Innovations in Transportation



Canals

The modern canal network in Britain emerged because the Industrial Revolution demanded an economic and reliable way to transport goods and commodities in large quantities, simultaneously responding to the needs of the Industrial Revolution and fueling its further advancement.

Learning Objectives

Demonstrate the importance of canals to commerce.

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The British canal system played a vital role in the Industrial Revolution at a time when roads were only just emerging from the medieval mud and long trains of packhorses were the only means of more easily accessible transport. In Britain, the modern canal network came into being because the Industrial Revolution demanded an economic and reliable way to transport goods and commodities in large quantities. Some important river navigation improvements took place in the 16th and 17th centuries.
  • Big canals began to be built in the 18th century to link the major manufacturing centers across the country. Known for its huge commercial success, the Bridgewater Canal in North West England opened in 1761. It connected Worsley with the rapidly growing town of Manchester and was a huge financial success. This success helped inspire a period of intense canal building, known as Canal Mania. An embryonic national canal network came into being and a dramatic rise in the number of schemes and money invested emerged. New canals were hastily built in the aim of replicating the commercial success of the Bridgewater Canal.
  • By the 1820s a national network – first in the world – was in existence. The new canals proved highly successful. The boats on the canals were horse-drawn with a towpath alongside the canal for the horse to walk along. This horse-drawn system was highly economical and became standard across the British canal network.
  • This success proved the viability of canal transport and soon industrialists in many other parts of the country wanted canals. As people saw the high incomes achieved from canal tolls, canal proposals came to be put forward by investors. In a further development, there was often out-and-out speculation, in which people would try to buy shares in a newly floated company simply to sell them on for an immediate profit, regardless of whether the canal was ever profitable or even built. Many rival canal companies were formed and competition was rampant.
  • On the majority of British canals the canal-owning companies did not own or run a fleet of boats. Instead, they charged private operators tolls to use the canal. In the period of the most rapid development of the canal system, crews were all male and their families lived in cottages on the bank. Wives and children came aboard as extra labor and to save rental costs during the latter part of the 19th century. During this period, whole families lived aboard the boats. They were often marginalized from land-based society and perceived as strange outsiders living a nomadic lifestyle.
  • From about 1840, railways began to threaten canals. Although they could not only carry more than the canals, they could transport people and goods far more quickly than the walking pace of the canal boats. Most of the investment that had previously gone into canal building was diverted into railway building.

Key Terms

  • Canal Mania: The period of intense canal building in Britain between the 1790s and 1810s and the speculative frenzy that accompanied it in the early 1790s.
  • Bridgewater Canal: A canal that connects Runcorn, Manchester and Leigh, in North West England. It was commissioned by Francis Egerton, 3rd Duke of Bridgewater, to transport coal from his mines in Worsley to Manchester. It was opened in 1761 from Worsley to Manchester, and later extended from Manchester to Runcorn, and then from Worsley to Leigh. Its immense economic success triggered the development of a national canal system.
  • flyboat: A European light vessel,developed primarily as a mercantile cargo carrier, although many served as warships in an auxiliary role, used in the late 16th and early 17th century. The name was subsequently applied to a number of disparate vessels, which achieved high speeds or endurance, including those that worked day and night on British canals to compete with the rapidly developing railway.

Canal Mania

The British canal system of water transport played a vital role in the Industrial Revolution at a time when roads were only just emerging from the medieval mud and long trains of packhorses were the only means of more easily accessible transit of raw materials and finished products. Building of canals dates to ancient times but in Britain, the modern canal network came into being because the Industrial Revolution demanded an economic and reliable way to transport goods and commodities in large quantities. Some 29 river navigation improvements took place in the 16th and 17th centuries, starting with the Thames locks and the River Wey Navigation. The biggest growth was in the so-called narrow canals, which extended water transport to the emerging industrial areas of the Staffordshire potteries and Birmingham as well as a network of canals joining Yorkshire and Lancashire and extending to London.

Big canals began to be built in the 18th century to link the major manufacturing centers across the country. Known for its huge commercial success, the Bridgewater Canal in North West England opened in 1761. It connected Worsley with the rapidly growing town of Manchester and its construction cost £168,000 (equivalent of over £22 million in 2013), but its advantages over land and river transport meant that within a year of its opening, the price of coal in Manchester fell by about half. The Bridgewater Canal was a huge financial success: it repaid the cost of its construction within just a few years. This success helped inspire a period of intense canal building, known as Canal Mania. Within just a few years of the Bridgewater’s opening, an embryonic national canal network came into being, with the construction of canals such as the Oxford Canal and the Trent & Mersey Canal. There was a dramatic rise in the number of schemes promoted. Only one canal was authorized by Act of Parliament in 1790, but by 1793 it was twenty. The capital authorized in 1790 was £90,000 but rose to nearly £3 million by 1793. New canals were hastily built in the aim of replicating the commercial success of the Bridgewater Canal, the most notable being the Leeds and Liverpool Canal and the Thames and Severn Canal which opened in 1774 and 1789 respectively.

