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Flashback Friday: the world’s first railways

A British Railways Jacobite steam locomotive pulls a train across the Glen Finnan Railway Viaduct in Scotland. Photo credit: Shutterstock

In its Flashback Friday series, FreightWaves publishes articles that look back at various aspects of the transportation industry’s history. If there are topics that you think would be of interest, please send them to [email protected]

Today the United States and railroad buffs around the world celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Transcontinental Railroad (link to last week’s article). While this was a monumental achievement that changed the United States forever, railroads actually began in the United Kingdom (where they are called railways).

This article traces the history of the United Kingdom’s railways.

The Swansea and Mumbles Railway – a horse-drawn railcar. Image courtesy of Wikipedia

The early railways

Great Britain’s railway system is the world’s oldest. Long before steam-powered locomotives, the system began with local wooden wagonways. These involved laying planks along cleared paths to make the transport of goods easier and faster. Over time and in certain locations, some of these wagonways were connected.

In essence, a wagonway was a railway using animals (generally horses or oxen) to pull the cars or wagons. German miners at Caldbeck, in Cumbria, England, used one of the first in the 1560s to haul coal. Similar wagonways were in use in Germany, and the miners likely brought the idea with them from their native country. Another wagonway was built at Prescot, near Liverpool, sometime around 1600. It also carried coal about one-half of a mile to a terminal.

Historians note that in 1671 “railed roads” were used in Durham to make it easier  to move coal. The first was the Tanfield Wagonway. More of these wagonways (also known as tramroads) were built around the country in the 17th and 18th centuries. The “roads” used straight and parallel timber rails on which carts with simple flanged iron wheels were drawn by horses, enabling several wagons to be moved simultaneously. They were used primarily to move coal and other goods from one place to another faster and with greater ease than they could be moved by man or horse in the more traditional manner.

The first public railway in the world was the Lake Lock Rail Road, a narrow gauge railway built near Wakefield in West Yorkshire, England.

The introduction of steam

The first use of steam locomotives was in Great Britain. As noted above, its earliest “railways” followed straight lines and were built using parallel timber rails. Horse-drawn carts moved along these railways. In 1793 a mile-long tramway was built using L-shaped cast iron rails. This type of rail was made obsolete when cast iron rails without guiding ledges were manufactured. These featured cart wheels with flanges. However, cast iron is brittle and rails broke too easily. In 1820, a method to roll wrought iron rails was developed by John Birkenshaw. Wrought iron rails became the standard at that point.

In 1807 the first public railway that carried passengers was the Swansea and Mumbles Railway at Oystermouth. It used horse-drawn carriages on an existing tramline. Similar lines opened around the nation. A number of local rail links (powered by horses) operated by private railway companies existed in the late 18th century and in the first part of the 19th century.

But while horse-drawn carts or carriages did move goods and people faster than other contemporary forms of transport, they were limited to the speed of the animals. However, several men were experimenting with the use of a steam-powered engine that could pull loads along tracks.

Richard Trevithick designed and built the first steam locomotive to run on smooth rails in 1802. However, the Salamanca, a steam locomotive built in 1812 by John Blenkinsop and Matthew Murray, was the first commercially successful model (drawing below courtesy of Wikipedia). It ran on the Middleton Railway, which had rails that were four feet apart (the railway’s gauge). The locomotive had cog wheels driven by two cylinders that were embedded into the top of the boiler.

A year later, William Hedley and Timothy Hackworth designed a locomotive to be used on the tram line between Stockton and Darlington. This locomotive had pistons that extended upwards to pivoting beams, connected by rods to a crankshaft that drove gears attached to the wheels. This design improvement meant that the wheels were coupled, allowing better traction on the rails. In 1814, George Stephenson improved that design with his first locomotive, the first to use single-flanged wheels.

George Stephenson. Image courtesy of Encyclopedia Britannica

Stephenson’s design convinced the investors of the proposed Stockton and Darlington Railway to hire him in 1821 as the railway’s engineer. Originally designed to be a horse-drawn railway, Stephenson convinced the investors to convert to a steam-powered railway. The Act creating the railway was amended to allow the use of steam locomotives and passengers to be conveyed on the line. The 25-mile long railway opened on September 27, 1825 and became the world’s first locomotive-hauled public railway.

