BR Early Crest

British Railway Eras

Many newcomers to the hobby of railway modelling are confused by the huge variety of models available, representing prototypes from different periods of time, ranging from Victorian times up to the present day.

To help to clear up the confusion, some model manufacturers have adopted the concept of ‘eras’ to define the time period that a model is supposed to represent.

(In this article we’ll cover the Era system used by Hornby, but several other manufacturers, such as Bachmann, use the same or very similar classifications.)

Under this system, time periods are divided into 11 ‘eras’ according to when major changes occurred, as follows:

Era 1: 1804 – 1869 Pioneering
Era 2: 1870 – 1922 Pre-Grouping
Era 3: 1923 – 1947 Grouping: “The Big Four” – LMS, GWR, LNER and SR
Era 4: 1948 – 1956 Early British Railways (Early Crest)
Era 5: 1956 – 1968 Late British Railways (Late Crest)
Era 6: 1968 – 1971 British Rail Pre TOPS
Era7: 1971 – 1986 British Rail TOPS
Era 8: 1982 – 1997 British Rail Sectorisation
Era 9: 1996 – 2008 Privatisation
Era 10: 2006 – 2017 Network Franchising
Era 11: 2014 on Present Day

Now let’s look at these in a bit more detail:

Era 1 1804 – 1869  Pioneering
This covers the very early days, from the first ever public passenger railway (The Stockton & Darlington, opened in 1825) through the ‘railway mania’ times when railway lines were being opened all over the country.

Era 2  1870 – 1922  Pre-Grouping
This covers the period when railways were becoming more established, and there were numerous railway companies, ranging from small branch lines to large companies like GWR.

Era 3  1923 – 1947  Grouping
In 1923 many of the smaller companies were amalgamated or ‘grouped’ into one of the ‘Big Four’ regional railway companies: LMS (London Midland & Scottish), LNER (London & North Eastern Railway), GWR (Great Western Railway) and SR (Southern Railway).

Era 4  1948 – 1956  Early British Railways (“Early Crest”):
The railways in Britain made a crucial contribution to the war effort during the Second World War, but after the war they were in a poor state, following the hammering they took from all the extra train movements and damage from bombing, and years of underinvestment, and the decision was taken to nationalise the network in 1948. The “Early Crest” refers to the early British Railways emblem, popularly known as the “unicycling lion”:

BR Early Crest







Era 5  1956 – 1968  Late British Railways (“Late Crest”)
During this period the infamous ‘Beeching Report’ was issued (in 1965) which resulted in many lines being closed and the withdrawal of steam locomotives and their replacement by diesel locomotives. BR also officially changed its trading name from ‘British Railways’ to just ‘British Rail’ in 1965. The crest used in this period was nicknamed the ‘Ferret & Dartboard’:

BR late crest






Era 6  1957 – 1971  British Rail  Pre-TOPS
This was the beginning of the ‘corporate blue’ period, when BR changed its livery to an overall blue and also adopted the ‘double arrow’ logo:
BR-double-arrow-logo (Source: British Rail from

Era 7  1971 – 1986  BR TOPS:
‘TOPS’ was the ‘Train Operating Processing System’, a computer system introduced by BR which resulted in locomotives being renumbered; diesel locos lost the ‘D’ prefix and were allocated a leading ‘Class’ number instead.
(We’ll cover class numbers in a later post.)

Era 8  1982 – 1997  BR Sectorisation
During this time BR, although still nationalised, was ‘Sectorised’ into separate business ‘Sectors’: for passenger traffic these were InterCity (express services), Network SouthEast (London commuter services) and Regional Railways (regional services); and for freight traffic, Trainload Freight, Railfreight Distribution (for non-trainload freight) , Freightliner (for intermodal (container) freight) and Rail Express Systems (for parcels traffic).
Each of these had their own livery, and there were also some sub-sectors such as petroleum, coal, etc. with their own livery variations.

Era 9  1996 – 2008  Privatisation
Under the Railways Bill (which was passed in 1993 and came into force in 1994) BR was broken up and sold off to private companies, leading to the present day arrangements of several competing freight companies (Freightliner, DRS, etc.) and several Train Operating Companies (‘TOCs’) running passenger services under regional franchises.

Era 10  2006 – 2017  Network Franchising 
The BR network was divided up and franchises for either regional areas or certain routes (e.g. the West Coast Main Line). Companies such as Stagecoach, Virgin and First bid for these franchises and were awarded rights to operate trains on those routes.

Era 11  2014 on  Present Day
This bring us to the current situation where we have the franchise operators, several goods operators, and also some new TOCs such as Hull Trains and Grand Central: these are “open access operators” who run their own trains on specific ‘paths’ which the franchise holders do not operate.

(These last 3 Eras can make a very colourful modelling scene, with numerous different liveries running alongside each other- some of which (e.g. GNER) are now already history!)

[Note: This article has been updated to align with the revised Era system now used by Hornby, as shown in their 2019 catalogue and on their website – the website also has a useful timeline graphic which shows how some of these Eras overlap.]

9 thoughts on “British Railway Eras

  1. Stephen HAYES

    Excellent concise summary of a simple yet very confusing logo v period on our railways.

    Helped me a lot to get correct coaches to match the logo on the loco.

    1. Peter Tysoe Post author

      Glad it was helpful, Stephen!

      I’m planning to do a similar article about BR coach liveries (carmine and cream, maroon, chocolate and cream, green, etc.), because they can also cause a lot of confusion for beginners!

  2. Leslie RICHMOND

    I am making a model of a branch line during 1960’s up to 1972 when I used to use it daily. My interest in railways was not as it is now. So i could expect locomotive and passenger stock to be in Two liveries for the north east Lincolnshire area . Era 4. Era 5 the last of steam and more diesel locomotives?

    I have just purchased a Class 31 and a Class 105 DMU in British railways green.

    I have a J94 steam locomotive (Black) and a class 03 diesel hunter in black also.

    Hopefully. I have the correct colours and eras ? What cour would the coach stomach be – Maroon ( Era 4) ?

    Any advice would be appreciated Thank You

    Leslie Richmond

    1. Peter Tysoe Post author

      Hi Leslie,

      Yes, I think those would be the correct colours for that period: black for steam locos and black or green for diesels, and maroon for the coaches.
      (There might have also still been some of the earlier red/cream colour coaches in the early 60s, but they were gradually repainted to maroon so certainly by the early 70s they would have all been maroon.)
      PS I see (from the 2019 Hornby catalogue) that Hornby have changed their own ‘Era’ system slightly, so I’ll update this article to use their new system!

      Happy modelling!


  3. Geoff Crawford

    Just about to rekindle my love of model train sets after over 50 years! Can you please tell me of all the so-called ‘eras’ you have so clearly described, which is the most commercially popular as far as railway modelling is concerned.
    Geoff, North Wales

    1. Peter Tysoe Post author

      Hi Geoff,

      I would say probably “Era 5”: 1956 – 1968 Late British Railways: There is probably the widest range of locomotives, rolling stock and also scenic accessories for this period. I think there are two reasons for this:
      a) You can legitimately run steam and diesel engines together; and
      b) For people of a certain age (like us!), this is still within living memory and conjures up nostalgic memories of our youth!

      PS I realised that this article was slightly out of date because Hornby have revised their Era classifications, so I’ve now updated it.
      (The website as a whole also needs refreshing; I’ve neglected it for a while, but I’ve just retired so now I’ll have time to update and expand it!)




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