Light Railways Act 1896

The Light Railways Act 1896 (59 & 60 Vict. c. 48) was an act of the Parliament of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.

Light Railways Act 1896[1]
Long titleAn Act to facilitate the Construction of Light Railways in Great Britain.
Citation59 & 60 Vict. c. 48
Territorial extent England and Wales(repealed) and Scotland[2]
Royal assent14 August 1896
Commencement14 August 1896[a]
Repealed1 January 1993 (England and Wales only)
Status: Amended
Text of statute as originally enacted
Text of the Light Railways Act 1896 as in force today (including any amendments) within the United Kingdom, from



Before the act each new railway line built in the country required a specific act of Parliament to be obtained by the company that wished to construct it, which greatly added to the cost and time it took to construct new railways. The economic downturn of the 1880s had hit agriculture and rural communities in the United Kingdom especially hard and the government wished to facilitate the construction of railways in rural areas, especially to facilitate the transport of goods. The 1896 act defined a class of railways which did not require specific legislation to construct – companies could simply plan a line under the auspices of the new act, and, having obtained a light railway order, build and operate it. By reducing the legal costs and allowing new railways to be built quickly the government hoped to encourage companies to build the new 'light railways' in areas of low population and industry that were previously of little interest to them.

A light railway is not a tramway but a separate class of railway. The act was triggered by the complexity of creating the low-cost railways that were needed at the time in rural areas, and by the successful use of tramway rules to create the Wisbech and Upwell Tramway in 1882, which was in fact a light railway in all but name.

The Regulation of Railways Act 1868 (31 & 32 Vict. c. 119) had permitted the construction of light railways subject to '...such conditions and regulations as the Board of Trade may from time to time impose or make'; for such railways it specified a maximum permitted axle weight and stated that '...the regulations respecting the speed of trains shall not authorize a speed exceeding at any time twenty-five miles an hour'.

For the purpose of facilitating the construction and working of light railways in Great Britain, there shall be established a commission, consisting of three commissioners, to be styled the Light Railway Commissioners, and to be appointed by the President of the Board of Trade.

The Light Railways Act 1896 did not specify any exceptions or limitations that should apply to light railways; it did not even attempt to define a 'light railway'. However, it gave powers to a panel of three Light Railway Commissioners to include 'provisions for the safety of the public... as they think necessary for the proper construction and working of the railway' in any light railway order (LRO) granted under the act. These could limit vehicle axle weights and speeds: the maximum speed of 25 miles per hour (mph) often associated with the Light Railways Act 1896 is not specified in the act but was a product of the earlier Regulation of Railways Act 1868 (31 & 32 Vict. c. 119). However, limits were particularly needed when lightly laid track and relatively modest bridges were used in order to keep costs down. LROs could also exempt light railways from some of the requirements of a normal railway: level crossings did not have to be protected by gates, but only by cattle grids, saving the cost of both the gates and a keeper to operate them. It did not exclude standard-gauge track, but narrow-gauge tracks were used for many railways built under its provisions. Many of the railways built under the auspices of the act were very basic, with little or no signalling (many ran under the 'one engine in steam' principle).

A number of municipal and company-owned street tramways were built or extended by the act, in preference to the Tramways Act 1870 (33 & 34 Vict. c. 78). The procedure of the 1896 act was simpler, permission easier to obtain (local authorities had the right to veto lines under the 1870 legislation), and there was a 75% savings on rates payable as compared to a tramway.

The Light Railways Act 1896 was never a great success. By the 1920s the use of road transport had killed the majority of these little railways, although some survived thanks to clever management and tight financial control. The act was repealed in 1993 for England and Wales by the Transport and Works Act 1992 and no new light railway orders were allowed to be issued for Scotland since 2007.

Until the Transport and Works Act 1992 introduced transport works orders, heritage railways in the UK were operated under light railway orders.

