The British Transport Commission (BTC) was created by Clement Attlee's post-war Labour government as a part of its nationalisation programme, to oversee railways, canals and road freight transport in Great Britain (Northern Ireland had the separate Ulster Transport Authority). Its general duty under the Transport Act 1947 was to provide an efficient, adequate, economical and properly integrated system of public inland transport and port facilities within Great Britain for passengers and goods, excluding transport by air.
The BTC came into operation on 1 January 1948. Its first chairman was Lord Hurcomb, with Miles Beevor as Chief Secretary. Its main holdings were the networks and assets of the Big Four national regional railway companies: the Great Western Railway, London and North Eastern Railway, London, Midland and Scottish Railway and the Southern Railway. It also took over 55 other railway undertakings, 19 canal undertakings and 246 road haulage firms, as well as the work of the London Passenger Transport Board, which was already publicly owned. The nationalisation package also included the fleets of 'private owner wagons', which industrial concerns had used to transport goods on the railway networks.
The BTC was one of the largest industrial organisations in the world, at one time employing nearly 688,000 people. At first, the Commission did not directly operate transport services, which were the responsibility of the Commission's Executives. These bodies were separately appointed, and operated under what were termed 'schemes of delegation'. The Act provided for five Executives, covering Docks & Inland Waterways, Hotels, London Transport, Railways, and Road Transport. The Railway Executive traded as "British Railways". In 1949, Road Transport was divided into separate Road Haulage and Road Passenger Executives, though the latter proved short-lived.
The Commission's extensive activities included:
The Commission was permitted to "secure the provision" of road passenger services, although it did not have the general powers of compulsory purchase of bus operators. To obtain specific powers of acquisition it had first to draw up, and get approval for, a 'Road Scheme', area by area. Only one was published, the North East Area Road Scheme, though work began on a second scheme, covering East Anglia. The NEARS was never confirmed, as it was fiercely opposed by private and municipal operators.
The quasi-federal structure of Commission and Executives proved to be an obstacle to integration and was largely abolished by the Conservative government with effect from 1 October 1953 (the London Transport Executive alone survived). On 1 January 1955, the railways were re-organised on the basis of six Area Railway Boards, which had a wide measure of operational autonomy under the Commission's overall supervision. The Commission took direct charge of the remaining assets, though these were significantly reduced by the Conservatives de-nationalising much of the road haulage sector. On 1 January 1955, separate managements were also set up for road haulage, hotels, docks and inland waterways.
By the late 1950s the BTC was in serious financial difficulties, largely due to the economic performance of the railways. It was criticised as an overly bureaucratic system of administering transport services and had failed to develop an integrated transport system (such as integrated ticketing and timetabling). It was abolished by Harold Macmillan's Conservative government under the Transport Act 1962 and replaced by five successor bodies:
These changes took effect on 1 January 1963. Notwithstanding the abolition of the BTC, the British Transport Police continues to exist, and the BTC heraldic shield is still displayed on the force's badge.