The History Of Rail Transport

On 21 February 1804, the world’s first steam-powered railway journey took place when Trevithick’s unnamed steam locomotive hauled a train along the tramway of the Penydarren ironworks, near Merthyr Tydfil in South Wales. But in fact, the history of rail transport began in the prehistoric times. It can be divided into several discrete periods as defined by the principal means of track material and motive power used. The Post Track, a prehistoric causeway in the valley of the River Brue in the Somerset Levels is one of the oldest known constructed trackways and dates from around 3838BC, making it some 30 years older than the Sweet Track from the same area. Various sections have actually been scheduled as ancient monuments. Evidence indicates that there was a 6 to 8.5km long Diolkos paved trackway, which transported boats across the Isthmus of Corinth in Greece from around 600 BC. Wheeled vehicles pulled by men and animals ran in grooves in limestone, which provided the track element, preventing the wagons from leaving the intended route. The Diolkos was in use for over 650 years, until at least the 1st century AD. Paved trackways were also later built in Roman Egypt. In China, a railway has been discovered in the South-West Henan province near Nanyang city. It was carbon dated to be about 2,200 years old from the Qin dynasty. The rails were made from hard wood and treated against corrosion, whilst the sleepers or railway ties were made from wood that was not treated and have therefore rotted. Qin railway sleepers were designed to allow horses to gallop through to the next rail station where they would be swapped for a fresh horse. The railway is theorised to have been used for transportation of goods to front line troops and to fix the Great Wall.

The Reisszug, as it appears today.

The oldest operational railway is the Reisszug, a funicular railway at the Hohensalzburg Fortress in Austria and is believed to date back to either 1495 or 1504AD. Cardinal Matthäus Lang wrote a description of it back in 1515 detailing that it was a cable-type which connected points along a railway track laid on a steep slope. The system is characterised by two counterbalanced carriages that are permanently attached to opposite ends of a haulage cable, which is looped over a pulley at the upper end of the track. The result of such a configuration is that the two carriages move synchronously so as one ascends, the other descends at an equal speed. This feature distinguishes funiculars from inclined elevators, which have a single car that is hauled uphill. The line originally used wooden rails with a hemp haulage rope and was operated by human or animal power, through a treadwheel. The line still exists and remains operational, although in updated form.

A mining cart, shown in De Re Metallica (1556).

Wagonways, otherwise called tramways using wooden rails and horse-drawn traffic, are known to have been used in the 1550s to facilitate transportation of ore tubs to and from mines. They soon became popular in Europe and an example of their operation is shown in an illustration by Georgius Agricola. This line used ‘Hunde’ carts with un-flanged wheels running on wooden planks with a vertical pin on the truck fitting into the gap between the planks to keep it going the right way. The miners called the wagons ‘Hunde’, or ‘dogs’ from the noise they made on the tracks. There are many references to wagonways in central Europe in the 16th century and these were introduced to England by German miners, the first being at Caldbeck, Cumbria quite possibly in the 1560s. A wagonway was built at Prescot near Liverpool some time around 1600, possibly even as early as 1594. Owned by Philip Layton, the line carried coal from a pit near Prescot Hall to a terminus about half a mile away. A funicular railway was made at Brosely in Shropshire some time before 1604 and this carried coal for James Clifford from his mines down to the River Severn, to be loaded onto barges and carried to riverside towns. The Wollaton Wagonway was completed in 1604 by Huntingdon Beaumont (c.1560–1624) who was an English coal mining entrepreneur who built two of the earliest wagonways in England for trans-shipment of coal. However, he was less successful as a businessman and died having been imprisoned for debt. The youngest of four sons, he was born to Sir Nicholas Beaumont and his wife Ann Saunders. They were an aristocratic family in the East Midlands and there were several branches to the Beaumont dynasty. This one was based at Coleorton, Leicestershire, approximately 2 miles (3.2km) east of Ashby de la Zouch. Beaumont was therefore of gentleman status in the formal Elizabethan sense, the family owned coal bearing lands and worked them. He was involved in this coal working and eventually he began working in his own right in the Nottingham area. During 1603 and 1604, during his partnership with Sir Percival Willoughby who was Lord of the Wollaton Manor, Beaumont constructed the wagonway which ran from Strelley, where Beaumont held mining leases, to Wollaton Lane. Beaumont was a successful coal prospector and an innovator in the development of mining techniques and a key innovation attributed to him is the introduction of boring rods to assist in finding coal without sinking a shaft. His working life covered involvement in coal mining activities in Warwickshire, Leicestershire, Nottinghamshire and Northumberland. His coal mining and wagonway activities in the early 1600s near Blyth in Northumberland were, like most of his ventures, unprofitable but the boring rod and wagonway technology he took with him was implemented by others to significant effect. And the wagonway chain he started in the English north east was to later influence George Stephenson. In fact a major coal seam in the region was named the Beaumont Seam, commemorating his engineering efforts there. However, Beaumont lost considerable sums of money borrowed from friends and family. He died in Nottingham Gaol in 1624 having been imprisoned for debt. The Middleton railway in Leeds, which was built in 1758, later became the world’s oldest operational railway (other than funiculars), albeit now in an upgraded form whilst in 1764, the first railway in America was built in Lewiston, New York.

