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Railway Mania – Building Britain’s Railway System

In 1804, a British engineer by the name of Richard Trevithick unveiled a new form of transportation that would go on to completely revolutionize how both people and goods travelled.  

However, in the early stages at least, this was a slow, gradual process. When the first full-scale working steam locomotive was introduced it failed to immediately take off, mainly because of its massive weight – but a spark had been lit. Ten years later, George Stephenson built the first of a series of locomotives that would eventually evolve into one of the defining symbols of the industrial revolution in Britain. 

From 1830, with the opening of the world’s first recognised passenger railway between Liverpool and Manchester, until around the 1870s, Victorian Britain saw one of the most staggering transportation expansions ever seen, as more than 13,500 miles (21,700 km) of railway lines were built around the country. And considering Britain is relatively small, with the distance from John O’Groats to Lands End, from the top of Britain to the very bottom, only 1,407 km (874 miles), this was a staggering length of railway. 

This was Britain during its giddy heyday when the vast empire drew absurd riches from around the world and its economy eclipsed anything ever seen. The rampant industrial revolution completely changed Britain, and while it certainly began well before the introduction of the railways, it was the huge interconnected iron road that spread to all parts of the country that left one of the longest-lasting legacies.     


While the invention of steam locomotives completely changed the landscape of travel, there were plenty of railways before this – they just functioned under a drastically reduced speed, often with the help of horses. 

The idea of laying tracks on the ground then pulling a cart of some kind over it dates back to the early 16th Century, and not in Britain, but in Austria. The Reisszug is a wooden funicular railway at the Hohensalzburg Fortress in Austria and is generally considered the oldest railway in the world. 

In Britain, the first wagonway, drawn by horses and with wooden rails, was constructed near a mine in Caldbeck in Cumbria in the 1560s and quickly caught on. This sounds fairly basic, especially compared to what we have today, but this was absolutely groundbreaking and significantly sped up work in many industrial areas where large loads were frequently hauled. 

In the 1760s, wooden rails began to be replaced with iron which improved their durability and load-bearing ability, while members of the public began riding on this new transportation system for the first time. The Lake Lock Rail Road, an early narrow gauge railway built near Wakefield in West Yorkshire in 1796, was principally used to haul coal but did see the odd paying customers, making it one of the first railways ever to carry people. 

An Invention to Change the World 

As I mentioned earlier, Richard Trevithick’s groundbreaking steam locomotive that was first used on the tramway of the Penydarren ironworks, near Merthyr Tydfil in South Wales in 1804, wasn’t an immediate success. While the technology was sound, the locomotive was far too heavy to be practical, and for a short period at least, the idea of railways was put to one side. 

But not for long. The first commercially successful locomotive was used on the small Middleton Railway, which serviced the Middleton colliery in Leeds in 1812, as was known as the Salamanca. From here, things really began to pick up steam – pun intended – and in 1813, the Puffing Billy locomotive was built by Christopher Blackett and William Hedley for the Wylam Colliery Railway, and today remains the oldest steam locomotive still in existence. 

The name George Stephenson has become synonymous with early locomotives, and while he certainly wasn’t the first to build such engines, he undoubtedly pushed this new technology to even greater heights. His first design was Blücher, a flanged-wheel adhesion locomotive that could pull a train of 30 tons at a speed of 6.4 km/h (4 mph) up a gradient of 1 in 450, which was completed in 1814 and used at the Killingworth Colliery. 

Next came his Locomotion design which was used on the Stockton and Darlington Railway, which was the first line ever to use a steam engine in 1826, and finally, the machine that really began to convince the masses – the Rocket. 

In October 1829, a competition, known as the Rainhill Trials, was held to settle the argument over how effective steam locomotives were and to prove whether or not they could be used for the new Liverpool and Manchester Railway. Five separate locomotives took part, one of which was Stephenson’s Rocket, over a stretch of rail track that measured 1.6 km (1 mile). Alas, this was far from a complete glowing endorsement of the new technology as four of the five engines failed to finish – in fact one was even disqualified from the start because it was less a locomotive and more a horse on a treadmill powering the wheels.  

The one locomotive that did make it all the way, maintaining a steady speed of 22 km (13.8 miles), was Stephenson’s Rocket, which persuaded the owners of the new railway that this engine was the future. And how right they were.  

Earliest Major Lines              

It’s fair to say that the Liverpool and Manchester Railway, the first anywhere in the world to connect two major cities, got off to a bumpy start with a fatal accident occurring on the line on its very first day. William Huskisson, a member of parliament for Liverpool, died after attempting to climb back aboard a carriage but slipped and fell back into the path of the passing Rocket locomotive which ran over his legs. For a technology that many still had enormous reservations over, it certainly wasn’t an auspicious start. 

But this was still an extraordinary step forward. The railway that linked the two giants of northern England stretched for a total of 50 km (31 miles) and came with a catalogue of firsts. This was the first railways to exclusively use steam locomotives, the first to have a signalling system, the first to even have a complete timetable, the first to carry post and the first to be double-tracked along the entire route. The 2 km (1.2 miles) Wapping Tunnel beneath Liverpool was also the first to be bored under a city, while the entire railway line included a total of 64 bridges and viaducts. 

The Liverpool and Manchester Railway, which had cost £637,000 (around £58 million today), was an enormous success, cutting travel time between the two cities to just two hours with trains travelling around 26 km/h (16 mph). This would be the blueprint that numerous other lines would follow in the coming years as a thirst for railways began to grip the nation. 

In 1831, just a year after the opening of the Liverpool and Manchester line, a short extension was added, which linked Warrington with Newton, just outside Liverpool, and to mining operations near Haydock. Just to give you an idea of how fast things were moving, just two years later, the 132 km (82 miles) Grand Junction Railway opened which linked Birmingham, Wolverhampton, Stafford and Crewe, but also effectively succeeded the Warrington and Newton extension as it used the same route.    

