8 things you (probably) didn’t know about the history of railways

They were central to the spread of the industrial revolution, helping to make Britain one of the most powerful nations in the world. Now, a new book explores the human endurance, ingenuity and, in some cases, folly, associated with the 150-year history of railways


In Making Tracks: A Whistle-Stop Tour of Railway History, Peter Saxton shares facts, trivia, and anecdotes chronicling the shift from steam trains to diesel and electric.


Here, writing for History Extra, Saxton brings you eight lesser-known facts about the history of railways…

Heavy going

Early railway engineers had to overcome extraordinary challenges when building their lines. Steam engines tend not to deal well with heavy inclines, so every effort was made to keep railways as flat as possible. This resulted in huge engineering structures: bridges, tunnels, embankments and cuttings began to appear across the country. 

In some areas, even flat land could be a problem. When surveying the route for his Liverpool and Manchester Railway in the 1820s, George Stephenson had to figure out a way to cross the large peat bog known as Chat Moss in Manchester. He came up with the solution of floating the railway across the bog on a bed of tree branches and heather, bound together with tar and rubble. 

Huge amounts of material were swallowed by the bog before enough of a foundation was built up. The line exists today and was recently electrified as part of the modernisation of rail routes in the north-west of England.

Tunnelling pioneers

A damp problem of another kind faced Marc Brunel and his son, Isambard Kingdom, when they undertook to dig the first tunnel under the Thames, between Wapping and Rotherhithe. 

Originally designed as a foot tunnel, construction started in 1825 but the tunnel wasn’t opened until 1843, because of gas leaks, floods, and financial problems. The Brunels used a revolutionary method of construction called the ‘shield’: an iron framework containing 36 chambers, each large enough to contain a workman.

Wooden shutters were installed at the front of each chamber and the whole apparatus was positioned against the surface to be excavated. The workmen removed the wooden shutters and proceeded to dig away at the earth facing them. Once they had dug to the required depth, they would prop up their excavated chamber, place the wooden shutter against the new earth face, and the whole structure would be winched along for the process to start again.

English engineer and inventor Isambard Kingdom Brunel (1806–59) standing in front of the launching chains tethering his steamship the ‘Great Eastern’ during its construction in London in November 1857. (Photo by Robert Howlett/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

This must have been back-breaking, unimaginably hard work, with the constant risk of the river breaking through. Upon completion the tunnel became an immediate tourist attraction, with people flocking to experience the thrill of walking beneath the river. Eventually, though, it became part of the railway network, and today it sees an intensive railway service as a part of the London Overground network.

Telling the time

Before the railways were built, communities across the UK set their clocks according to their own local time. Bristol, for example, was 10 minutes behind Greenwich Mean Time. This was fine for as long as the pace of life was governed by the natural speed of humans and horses, but the advent of a fast, structured form of transport in the railways meant that a standardised system of time became imperative. 

The risk to safety of various parts of the country working on slightly different, locally agreed time is clear, not to mention the difficulty in constructing understandable timetables. The Great Western Railway had already adopted standardised time, but it was the Railway Clearing House – a body set up to apportion financial receipts among the many private railway companies – that set the pace elsewhere. It decreed in 1847 that all railway companies should operate using GMT, and by 1855 the vast majority of towns and cities had complied. Clocks were set to a signal set to GMT sent along the newly installed telegraph system.

Charles Dickens and railways

Charles Dickens had described the coming of the railway to London’s Euston station in a powerful passage in Dombey & Son (1848). He described the havoc and dislocation brought to Stagg’s Garden (Camden) as an almighty canyon that was cut through the existing streets.

Dickens was in fact a prolific user of railways, both in Britain and on the occasion of his visits to the United States. In 1865, however, he was involved in a tragedy that would change his life: Dickens was returning from the continent with his mistress, Ellen Ternan, and her mother, on 9 June 1865. Near Staplehurst in Kent, a gang of workers was busy repairing the track – they had, however, misread the timetable and had thought there was no train due. They had removed a section of track, and the train, hitting this missing section, crashed down into the valley of the river Beult.

