Simple facts about Britain's railways

The earliest railways in Britain used wooden rails and were used in association with coal mining. In Germany these dated back to the sixteenth century, and were not much later in Britain. Early railways also used stone blocks as a form of track. Both wooden and stone block railways used human or horse power. The timber "rails" wore rapidly and these were covered with iron plates and such railways were known as plateways. Most of these connected mines with canals or rivers. Eventually iron rails were invented and these tended to rest on stone blocks (such blocks can still be seen in places in Cornwall and elsewhere). Sometimes inclined planes were used where either a stationary steam engine pulled the trucks up and down, or gravity acted upon the loaded trucks to pull the empty ones up.

Locomotives were invented two hundred years ago by Richard Trevithick. His first "locomotive" operated on the roads (of Cornwall) but in 1804 an experiment was performed on the Pen-y-Darren Tramway (in South Wales) to see if such a locomotive could perform the work done by horses. It could, but the track was not strong enough. Gradually the locomotive was improved, notably by George Stephenson, and by his son Robert (and by several others: invention is seldom the work of a single man). Most of these developments took place on the Northumberland coalfield, but there were also developments just outside Leeds in Yorkshire.

In 1825 the Stockton & Darlington Railway was opened: this was not Britain's first public railway There had been a much earlier (sanctioned by Parliament in 1801) Surrey Iron Railway which connected industries in the Croydon area to the Thames. The importance of the Stockton & Darlington Railway was its use of steam power provided by George Stephenson, notably with Locomotion No. 1. The function was to carry coal from the pits in County Durham to the sea for shipment. Passengers were carried in horse-drawn trains.

The success of this railway encouraged merchants (bankers and industrialists) in Liverpool to consider building a railway to Manchester for the carriage of passengers and freight, especially cotton, between the two cities which at that time were the largest cities in Britain outside London. When work started on the railway, which included great engineering works (a long tunnel in Liverpool, a major viaduct, and crossing a great bog known as Chat Moss), iit was not certain that steam locomotives would be used. Thought was given to horse power and to inclined planes operated by stationary engines. But George Stephenson encouraged the use of steam. To satisfy the financial backers of the railway a great competition was held at a place called Rainhill where steam locomotives were tested against each other using tests designed to simulate the journey between the two cities. The trial was won by Stephensons' Rocket (it was the work of both Stephensons). For the time this locomotive was remarkably fast and train travel which began in 1830 represented a vastly faster and more reliable means of travel than that possible by waterway or by road.

Very rapidly a railway network was developed. Liverpool and Manchester were connected to Birmingham. Then Birmingham was linked to London. In 1850 the Great Northern Railway was opened through Hitchin to link London directly to Yorkshire and North East England. It had been possible to make these journeys earlier, but the journeys were slow and roundabout. The Great Northern, like the original Liverpool & Manchester Railway was built as a high speed line, a function which it still performs. At about the same time it became possible to travel from London to Scotland by train.

In the late 1830s Brunel in collaboration with financiers in Bristol developed the Great Western Railway to link the port of Bristol with London. This was constructed to a broader gauge of seven feet and with superb civil engineering works, most of which still exist and are used daily by trains travelling at 200 kilometers per hour. These include a bridge over the Thames at Maidenhead and Box Tunnel. The broad gauge did enable trains to run faster, but considerable problems occurred where the broad gauge met the standard gauge and goods had to be unloaded and reloaded. By 1892 all of the broad gauge had been converted to standard gauge.

Traditional railways continued to be built, mainly to serve rural areas until early in the twentieth century. The West Highland Railway which links Glasgow with Fort William and Mallaig was one such late line: the Mallaig Extension used concrete for its viaducts.

Underground railways were developed in London from 1863. These were operated by steam: the section of the London Underground between Paddington and Liverpool Street dates from this period, and the Victorians gradually developed this into what is known as the Circle Line. In the 1890s the deep-level tubes were constructed. Parts of this network are now over a century old. Haulage by cable was originally envisaged (this was used for a "tube" system in Glasgow until the 1930s), but in London electric traction had developed sufficiently for it be used on the City & South London Railway (the first tube). The Circle Line was electrified during the 1900s.

Railway lines south of the Thames were electrified during the 1920s and 1930s, but elsewhere steam locomotives continued to be used even on suburban services. Some electrification took place during the 1960s and 1980s and diesel traction is employed elsewhere, especially on the old Great Western Railway. In most European countries electric trains are used on the majority of services as electric traction is far more environmentally friendly.

Freight traffic has been lost on railways in Britain, except for some container traffic and limited quantities of bulk materials like stone and coal. The most recent loss has been that of the Royal Mail. At the beginning of the twentieth century virtually all freight, carried any distance, was carried by railway. Other than the development of a new main line from London to the Channel Tunnel, no lines comparable to the French, German, Belgian, Dutch, Spanish, Italian or Japanese high speed lines are even being contemplated in Britain.