Historical Overview

This historical overview is provided because it is felt that searchers may expect to find one: they should not place too much reliance upon it and should rush to their public library or secondhand bookshop to request the far better volumes produced by Ellis or Simmons. Before going any further it is also necessary to note that railways did not have to be worked by steam and that the development of "steam technology" proceeded alongside the advancement of steam locomotion and continues to this day in nuclear power stations and in combined cycle electricity generators. H.W. Dickinson's A short history of the steam engine remains an excellent account of the development of the steam engine.

The history of railways may be divided into the following time frames;
Pre-steam locomotion
Early steam locomotion: Trevithick to Stockton & Darlington/Liverpool & Manchester
The beginnings of a railway network (Grand Junction Railway)
The Great Western: a diversion
The Railway Mania
Victorian consolidation
Railway Clearing House
High noon of competition: late railways (Great Central; Fishguard; the London Underground);
First attempts at amalgamation
Two World Wars (Amalgamation)
The absurd Dr Beeching & even absurder Serpell, Macgregor (who was this wee man with his driving gloves?)
Hatfield (or death by many cuts)

As seen from its brief moments in the Premier League: Norwich


For a time Anglo-Scottish journeys were accomplished via Fleetwood and Ardrossan, both of which had railway access before railways were completed over (or around: Stephenson wished to go this way) the mountainous North of England, or the barren South of Scotland. Ardrossan had been an early target for a canal to link it with Glasgow. The Garnock valley appeared to offer suitable lochs to ease construction, but a railway was constructed instead. Near to the historic Ardrossan Harbour there is a beautiful Roman Catholic Church dedicated to Saint Peter in Chains which had been constructed as a memorial to sailors lost in a Second World War incident just off shore. St Peter's chains also reminds us that New Testament times were firmly part of the Iron Age and there are several scriptural references to "ruling with an iron sword". Ironbridge may be a World Heritage Site, and it is very enlightening to visit it, but the developments there were late in the history of iron: one can find Foundry Inns and Foundry Roads in the most tranquil locations of North Norfolk where iron nodules had been found in land little more than 10,000 years old.

It matters little that the first rail-ways were constructed of timber, but it is useful to remember that Bonny Prince Charlie may have used the alignment of one such to link a colliery on what is now the eastern outskirts of Edinburgh. Simmons, who rightly in many ways, has had a considerable influence on the historical study of railways is too English in his approach and gives the impression that the Liverpool & Manchester Railway had a primary influence. It probably did in its initiation of a railway network, but railways (as we knew them) would have happened without it. Simmons' dismissal of the Stockton & Darlington (Tomlinson remains seminal on this railway) as the key influence for Simmons appears to be coloured by the way it operated, which is how railways exist again in Britain: that is without any real coherence. John Major and his doltish cohorts uninvented the Liverpool & Manchester, and this has led to the Paddington, Hatfield and Potters Bar accidents, so far: Simmons notes how safely the L&M operated in spite of the unhappy accident to Huskisson on the opening day.

Freeman does much to place railways within in which they were perceived at the time, and as such this scholarly work (disguised to look like something from the coffee table) does much to show how railways would have been perceived at the time, but also fails to place railways within the context of their precursors: sea and river travel, roads, canals, and the general evolvement of engineering and knowledge of materials. As late as the 1950s most railway mechanical engineers had a very incoherent understanding of the properties of rubber, a material which had been used initially a century before: as usual in such progress a few key figures emerged to challenge this ignorance. Two centuries before (the 1750s) innovators had to learn the hard way how to design pressure vessels capable of handling steam, initially at very low pressures. The spur was to provide pumps to keep mines free from water to extract the materials (coal, tin, lead, etc) to produce the things which an increasingly complex society was "needing". Writers, like Rolt and Tuplin, who looked backwards towards some halcyon former days and deprecate current developments sometimes fail to appreciate that the environment in which we "choose" to live is a consequence of ill-defined corporate choices. For a general overview of technological development the five volume survey under Singer remains supreme.


