Historically, British Rail (BR) ran the British railway system, after the nationalization of the 'big four' British private railway companies:
- Great Western Railway (GWR)
- London, Midland and Scottish Railway (LMS)
- London and North Eastern Railway (LNER)
- Southern Railway (SR)
Historically, the term "British Rail" only dates from the mid-1960s, the nationalised railway previously being known as "British Railways" as shown in the early logos of the nationalised railway, including the "cycling lion". In the mid-1960s the railway modernised its corporate image, introducing the famous "double-arrow" logo still used by National Rail to represent the industry as a whole (though some cynics claimed the logo meant the railway "didn't know if it was coming or going"), the standardised typeface used for all communications and signs, and the "rail blue" livery which was applied to nearly all locomotives and rolling stock. The British Railways Board was created in the early 1960s, taking over from the former British Transport Commission which, in addition to the railway, was also responsible for the waterways (canals) and road freight transport.
Between the mid-1960s and mid-1970s the size of the British rail network was reduced from around 20,000 miles to 12,000 miles as a result of the "Beeching Axe", the cost-cutting review conducted by BR Chairman Dr Richard Beeching. Some of these lines have since become heritage railways.
Under the Conservative Government's Railway Act, 1993, British Rail was split up and privatized into Railtrack and other companies. By November 1997, British Rail had been divested of all its operational railway functions.
The British Railways Board is still responsible for non-operational railway land, the disposal of which is handled through Rail Property Ltd., a wholly owned subsidiary. The British Railways Board also retains responsibility for the British Transport Police. As a residuary body the Board is responsible for discharging a number of functions, including its obligations in respect of liabilities acquired as a major employer over nearly half a century and as a direct result of the privatisation process.
When the Labour Government gained office in May 1997, it charged BR with providing advice on railway policy, in particular to improve public control and accountability, and to identify ways in which the railway can serve modern transport needs and be integrated with other modes.