The history of railways in Britain: from the first steam trains to the rail revolution
They were central to the spread of the industrial revolution, helping to make Britain one of the most powerful nations in the world. How much do you know about the history of steam trains and rail travel in Britain?
When travelling by train in the 21st century, few of us might realise how the railway transformed the world. Railways changed the landscape physically and culturally, putting Britain at the forefront of railway technology and architecture in the 19th century. Until the railways, most people rarely travelled further than the next market town, perhaps 10 miles away. Stations were gateways to journeys of over a hundred miles, completed in a few hours in futuristic machines. Find out more about the history of the railways, when trains were invented, and where the developments happened, with this guide to the history of railways and rail travel in Britain…
Follow the links below to jump to each section:
- When was the steam train invented?
- The development of British railways
- 8 places linked to the birth of the railways in Britain
- Fascinating facts about the history of rail travel
Unlike the atom bomb, for example, there was no single invention with the steam engine. First you had the stationary steam engine where the most important person was Thomas Newcomen. Then James Watt improved its efficiency and its capacity to generate power. Later on, the stationary steam engine was transformed into the locomotive with George Stephenson.
What the steam engine enabled people to do was transform themselves beyond the existing constraints of energy use, meaning that human society could develop in all sorts of ways. Now we know that the long-term environmental consequences of industrialisation were detrimental but on the other hand life would have been totally different if we had remained shackled by the manufacturing, energy, and communication systems before the steam engine.
The long-term implications of steam power were everything we understand by modernity. It gave us the ability to speed up existence and overcome the constraints under which all other animal species operated. For much of human history we were not radically different in organisational terms from other animals, which have language, the capacity for acting as a group and systems of hierarchy. For much of human history that was how we were but we moved to a very different tune when we had everything that is understood by modernity. It was the steam engine that set that in motion.
Answered by historian Jeremy Black in BBC History Magazine
The development of British railways
Thundering along at previously unimaginable speeds, early steam locomotives were a frightening prospect for their Victorian passengers. Before the opening of the first major railway line, the Liverpool & Manchester in 1830, there were fears it would be impossible to breathe while travelling at such a velocity, or that the passengers’ eyes would be damaged by having to adjust to the motion.
More like this
Little more than 20 years later, their fears allayed, people flocked to this exciting new form of transport, and by mid-century, millions were dashing across the country on tracks stretching thousands of miles. From professional football and the Penny Post to suburban living and seaside excursions, the railways changed the face of Victorian Britain.
“The railways were absolutely central to the spread of the Industrial Revolution,” insists railway historian Christian Wolmar. “Britain could not have become, for a time, the world’s dominant economic power without them. But it’s also impossible to exaggerate the social impact. Almost anything you can think of was transformed or made possible for the first time by the railways.”
The technology that made it possible – engines driven by steam – was already gathering momentum by the late 18th century, when James Watt produced the steam-powered loom. But it was Richard Trevithick who opened up the possibility of making a steam-engine propel itself – by using high-pressure steam to increase the power/weight ratio. By 1804, one of Trevithick’s engines was trundling along crude early rails at an ironworks in Wales.
It wasn’t until 1825, however, with the opening of the Stockton & Darlington line, that the world saw a proper steam locomotive haul wagons for the first time. That locomotive was George Stephenson’s Locomotion, which reached speeds of 15mph on the opening day. Unfortunately, Stephenson’s engines proved so unreliable that horses were the mainstay for the first few years – and the railway age only really built up a head of steam with the completion of the Liverpool & Manchester line.
After a monumental effort from thousands of hard-working, hard-drinking navvies to construct the line, and a very public competition to decide on the best locomotive, the world’s first steam-hauled, twin-tracked railway opened to great fanfare on 15 September 1830, with Stephenson’s Rocket leading the way. Originally conceived as a freight railway to reduce the cost and time of transporting goods, the line proved equally popular among intrepid travellers.
Despite a fatal accident on the first day, thousands were using the line within weeks. Fanny Kemble, a famous actress, was awestruck: “You can’t imagine how strange it seemed to be, journeying on thus without any visible cause of progress other than the magical machine, with its flying white breath and rhythmical, unvarying pace”. While most couldn’t match her eloquence, Kemble encapsulated the enthusiasm. Better than anything that had gone before, the Liverpool & Manchester proved that Stephenson’s engineering was sound and demonstrated how profitable railway companies could be.