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Worsley Packet House, overlooking the Bridgewater Canal in Worsley, Greater Manchester, photo: Wikipedia. 

The Bridgewater Canal is often considered to be the first “true” canal in England. It required the construction of an aqueduct to cross the River Irwell, one of the first of its kind. Its success helped inspire a period of intense canal building in Britain, known as Canal Mania.

By the 1820s a national network – first in the world – was in existence. The new canals proved highly successful. The boats on the canals were horse-drawn with a towpath alongside the canal for the horse to walk along. This horse-drawn system was highly economical and became standard across the British canal network. The canal boats could carry thirty tons at a time with only one horse pulling – more than ten times the amount of cargo per horse that was possible with a cart. It was this huge increase in supply that contributed to the reduction of the price of coal.

Speculative Frenzy

This success proved the viability of canal transport and soon industrialists in many other parts of the country wanted canals. After the Bridgewater Canal, the early canals were built by groups of private individuals with an interest in improving communications. In Staffordshire the famous potter Josiah Wedgwood saw an opportunity to bring bulky cargoes of clay to his factory doors and to transport his fragile finished goods to market in Manchester, Birmingham, or further afield by water, minimizing breakages. The new canal system was both cause and effect of the rapid industrialization of the Midlands and the north. The period between the 1770s and the 1830s is often referred to as the Golden Age of British canals.

For each canal, an Act of Parliament was necessary to authorize construction, and as people saw the high incomes achieved from canal tolls, canal proposals came to be put forward by investors interested in profiting from dividends, at least as much as by people whose businesses would profit from cheaper transport of raw materials and finished goods. In a further development, there was often out-and-out speculation, in which people would try to buy shares in a newly floated company simply to sell them on for an immediate profit, regardless of whether the canal was ever profitable or even built. During this period of Canal Mania, huge sums were invested in canal building and although many schemes came to nothing, the canal system rapidly expanded to nearly 4,000 miles (over 6,400 kilometers) in length.

Many rival canal companies were formed and competition was rampant. Perhaps the best example was Worcester Bar in Birmingham, a point where the Worcester and Birmingham Canal and the Birmingham Canal Navigations Main Line were only 7 feet (2.1 m) apart. For many years, a dispute about tolls meant that goods travelling through Birmingham had to be portaged from boats in one canal to boats in the other.

Operation

On the majority of British canals the canal-owning companies did not own or run a fleet of boats, since this was usually prohibited by the Acts of Parliament setting them up to prevent monopolies. Instead, they charged private operators tolls to use the canal. These tolls were also usually regulated by the Acts. From these tolls they would try, with varying degrees of success, to maintain the canal, pay back initial loans, and pay dividends to their shareholders.

In winter special icebreaker boats with reinforced hulls would be used to break the ice. Packet boats carried packages up to 112 pounds (51 kg) in weight as well as passengers at relatively high speed day and night. To compete with railways, the flyboat was introduced, cargo-carrying boats working day and night. These boats were crewed by three men, who operated a watch system whereby two men worked while the other slept. Horses were changed regularly. When steam boats were introduced in the late 19th century, crews were enlarged to four. The boats were owned and operated by individual carriers, or by carrying companies who would pay the captain a wage depending on the distance traveled and the amount of cargo.

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Traditional working canal boats, photo: Wikipedia. 

The canal system grew rapidly at first, and became an almost completely connected network covering the South, Midlands, and parts of the North of England and Wales. There were canals in Scotland, but they were not connected to the English canals or, generally, to each other (with some exceptions).

In the period of the most rapid development of the canal system, crews were all male and their families lived in cottages on the bank. The practice of all male crews for steamers continued until after the First World War. Wives and children came aboard as extra labor and to save rental costs during the latter part of the 19th century. During this period, whole families lived aboard the boats. They were often marginalized from land-based society and perceived as strange outsiders living a nomadic lifestyle.

Decline

The last major canal to be built in Britain was the Manchester Ship Canal, which upon opening in 1894 was the largest ship canal in the world and opened Manchester as a port. However, it never achieved the commercial success its sponsors had hoped for and signaled that canals were a dying mode of transport. From about 1840, railways began to threaten canals. Although they could not only carry more than the canals, they could transport people and goods far more quickly than the walking pace of the canal boats. Most of the investment that had previously gone into canal building was diverted into railway building.