Composite photograph of three prints: the South Eastern Railway’s fast ‘tidal’ train from Folkestone, carrying 110 passengers returning from Paris via Boulogne, derailed on the bridge over the River Beult near Staplehurst on 9 June 1865, killing 10 passengers and injuring 49 others. Among the survivors was the author Charles Dickens. (Photo by SSPL/Getty Images)

Dickens’ carriage was precariously close to the edge – he and his companions managed to climb out and he then went down into the valley to help the victims. Dickens later remembered that he had left the manuscript of Our Mutual Friend in the carriage, and he climbed back into the wreckage to retrieve it.

The incident marked him – he had flashbacks for the rest of his life, and the year after the crash he published his eeriest short story, The Signalman: the chilling tale of a lonely signalman, haunted by an apparition that appears just before tragedy strikes.

The competitive edge

All over the world, railway companies produced locomotives that were grand statements of the new age. As technology improved, trains got faster and railway companies vied with one another to produce the fastest locomotives. 

In the 1920s and 30s, the two great companies running trains between London and Scotland engaged in a battle to win passengers to their lines. These were the London, Midland and Scottish Railway (LMS), running up the West Coast line, and the London and North Eastern Railway (LNER), running up the East.

William Stanier of the LMS produced the Princess Coronation class of locomotive – the most powerful steam engine to be built for use in Britain – and for a time one of these engines held the steam speed record, beating its arch rival the LNER. The latter, however, held the trump card. Designed by Sir Nigel Gresley, the A4 class of locomotive was a sleek, streamlined wonder, and on 3 July 1938, one of the class named Mallard famously snatched the record back, reaching 202.8 km/h (126mph) and achieving a record for steam that still stands today.

Design for London

City transport systems also invested in strong design, such as the Art Nouveau Metro stations designed by Hector Guimard in Paris or the huge decorated stations on the Moscow Metro. In London, from the early decades of the 20th century, transport companies recognised the value of a strong image for the transport system. Underground station platforms had become cluttered with advertising that made it difficult for passengers to pick out the actual station name boards.

Advertisements for beer and port at Holborn Underground Tram Station, London, 1931. (Photo by City of London: London Metropolitan Archives/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

Consequently, Albert Stanley and Frank Pick, two geniuses of early brand awareness, created a standardised name board consisting of a blue bar showing the station name against a solid red circle. This later evolved to become the ubiquitous London Transport roundel seen throughout the capital today.

Further to this, Pick decided to commission designer Edward Johnston to come up with a new typeface, bold and clear, that could be used on signage throughout the system.  The Johnston typeface can still be seen across the London transport network – in the 1970s it was tweaked slightly to create New Johnston, but the principle of clarity remains.

Plan, plan, plan

The railway network in India was planned in its earliest years by the then governor general, Lord Dalhousie. He stipulated that there should be a common ‘gauge’ (the width between the rails), and he settled on 1676mm (5ft 6in) – wider than the generally adopted standard. 

In such a vast country, the need for a coherent system to link the cities and regions was paramount – initially, of course, with the imperial objective of moving troops and goods quickly and efficiently. Today India has a well-used railway system that with a few exceptions runs throughout on one gauge.

In Australia, however, there was no one to plan out a rail system for the whole country. Early signs were promising, with an objective laid out that the standard gauge be adopted throughout the country. Unfortunately, a farcical set of circumstances ensued, with one Irish chief engineer in New South Wales plumping for the Irish broad gauge, only to be replaced by a Scottish engineer who favoured the standard gauge.

The decision by Queensland and South Australia to adopt a narrower gauge still meant that once the various networks met up with one another, Australia had an almighty transport-related headache. As early as 1911, agreement was reached to convert lines to standard gauge where possible – this is a process that continues today, where finances allow.

The high-speed dream

Speed has been a key selling point for the railways throughout their history. In 1957, Japan opened its first high-speed line and has since become famous for its (to British eyes) unbelievably punctual network. Countries around the world are investing in high-speed networks – none more so and most astonishingly than China.

A slow starter in railway history, China has invested huge amounts in steam technology, building main line steam locomotives right up to 1988. In a complete reversal of this policy, in recent years the country has invested huge sums of money in its high-speed network, meaning that today it possesses the biggest network of high-speed lines in the world, and one that continues to grow.

China is also home to the fastest regular service in the world, albeit not on a conventional railway: the Shanghai Maglev (magnetic levitation) train operates from Shanghai Airport and reaches a top speed of 431 km/h (268mph).


Peter Saxton is the author of Making Tracks: A Whistle-Stop Tour of Railway History (Michael O’Mara Books, 2015). To find out more, click here.