AIMS: Most reports on locally advanced rectal cancer come from specialized centres, with a selected patient material. The purpose of this study was to examine the results after surgical treatment of patients with locally advanced rectal cancer at a population level. METHODS: National cohort study of 896 patients undergoing surgery for a locally advanced primary adenocarcinoma of the rectum from November 1993 to December 2001. RESULTS: Surgery with resection was undertaken in 724 patients and 172 patients underwent palliative procedures. Of 557 patients treated for cure, a R0 resection was achieved in 342 (61%). In a multivariate analysis, pre-operative radiotherapy was the only factor with a positive association with R0 status (odds ratio 3.7, 95% confidence interval (CI) 2.1-6.4). Five-year local recurrence rates were 18% (CI 14-23) for R0 resections and 40% (CI 26-52) for R1 resections. Overall 5-year survival rate was 23%; for the group of patients with a R0 resection the survival rate was 49%. CONCLUSION: The radical resection rate and survival rates in this national study were similar to those reported from specialized centres.