Canal companies were unable to compete against the speed of the new railways and in order to survive they had to slash their prices. This put an end to the huge profits that canal companies had enjoyed and also had an effect on the boatmen who faced a drop in wages. Flyboat working virtually ceased, as it could not compete with the railways on speed and the boatmen found they could only afford to keep their families by taking them with them on the boats.

By the 1850s, the railway system had become well established and the amount of cargo carried on the canals had fallen by nearly two-thirds. In many cases struggling canal companies were bought out by railway companies. Sometimes this was a tactical move by railway companies to close the canal company down and remove competition or to build a railway on the line of the canal. Larger canal companies survived independently and were able to continue to make profits. The canals survived through the 19th century largely by occupying the niches in the transport market that the railways had missed, or by supplying local markets such as the coal-hungry factories and mills of the big cities.

During the 19th century, in much of continental Europe the canal systems of many countries, including France, Germany and the Netherlands, were drastically modernized and widened to take much larger boats, often able to transport up to two thousand tonnes, compared to the thirty to one hundred tonnes that was possible on the much narrower British canals. As it is economic to transport freight by canal only if this is done in bulk, the widening ensured that in many of these countries, canal freight transport is still economically viable. This canal modernization never occurred on a large scale in Britain, mainly because of the power of the railway companies who owned most of the canals and saw no reason to invest in a competing and from their point of view obsolete form of transport. The only significant exception to this was the modernization carried out on the Grand Union Canal in the 1930s.

The First Locomotives

As a result of advancements in metallurgy and steam power technology during the Industrial Revolution, horse-drawn wagonways were replaced by steam locomotives, making Britain the first country in the world with modern railways.

Learning Objectives

Characterize the first trains and their utilities

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The first recorded use of rail transport in Great Britain is Sir Francis Willoughby’s Wollaton Wagonway in Nottinghamshire, built between 1603 and 1604 to carry coal. As early as 1671, railed roads were in use in Durham to ease the conveyance of coal. The primitive rails were superseded in 1793 when Benjamin Outram constructed a tramway with L-shaped flanged cast-iron plate rails ( plateways ). Outram’s rails were superseded by William Jessop’s cast iron edge rails. Cast iron rails had a propensity to break easily, and the short lengths soon became uneven. In 1820, John Birkenshaw introduced a method of rolling rails in greater lengths using wrought iron, which was used from then onward.
  • The earliest railways were built and paid for by the owners of the mines they served. As railway technology developed, longer lines became possible, connecting mines with more distant transshipment points and promising lower costs. These longer lines often required public subscription to build and crossed over land not owned by the mine owners. As a result, they needed an Act of Parliament to build. The first line to obtain such an act, in 1758, was the Middleton Railway in Leeds. The first for public use and on cast iron rails was the Surrey Iron Railway, incorporated in 1799. The first passenger-carrying public railway was the Oystermouth Railway, authorized in 1807.
  • The first steam railway locomotive was introduced by Richard Trevithick in 1804. Trevithick’s designs proved that steam traction was a viable proposition, although the use of his locomotives was quickly abandoned as they were too heavy for the existing track. The first commercially successful steam locomotive was the twin cylinder  Salamanca, designed by in 1812 by Matthew Murray using John Blenkinsop’s patented design for rack propulsion for the Middleton Railway.
  • The proprietors of Wylam Colliery wanted to abolish horse-drawn trains in favor of steam. Two models, Puffing Billy and Blücher, were among the first successful designs. In 1821 an Act of Parliament was approved for a tramway between Stockton and Darlington. Traffic on the Stockton and Darlington Railway (S&DR) was originally intended to be horse-drawn, but the Act was subsequently amended to allow the usage of steam locomotives. The railway was also empowered to carry passengers in addition to coal and general merchandise.
  • The first public steam railway in Scotland was the Monkland and Kirkintilloch Railway. The Liverpool and Manchester Railway (L&MR), founded as company in 1823 but opened in 1830, was the world’s first intercity passenger railway in which all the trains were timetabled and operated by steam locomotives. Further, horse-drawn traffic could use the Stockton and Darlington upon payment of a toll.
  • To determine which locomotives would be suitable, the L&MR directors organized the Rainhill Trials. These were arranged as an open contest that would let them see all the locomotive candidates in action, with the choice to follow. The trials were won by Rocket, built by George Stephenson and Robert Stephenson. The Stephensons were accordingly given the contract to produce locomotives for the L&MR. The line opened in 1830 with termini at Liverpool Road, Manchester and Edge Hill, Liverpool.