Railways built under the act





Railway name Opened Closed Length Notes
Lee-on-Solent Light Railway 12 May 1894 30 September 1935 3 miles Re-authorized under the act in 1899.
Weston, Clevedon and Portishead Light Railway 1 December 1897 1940 13.8 mi (22.2 km) Re-authorized under the act in 1899.
Extension from Clevendon to Portishead opened 7 August 1907.
Land cleared in 1942-43 for the war effort.
Bankfoot Light Railway 1898 ?? ??
Corringham Light Railway 1 January 1901 (20 September 1971) 3 1/2 miles Part of it currently an ExxonMobil junction.
Basingstoke and Alton Light Railway 1 June 1901 1936 12 mi (19 km) Track removed in 1917, then relaid in 1924
Lauder Light Railway 2 July 1901 30 September 1958 ??
Poole and District Light Railway 1901 ?? ??
Sheppey Light Railway 1901 4 December 1950 ??
Leadhills and Wanlockhead Light Railway 1901-2 1938 ?? Partially opened October 1901, fully opened October 1902. Part now used by the narrow gauge Leadhills and Wanlockhead Railway
Fraserburgh to St Combs (branch) Light Railway 1 July 1903 1965 ??
Wick and Lybster Light Railway 1 July 1903 1 April 1944 13 mi 39 chains (21.7 km)
Tanat Valley Light Railway 5 January 1904 December 1960 15 mi (24 km) A heritage railway bearing the name was established in 2009, operating a short line close to the original alignment, of which nothing was ever rebuilt.
Kelvedon and Tollesbury Light Railway 1 October 1904 9 September 1962 8 mi 42 chains (13.7 km)
Leek and Manifold Valley Light Railway 1904 3 March 1934 8.25 mi (13.28 km)
Cairn Valley Light Railway 28 February 1905 4 July 1949 ??
Bentley and Bordon Light Railway 11 December 1905 4 April 1966 ??
Horton Light Railway 1905 1950? ?? Track was lifted around 1950. Closure date unknown.
Campbeltown and Machrihanish Light Railway 18 August 1906 1934 ?? Replaced a previous industrial railway built in 1876.
Falkland Light Railway 1906 ?? ??
North Lindsey Light Railway 1906 1951 ??
Maidens and Dunure Light Railway 1906 1930 20 mi (32 km) A section serving a holiday camp at Heads of Ayr remained open until 1968.
Cleobury Mortimer and Ditton Priors Light Railway 21 November 1908 1960 12 mi (19 km)
Bere Alston and Calstock Light Railway 1908 ?? ?? Branch line.
Shropshire and Montgomeryshire Light Railway 1911 1960 ??
Elsenham and Thaxted Light Railway 1 April 1913 1 June 1953 5.5 mi (8.9 km)
Sand Hutton Light Railway 1922 1932 5.25 mi (8.45 km) Replaced a previous Sand Hutton Miniature Railway, built in 1912.
Ashover Light Railway 1924-1925? 31 March 1950 7.25 mi (11.67 km)
North Devon and Cornwall Junction Light Railway 27 July 1925 1 March 1965 ?? Upgrade of a previous industrial tramway.
Cromarty and Dingwall Light Railway never opened - ?? Construction never completed, track lifted by 1920.

Railways operated under the act


A number of railways have, over the years, been built on private land, with names that end in "Light Railway". These have not needed parliamentary powers or a light railway order. The name has only reflected the light nature of the railway. Many miniature railways are named in this way.

Railways authorised under the act, but not built



  1. ^ The act came into force on the date on which it received royal assent because no other date was specified: Acts of Parliament (Commencement) Act 1793


  1. ^ Light Railways Act 1896, section 29
  2. ^ The Light Railways Act 1896, section 27
  3. ^ Bosley, Peter (1990). Light railways in England and Wales. Manchester: Manchester University Press. p. 182. ISBN 9780719017582.
  4. ^ "Wotton-under-Edge Light Railway". Retrieved 30 April 2023.
  5. ^ "Light Railways". Railway News. 19 May 1900. Retrieved 10 April 2022 – via British Newspaper Archive.

Further reading

  • Hannavy, John (2019). The 1896 Light Railways Act. Stroud: Amberley Publishing. ISBN 9781445693446.