Early rail-ways were local affairs which were usually intended to assist with the movement of minerals from a pit, or pits, to navigable waterways, and later canals. Once canal companies became involved there was the genesis for networks, and several pre-1825/1830 ventures demonstrate that their creators were aware that something larger might emerge in the same way that canals were growing from being local concerns into considerable networks. The same process was at work on the roads. To an extent all this activity in the eighteenth century was leading up to the frenetic activity in the following one. For a full understanding of this period it is necessary to be aware what was going on in highway and waterway engineering, as well as in the Industrial and Agricultural Revolutions. Thomas Telford was the instigator both of direct canals and roads at the time immediately prior to the formation of the Liverpool & Manchester Railway, and although he questionned the need for railways he contributed his skill to this first mainline.

Coal mining & railways

The great impetus for railways, whether made of timber or of iron, was for the carriage of coal. The extraction of coal and mineral ores demanded pumps to keep the workings dry, and in consequence mines were the scene of some of the earliest uses of steam power, initially with atmospheric engines, but subsequently with "high-pressure" engines. Having a source of power it was possible to exploit this for haulage, and this led to experiments with steam locomotion by Trevithick in Redruth, Cornwall. At first attempts were made to develop a vehicle for roads, but the problems encountered led Trevithick to demonstrate his locomotive on the Penydarran (or Pen-y-Darran) plateway in South Wales, and subsequently on a circular track in Euston Square. News of these experiments reached the coalfields near Leeds and in Northumberland. Soon steam locomotives were being developed which could be used for the routine haulage of coal, with the names of Blenkinsop, Hackworth and George Stephenson coming to the fore.

Railways were gradually becoming more formalized: the Surrey Ironway was a typical example, of such increasing organization, but a seminal development was the instigation of the Stockton & Darlington Railway in 1825. This combined the use of steam power with the routine haulage of coal. People like Jack Simmons tended to be rather sniffy about the Stockton & Darlington as it lacked much of the structure which railways in Britain used to have and was swept into the dustbin of history by such giants as John Major and somebody called Macgregor (who is better known for growing lettuces to be eaten by bunny rabbits). The Quaker Pease family and George Stephenson make Major, Mawhinney and Macgregor look like midgets in their towering historical achievements.

Pearce states that the Stockton & Darlington Railway was built as a mineral railway, and for no other purpose. The philosophy was simple; to get coal from the South Durham coal-fields down to the River Tees for distribution and later for export at as low a cost as possible. A canal had been considered and rejected, and the advocates of a railway had their way Since they were first in the field on any sort of scale, the railway did succeed in this purpose and continued to be profitable for a long time, but the first few years were touch and go.

The adoption of steam locomotive haulage was a bold step, and very nearly failed because of the unreliability of the early engines, but as it turned out to be cheaper than horse traction it was worthwhile to persevere with it.

The passenger business was by way of being an accident. It had not been considered as a commercial proposition, and at first all passenger traffic and much of the coal traffic was contracted out to individuals, who ran their own horse drawn wagons and coaches on the line, and paid the Company for the privilege. It was a surprise to all concerned when this passenger service proved to be so popular, but it was not for this reason that the Company bought out most of the contractors later but because of the huge nuisance of the horse-drawn traffic under separate and largely independent control causing trouble and hindering any sort of regular steam hauled traffic.

Furthermore, it should never be forgotten that the North Easterners were clearly aware of what their new creations would eventually be able to achieve. The Great North Eastern concept was perceived from the inception of the first mainline to link the Tyne with York.

It is strange that the Blair administration, following the Major administration,  has invested vastly to enhance the nation's ties with Europe whilst doing nothing, at trivial financial risk, to improve the links to the remainder of Britain and to other parts of Europe. Providing a through London to Marseilles and Montpellier and one through train from Edinburgh would be a wise investment within the context of the amount of chalk and clay shifted bewteen London and the Channel. Its policy on airports is absurdly at variance with its posturing on global warming and shows no wish to control growth in air traffic, most of which appears to lack a sound financial and no ecological foundation.