Key Terms

  • Salamanca: The first commercially successful steam locomotive, built in 1812 by Matthew Murray of Holbeck using John Blenkinsop’s patented design for rack propulsion, for the edge-railed Middleton Railway between Middleton and Leeds. It was the first to have two cylinders. It was named after the Duke of Wellington’s victory at the battle of Salamanca which was fought that same year.
  • plateway: An early kind of railway or tramway or wagonway with a cast iron rail. They were mainly used for about 50 years up to 1830, though some continued later. They consisted of L-shaped rails where a flange on the rail guided the wheels in contrast to edgeways, where flanges on the wheels guide it along the track. They were originally horse-drawn, but cable haulage and locomotives were sometimes used later.
  • Rainhill Trials: An important competition in the early days of steam locomotive railways, run in October 1829 for the nearly completed Liverpool and Manchester Railway. Five engines competed, running back and forth along a mile length of level track at Rainhill in Lancashire (now Merseyside). Stephenson’s Rocket was the only locomotive to complete the trials and was declared the winner. The Stephensons were accordingly given the contract to produce locomotives for the railway.
  • Liverpool and Manchester Railway: A railway that opened in 1830 between the Lancashire towns of Liverpool and Manchester in the United Kingdom. It was the first railway to rely exclusively on steam power, with no horse-drawn traffic permitted at any time; the first to be entirely double-track throughout its length; the first to have a signalling system; the first to be fully timetabled; the first to be powered entirely by its own motive power; and the first to carry mail.
  • Stockton and Darlington Railway: A railway company that operated in northeast England from 1825 to 1863. It was the world’s first public railway to use steam locomotives. Its first line connected collieries near Shildon with Stockton-on-Tees and Darlington and was officially opened on September 27, 1825.
  • rack and pinion railway: A steep grade railway with a toothed rack rail, usually between the running rails. The trains are fitted with one or more cog wheels or pinions that mesh with this rack rail. The first railway of this kind was the Middleton Railway between Middleton and Leeds in West Yorkshire, England, UK, where the first commercially successful steam locomotive, Salamanca, ran in 1812. This used a system designed and patented in 1811 by John Blenkinsop.

Early Rails

The first recorded use of rail transport in Great Britain is Sir Francis Willoughby’s Wollaton Wagonway in Nottinghamshire, built between 1603 and 1604 to carry coal. As early as 1671 railed roads were used in Durham to ease the conveyance of coal. The first of these was the Tanfield Wagon Way. Many of these tramroads or wagon ways were built in the 17th and 18th centuries. They used straight and parallel rails of timber on which carts with simple flanged iron wheels were drawn by horses, enabling several wagons to be moved simultaneously.

These primitive rails were superseded in 1793 when the then-superintendent of the Cromford Canal, Benjamin Outram, constructed a tramway with L-shaped flanged cast-iron plate rails (plateways) from the quarry at Crich. Wagons fitted with simple flangeless wheels were kept on the track by vertical ledges or plates. Cast-iron rails were a significant improvement over wooden rails as they could support a greater weight and the friction between wheel and rail was lower, allowing longer trains to be moved by horses. Outram’s rails were superseded by William Jessop’s cast iron edge rails where flanged wheels ran on the top edge of simple bar-shaped rails without the guiding ledges of Outram’s flanged plate rails. The rails were first employed in 1789 at Nanpantan at the Loughborough Charnwood Forest Canal.

Cast iron rails had a propensity to break easily, and the short lengths soon became uneven. In 1820, John Birkenshaw introduced a method of rolling rails in greater lengths using wrought iron which was used from then onward.

Early Railways

The earliest railways were built and paid for by the owners of the mines they served. As railway technology developed, longer lines became possible, connecting mines with more distant transshipment points and promising lower costs. These longer lines often required public subscription to build and crossed over land not owned by the mine owners. As a result, they needed an Act of Parliament to build. The Acts also protected investors from unrealistic or downright fraudulent schemes. The first line to obtain such an act, in 1758, was a private coal-owner’s wagonway, the Middleton Railway in Leeds. The first for public use and on cast iron rails was the Surrey Iron Railway incorporated in 1799. It obtained an Act of Parliament in 1801 to build a tramroad between Wandsworth and Croydon in what is now south London. The engineer was William Jessop. Meanwhile, the first passenger-carrying public railway was the Oystermouth Railway, authorized in 1807. All three of these railways were initially worked by horses. The Surrey Iron Railway remained horse-drawn throughout its life. The Kilmarnock and Troon Railway, the first line in Scotland to carry passengers, was authorized by Act of Parliament in 1808 and was also built by Jessop.