The Stockton & Darlington Railway on its 100th anniversary in 1925. Photo courtesy of Encyclopedia Britannica

The first “real” railway

The Liverpool and Manchester Railway opened in 1830. This railway established the norms of modern railways. The Liverpool and Manchester was the world’s first inter-city passenger railway. It was also the first to have scheduled services (trains running on a fixed schedule), terminals and many of the services expected on intercity passenger rail now. The railway carried both freight and passengers, and also opened the world’s first goods terminal station at Park Lane at Liverpool’s south docks. To reach this station, the railway had to build the 1.26-mile Wapping Tunnel. The Wapping Tunnel was followed in 1836 by the extension of the railway to the Lime Street Station in Liverpool. The extension required the construction of a 1.1 mile tunnel underneath existing buildings and streets in the city’s center.

Other public railways were built around Great Britain in the two decades following the opening of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway. Most were local rail links that were operated by private companies. During the 1840s in particular, railway growth accelerated. At the beginning of the decade, there were a few railway lines scattered around the country. Over the course of the decade, however, a network of railways were constructed; the majority of cities, towns and even villages had at least one rail connection, and some had two or even three.

A national network and government intervention

For the rest of the 19th century and into the 20th century the isolated railways gradually grew into a national network (operated by many different railway companies that were competitors).

During this period many of the smaller private railway companies were bought (and re-bought) by those who sought to build a network of railways that covered specific regions of the country – or even the nation as a whole. As the 20th century dawned, most of the railways were controlled by a small number of larger companies.

In addition to the consolidation of the railways, the era also witnessed an increase in government involvement and oversight – particularly in matters related to railway and passenger safety.

In 1840, the Act for Regulating Railways gave the Board of Trade the right to appoint railway inspectors. This led to the establishment of the Railway Inspectorate, which was empowered to investigate railway accidents and recommend ways of avoiding future accidents of a similar nature. While an 1844 bill sponsored by William Gladstone that called for the purchase of the railways by the government did not pass Parliament, it did lead to minimum standards of railway car construction, as well as compulsory third-class passenger accommodations, which guaranteed railway access to the poor.    

World War I, competition from trucking and the Big Four

The Great War (World War I) led to government control of the railways in Great Britain. This allowed for coordinated planning, as well as the movement of troops and materiel. While there were calls for the formal nationalization of the railways, Conservative members of the coalition government were opposed, and nationalization did not occur (at that time).

A British Railways steam locomotive and tender car. Photo credit: Shutterstock

In 1923, five years after the end of the war, almost all of the remaining railways were consolidated into the “Big Four” –  the Great Western Railway, the London and North Eastern Railway, the London, Midland and Scottish Railway and the Southern Railway. The Big Four railways were all joint-stock public companies. There were a handful of other rail lines, which were already operating as joint railways, that remained separate from the Big Four. These included the Somerset and Dorset Joint Railway and the Midland and Great Northern Joint Railway. In general, the Big Four railroads ran the overground railway system (both passenger and freight services) in Great Britain for the next 25 years.  

In a parallel to what was occurring in the United States, railways in the United Kingdom were being challenged by trucks during the 1920s and 1930s. The country’s road system had been improved, and technological improvements in trucks meant that they could haul more freight faster than they were able to previously. This competition reduced the railways’ revenue at a time that the railway companies needed to maintain and upgrade their tracks, engines and railcars. Just like in the U.S., the railways had deferred maintenance as they consolidated ownership. The railways charged that the government had favored the trucking industry because taxpayer funds had been used to improve existing roads and build new ones, while the government restricted railways’ use of flexible pricing because they were mandated to use government-approved rates.

A futuristic locomotive (from the 1930s) at King’s Cross Station, London. Image courtesy of Wikipedia

Several government commissions studied the issue; in the end the government adopted recommendations that trucks should be taxed to help fund the roads and that vehicle and fuel excise taxes be levied. These government actions helped the railways to survive the competition from the trucking industry. However, the railways began a period of slow decline due to insufficient investment in their infrastructure coupled with changes in transportation modes, policies and the lifestyles of the British people.  