Encouraged by the success, entrepreneurs began submitting applications to parliament for all sorts of railways schemes. Known as ‘railway mania’, the ensuing rush is best demonstrated by the fact that 240 Acts were passed in 1845 (amounting to 2,820 miles of new track), compared to just 48 the year before. There was some opposition but over the next ten years, as railway companies became attractive investments, unprecedented levels of capital funded the construction of 4,600 miles of track. “It was an incredible feat of engineering and organisation, not to mention downright hard slog,” explains Wolmar. “It’s an achievement that remains completely undervalued, especially when you consider that the railways were dug out by spade and pickaxe.”
At first, train travel was too dear for the average working man but fares gradually came down thanks to competition and William Gladstone’s 1844 Railway Act, which obliged every company to supply at least one train daily at the cost of no more than 1d a mile. Meanwhile, the growth of excursion trains and the Great Exhibition of 1851 stimulated vast numbers to use the railways for the first time.
By the end of the 1850s, passenger numbers had risen beyond all expectations. In 1854 alone, 92 million journeys were made in England and Wales alone, on a network stretching 6,000 miles. The magic of train travel had caught the public imagination and the rapid expansion of the iron road left few aspects of life in Victorian Britain untouched.
Darlington Railway Museum, County Durham
Where the first passenger steam locomotives ran
A local holiday was declared for the opening of the Stockton & Darlington Railway on 27 September 1825. Aware of the importance of the day, crowds clustered around the newly-constructed line in anticipation. They weren’t to be disappointed. Ever the showman, George Stephenson hit speeds of 15mph in his steam locomotive, Locomotion – outpacing the local horses in the process. As one impressed spectator recalled: “The welkin [sky] rang loud with huzzas while the happy faces of some, the vacant stares of others and the alarm depicted on the countenances of not a few, gave variety to the picture”.
Conceived primarily to transport coal from collieries to the river Tees at Stockton, this was the first venture in the world to employ steam engines for hauling goods. But the railway also leased out the rights to run passenger services to various operators, including two female innkeepers.
Despite the fact that horses were still used far more than the unreliable locomotives, the Stockton & Darlington deserves its place in history as the first to carry passengers on steam-hauled wagons. The railway age wasn’t to begin in earnest for a few years yet, but this was a pioneering achievement.
Located on the original route of the railway, the Head of Steam museum encompasses three of the original 19th-century buildings – North Road Passenger Station, the Goods Shed and Hopetown Carriage Works. On such hallowed ground, visitors can see George Stephenson’s trailblazing Locomotion. www.head-of-steam.co.uk
Rainhill Station, near St Helens, Merseyside
Where the Rocket shot to fame
Early railway promoters understood the allure of the spectacle. Having ruled out the use of horses for their ambitious project, in April 1829 the directors of the Liverpool & Manchester Railway (L&MR) announced a contest of steam locomotives to be held six months later at Rainhill, nine miles from Liverpool. Rules were laid down and engineers invited to enter their engines, with £500 and a contract to supply eight locomotives as the prize.
As expected, the Rainhill Trials captured the public imagination and around 15,000 spectators took their places on specially erected grandstands for the inaugural day of the week-long event. After the more madcap inventions had been eliminated – including Cycloped, which consisted of a horse running on a treadmill that pulled the wagons – four realistic contenders emerged. With the challengers listed like runners and riders in a horse race, the final day promised much. In the event, none mounted a serious challenge to George Stephenson’s Rocket, which was the only engine to complete the course.
Having toiled long and hard to improve the unreliable engines used at Darlington, Stephenson’s new machine performed brilliantly as it sped back and forth over the 1.5-mile track, averaging an impressive 14mph and reaching 30mph when let loose. The prize, and the adulation, was his. Bigger and better locomotives would arrive soon enough, but the spectacular success of Rocket was a critical moment because it showed the world the immense potential of steam locomotives.
It is from Rainhill station that the locomotives set off toward Lea Green in October 1829. Rainhill is a Grade I listed building, and still a working railway station. The nearby Skew Bridge, a Grade II listed structure over which the A57 now runs, is also well worth a visit. The most acute of 15 such bridges on the L&MR, it was built in 1828 at an angle of 34 degrees to the railway.
