in June 1869 that an agreement would have given annual savings of over £200,000, agreement had been tentatively reached on major issues and that the financial implications of the two board's positions differed finally by less than £60,000 per annum, but 'the attempt to arrange money terms did not succeed because parties took widely different views of their rights and ...neither party was willing to modify their views'.<ref>"The Joint Purse Agreement". Glasgow Herald. 23 June 1869. p. 6.</ref>

Attempted Amalgamation with the Caledonian[edit]

The Caledonian put pressure on by a major increase in its Glasgow-Edinburgh passenger services and by withdrawing cooperation with the NB on services from Glasgow to the North (Perth and beyond);<ref>"Caledonian and North British Railways". Glasgow Herald. 9 September 1869.</ref> the NB revived an earlier project to reach Dundee by bridging the Firth of Tay.<ref>"The North British Railway and the Tay Bridge Scheme". Dundee Courier. 29 September 1869.</ref> Talks trying to restore the status quo by a traffic sharing agreement on these routes culminated in the NB and Caledonian boards agreeing (November 1871) to pursue full amalgamation.<ref>Thomas op cit vol 1 p 158 - 162 for the history of the project, but he gives a problematical account of the Dec 1871 shareholders' meeting and no account of the afters</ref> A stormy and hostile NB shareholders' meeting in December 1871 <ref>"The Proposed Amalgamation of the Caledonian and North British Railway". Glasgow Herald. 2 December 1871.</ref> revealed a range of objectors (led by the Provost of Dundee) & objections (monopoly unacceptable to Scots opinion, little likelihood of Parliamentary approval of such a monopoly, terms of the deal, lack of detailed information from the Caledonian, untrustworthiness of Caledonian); the board had enough proxy votes to proceed but agreed to delay pending more information from the Caledonian. The NB-Caledonian merger was officially abandoned by the NB in Feb 1872.<ref>"The Caledonian And North British Railways - End of Negotiations". Glasgow Herald. 2 February 1872.</ref> No reason was given beyond 'insuperable difficulties'. The Caledonian placed advertisements<ref>e.g. "Caledonian Railway Company". Glasgow Herald. 3 Feb 1872. p. 2.</ref> saying that no such difficulties existed, and at the next NB shareholders' meeting the chairman rebuffed repeated requests for a fuller explanation. A fellow director was eventually sufficiently provoked to volunteer that "the Caledonian Company were putting a construction upon the Acts of 1865-66 relative to the rates which they were entitled to charge, which was quite untenable, and which went to the very foundation of the proposed agreement" (the dates given for the Acts in question correspond to those for amalgamations between the Caledonian and the Scottish Central Railway and Scottish North Eastern Railway, as result of which the NB was paying the Caledonian £10,000 per year to run trains to Dundee.<ref>Thomas Op cit Vol 1 p 219</ref> At a subsequent Caledonian meeting it was denied that the NB had found the Caledonian to be charging rates higher than permitted by Parliament.<ref>"Caledonian Railway Company - Half-Yearly Meeting". Glasgow Herald. 1 April 1872.</ref>), and that furthermore it would have been almost impossible to obtain Parliamentary approval for the amalgamation.<ref>"The North British Railway". Glasgow Herald. 23 March 1872. p. 4. gives a full report of the meeting, but a briefer account is the lead item in the summary of the news on the same page and is clearer on the point at issue</ref> ( In the following Parliamentary session, a Bill for formal amalgamation of the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway and the London and North Western Railway which would have given an analogous monopoly railway for industrial Lancashire led to widespread objections in Lancashire and to a review of Parliamentary procedures<ref>"HC Deb 22 February 1872 vol 209 cc943-5". Hansard. Retrieved 20 April 2014.</ref> - henceforth railway amalgamation bills were to be considered by a Joint Committee of both Houses.<ref>> "HC Deb 21 February 1873 vol 214 cc783-6". Hansard. Retrieved 20 April 2014.</ref> In debates on this and related matters MPs<ref>"HC Deb 10 February 1873 vol 214 cc229-44". Hansard. Retrieved 20 April 2014.</ref> and peers<ref>"HL Deb 26 February 1872 vol 209 cc1017-22". Hansard. Retrieved 20 April 2014.</ref><ref>"HL Deb 25 February 1873 vol 214 cc886-91". Hansard. Retrieved 20 April 2014.</ref> showed a marked wariness of amalgamation, other anti-competitive practices, and railway companies in general. The L&Y and LNWR did not succeed in amalgamating until the 1920s). When the dust had settled the companies reached a traffic agreement similar to that originally sought; the agreement was to be revised once the Tay Bridge came into use.<ref>Full text of the agreement can be found in "Caledonian and North British Railways - Terms of the Agreement". Glasgow Herald. 14 June 1873. p. 4.</ref>


In 1865 it took over the Monkland and Kirkintilloch Railway, the oldest in Scotland. Other amalgamations followed, altogether over 50 small lines being made part of the North British system, which ultimately totalled 2,739 miles.