Introduction of Steam Locomotives

The first steam railway locomotive was introduced by Richard Trevithick in 1804. He was the first engineer to build a successful high-pressure stationary steam engine in 1799. He followed this with a road-going steam carriage in 1801. Although that experiment ended in failure, in 1804 he built a successful unnamed rail-going steam locomotive for the narrow-gauge Merthyr Tramroad in South Wales (sometimes incorrectly called the Penydarren Tramroad). Amid great interest from the public, in 1804 it successfully carried 10 tons of iron, 5 wagons and 70 men a distance of 9.75 miles (15.69 km) from Penydarren to Abercynon in 4 hours and 5 minutes, an average speed of nearly 5 mph (8.0 km/h). This locomotive proved that steam traction was a viable proposition, although the use of the locomotive was quickly abandoned as it was too heavy for the primitive plateway track. A second locomotive, built for the Wylam colliery, also broke the track. Trevithick built another locomotive in 1808, Catch Me Who Can, which ran on a temporary demonstration railway in Bloomsbury, London. Members of the public were able to ride behind at speeds up to 12 mph (19 km/h). However, it again broke the rails and Trevithick was forced to abandon the demonstration after just two months.

The first commercially successful steam locomotive was the twin cylinder Salamanca, designed by in 1812 by Matthew Murray using John Blenkinsop’s patented design for rack propulsion for the Middleton Railway. Blenkinsop believed that a locomotive light enough to move under its own power would be too light to generate sufficient adhesion, so he designed a rack-and-pinion railway for the line. This was despite the fact that Trevithick demonstrated successful adhesion locomotives a decade before. The single rack ran outside the narrow-gauge edge-rail tracks and was engaged by a cog-wheel on the left side of the locomotive. The cog-wheel was driven by two cylinders embedded into the top of the center-flue boiler. Four such locomotives were built for the railway and they worked until the early 1830s.

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Blenkinsop’s rack locomotive Salamanca, Middleton to Leeds (UK) coal tramway, 1812, author unknown, riginally published in The Mechanic’s Magazine, 1829.

Salamanca was the first commercially successful steam locomotive, built in 1812.

First Successful Railways

The proprietors of Wylam Colliery wanted to abolish horse-drawn trains in favor of steam. In 1804, William Hedley, a manager at the colliery, employed Trevithick to build a steam locomotive. However, it proved too heavy for the wooden track. William Hedley and Timothy Hackworth (another colliery employee) designed a locomotive in 1813 that became known as Puffing Billy. A year later George Stephenson, another of Wylam’s employees, improved the design with Blücher, the first locomotive to use flanged wheels keeping the locomotive on the track and had cylinder rods directly connected to the wheels in the manner of Catch Me Who Can.

In 1821 an Act of Parliament was approved for a tramway between Stockton and Darlington. Stephenson’s design convinced the backers of the proposed tramway to appoint Stephenson, who had recently built the Hetton colliery railway, as engineer. Traffic on the Stockton and Darlington Railway (S&DR) was originally intended to be horse-drawn, but Stephenson carried out a fresh survey of the route to allow steam haulage and the Act was subsequently amended to allow the usage of steam locomotives. The railway was also empowered to carry passengers in addition to coal and general merchandise. The line was 25 miles (40 km) in length and had 100 passing loops along its single track and four branch lines to collieries. It opened in 1825. The first train was hauled by Stephenson’s Locomotion No 1 at speeds of 12 to 15 miles per hour (19 to 24 km/h). Four locomotives named Locomotion were constructed and were effectively beam engines on wheels with vertical cylinders.

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Opening of the Stockton and Darlington Railway, a watercolor painted in the 1880s by John Dobbin, the National Railway Museum, York.

In the painting, crowds are watching the inaugural train cross the Skerne Bridge in Darlington. The movement of coal to ships rapidly became a lucrative business and the line was soon extended to a new port and town at Middlesbrough. While coal wagons were hauled by steam locomotives from the start, passengers were carried in coaches drawn by horses until carriages hauled by steam locomotives were introduced in 1833.

The first public steam railway in Scotland was the Monkland and Kirkintilloch Railway. An Act of Parliament authorizing the railway was passed in 1824 and it opened in 1826.

The Liverpool and Manchester Railway (L&MR), founded as company in 1823 but opened in 1830, was the world’s first intercity passenger railway, in which all the trains were timetabled and operated by steam locomotives. Further, horse-drawn traffic could use the Stockton and Darlington upon payment of a toll. The passenger-carrying Canterbury and Whitstable Railway opened three months before the L&MR. However, it used cable haulage by stationary steam engines over much of its length, with steam locomotives restricted to the level stretch. The L&MR was primarily built to provide faster transport of raw materials and finished goods between the port of Liverpool and mills in Manchester in northwest England.