Museum of Science and Industry, Manchester
Where the railway age was born
On the morning of Wednesday 15 September 1830, a procession of eight trains hauled by one of George Stephenson’s triumphant locomotives was greeted by jubilant crowds at Edge Hill, the Liverpool end of the recently completed Liverpool & Manchester Railway. The presence of a VIP, the deeply unpopular Duke of Wellington, all but ensured a mixed reaction at the Manchester end, with hostile elements making clear their antipathy to the Tory government’s stubborn resistance to social reform.
Such unsavoury scenes marred the festivities but the promoters of the railway were pleasantly surprised when passengers quickly warmed to the train in the following weeks, attracted by the fact that the journey took just a couple of hours, less than half the time it took in a stagecoach. Previous lines had been open to fee-paying passengers, but within a short period the Liverpool & Manchester Railway was primarily a passenger service – and the first to rely solely on steam locomotion.
For the first time a double-tracked, steam-powered railway hauled passengers and goods between two major cities. As the world awoke to read reports of this pioneering achievement in the north-west of England, the railway age was born.
Housed in Liverpool Road station, the original terminus for the Liverpool & Manchester Railway, the Museum of Science and Industry hosts a permanent exhibition on the construction and early years of the railway. Visitors can step into the first-class booking hall to see what it would have been like in the 1830s and learn about the people who worked and travelled on the early locomotives. www.mosi.org.uk
Huskisson Memorial, Liverpool Cathedral
Where the first railway fatality is commemorated
Although the onlookers could not have known at the time, the sense of wonder that characterised the first day of the Liverpool & Manchester was tempered by tragedy. Having pulled out of Liverpool, the celebratory procession made good progress, reaching Parkside, 17 miles down the track, in under an hour. Ignoring warnings to stay inside the carriage, a group of notables including the Duke of Wellington and Liverpool MP William Huskisson, took advantage of the stop to stretch their legs. Huskisson approached the duke, but as they shook hands a shout alerted them to an approaching train, the Rocket.
While everyone else shuffled to safety, Huskisson panicked and struggled to clamber into the carriage. As he thrashed around for a hold the door swung open, knocking him into the path of the onrushing locomotive. A loud crunch was heard as his leg shattered under the wheels, “squeezing it almost to a jelly,” according to a report in The Times. Stephenson rushed him to Manchester, reaching record speeds of 35mph along the way, but Huskisson died in agony later that evening.
There is a memorial tablet at the scene of the accident, alongside the line at the former site of the Parklands station, near Newton-le-Willows. Far more convenient is the rather grand tomb in St James’s Mount Cemetery, in the grounds of Liverpool’s Anglican cathedral. A monument to the world’s first widely reported railway casualty, it’s a reminder of a man crushed, quite literally, by the rapid progress of the steam train. www.liverpoolcathedral.org.uk /www.stjamescemetery.co.uk
Stephenson Statue, National Railway Museum, York
Where the ‘father of the railways’ is remembered
George Stephenson (1781–1848) is lauded as the father of the railways, but the gruff engineer is a figure that stimulates as much controversy among historians today as he did among his peers in the first half of the 19th century.
He may have adapted the ideas of others, as naysayers have argued with some justification, but there is little doubt that his vision, drive and ambition played a vital role in the construction of both the Stockport & Darlington and Liverpool & Manchester lines. As a self-educated and notoriously brusque man, it’s hardly surprising he provoked the ire of many contemporaries, not least aristocratic landowners. But it was precisely that grim-faced determination that made Stephenson such an iconic pioneer of the railway age.
The imposing statue that today surveys the main hall at the National Railway Museum (NRM) in York once overlooked the Great Hall at Euston station, the original terminus of the London & Birmingham Railway, which was established in 1833 and overseen by the great man’s son, Robert Stephenson. The largest museum of its kind in the world, the NRM tells the story of railways from the early 19th century to the present day, houses a vast array of railway artefacts and a full-size replica of Stephenson’s most famous engine, the Rocket. www.nrm.org.uk
Box Tunnel, Wiltshire
Where the Great Western penetrated rock
As ‘railway mania’ gripped the nation and parliament sanctioned thousands of miles of new tracks, Britain’s landscapes presented some stern challenges to the progress of the iron road. Stephenson’s main rival for the title of greatest railway engineer was Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the driving force behind the Great Western Railway (GWR), an ambitious venture linking London and Bristol, approved in 1835.