The network comes into being

Simmons tends to overplay the importance of the Liverpool & Manchester Railway. Like most railway historians, he also underplayed the role of Telford, who tended to be dismissive of railways. It is interesting to speculate what would have happened to the history of transport if steam-powered coaches and road wagons had ben developed more rapidly as Telford had greatly advanced both road (and canal) engineering: much of which was followed by early railway civil engineers

Dickinson's A short history of the steam engine (1938) clearly shows how nearly the technology required for light steam road vehicles as developed by Goldsworthy Gurney and Walter Hancock reached a stage where fast road transits would have become possible, but that Parliament introduced legislation which enabled ths turnpike trusts to kill this iniative from the mid-1830s.

The Liverpool and Manchester was certainly a passenger railway, and following the Rainhill Trials, steam never looked back. But other inter-city routes would have hatched, as happened on a much grander scale between Bristol & London. Both Liverpool and Bristol grew rich from the market in slaves, and it might have been better if a more innocent venture such as the line linking Norwich with Yarmouth had been earlier: at that time Norwich was a relatively more powerful city and needed faster access to its port. Nevertheless, history is history, and the lines from Liverpool gradually reached Birmingham, and then London (although by that time it was London which reached Liverpool). Furthermore, to emphasize this change in direction a magnificent portico was erected in Euston Square to celebrate this act, only to be destroyed by a scrap-metal dealer called Marples (no other Minister of Transport money-laundered into his own pockets on the scale of this man).

The Great Wayward Western

The Great Western Railway (see MacDermott's history) could have been considered with the London & Birmingham and the Great North of England Railway, but it cannot as it was eccentric in the extreme, and was constructed in such a way that interface with these others was greatly inhibited.  Brunel's choice of the broad gauge would have been inspired, if it had been made thirty years earlier, but by the decision was made it was obvious that a network would emerge, and networks demand standards. It would have been comparable to building a canal filled with mercury. Thus any consideration of Brunel must assume that he was a flawed genius. The effects of a multitude of gauges inhibited progress in Australia, and it is still a mess which is being corrected. Another of Brunel's more wayward ideas was the atmospheric traction system. It would be interesting, however, to construct a model of it using modern materials: at one time the Lottery Fund might have been prepared to finance such a novelty. Brunel remains great as a bridge and tunnel engineer, however, and many of his greatest monuments remain: notably, the suspension bridge at Avon, the Royal Albert Bridge at Saltash, Box Tunnel and the great line westward from London to Bristol. On the other hand the citizens of Plymouth and Cornwall deserve a proper railway to link it to the rest of Britain.

The railway mania

For my own generation financial bubbles were something which had happened in the past - that is until the .com bubble came and departed. Thus the railway mania was something which had happened in the past like the South Sea Bubble, and was unlikely to happen in more prosaic times, but clearly this is not so. Lewin is indelibly associated with the Railway Mania and its aftermath. The rise and fall of George Hudson is a major component of this period. It is now obvious that men like Hudson still abound, and that the gap between crime and politics remains paper thin. Crossrail and Thameslink 2000 have all the hallmarks of the 1850s to remind the gullable electorate that paper railways are almost as good as real ones.

Victorian consolidation

A Railway Commission was eventually formed to regulate dividends and rates of carriage to control the railway monpoly. In 1836 the Morrison Bill was introduced to regulate dividends but was opposed by Sir Robert Peel and failed. In 1846 an Act was passed to form a Railway Commission with five members, the Chairman was paid £2000 per annum (an early quango?), two others received £1500 p.a. and the other two were MPs. This ceased on 18 October 1851 and its functions were taken over by the Board of Trade. In 1865 a specific Commission was formed under the Duke of Devonshire as Chairman and in 1872 a Standing Committee of the Lords and Commons was formed to investigate railway rates. Lord Salisbury sat on this Committee. The article naively notes "It is not surprising that there should be discontent and suspicion, even though there may be no real ground for it; and if the companies should become rich and prosperous their discontent and suspicion may well be aggravated to such an extent as to become dangerous to them." (pure spin). In 1873 the Railway and Canal Traffic Act led to the appointment of three Railway Commissioners (one legal and one railway) to intercede in inter-railway/canal disputes, and on behalf of individuals with railway or canal companies. It should arrange for through rates to be agreed. Sir Frederick Peel, brother of Sir Robert, served on this Commission for 26 years. In 1885 in an action by Hall against the LBSCR terminal charges were allowed. A new Act of 1888 led to a new Commission with two appointed and three ex-officio (judges from England, Scotland and Ireland). (The Railway Commission. R.R. Dodds. Rly Mag. 3, 435-40.)

