First of a Network that Shrank Continents
There had been “railways” for years. The first, or so men believed, had been in the reign of Charles I. Shortly before they hacked off his head, or perhaps long before that occurred to them, it made no matter, some of the king’s subjects had discovered that it was easier moving coals, in a Newcastle colliery, if the little waggons travelled along planks laid on the ground. In this way there was no danger of a wheel getting stuck in a rut, which happened occasionally, flinging the waggon on its side while cursing miners scrambled to put the coal back in again.
But, by 1825, this was considered fairly primitive. Proper metal rails were now laid and fastened to heavy wooden “sleepers”. Coal, or anything else, could be moved at speed for as far as the railway went, by men pushing, by horses pulling. They looked, these horse-drawn railways, for all the world like horse-drawn barges on a waterway. If you lay down on the ground, so that grass hid the wheels from your gaze, it was exactly like a barge, a string of barges, being towed by a horse. So the men who laid the track, and busy men they were, track was being laid at every colliery, became known, tongue in cheek, as “navigators”, then “navvies”.
The colliery owners of Durham had wanted an efficient, speedy way of getting their coal to the port of Stockton, whence it could be shipped to London, and they built an impressive, twelve-mile railway to achieve this. Furthermore, though they intended that some of the traffic would be horse-drawn, they planned to use one of George Stephenson’s “steam locomotives” for their coal traffic. One or two of these amazing engines were in use at collieries, notably at Killingworth; now, for the first time, they would be asked to travel cross-country. There would be passenger traffic on the new line, but this would still be horse-drawn; occasional carriages of passengers would be slipped in between the scheduled coal trips; no passenger would be likely to submit to the barrage of filth which rained down along the whole of the train, from its locomotive’s smokestack.
And so, one day in 1825, the inhabitants of Storkton were startled and deafened to witness the arrival of a train of waggons, piled high with coal, and towed by a puffing brute in front:, a glowing, red-hot funnel in its back and a hellish mixture of black smoke and white steam belching from it. Women screamed, small boys shouted, old men shook their heads. The steam railway had, come, and for over a hundred years it would remain.
This terrifying train made its way, laden with coals in one direction, usually empty in the other (apart from the occasional small boy who dared slip into a waggon when the “guard” wasn’t looking), and soon it became accepted as part of the normal way of life. Local people became exceedingly proud of it, as well they might: the first steam railway to travel from one place to another, not just in circles inside a colliery, was theirs, and however many others might emulate it the honour would remain.
And others did. A similar railway was opened, for goods only, between Canterbury and Whitstable, and a more ambitious undertaking, a line to carry goods and passengers, started building between Liverpool and Manchester.
The railway builders had their troubles, not the least of which was getting permission, which necessitated an Act of Parliament— to run their lines over other people’s land. The Stockton and Darlington Railway Bill was defeated by Lord Darlington himself, who had stated in no uncertain terms that he would not countenance such a thing over his fox coverts. He then learnt from a messenger, while he was actually in the hunting field, that the Bill was before Parliament. He galloped home, boarded the stage-coach and reached London in time to arrange the Bill’s defeat. Eventually, in order to get a revised Bill through, the promoters of the railway were obliged to make a very considerable detour, leaving the foxes undisturbed.
Passenger traffic, but all of it horse-drawn, flourished on the Stockton and Darlington, between puffing trainloads of coal. Most of the passenger carriages, which were drawn singly by a horse, were privately owned, their owners paying rent for the use of the rails, and many of them were luxurious affairs. The company had laid their rails superbly, and only the slightest effort seemed to be necessary on the part of the horse. Indeed, most onlookers remarked that the horse’s tow-rope seemed always to be slack, that the carriage with its score or so of mortals within seemed to be moving along, independently, behind.
This then was the world’s first public steam railway for the conveyance of goods, but perhaps of greater significance is the Liverpool and Manchester. This was the first railway to work all traffic, passenger and goods, by steam power. It opened five years after the S and D, in 1830, and the opening was a disaster.
No less a personage than the great Duke of Wellington had been invited to perform the ceremony. It was a chill, blustery day in September, and to the discomfiture of a large audience which included dignitaries both local and national, the Duke and the procession which was to bring him by rail, from Liverpool, was extremely late. There were angry shouts, the audience grew restive, someone threw a brick.
Then, but in pitiful instalments, came the procession. The second instalment, which arrived a moment after the first had steamed into the new station and steamed out again, contained the Duke. He was in a large carriage hung with crimson cloth and velvet, he was standing up, looking more than usually fierce, touching his tall hat to a hostile, jeering crowd.
And before the Duke or anyone else could make a speech, this second train puffed out of the station and headed back to Liverpool.
By this time the crowd was mad with rage and by the time the truth was known most of them had left for home. William Huskisson, one of the Members of Parliament for Liverpool, who had been travelling in one of the several trains which formed the procession, had got out at a halt, been run over by an engine. He died that night, after having been rushed, by George Stephenson himself, driving the engine “Northumbrian” which had in tow a flat open carriage, intended for a brass band, full speed to the Rectory at Eccles, where he died.
Huskisson had been the railway’s most ardent supporter in Parliament. Now he was dead. Hardly an auspicious start.
In a way, the accident showed the power of steam. Poor, dying, Huskisson, lying on the floor of his “band-waggon”, was rushed by Stephenson a distance of fifteen miles to Eccles, in just under twenty-five minutes, a speed of thirty-six miles an hour.