St. Pancras Station is one of the key railway station in the City of London. Photo credit: Shutterstock

From World War II to 1948 and the advent of nationalization

The companies’ management worked together during the Second World War; the railways essentially worked as one company for over six years. The railways were essential to the war effort (as they had been during World War I). Nonetheless, helping the United Kingdom in its war effort stretched the railways’ resources severely. Moreover, deferred maintenance – some of it going back decades – continued to increase. When World War II ended, the Labour government in power decided to nationalize Great Britain’s railways .

On January 1, 1948, the Big Four were taken over by the national government and consolidated into British Railways, with government oversight by the British Transport Commission. Initially there were few public-facing changes made. Maintenance was improved, and track and stations that needed it were upgraded in the period between 1948 and 1954. However, rail revenues began to fall again, and British Railways was unprofitable in 1955.

Modernization attempts

A government report – the “Modernisation Plan” – was published in January 1955, and its authors had sought to develop a plant to guide British Railways through the second half of the 20th century. A 1956 government White Paper sought to increase the railway’s “speed, reliability, safety and line capacity through a series of measures that would make services more attractive to passengers and freight operators, thus recovering traffic lost to the roads.”

Among the measures that the government paper proposed were: electrification of principal main lines; large-scale dieselization to replace steam locomotives; new passenger and freight rolling stock; resignalling and track renewals; modern marshalling yards; and the closure of an unspecified, but relatively small, number of lines.

A British Railways steam locomotive pulls a passenger train. Photo credit: Shutterstock

The government endorsed the 1955 program (at a cost of £1.2 billion), but did so primarily for political reasons. Not all the modernization proposals were effective at reducing costs. Dieselization contracts went primarily to British suppliers that had limited experience in diesel locomotive manufacturing, and rushed commissioning based on an expectation of rapid electrification. As a result, a number of the new locomotives were poorly designed and there was a lack of standardization that impacted financial performance. Concurrently, containerized freight was being developed (as it was in the United States).

The marshalling yard building program failed; it was based on faulty planning regarding the volume of rail freight due to competition from trucks. Despite the changes made under the modernization plan, the percentage of freight hauled by rail did not substantially improve and British Railways’ financial losses increased.

The failure to improve the financial health of British Railways despite large investments led both Conservative and Labour governments to decrease investments and to begin cutbacks of various types. In 2002 a BBC Radio Four documentary blamed many of the 1950s decisions for the “beleaguered” condition of the railway system at that time.

One of several versions of the British Railways logo. Photo credit: Shutterstock

The 1960s – more changes and attempts to modernize

Changes continued at British Railways during the 1960s. In 1962, oversight of British Railways was transferred from the British Transport Commission to the British Railways Board, an independent statutory corporation. Major reductions in the British Railways network began during the mid-1960s. In 1965 the name of the corporation changed from British Railways to British Rail. The effort to move away from steam locomotion that began in the mid-1950s was completed by 1968. The only exception was the Vale of Rheidol Railway (a narrow-gauge tourist line).

Continuing its efforts to generate greater profitability, British Rail undertook major reductions in its railway network during the mid-1960s. Under a Conservative government, Dr. Richard Beeching was installed as the Chairman of the company in 1963 in order to reorganize and downsize it – with the bottom-line goal of reducing government subsidies to the railway. This resulted in many branch lines and secondary routes being closed, as well as the closure of many rail stations serving rural communities across the country. By closing these stations, the volume of feeder traffic to main line passenger services was also reduced. Many of the railway’s  freight depots that were used by the coal and iron industries were also closed; this shifted even more freight traffic to the trucking industry. Nearly one-third of the overall British Railways network was closed. Both the passenger- and freight-related closures were unpopular with the general public and business and remain unpopular now, nearly 60 years later.

Another version of the British Railways logo. Photo credit: Shutterstock

In 1964 British Railways changed its method for calculating passenger fares. Going forward, fares on some routes – such as rural, holiday and commuter services – would be set at a higher price than on other routes; previously, fares had been calculated using a simple rate for the distance traveled.