Railway Clearing House
Modelled on the Bankers' Clearing House established in 1773. RCH came into existence on 2nd January 1842. Carr Glyn (Chairman of the L&B) played a leading role and was the first RCH Chairman. It began with a part-time secretary and six clerks, by 1913 there were 2500 clerks. The Railway Clearing House - 150 years on. John W.E. Helm. Backtrack, 1993, 7, 188-94.

High noon of competition
The 1890s/early 1900s saw the Manchester Sheffield & Lincolnshire reach London and become the Great Central Railway; the Caledonian construct lines all over the place, mainly in conflict with its immediate neighbours, the Midland & Great Northern's expansion towards Cromer, and the Great Western's adventures at Fishguard and its new lines to South Wales, the West of England, the Midlands, and from the Midlands to the South West. The tube lines were also constructed at this time. With the exception of the last many of these lines have disappeared. Much has been written about the Great Central (notably by Dow), much less about the other lines, but the Caledonian's adventures could have done little for its shareholders. It was absurd to construct an underground railway in central Glasgow and then not to electrify it. What justification was there for competing with the G&SWR for the limited traffic to the Isle of Arran? The great liners never arrived at the vastly expensive Fishguard. Present day airport planners might be wise to visit Fishguard, however. The magnificent folly of the Humber Bridge, and the grandiose stations on the Jubilee Line extension are reminders that similar escapades are always possible.

No sooner had the Great Western reached Fishguard than the first murmerings of mergers began. The GNR attempted to merge with the GCR and GER, but this was thwarted by the Government. Working agreements were established between the LNWR, L&YR and MR and this set the pattern for the Grouping. In the 1890s the South Eastern Railway and the London Chatham & Dover Railway had formalised an agreement in what appeared to be a merged railway: the South Eastern & Chatham Railway. The CR and NBR, former arch rivals, also began to look for savings, by working more closely. Only the GWR continued to compete and managed to build new lines in the Inter-War period. The remainder emerged as new enterprises, or in the case of the LMS an un-enterprise.


Rutherford catsigates the LMS: From the beginning the LMSR sought to be a centralised corporate entity working to an unalterable and increasingly bureaucratic system. Local initiative was not encouraged (quite the opposite); where previously on most of the constituent railways small traders could negotiate their affairs with a local railway official (this was particularly true on the LNWR which assumed that its employees possessed brains and common- sense), this all came to a stop and time-consuming paperwork, full of irrelevant questions, was passed back and forth between a local distinct and a divisional office many miles away. Only road transport operators could benefit —and they did. Unfortunately the new company was too busy looking to see what savings it could make by 'rationalisation' (ie closing down workshops, sheds, marginal services &c, and shedding labour) and seeking out (and silencing) dissent to worry about business from minor customers.


The LNER is always treated more kindly by historians, possibly because it Chairman, William Whitelaw, and its General Manager, Sir Ralph Wedgwood, were gentlemen of the highest calibre, and the railway inspite of its poverty, was able to attract people like Dow and Bonavia to record its good points. Furthermore, unlike the LMS and its successors, it did not skimp on little things. One only needs to think of the manicured permanent way which characterized the North Eastern Area and of the magnificent posters which portrayed an East Coast with a balmy climate for a fashionable life on the promenade. Although the LNER failed to reach it, Southwold is in the twenty-first century the nearest to that East Coast paradigm of gentle elegance.

The Southern [electric]

The Southern was driven by Sir Herbert Walker, its General Manager, who had arrived from the LNWR via the LSWR. Klapper has written an excellent biography and records how the incipient company nearly lost the services of this great man whilst considering a form of devolved management worthy of John Major's contribution to the history of railways. Walker perceived that the fortunes of the Company would be best served by a simple form of electrification, and this decision changed the character of the Southern Home Counties, and probably established a form of social stability which has since been mirrored by other intelligent regimes elsewhere (although they in general have failed to provide the transport). Walker also started a policy of railway positive rationalization, notably of the Boat Train routes and in Thanet, which the myopic Beeching would have examined if he had been a great scientist. The docks at Southampton were greatly developed and preparations to meet the new opportunities provided by mass air travel were made at Gatwick and at Lullingstone. In its last period it took Bulleid on board to revolutionize its residual steam services.