To determine which locomotives would be suitable, the L&MR directors organized the Rainhill Trials. These were arranged as an open contest that would let them see all the locomotive candidates in action, with the choice to follow. The trials were won by Rocket, built by George Stephenson and Robert Stephenson. Rocket was the first locomotive to use a multi-tubular boiler, which allowed more effective heat transfer from the exhaust gases to the water. It was also the first to use a blastpipe, where used steam from the cylinders discharges into the smokebox beneath the chimney to increase the draft of the fire. With these innovations, Rocket averaged 12 miles per hour (19 km/h) achieving a top speed of 30 miles per hour (48 km/h) hauling 13 tons, and was declared the winner of the trials. The Stephensons were accordingly given the contract to produce locomotives for the Liverpool & Manchester Railway. The line opened in 1830 with termini at Liverpool Road, Manchester and Edge Hill, Liverpool.

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Later conjectural drawing of the Rainhill Trials: in the foreground is Rocket and in the background are Sans Pareil (right) and Novelty, author unknown, the Illustrated London News.

Stephenson’s Rocket was the only locomotive to complete the Rainhill Trials and was declared the winner. The Stephenson brothers were accordingly given the contract to produce locomotives for the railway.

Railways

The development of the railways, starting in the 1830s, transformed the economy and society by creating powerful railway companies, attracting massive investments, advancing industries, transforming human migration patterns, and even changing people’s daily diet.

Learning Objectives

Describe how railways spread and became common across the globe

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The opening of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway (L&MR) in 1830, the first to rely exclusively on steam power, revolutionized transportation and paved the way for the development of railways that would soon take over the world. A number of lines were approved in the Leeds area the same year. An unexpected enthusiasm for passenger travel resulted in opening the London and Birmingham Railway (L&BR) and the Grand Junction, linking the existing L&MR and the new L&BR in 1837.
  • A new railway always needed an Act of Parliament, which typically cost over £200,000 to obtain, but opposition could effectively prevent its construction. The canal companies, unable or unwilling to upgrade their facilities to compete with railways, used political power to try to stop them. The railways responded by purchasing about a fourth of the canal system, in part to get the right of way and in part to buy off critics. Once an Act was obtained, there was little government regulation, as laissez faire and private ownership had become accepted practices.
  • The railways largely had exclusive territory, but given the compact size of Britain, this meant that two or more competing lines could connect major cities. Between the-mid 1830s and the mid-1940s, Parliament authorized 8,000 miles of lines at a projected cost of £200 million. The incredible profitability of the railways attracted many investors together with massive financial speculation known as the Railway Mania.
  • The financial success of the early railways was phenomenal, as they had no real competition. Less than 20 years after the Liverpool line opened, it was possible to travel from London to Scotland by train in a small fraction of the former time by road. Towards the end of the 19th century, competition became so fierce between companies on the east and west coast routes to Scotland that it led to what the press called the Race to the North.
  • The railways changed British society in numerous and complex ways, including a substantial impact in many spheres of economic activity. The building of railways and locomotives provided a significant stimulus to the coal-mining, iron-production, engineering, and construction industries. The railways also helped to reduce transaction costs, which in turn lowered the costs of goods, bringing positive changes to people’s diet. The railways were also a significant force for the changing patterns of human mobility.
  • The Government began to pay attention to safety matters with the 1840 Act for Regulating Railways, which empowered the Board of Trade to appoint railway inspectors. The Railway Inspectorate was established in 1840 to inquire into the causes of accidents and recommend ways of avoiding them. In 1844, minimum standards that would require railway companies to offer services to the poorer passengers on each railway roue at least once a day were introduced.

Key Terms

  • Railway Clearing House: An organization set up in 1842 to manage the allocation of revenue collected by pre-grouping railway companies of fares and charges paid for passengers and goods travelling over the lines of other companies.
  • Railway Mania: Speculative frenzy in Britain in the 1840s caused by the phenomenal profitability of the early railways.
  • Race to the North: Name given by the press to the phenomenon that occurred during two summers of the late 19th century, when British passenger trains belonging to different companies would literally race each other from London to Scotland over the two principal rail trunk routes connecting the English capital city to Scotland: the West Coast Main Line and the East Coast Main Line.
  • Parliamentary carriages: Passenger services required by an Act of Parliament passed in 1844 to allow inexpensive and basic railway travel for less affluent passengers. The legislation required that at least one such service per day be run on every railway route in the United Kingdom.
  • Liverpool and Manchester Railway: A railway that opened in 1830 between the Lancashire towns of Liverpool and Manchester in the United Kingdom. It was the first railway to rely exclusively on steam power, with no horse-drawn traffic permitted at any time; the first to be entirely double-track throughout its length; the first to have a signaling system; the first to be fully timetabled; the first to be powered entirely by its own motive power; and the first to carry mail.

