The Railway Eras

The Railway Era system helps group model railway products by the approximate time period in which the original ran in real life. Originally introduced to the UK market by Bachmann, based on a similar system used by European model railway manufacturers, it has now been widely adopted by all the main manufacturers and retailers.

The eras themselves are based broadly around dates when there were significant changes to the railways in Britain, for example nationalisation, or a major change in livery. As such they are a very broad brush approach, and there can be some significant differences within eras as well as some overlap between eras. However, they do provide a handy reference guide to the way that the railways in Britain have evolved over the years.

The dates and names assigned to the eras in this guide are those originally used by Bachmann, and are the most commonly adopted across the model railway industry. But the cut-off point between some eras is fairly arbitrary, and some manufacturers have chosen different start and finish dates in some cases. So products which fall on the cusp of two different eras may be allocated differently, depending on the source of the information.

Era 1: Pioneering (1804 - 1874)

The inaugural journey of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway, by A.B. Clayton. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

This era starts right at the very beginning of rail transport in Britain, and takes us through to the mid-Victorian era when railway companies mostly turned from growth by building new lines to growth by acquisition and consolidation. Although new track would continue to be laid for several decades to come, the number of different railway companies had reached its peak by the 1870s.

There are very few ready-to-run model railway products from Era 1, the most prominent being the versions of Stephenson's Rocket marketed first by Triang and, more recently, Hornby as part of their own centenary celebrations. This makes building a layout based on the era difficult, unless you are prepared to do a lot of kit building or even scratchbuilding. However, replicas of many early locomotives have been constructed for museums and demonstration lines, so you could always do a museum scene or a layout based on a preserved line!

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Era 2: Pre-grouping (1875 - 1922)

Ambulance Train. Postcard of the London and Northwestern Railway during World War I. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

The late Victorian and Edwardian era is considered by many to have been the "golden age of the railways". The amount of track had reached its zenith, and, with little competition from road transport, the railways were the primary medium and long distance mode of transport for both passengers and freight. It was also a colourful era, with the many different railway companies all having their own distinctive liveries.

The end of Era 2 covers the First World War and its immediate aftermath, when the entire network was effectively commandeered for the duration of the war and run by the government's Railway Executive Committee. This creates several opportunities for modelling unusual combinations of locomotives and rolling stock, as well as specialised trains not seen in peacetime.

Era 2 is not particularly well-represented by model railway manufacturers, but there are enough products to make it feasible to construct a layout based on that era entirely from off-the-shelf products. However, you will need to do some research to ensure that you get the right combination of locomotives and rolling stock, as the railway companies varied hugely in terms of how large their network was and what kind of traffic ran on it. If you're willing to do some kit building, though, it becomes a lot easier.

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Era 3: The Big Four (LNER, LMS, GWR and SR) (1923 - 1947)

"The Flying Scotsman" at full speed. LNER Engine No. 2547 "Doncaster" with corridor tender. Photo: F.R. Hebron. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

The Golden Age of the railways was brought to a fairly brutal end by WWI. One outcome of this was the realisation that the large number of different railway companies that existed up to that point was unsustainable; many of them were loss-making already and the war pushed them even further over the edge. So the government passed the Railways Act which grouped almost all of the existing companies into four regional companies:

Although the grouping helped to stabilise the rail industry, it didn't solve the problem of increasing competition from road transport. Passenger and freight both dropped after the end of WWI, and this era saw the first closures of some uneconomic lines - a scenario not helped by the 1930s economic depression.

Despite that, this is an era which is very popular with railway modellers. There is a large number of products suitable for the era, and the choice of four grouped companies makes it easier to mix and match suitable locomotives and rolling stock. It's also an era which is well-documented in print and on camera, so if you want to do your own research there is plenty of material out there.

If Era 2 represents the Golden age, then Era 3 is considered the "Classic" age, when steam technology was at its peak and some of the most famous locomotives and trains, such as Mallard (still the world record holder for the fastest steam locomotive), Flying Scotsman and the Coronation Scot, made their debut.

Alternatively, this is an era which covers WWII and the specialised traffic which ran on the railways during that time, such as troop trains and military equipment, often hauled by locomotives imported from the USA. This can make for an interesting, and very different type of model railway layout.