The introduction of steam engines for powering air to blast furnaces led to a large increase in British iron production after the mid 1750s. In the late 1760s, the Coalbrookdale, a village in the Ironbridge Gorge in Shropshire was a settlement of great significance in the history of iron ore smelting as this is where iron ore was first smelted by Abraham Darby (14 April 1677 – 5 May 1717). He was the first and best known of several men of that name and was born into an English Quaker family that played an important role in the Industrial Revolution. Darby developed a method of producing pig iron in a blast furnace fuelled by coking coal rather than charcoal and this was a major step forward in the production of iron as a raw material. This coal was drawn from drift mines in the sides of the valley and as it contained far fewer impurities than normal coal, the iron it produced was of a superior quality. Along with many other industrial developments that were going on in other parts of the country, this discovery was a major factor in the growing industrialisation of Britain. The Coalbrookdale Company began to fix plates of cast iron to the upper surface of wooden rails, which increased their durability and load-bearing ability. At first only ‘balloon loops’, or turning loops could be used for turning wagons, but later, movable points were introduced that allowed for passing loops to be created. A system was introduced in which un-flanged wheels ran on L-shaped metal plates. It is said that a Sheffield colliery manager invented this flanged rail in 1787, though the exact date of this is disputed. The plate rail was taken up by a Benjamin Outram for wagonways serving his canals, manufacturing them at his Butterley ironworks and in 1803, a William Jessop opened the Surrey Iron Railway. This was a double track plateway, sometimes erroneously cited as world’s first public railway, in south London. By 1789 he had introduced a form of all-iron edge rail and flanged wheels for an extension to the Charnwood Forest Canal at Nanpantan, Leicestershire. Then in 1790, Jessop and his partner Outram began to manufacture edge-rails. The first public edgeway built was the Lake Lock Rail Road in 1796 as although the primary purpose of the line was to carry coal, it also carried passengers. These two systems of constructing iron railways, the “L” plate-rail and the smooth edge-rail, continued to exist side by side into the early 19th century but the flanged wheel and edge-rail eventually proved its superiority and became the standard for railways. Cast iron was not a satisfactory material for rails because it was brittle and broke under heavy loads, however the wrought iron rail, invented by John Birkinshaw in 1820, solved these problems. Wrought iron, usually referred to simply as ‘iron was a ductile material that could undergo considerable deformation before breaking, thus making it more suitable for iron rails. But this iron was expensive to produce until a Henry Cort patented the ‘puddling process’ in 1784. He had also patented the rolling process, which was fifteen times faster at consolidating and shaping iron than hammering. These processes greatly lowered the cost of producing iron and iron rails. The next important development in iron production was the ‘hot blast’ process, developed by a James Neilson and patented in 1828, which considerably reduced the amount of coke fuel or charcoal needed to produce pig iron. However, the wrought iron was a soft material that contained slag or ‘dross and this tended to make iron rails distort and delaminate so they typically lasted less than 10 years in use, and sometimes as little as one year under high traffic. All these developments in the production of iron eventually led to replacement of composite wood/iron rails with superior all-iron rails. The introduction of the Bessemer process created the first inexpensive process on an industrial scale for the mass production of steel from molten pig iron before the development of the open hearth furnace. The key principle is in the removal of impurities from the iron by oxidisation, with air being blown through the molten iron. The oxidation also raises the temperature of the iron mass and keeps it molten. This enabled steel to be made relatively inexpensively and led to the era of great expansion of railways that began in the late 1860s. Steel rails lasted several times longer than iron, they also made heavier locomotives possible, thus allowing for longer trains and improving the productivity of railways. The quality of steel had been improved by the end of 19th century, further reducing costs and as a result, steel completely replaced the use of iron in rails, becoming standard for all railways. In 1769 James Watt, a Scottish inventor and mechanical engineer, greatly improved the steam engine of Thomas Newcomen which had been used to pump water out of mines. Watt developed a reciprocating engine capable of powering a wheel. Although the Watt engine powered cotton mills and a variety of machinery, it was a large stationary engine which could not be used otherwise as the state of boiler technology necessitated the use of low pressure steam acting upon a vacuum in the cylinder and this required a separate condenser with an air pump. Nevertheless, as the construction of boilers improved, Watt investigated the use of high-pressure steam acting directly upon a piston. This raised the possibility of a smaller engine that might then be used to power a vehicle and in 1784 he patented a design for a steam locomotive. His employee, William Murdoch, produced a working model of a self-propelled steam carriage in that year.