The Great Western [between the Wars]

Unlike the two northern companies, the GWR invested heavily during the Inter-War period: on renewing its locomotive stock (with slightly up-dated versions of designs which in some cases were over fifty years old), on holiday traffic (WW2 stopped new lines being built to obviate the coastal section in South Devon which would have been useful and a new branch line to Looe). It invested in stations (major works at Cardiff, Bristol and Leamington Spa, and far more was in preparation) on freight depots, new cut-offs (Frome and Westbury), and electrification was considered. In some respects (notably signalling and electrification) it was conservative in the extreme, but its diesel railcars showed huge potential. It has been suggested that creative acounting was used to keep the shareholders happy.


The report of the Board of Trade Committee on Railway Arrangements and Amalgamations in 1911 recommended a reduction in wasteful competition and set the road towards the 1923 Grouping, although the period of Governemt Control during WW1 was also highly significant and in the immediate aftermath of the War Nationalization was considered for a time. Sir Eric Geddes, a former Deputy General Manager of the NER, became the first Minister of Transport, and initially seven groups were recommended: the southern ,western, eastern, north western, north eastern, Scottish and London. were advocated, but these were reduced to four. The Amalgamation Act included some easing of restrictions on railway rates and charges and a new freight classifiaction system, but these were inadequate to cope with road competition and the 1928 Road Traffic Act, and subsequent Acts sought to bring some relief to the Railway Companies. In 1933 the Railway Finance Corporation was established to increase investment on the railways and alleviate unemployment. The LPTB was formed in the same year. During WW2 the railways were run by the Railway Executice Committee. The 1947 Transport Act led to the British Transport Commission, the Railway Executive (and others for road haulage, hotels, etc) and the Regions.

Gourvish is the major historian of the nationalized railways in Great Britain. When the Conservatives returned to power in 1951 the BTC lost road haulage and the Railway Executive was abolished. Area Boards were established. The Modernisation Plan was published in 1954, but this was not well costed, and many unwise technical decisions were made, such as retaining the vacuum brake and the methods adopted for selecting diesel traction. No business appraisal was attempted. In some cases investment was made on diesel locomotives for traffic which soon be lost. Coal powered haulage was very appropriate for areas where the coal industry would soon be closed. No consideration was given to the limited retention of oil-fuelled steam where the future for rail traffic looked bleak. Meanwhile there was an explosive growth in freight transport by road, subsequently assisted by motorways. The Select Committee on Nationalised Industries in 1960 exposed weakness in the 1947 Act. Ernest Marples, elected to stop the West Coast electrification, instigated the Stedeford Committee and that strange chemist Beeching. The BTC was abolished in 1962 and the BRB was created and granted commercial freedom (in theory). Labour returned to "power" in 1964, but the most significant closues, such as the Borders route, took place under this inept administration (they were too embroiled in urban corruption to be interested in broader issues). The 1968 Transport Act introduced line-by-line subsidies, the PTEs and the NFC. The Conservatives returned in 1970 and their 1974 Railways Act introduced the Public Service Obligation grant, the PTEs were extended. The nadir point of railways in Britain was the Serpell report which even The Economist derided: this envisaged in railway terms a railway network comparable with that of Jamaica.

The ill-considered Privatization of British Railways has led to one or two excellent studies on the Nationalization of British Railways in 1948, and to some of the alternatives considered at that time. One of the best of these is by Helm [Part 1; Part 2; Part 3]. The third part considers some of the alternatives considered in the immediate-pre-1948 period, notably by the Railway Companies' Association.

For a very serious assessment of the latter part of British Rail's demise and converion into an assortment of "businesses" which absorb a vast amount of Government time and even vaster funds see Gourvish's majesterial work.