Sparing no expense in his pursuit of perfection, Brunel not only decorated his stations, like Bristol Temple Meads, with great panache, he also overcame considerable engineering challenges. Maidenhead Bridge, at the time the widest in the world, is a good example of his genius, but the 1.75-mile tunnel at Box, near Corsham in Wiltshire, remains one of his most impressive achievements.
Despite protestations that it was impossible to take the train straight through the hill, work on the project began in September 1836. It was a monumental task, with 4,000 labourers employed to blast out the limestone with explosives, and excavate with pickaxes and shovels. By the time it was finished five years later, the project had claimed the lives of 100 men, with many more injured while working by candle-light deep underground. Much to Brunel’s pleasure, however, the resulting tunnel was almost perfectly straight. One (probably apocryphal) story goes that Brunel aligned it so that every year on his birthday, 19 April, the rising sun is visible through the tunnel.
When it finally opened in 1841, Box Tunnel proved the doubters wrong and marked a watershed in the history of the GWR. Its striking west portal is easily visible from the A4, but walkers setting out from nearby Colerne will be rewarded with the best views. www.visitwiltshire.co.uk
Royal Albert Bridge Saltash, Cornwall
Where Brunel opened up the west
Although rival schemes for a railway to Falmouth, Cornwall, were proposed as early as the 1830s, the line only got parliamentary consent in 1846, with the Act stipulating that the ferry across the river Tamar at Saltash be replaced by a railway bridge. As chief engineer, Brunel’s challenge was to create a structure that would stretch across 1,000 feet of water, a formidable obstacle.
On 1 September 1857, watched by thousands of expectant spectators, the first truss was floated out into the centre of the river supported by two barges. Gradually raised at a rate of six feet a week with hydraulic jacks, the truss reached its final height, 100 feet above the water, on the first day of July 1858. Some six years after the foundation for the first pier was laid, a south Devon locomotive crossed the bridge for the first time in April 1859.
Brunel was too ill to attend the official opening and the great engineer died that September. A few months later, his name was spelled out in vast metal letters at either end of the bridge – a fitting memorial to his achievement there. As majestic today as it must have appeared for the first time in 1859, the Royal Albert Bridge is best appreciated from one of the many vantage points on the banks of the Tamar river. www.royalalbertbridge.co.uk
St Pancras Station, London
Where rampant competition produced a landmark
The rivalry between the biggest train companies – by now the largest companies in the world – had intensified by the second half of the 19th century. With millions taking advantage of cheap trains to the capital, the Great Exhibition of 1851 was a real money-spinner for some. But the Midland Railway had failed to profit like its rivals because it lacked direct access to London. With all merger options blocked, the Midland had no choice but to make its own way, quickly obtaining consent to build a line from Leicester to Hitchin, connecting to the Great Northern’s tracks into King’s Cross. The line opened in May 1857 but traffic was already heavy and the Midland’s trains were constantly delayed.
If the Midland was to transform a prosperous regional network into a strategic long-distance system, carrying tonnes of Yorkshire coal to the insatiable grates and furnaces of the Big Smoke, it had to be brave enough to build another line into London. It took another decade, but the directors did take the plunge. The resulting construction project, to create a terminus at St Pancras, caused mayhem across vast swathes of north London, with 20,000 people losing their homes. Even the dead, buried in the old St Pancras church yard, had to be removed. After all that destruction, the line into London and the great Gothic station at St Pancras finally opened on 1 October 1868.
Like the station itself, the Midland Grand Hotel, completed in 1873, was a deliberate attempt to dominate its neighbour, King’s Cross, owned by the Great Northern. The Midland may have been the last train company to arrive in London, but they were determined not to be the least. The sheer scale and Gothic grandeur of St Pancras station is a lasting testament to the vigour and ambition engendered by the competition that characterised this incredible period of railway expansion. www.stpancras.com
Words by Daniel Cossins. Historical advisor: Christian Wolmar, author of Blood, Iron and Gold: How the Railways Transformed the World (Atlantic, 2009).
Peter Saxton, author of Making Tracks: A Whistle-Stop Tour of Railway History, shares eight lesser-known facts about the history of railways…
Early travel was 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.
Early train tunnels faced plenty of challenges
A damp problem of another kind faced Marc Brunel and his son, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, 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.
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.
Train travel helped to standardise UK 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 was a prolific rail user
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.
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.
There was stiff competition for the fastest trains
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.
Trains were central in early brand awareness campaigns
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).
This information first appeared in BBC History Magazine and BBC History Revealed magazine and has been combined for this guide