Accessibility Links

History of Railways in the UK

The history of the UK's railways is not just about trains but also about changes to the social fabric of the country. It is a story about the move from an agricultural economy to an industrial one and from steam engines to high-speed trains.
 

But the story begins earlier than you might imagine. Railways have their roots in early civilisations, where it was recognised that wheeled vehicles were easier to manage and required less maintenance if run through grooved "rail lines" in the blocks of the roads.
The first railway is believed to have been built in 15th-century Scandinavia, where iron miners made tracks from straight tree trunks to transport wagons through the mountains. The later adoption of the wheel flange enabled a pair of wheels to be kept on a track and the use of wagons hauled by man or horse along tracks became commonplace across Europe.
 

Britain was to become a world leader in the development of the railway. In 1727 the world's first railway viaduct, the Causey Arch, was built in County Durham by the Ravensworth Wagonway and it can still be seen today.

The Golden Age of the Train
Britain's railway Golden Age begins in 1804, when Richard Trevithick's Penydarren became the first successful steam locomotive to run on rails, transporting iron along nine miles of track.
By 1825 George Stephenson had opened the North East's Stockton and Darlington Railroad, successfully moving the 36 wagons of Locomotion, his steam-powered coal train, along nine miles of track in two hours. The first passenger journey took place on 27th September of that year when 500 passengers were transported, mainly in goods wagons.

What soon followed was a boom in investment and the construction of the UK's rail network from scratch. In 1830 the first regular passenger service started, with Robert Stephenson's Invicta transporting passengers from Canterbury to Whitstable.

The first railway line between two cities, Liverpool and Manchester, required vast engineering expertise to cut through terrain that included the Chat Moss bog and solid rock at Olive Mount. The famous Rainhill Trials took place to determine which engine would be used for the new service and they were won by Stephenson's Rocket.

Railway Mania
Between 1830 and 1850 some 6,000 miles of track was laid. 1837 saw the opening of the first long-distance line, Joseph Locke's Grand Junction Railway, connecting Birmingham with the Liverpool-Manchester Railway.

The introduction of standard gauges for track, set at four feet eight and a half inches, in 1844 created the opportunity for an inter-operable national rail service. This became the norm for all railway lines, other than the Great Western Paddington to Penzance one, which continued to operate on a seven-foot gauge until 1892.

Passenger Experience
Alongside the rapid growth of the railway system came improvements to the passenger experience. In the 1870s the Pullman parlour cars were introduced on the Midland Railway, providing a touch of luxury. The first dining car, called the Prince of Wales, was introduced on the Leeds to London route in 1879. And in 1881 the first train with electric lighting was introduced on the line between London and Brighton. Brighton also became the place where the first all-electric railway started. Created by Marcus Volks, it still runs today along the city's seafront.

The 20th Century
The early 20th century saw the introduction of automatic signalling and consolidation of the 123 railway companies operating across the country into four: Great Western, Scottish Railway, London Midland and London and North Eastern Railway.

The Second World War saw a change of focus. The railways played a vital role in the war effort; transporting goods and enabling the movement of troops and evacuation of children. There was much damage to the network and rolling stock and in 1948 nationalisation of the railways took place.

Running out of Steam
The move to diesel engines began in earnest between 1955 and 1961, with nearly 2,000 diesel engines being purchased by British Railways. Whilst they required more maintenance, they were less polluting and more economical to run than the earlier steam models.
The railways were in trouble elsewhere, however, as the increasing affordability of cars and expansion of the motorway network was having an impact. A major rationalisation of the rail network took place between 1963 and 1970, resulting in the loss of 6,000 miles of track and 4,000 stations.

Some 13,000 steam locomotives were consigned to the scrap heap, museums or preservation societies.

Modernisation also took place, with the acceleration of electrification of the network, the introduction of air conditioning and sound insulation in units, the use of automatic warning systems (AWNs) in drivers' compartments and an upgrade of safety systems. Work started on high-speed trains and the ground-breaking Channel Tunnel project became a reality.

The 21st Century
Increased traffic on the roads, an expanding population and growing environmental awareness have led to a resurgence of interest in the rail network. There are challenges too, however. With price rises, some issues with meeting customers' expectations and the need for real investment in the network, the private operators now responsible for the system have their work cut out, especially if high-speed rail transport is to become a reality.

Anders spotlight