Railways: The Revolution of Transportation

The Liverpool and Manchester Railway (L&MR), opened in 1830 between the Lancashire towns of Liverpool and Manchester, was not the first railway, but it was the first one to rely exclusively on steam power, with no horse-drawn traffic permitted at any time; the first to be entirely double track throughout its length; the first to have a signaling system; the first to be fully timetabled; the first to be powered entirely by its own motive power; and the first to carry mail. As such, it revolutionized transportation and paved the way for the phenomenal development of railways that would soon take over the world.

As Manchester had grown on cotton spinning, Leeds had a growing trade in weaving. The Pennines restricted canal development, so the railway provided a realistic alternative, especially with the growth in coal usage from the mines in the North East and Yorkshire. A number of lines were approved in the area, such as the Leeds and Selby Railway in 1830, which linked the former to the port of Hull via the River Ouse.

While the L&MR had not ousted the Lancashire canal system from the transport of goods, there was an unexpected enthusiasm for passenger travel. The financial success of the railway was beyond all expectations. Soon companies in London and Birmingham planned to build lines linking these cities together and with Liverpool and Manchester via the L&MR. These two lines were the London and Birmingham (L&BR), designed by Robert Stephenson, and the Grand Junction, engineered by Joseph Locke. The Grand Junction was designed to link the existing L&MR and the new L&BR. It opened in July 1837, with the L&BR following a few months later.

Although Acts of Parliament allowed railway companies compulsory purchase of wayleave, some powerful landowners objected to railways being built across their land and raised objections in Parliament to prevent bills from being passed. Some land owners charged excessive amounts, so early lines did not always follow the optimal routes. In addition, steep gradients were avoided as they would require more powerful locomotives.

Railway Mania

It was legally required that each line be authorized by a separate Act of Parliament. While there were entrepreneurs with the vision of an intercity network of lines, it was much easier to find investors to back shorter stretches that were clearly defined in purpose, where rapid returns on investment could be predicted. A new railway needed an Act of Parliament, which typically cost over £200,000 to obtain, but opposition could effectively prevent its construction. The canal companies, unable or unwilling to upgrade their facilities to compete with railways, used political power to try to stop them. The railways responded by purchasing about a fourth of the canal system, in part to get the right of way and in part to buy off critics. Once an Act was obtained, there was little government regulation, as laissez faire and private ownership had become accepted practices. The railways largely had exclusive territory, but given the compact size of Britain, this meant that two or more competing lines could connect major cities. Between the-mid 1830s and the mid-1940s, the period of the railway boom, Parliament authorized 8,000 miles of lines at a projected cost of £200 million, which was about the same value as the country’s annual gross domestic product (GDP) at that time.

George Hudson became the most important railway promoter of his time. Called the “railway king” of Britain, Hudson amalgamated numerous short lines and established the Railway Clearing House in 1842, an organization that provided uniform paperwork and standardized methods for apportioning fares while transferring passengers and freight between lines and loaning out freight cars. Hudson’s ability to design complex company and line amalgamations helped bring about the beginnings of a more modern railway network. In 1849, he exercised effective control over nearly 30% of the rail track operating in Britain, most of it owned by four railway groups: the Eastern Counties Railway, the Midland, the York, Newcastle and Berwick, and the York and North Midland. Hudson remains an important figure in railway history also because of a series of scandalous revelations that forced him out of office. The financial reporting malpractices of the Eastern Counties Railway while Hudson was its chairman eventually led to the collapse of his system.

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A railway junction diagram: When coaches or wagons owned by a different company were used, that company would be entitled to a proportion of the fare or fee. If the commencement and terminus of the journey were on different railways, a more complicated situation arose. If the two companies involved did not provide through ticketing, the passenger or goods needed to be re-booked at a junction station. If through booking was provided, the receipts collected by the first company needed to be divided between them, usually on a mileage basis. The Railway Clearing House was founded as a means by which these receipts could be apportioned fairly.

All the railways were promoted by commercial interests. As those opened by the year 1836 were paying good dividends, it prompted financiers to invest and by 1845 over 1,000 projected schemes had been put forward. This led to a speculative frenzy, following a common pattern: as the price of railway shares increased, more and more money was poured in by speculators, until the inevitable collapse in price. The Railway Mania, as it was called, reached its zenith in 1846, when no fewer than 272 Acts of Parliament setting up new railway companies were passed. Unlike most stock market bubbles, there was a net tangible result from all the investment in the form of a vast expansion of the British railway system, although perhaps at an inflated cost. When the government stepped in and announced closure for depositing schemes, the Railway Mania was brought to an end.