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Era 4: British Railways Early Crest (1948 - 1956)

Ashchurch Railway Station, 1950. Photo by Ben Brooksbank, CC-BY-SA, via Geograph

Like Era 2, Era 3 was brought to an end by war. This time, though, the newly elected Labour government under Clement Attlee concluded that the best way forward for the railways was full nationalisation. British Railways came into existance on 1st January 1948, when it took over the assets of the Big Four.

Economically, this was not a good time for the railways. Competition from the roads continued to grow, and the legacy of wartime damage had inflicted huge costs on the network. Although experiments were made with diesel locomotives, the government remained committed to steam as the primary motive power in order to benefit from the ready availability of domestically produced coal.

Era 4 is not hugely popular with modellers, although it is easy to model as, like Era 3, there are a large number of products available. It lacks both the colour and glamour of pre-war railways, while the predominantly steam-powered traction can be boring by comparison with later BR.

However, if you like to model gritty, grimy reality then it could be right up your street! The early days of British Railways are well documented in print and online, so researching appropriate locos and rolling stock is relatively easy.

This was also the last era before the network started to shrink considerably, so there are still plenty of small, out of the way branch lines that can realistically be modelled.

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Era 5: British Railways Late Crest (1957 - 1966)

British Rail Class 121 railcar at Staines West railway station, Middlesex. Photo by Lamberhurst, CC-BY-SA, via Wikimedia Commons

The era starts with a change in the British Railways livery, with the introduction of a new logo: the British Rail Crest. This was a genuine heraldic device, registered with the College of Arms, and officially described as a demi-lion rampant holding a silver wheel (or, more popularly, a ferret and dartboard!).

The effects of the Modernisation Plan were being felt in this era, with the last steam locomotive being built in 1960 and a major shift to diesel and electric under way. It was also the era of the Beeching Report, which saw the network cut back drastically in order to save money on uneconomic branch lines.

Era 5, or the Transition Era as it's commonly known, is popular with modellers as it allows steam and diesel locomotives to run side by side. There are a large number of suitable products available, including many of the early, experimental diesels which only had a short life in service. Heljan, in particular, specialises in making models of the early diesels, and there aren't many left that haven't been covered.

It's also within living memory of many people, and for those not old enough to remember the sixties (or those who, as the saying goes, can remember them but weren't really there) there are plenty of books and websites with useful information. Surveys on RMweb repeatedly show Era 5 as the most popular modelling era.

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Era 6: British Rail Blue (Pre-TOPS) (1967 - 1972)

Abingdon railway station in 1970. Photo by John Lawson, CC-BY-SA, via Geograph

Marked by another change in livery, this time with the introduction of Rail Blue and the Double Arrow logo. Steam had gone from the network, but many of the experimental diesels were still around. The era is described as "Pre-TOPS", because, although the colour and logo had changed, locomotive numbers remained the same as in the preceding green and black eras.

The changes in colour and the withdrawal of steam didn't stem the loss of traffic to road-based competitors, though. The underlying infrastructure was still essentially Victorian, outdated and costly to maintain.

Era 6 is one of the less popular timespans to model, although it does allow the opportunity to run green and blue diesels together. There are fewer products available than for other BR eras, mainly because people who do model BR Blue tend to prefer the next era, the TOPS era.

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Era 7: British Rail Blue (TOPS) (1972 - 1982)

HST heads west at Victory Crossing, just west of Taunton. Photo by Richard Szwejkowski, CC-BY-SA, via Flickr

The change this time was marked by the introduction of the Total Operations Processing System (TOPS). This didn't make a lot of difference to the visual appearance of the trains (although by now, the earlier green livery had completely disappeared), but the numbers applied to locomotives and rolling stock all changed.

This era also saw the introduction of the iconic High Speed Train and the associated "Inter City" branding for long distance travel. It was also a time when BR used TV advertising to try to attract passengers back onto the network - anyone who was around at the time will remember "The Age of the Train".

Traffic continued to decline, though, and by the early 1980s passenger numbers were down to a level last seen a hundred years earlier.