A replica of Trevithick’s engine at the National Waterfront Museum, Swansea.

The first full-scale working railway steam locomotive was built in the United Kingdom in 1804 by Richard Trevithick, a British engineer born in Cornwall. This engine used high-pressure steam to drive the engine by one power stroke, whilst the transmission system employed a large flywheel to even out the action of the piston rod. On 21 February 1804, the world’s first steam-powered railway journey took place when Trevithick’s unnamed steam locomotive hauled a train along the tramway of the Penydarren ironworks near Merthyr Tydfil, South Wales. Trevithick later demonstrated a locomotive operating upon a piece of circular rail track in Bloomsbury, London but he never got beyond the experimental stage with railway locomotives, not least because his engines were too heavy for the cast-iron plateway track which was then in use.

The ‘Locomotion’ at Darlington Railway Centre and Museum.

Inspired by earlier locomotives, in 1814 George Stephenson persuaded the manager of the Killingworth colliery where he worked to allow him to build a steam-powered machine. Stephenson played a pivotal role in the development and widespread adoption of the steam locomotive as his designs considerably improved on the work of the earlier pioneers. In 1829 he built the locomotive ‘Rocket’, which entered in and won the Rainfall `trials and this success led to Stephenson establishing his company as the pre-eminent builder of steam locomotives for railways in Great Britain and Ireland, the United States, and much of Europe. Steam power continued to be the dominant power system in railways around the world for more than a century. Since then, manufacturers in this world have developed diesel and electric trains, combining them into more power. We have made high-speed trains and it really is amazing to see the differences which have occurred in such a relatively short space of time!

This week…
There is a well-known phrase “fine words butter no parsnips”. This proverbial phrase dates from the 17th century and expresses the notion that fine words count for nothing, whilst action means more than flattery or promises. These days we aren’t very likely to come across the phrase in modern street slang and it is more likely to be heard in a period costume drama. But the phrase comes from a time before potatoes were imported into Britain from America by John Hawkins in the mid 16th century and became a staple in what established itself as the national dish of meat and two veg. Before that, various root vegetables were eaten instead, often mashed and, as anyone who has eaten mashed swedes, turnips or parsnips can testify, they cry out to be ‘buttered-up’ – another term for flattery. It has even been said that we were known for our habit of layering on butter to all manner of foods, much to the disgust of the French, who used it as evidence of the English lack of expertise regarding cuisine!

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