The aristocratic (adj: sometimes derogatory) Salisburys considered that the Great Northern offered a grand opportunity to get rid of the Great North Road from Hatfield Park and provide a fast means of access to London. Thus the road which now forms the A1000 was constructed to parallel the railway and both snake round the park yet genuflect towards the grand entrance to the Palace. Thus, it could be claimed that the Salisburys instigated the Hatfield disaster in the Millenium by forcing a circuitous approach to their property.

Compared with many other railway accidents the Hatfield disaster was a small scale affair yet because of the absurd actions by almost everybody it was magnified to a scale of immense magnitude. At first the police supposed that it might be an act of terrorism and delayed the technical assessment of the action. Secondly, the police were determined that the accident should be subjected to minute scrutiny and the railway was closed for weeks whilst people were subjected to intolerable delay by other means of transport (much of which would have failed detailed scrutiny by the same police). The Hertfordshire police remove the carnage from the nearby motorways with no regard for the "feelings of the bereaved" or "seeking for causes of the disaster": its sole response is to keep the traffic moving. Later, the response to the Heck road accident where a vehicle fell off an improperly-protected motorway causing a railway disaster was to treat it as a "railway accident" rather than Britain's worst motorway disaster (the "road" remained open without any thought for the bereaved passengers and railway men..

The reason for the accident was technical incompetence on a gigantic scale, yet the police have been unable to bring any case against the purpetrators in spite of their meticulous bungling. The technical consequences were still further magnified by the failure of Railtrack to manage, and in consequence the company deserved to fail, and its demise should have been comparable to that of the White Star Line following the sinking of the Titanic. But it had to await the Potters Bar disaster which Jarvis hoped was terrorist activity to bring the railway industry back towards some form of order. In many respects Blair et cie have had a mid-Victorian approach to what was going on around them.

Beeching's paradigm

As a chemical engineer Beeching's paradigm for railways was a pipeline in which the route taken does not really matter. Thus he was obsessed with the closure of the East Coast route north of Newcastle as traffic could be re-routed via Carlisle. The fact that this would be slower for passengers did not matter to the arrogant man - if he wanted to get from Teesside to the Forth he would use his personal jet. The Beeching plan left Britain without a railway network: whole areas (North Cornwall, the Scottish Borders) still lack access by rail. Cities which might have been regarded as having strategic value only have a train service if the sea is not rough. Imagine if Spain had layed claim to Plymouth, yet successive governments have tolerated Plymouth having a train service only if the wind and tide are right. How could a man who became a "Lord" allow such a folly? Perhaps he had a preview of Alan Clark's Diaries where it is obvious that the diarist only saw Plymouth in terms of his own majority. Beeching's contribution to global warming is almost comparable with that of former President George W. Bush..

Norwich: an unlikely Premier League City

We now have the absurd situation where Lottery funds were being squandered to provide an elite with the means of boating around the former redundant canals, whilst it is still impossible to reach much of Britain by rail. Perhaps all Ministers of Transport should be sent to Marylebone Station. Here, like the cleric who was finding it difficult to meditate in London and was directed thence by the Rev. Ronnie Knox, he should ponder how to travel by train for a pilgrimage in Walsingham, or a fish dinner in Padstow, or why it is not possible to travel across Norfolk from Kings Lynn to Norwich. This last, briefly "Premier League" City, is remote from everywhere except London which is reached rapidly in cast-offs from real inter-city travel. Not even Virgin Cross-Country reaches it. Much of the rest of Britain is reached by sleepy diesel railcars which stop at an extraordinary mixture of places in the depth of the Midlands before expiring at Liverpool. Birmingham, Scotland, Leeds and Newcastle are dependent upon doubtful connections at Peterborough reached on return journeys via inconvenient steps at this fenland outpost. The West Country involves tedious journeys on the Circle Line (the most unreliable section of London's transport). Imagine if Norwich was a French city with a successful football team. To begin with it would have a tramway network to link the railroad station to the regional hospital, and if that was still under construction it would have gas-fueled buses. Bacton is the source of such fuel yet the local buses belch filth like those in Bogor as they struggle up the hill to the "City" centre.

Significant technical advances
improved materials & construction techniques
higher speeds
greater haulage capacity
electric traction

Updated: 2006-11-12