The legacy of Railway Mania can still be seen today, with duplication of some routes and cities possessing several stations on the same or different lines, sometimes with no direct connection between them (however, a significant amount of this duplication was removed by the Beeching Axe in the 1960s). The best example of this is London, which has no fewer than twelve main line terminal stations, serving its dense and complex suburban network. It is basically the result of the many railway companies during the Mania that were competing to run their routes in the capital.

Economic and Social Impact

The railway directors often had important political and social connections and used them to their companies’ advantages. Furthermore, landed aristocrats with established connections in London were especially welcome on the corporate boards. The aristocrats saw railway directorships as a socially acceptable form of contact with the world of commerce and industry. They leveraged the business acumen and connections gained through railways to join corporate boardrooms in other industries.

The financial success of the early railways was phenomenal as they had no real competition. The roads were still very slow and in poor condition. Prices of fuel and food fell in cities connected to railways in accordance with the fall in the cost of transport. The layout of lines with gentle gradients and curves, originating from the need to help the relatively weak engines and brakes, was a boon when speeds increased, avoiding for the most part the need to re-survey the course of a line. Less than 20 years after the Liverpool line opened, it was possible to travel from London to Scotland by train in a small fraction of the former time by road. Towards the end of the 19th century, competition became so fierce between companies on the east and west coast routes to Scotland that it led to what the press called the Race to the North. In two summers of the late 19th century, passenger trains belonging to different companies would literally race each other from London to Scotland over the two principal rail trunk routes connecting the English capital city to Scotland. The races were never official and publicly the companies denied that what happened was racing at all. Results were not announced officially and the outcomes have since been hotly debated.

The railways changed British society in numerous and complex ways. Although recent attempts to measure the economic significance of the railways have suggested that their overall contribution to the growth of GDP was more modest than an earlier generation of historians argued, it is nonetheless clear that the railways had a sizable impact in many spheres of economic activity. The building of railways and locomotives, for example, called for large quantities of heavy materials and thus provided significant stimulus to the coal-mining, iron-production, engineering, and construction industries. The railways also helped reduce transaction costs, which in turn lowered the costs of goods. The distribution and sale of perishable goods such as meat, milk, fish, and vegetables was transformed, giving rise not only to cheaper produce in the stores but also to far greater variety in people’s diets.

The railways were also a significant force for the changing patterns of human mobility. Rail transport had originally been conceived as a way of moving coal and industrial goods but the railway operators quickly realized the potential for market for railway travel, leading to an extremely rapid expansion in passenger services. The number of railway passengers tripled in just eight years between 1842 and 1850. Traffic volumes roughly doubled in the 1850s and then doubled again in the 1860s. In the words of historian Derek Aldcroft, “In terms of mobility and choice [the railways] added a new dimension to everyday life.”

Government Involvement

While it had been necessary to obtain an Act of Parliament to build a new railway, the government initially took a laissez faire approach to their construction and operation. The state began to pay attention to safety matters with the 1840 Act for Regulating Railways, which empowered the Board of Trade to appoint railway inspectors. The Railway Inspectorate was established in 1840 to inquire into the causes of accidents and recommend ways of avoiding them. Colonel Frederic Smith conducted the first investigation into five deaths caused by a large casting falling from a moving train in 1840 (Howden rail crash). He also conducted an inquiry into the derailment on the GWR when a mixed goods and passenger train derailed on Christmas Eve, 1841. As early as 1844 a bill had been put before Parliament suggesting the state purchase the railways, but it was not adopted. It did, however, lead to the introduction of minimum standards that would require railway companies to offer services available to the poorer passengers on each railway roue at least once a day (so-called Parliamentary carriages or trains).

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Great Western Railway open passenger car

In the earliest days of passenger railways in Britain, the poor were encouraged to travel to find employment in the growing industrial centers, but trains were generally unaffordable to them except in the most basic of open wagons, in many cases attached to goods trains. The Railway Regulation Act, which took effect in 1844, compelled “the provision of at least one train a day each way at a speed of not less than 12 miles an hour including stops, which were to be made at all stations, and of carriages protected from the weather and provided with seats; for all which luxuries not more than a penny a mile might be charged.”

The commercial interests of the early railway industry were often of a local nature and there was never a nationwide plan to develop a logical network of railways. Some railways, however, began to grow faster than others, often taking over smaller lines to expand their own. The L&MR success led to the idea of linking Liverpool to London, and from that the seeds of the London and North Western Railway (L&NWR), an amalgamation of four hitherto separate enterprises, including the L&MR, were sown.