Era 7 is popular with modellers, at least partly because it's often a time that's well remembered - something that the advertising campaigns contributed to. And it's very well served by the manufacturers, with a large number of suitable products available.

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Era 8: British Rail Sectorisation (1983 - 1994)

90032 and 92047 stabled at Wolverhampton on 19 August 1990. Photo by Phil Richards, CC-BY-SA, via Flickr

In the late 1980s, British Rail started to split its services into specific sectors that handled different types of traffic. Freight traffic was categorised as Rail Express for parcels traffic, Railfreight Distribution for general wagon load freight and Trainload Freight for dedicated trains comprising a single type of load (for example, coal or oil). Passenger services were allocated to different sectors based on geography, for example Network Southeast.

The different sectors all had their own logos and liveries, which introduced a welcome amount of diversity to the railway network in place of the previously uniform blue and grey.

This period also saw the decline in passenger traffic finally level off, with improved trains and better services helping to attract users back to the railways.

Era 8 is popular with modellers, and the Network Southeast sector in particular is one of the most commonly modelled.

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Era 9: Initial Privatisation (1995 - 2004)

King's Cross Station, interior 1999. Photo by Ben Brooksbank, CC-BY-SA, via Geograph

In 1994, the government started the process of privatising the railways. Rather than return to the pre-war system, the newly privatised railways were split between the infrastructure, managed by Railtrack (later to become Network Rail) and the train operating companies, or TOCs, which were licensed on a franchise basis. Early franchises included names such as Virgin Trains, GNER, EWS and Freightliner.

This period saw the decline of many diesel and electric locomotives that had previously hauled passenger trains, with their replacements being newly introduced multiple unit stock such as Pendolinos. Older freight locomotives also started to be phased out, with new classes brought in by the new franchise holders. The Channel Tunnel opened in 1994, bringing truly international rail travel to the UK for the first time and the start of construction on the UK's first high speed rail line, HS1.

Privatisation also saw the start of a steady increase in passenger numbers, for the first time since Edwardian era. By the mid-2000s, passenger traffic was back to a level not seen since the end of WWII.

Era 9 offers a lot to the modeller, with many newly introduced locomotives and multiple units, including the French TGV trains in their Eurostar guise.

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Era 10: Rebuilding of the Railways (2005 - 2015)

Southeastern High Speed Class 395 Javelin No. 395018 at London St Pancras International. Photo by Peter Skuce, CC-BY-SA, via Wikimedia Commons

The key marker for this era - and hence the title - was the realisation, following the Hatfield and Potters Bar rail crashes, that the network was aging and needed considerable investment. Tracks were relaid, new signalling systems started to be installed, and new safety systems were introduced. Many stations were reconstructed to meet the needs of the 21st century travelling public. And HS1 was finally completed, bringing high speed rail to the UK, and plans were drawn up for HS2 and beyond.

New operators, and new liveries, came on the scene, with passenger franchises changing hands and freight operators being taken over and merged. Names such as DB Schenker and Greater Anglia arrived on the tracks.

Passenger levels also continued to rise. By the mid-2010s, numbers were now higher than at any time in the history of railways in Britain.

Era 10 isn't quite so well served by the model railway manufacturers as those either side of it, but there are still plenty of products available - including the UK's first high speed trains and the special liveries introduced for the London Olympics in 2012.

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Era 11: Current Era (2016 - 2023)

GBRF Class 66731 'Captain Tom Moore'. Photo by GB Railfreight

One of the biggest post-2015 changes was the introduction of more "open access" operators - TOCs that, rather than having their own geographic franchise, run point-to-point services between specific cities through areas normally operated by other franchisees.

Construction has started on HS2 and other major infrastructure projects, including Crossrail. But the period also saw the financial collapse of key franchise holders, such as Virgin Trains East Coast, leading the government to take direct control of some rail services for the first time since privatisation. More recently, the Covid pandemic has created an uncertain future for the railways, with passenger numbers dropping again for the first time since privatisation.

Modelling the present day is always a challenge, since as soon as you model it it becomes history! But this era is well served by the model manufacturers, with new locomotives and new liveries being replicated in model form almost as soon as they appear on the rails.

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