The 32.2 km (20 miles) Leeds and Selby Railway was completed and opened in 1834 and included 43 bridges and around 16 level crossings, though the most significant engineering challenge was the construction of the 640 metres (700 yards) Marsh Lane Tunnel through Richmond Hill in Leeds. At the time, this was the world’s longest railway tunnel, with most passenger accounts from the period describing the experience as a smoke-filled hell in complete darkness. This may have been a revolutionary way to travel, but there were still numerous kinks that needed to be ironed out. 

In 1838, the first line to run into London opened and connected the capital with Birmingham over a 180 km (112 miles) stretch. The construction process involved some 20,000 men and took 5 years to complete, with an estimated 710,000,000 m3 (25,000,000,000 cu ft) of earth moved in the process, reportedly enough to build a wall 0.6 metres (1 ft) high by 0.6 metres (1 ft) wide, more than three times around the equator.

Railway Mania Begins

All of these early lines had been constructed through private investment and were effectively owned by private companies whose investors reaped the rewards. It didn’t take long for many to sit up and take notice of the steadily increasing profits dripping down from the new railway lines. 

With the British economy thundering forward, entrepreneurs began submitting applications for new railways left, right and centre, leading to a period known as Railway Mania. This principally occurred in 1836 and between 1845 and 1847, when Parliament authorized 8,000 miles (12,874 km) of lines at a projected cost of £200 million (that’s around £24.8 billion today).

It is important to say that nowhere near that amount was built, with many companies going out of business or cancelling projects even before they began. In fact, only around 3,218 km (2,000 miles) worth of railway line was actually laid during the second mania period, but over the next ten years, a further 7,402 km (4,600 miles) of track was installed around Britain. In 1842, Queen Victoria made her first train journey between London and Slough, in which she reportedly told the driver to slow down because she was scared. Despite the odd splash of anxiety, this new form of travel now had royal approval. 

Up until this point, railway travel in Britain had remained a luxurious option, albeit one that often left you covered in soot and dirt. But this changed with the 1844 Railway Act, which forced all railway lines to provide at least one train per day at a reduced rate. By the 1850s, popularity had soared beyond all expectations with 92 million journeys taken in England and Wales in 1854 alone on a rail system that now stretched to over 9,656 km (6,000 miles). This had been an astonishing period and in just over a decade, Britain’s rail network had gone from a few scattered lines throughout the country, to a vast interconnected system that linked cities, towns and even smaller villages. 

A Great Northern Stirling 4-2-2. A total of 53 were built at Doncaster between 1870 and 1895.
A Great Northern Stirling 4-2-2. A total of 53 were built at Doncaster between 1870 and 1895. By Tony Hisgett, is licensed under CC-BY

The effect on Britain and its economy was dramatic. Prices of goods in cities fell as a result of the quick transportation routes, while there was a greater variety and choice than ever before. The coal-mining, iron-production, engineering and construction industries also saw spectacular rises, but perhaps the biggest change was simply with the population. 

Considering many had eyed the first railways with deep suspicion, British people took this new form of transportation with incredible enthusiasm which completely changed society. One point that often gets lost when discussing British railways, was that it ushered in the use of standard time across the country. Before 1847, each town or village effectively operated on its time, but this quickly changed as the need for careful timetabling emerged. By 1855, the vast majority of Britain was now operating under Greenwich mean Time.    

During this period, an estimated 250,000 men worked on the expanding railway network around the country. These were known as ‘navvies’ and would live in small shanty towns constructed beside these new tracks. This was backbreaking work but was significantly better paid than jobs in factories at the time. However, deaths, often occurring during the excavations of tunnels, were frequent, with the widow of a deceased navvie receiving around £5 in compensation (roughly £700 today).        

But things can only go so far, and like other speculation bubbles, railway mania eventually ended as investors began to realise that not every railway line could be profitable. This crash had been preceded by countless people, often middle-class families with a little money but not a huge amount, losing their entire savings through investments in failed lines.

After the Boom  

The 1860s and 1870s saw brief flickers of further booms but nothing could compare to the dramatic days of the 1840s and 1850s when most of Britain was connected. 

The British government had been gradually increasing its oversight of the railway lines through a series of Parliamentary Acts, but these had mainly focused on safety, to begin with. Slowly, calls for the nationalisation of the entire network grew, but this wouldn’t happen until World War One. 

By the late 1870s, most railway companies were struggling to turn significant profits because the system had become so saturated, and the golden age of Victorian Britain’s railways was drawing to a close.   

A Changed Country 

Despite the dramatic slowdown, the foundations had been set for a system that had completely changed Britain. As the end of the century drew to a close, the country was crisscrossed by an incredibly intricate system that reached deep into the most rural of areas. The industrial revolution may have kick-started this period of great change, but it was the railway network that swept it along.  

By the end of the 1870s, an astonishing 21,700 km (13,500 miles) had been laid throughout Britain in just over forty years – which is more than the distance between London and Auckland in New Zealand – at a cost of £3 billion (somewhere in the region of £400 billion today). But the physical lines were only part of the story and this period saw enormous leaps forward in terms of engineering, with tunnels, viaducts and bridges added along the way where needed. It was a time when everything seemed possible and the only limits remained within the imagination.  

It had been a staggering four decades that forever changed Britain during one of the most intensive engineering periods the world has ever known.  

The Railways (bl.uk)

History of rail transport in Great Britain – Wikipedia

History of rail transport – Wikipedia

History of rail transport – Wikipedia

When Were Trains Invented? Your Guide To The Birth of British Railways – HistoryExtra

British Railways | History & Facts | Britannica

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