Main line[edit]

The main line was from Aberdeen through Dundee to Edinburgh, whence it forked to Carlisle and Berwick to meet the main English routes (the London and North Western Railway (also the Midland Railway) and the North Eastern Railway respectively). Fife was covered with a network of lines, and the pleasure resorts on the east and west coasts were also served. The company owned the Tay Bridge and its services also used the Forth Bridge,<ref name="Harmsworth">Harmsworth (1921)</ref> for whose construction it was responsible as part of the Route to the North in the 19th century. The so-called "Race to the North" with the Caledonian Railway took place in the 1890s.

English lines[edit]

An English outpost of the NBR : Black Dyke Halt (last station before Silloth) in 1961

Although primarily a Scottish railway, the NBR also had an extensive branch network in northern Northumberland, reaching to Hexham, Morpeth and Rothbury, as well as the main line into Berwick. Its lines also reached into northern Cumberland as far as Silloth, Port Carlisle, and Carlisle.<ref name="Conolly">Conolly (2004)</ref>

Accidents and incidents[edit]

  • On 28 December 1879, the Tay Rail Bridge collapsed as a passenger train was crossing. At least 60 people were killed.
  • On 10 August 1880, an express passenger train hauled by a North Eastern Railway locomotive was derailed north of Berwick upon Tweed, Northumberland due to defective track. Three people were killed.<ref name=Hoole4/>
  • On 3 January 1898, an express passenger train collided with a freight train that was being shunted at Dunbar, Lothian. One person was killed and 21 were injured.<ref name=Trevena2>Trevena, Arthur (1981). Trains in Trouble: Vol. 2. Redruth: Atlantic Books. p. 9. ISBN 0-906899-03-6.</ref>
  • On 14 April 1914, an express passenger train was in collision with a freight train that was being shunted at Burntisland, Fife due to a signalman's error.<ref name=Hoole4>Hoole, Ken (1983). Trains in Trouble: Vol. 4. Redruth: Atlantic Books. pp. 30, 32. ISBN 0 906899 07 9.</ref>
  • On 4 January 1917, a light engine overran signals and was in a head-on collision with an express passenger train at Ratho, Lothian. Twelve people were killed and 44 were seriously injured. Irregular operating procedures were a major contributory factor in the accident. These were subsequently stopped.<ref name=Earnshaw7>Earnshaw, Alan (1991). Trains in Trouble: Vol. 7. Penryn: Atlantic Books. pp. 18–19. ISBN 0-906899-50-8.</ref>

Train services[edit]

Waverley Station, Edinburgh with the North British Hotel on the left

The NBR operated services between Waverley station, Edinburgh and Queen Street station in Glasgow, Edinburgh and Carlisle (via Galashiels and Hawick – the Waverley Route) and between Newcastle upon Tyne and Aberdeen. The North British was a partner (with the North Eastern Railway and the Great Northern Railway) in the East Coast Joint Stock operation from 1860.

Business activities[edit]

The company’s headquarters were at 23 Waterloo Place, Edinburgh and its works at Cowlairs, Glasgow. Its capital in 1921 was £67 million.<ref name="Harmsworth">Harmsworth (1921)</ref> Besides its railway, the company also operated steamers on the River Clyde serving Arran and points west <ref name="Conolly">Conolly (2004)</ref> and acquired a 49% stake in the road haulage firm Mutter Howey.<ref name="Bonavia">Bonavia (1980)</ref>

The North British Hotel at the east end of Princes Street in Edinburgh city centre forms a prominent landmark with its high tower displaying large clocks. It was renamed the Balmoral Hotel in the 1980s, though the old name is still shown in the stonework. Since the building opened, the clock on the hotel has run three minutes ahead of real time to encourage tardy travellers to get to the station on time.<ref></ref>

Component companies[edit]

During its existence the NBR absorbed the following companies:

Chief mechanical engineers[edit]

See also[edit]



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