Becoming a passenger-focused railway

A key outcome of the downsizing was that passengers replaced freight as the main source of business and income for British Rail. However, the number of passengers traveling on British Rail trains decreased from the late 1950s through the late 1970s. Then passenger services experienced a renewal when British Rail introduced high-speed intercity trains in the 1970s. But in the 1980s there were severe cuts in rail subsidies by the government, which led to above-inflation fare increases as the railway tried to generate revenue to make up for the lost subsidies. British Rail then introduced rail sectors and distance pricing, and intercity passenger service became profitable.

During the 1980s and 1990s British Rail closed some parts of the railway that had survived the slew of closings of the mid-1960s. In addition, British Rail was reorganized again; its regional structure was replaced with business-led sectors. Known as “sectorization,” but was cut short in 1994 when British Rail was split apart during privatization. When sectorization was introduced in 1982, three passenger sectors were created: InterCity, operating principally express services among major cities; London & South East (renamed in 1986 as Network SouthEast), which operated commuter services in the Greater London area; and Provincial (renamed in 1989 as Regional Railways) responsible for all other passenger services. Of the three, Provincial was subsidized at the highest rate (per passenger-kilometer); its costs were four times higher than the revenue it generated.

A British Rail passenger train. Photo credit: Shutterstock


Between 1994 and 1997, British Rail was privatized. Track and infrastructure ownership was transferred to Railtrack on April 1, 1994. British Rail’s passenger services later were franchised to 25 private-sector operators, while the freight services were sold to six companies, five of which were owned by the same buyer.

In 1992, privatization of British Rail was proposed by the Conservative government; the Labour Party and the rail unions opposed the idea. By 1997 the New Labour manifesto had shifted to opposition to the Conservative proposal to privatize the London Underground. In a 2004 radio interview, former Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen general secretary Lew Adams stated, “All the time it [British Rail] was in the public sector, all we got were cuts, cuts, cuts. And today there are more members in the trade union, more train drivers, and more trains running. The reality is that it worked, we’ve protected jobs, and we got more jobs.”

British Rail’s privatization led to its operations being split into more than 100 companies. As noted above, ownership and operation of the railway’s infrastructure was assumed by Railtrack. The railway’s inventory of rolling stock was transferred to three private rolling stock companies. British Rail’s passenger services were split into 25 operating companies; these were leased under a franchise agreement for a fixed period of time.

British Rail’s final passenger services ended when ScotRail was franchised. The railway ran its final train – a Railfreight Distribution freight train in the fall of 1997. The Strategic Rail Authority replaced the British Railways Board in early 2001.

Since the 1997 privatization, the British rail industry’s structure, franchise areas, as well as the companies franchising passenger services have changed a number of times.

In addition, during the intervening 22 years since privatization occurred, numerous groups and organizations have proposed the renationalization of British Rail. Renationalization of Britain’s railways continues to be popular. More than 65 percent of those polled in 2012 (70 percent) and 2013 (66 percent) supported renationalization.

A British Rail sign pointing the way to a station. Photo credit: Shutterstock

The term lengths of passenger rail franchises vary; some terms are for over 10 years. Because of these franchises, complete renationalization would be difficult and lengthy unless franchisees were compensated for broken contracts.

Partial privatization has occurred, however, When Railtrack (which purchased British Rail’s infrastructure) stopped trading in 2002, the Labour Party was in power. It established Network Rail, a non-profit corporation to assume Railtrack’s responsibilities – instead of renationalizing that portion of the railway network.

In September 2014, however, Network Rail was reclassified as a central government body, which added approximately £34 billion to government debt obligations. Jeremy Corbyn is the current Labour Party leader. He has pledged that if the Labour Party takes power it will gradually renationalize British Rail, creating a “People’s Railway.”

Time will tell what the next chapter for the British rail system will be.

Scott Mall

Scott Mall serves as Managing Editor of FreightWaves Classics. He writes articles for the website, edits the SONAR Daily Watch series, marketing material for FreightWaves and a variety of FreightWaves special projects. Mall’s career spans 45 years in public relations, marketing and communications for Fortune 500 corporations, international non-profits, public relations agencies and government agencies.