But after this shocking start, the Liverpool and Manchester Railway became hugely successful. The directors were amazed at the number of passenger bookings: everyone wanted to travel behind the Iron Horse. Engines and carriages worked non-stop, coping with the demand. By the end of 1830, three and a half months after its opening, the L and M had carried 70,000 passengers; within eighteen months it had carried ten times that number. Net receipts by 1835 were £80,000 a year, £20,000 more than expected.
George Stephenson’s “Rocket” gave its name to a whole class of similar locomotives, but the last one was built at the end of 1830 and superseded by his “Planet”, a more advanced design upon which all subsequent British steam engines have been based, The “Rocket’s” driving wheels had been at the front, with cylinders at the rear; the “Planet”, like surviving present-day steam locomotives, had cylinders at the front, was far more efficient.
Despite the success of these railways (and new ones, with no consideration of fitting into any sort of national scheme, no-one looked that far ahead, were being opened every year) many people doubted whether mechanical railways had come to stay. They were dirty, they were dangerous, they were noisy, and they were expensive to build. A horse was none of these things. Within a few years all that expensive equipment would have worn out and rusted away, and the companies, serve them right, would go bankrupt. Certainly the early equipment wore out quickly, working at red heat.
George Stephenson, when asked what effect the sight of the “Rocket’s” red-hot funnel would have on cattle, is said to have replied, “I doubt, sir, whether a cow would realize the funnel was not painted red.” His “Rocket”, much tired by its exertions, was sold in 1837 and used a few more years in a colliery before being put out to grass. Eventually it found its way to the Transport Museum, Clapham.
By this time most railway equipment had greatly improved, the two exceptions being signalling equipment and brakes. There were still top-hatted men standing along the route controlling traffic by an upstretched arm, not yet replaced by the semaphore signal. And at first, when semaphore was introduced, it was merely in order to “lengthen” the signalman. He stood there and operated his signal on a pole which could be seen farther than his arm. Then the idea of signals, and even points, operated from a distance became universal.
The steam locomotive opened up great tracts of the world. In January, 1831, only a few months after the Liverpool and Manchester, the South Carolina Railroad opened in the United States, and from this was to spread a system of railways which spanned that vast continent, though, as in England, little thought was given to the eventual co-ordination of lines. They proliferated, there was great jealousy among the various designers, and they had different gauges. The gauge still used in Britain, 4 ft. 8 1/2 in. across, came more or less by accident; that was the width of an existing horse-drawn waggon-way in the Killingworth Colliery. Stephenson’s first locomotives were built for this colliery, and it was natural that he should continue with this gauge when laying out the Stockton and Darlington, not with the intention of linking up one with another, but in order to use his own locomotives without alteration.
One man who refused to adopt this gauge, who thought always in the largest way about everything, was Isambard Kingdom Brunei, “The Colossus of the Railways”. He built the main line from London to Bristol and went on to build a number of smaller lines for the West Country. For these, nothing less than seven feet would do, nothing less would be capable of carrying the enormous loads, at immense speeds, which Brunei was considering. These lines were subsequently altered to fit Stephenson’s narrower gauge (which has proved satisfactory in Britain at speeds of well over a hundred miles an hour), and now Brunei is best remembered as the builder of superb railway bridges, many of which are still used.
When Queen Victoria made her first railway trip from Slough to Paddington, the Locomotive Superintendent of Brunei’s Great Western Railway was driving the engine and Brunei was with him on the footplate. The queen was delighted with her experience, but the next day a newspaper, summing up the mood of a large part of Her Majesty’s subjects, said: “A long regency in this country would be so fearful and so tremendous an evil that we cannot but desire in common with many others, that these railway excursions should be if possible either wholly abandoned or only occasionally resorted to.
Speeds mounted. Thirty, even forty, miles an hour became commonplace, an alarming speed for men and women used only to the stage-coach, but the “permanent way” had greatly improved and “rolling stock” with it. Brakes, as we have seen, lagged behind, and there were a number of serious accidents when they either failed or proved inadequate. One of the chief hazards was a broken coupling between carriages, which would leave half the train at the mercy of whatever slope it was travelling, leave it to plunge out of control and wreck anything else on the line. Nowadays all passenger trains are fitted with extremely powerful automatic brakes which are coupled so that a break between carriages stops both parts of the train.
The steam engine has yielded pride of place to the electric and diesel-electric locomotives. Both of these are cleaner, less noisy, cheaper to run, than their predecessor, but electric trains require large capital outlay in the shape of overhead wires or extra rails to carry the current, and the diesel-electric, a long-term stop-gap in most countries, is a common sight on the world’s railways. In this, a diesel engine generates electricity with a dynamo and feeds this to electric motors which power the wheels. (A diesel engine Cannot satisfactorily power the train direct; it requires, like all internal combustion engines, a system of gearing, which is unsuited to the heavy duties of a locomotive.)
In many parts of the world, notably Britain, railways are having difficulty in meeting the challenge of road and air transport. Perhaps, eventually, they will die altogether, their ostensibly “permanent ways” being replaced by roads.
In Britain, proud of having had the first railway, and the first steam engine, there has always been a strong railway tradition handed down for years by men who gave their lives to the design and working of great railway networks. That tradition, like the railways themselves, the “Iron Horses” which opened up a strange, exciting world to its inhabitants, took Central European settlers to the Middle West of America, Englishmen to the heart of Australia, opened up frontiers all over Europe, will be a long time dying.
- The History of the Stockton and Darlington Railway (North East History)
- The Stockton and Darlington Railway
- The Bishop Line to Bishop Auckland
- March 1843 Timetable. Bradshaw’s Guides – via Wikisource.