Thursday, January 20, 2011

Britain: the first railway nation

See here for a good site.

The first lines
The opening of the Stockton and Darlington Railway (Locomotion 1 depicted right) on 25 September 1825 is usually regarded as the symbolic start of the railway era. This was the first public railway worked by steam and it set the pattern for the development of railway systems across the world. The prime mover was George Stephenson (1781- 1848). He had developed the Locomotion, a pioneering mobile steam engine and it was the Locomotion 1 which pulled the freight train from Darlington to Stockton Quay.

The Stockton and Darlington line was followed by Stephenson’s second project, the Liverpool and Manchester Railway. This was the first fully evolved railway as it was to carry passengers as well as freight and to rely on locomotive traction alone. The Rainhill locomotive trials were conducted in 1829 to assure that those prime movers would be adequate to the demands placed on them and that adhesion was practicable. Stephenson's entry, the Rocket (left), which he built with his son, Robert, won the trials owing to the increased power provided by its multiple fire-tube boiler. The rail line began in a long tunnel from the docks in Liverpool, and the Edgehill Cutting through which it passed dropped the line to a lower elevation across the low plateau above the city. Embankments were raised above the level of the Lancashire Plain to improve the drainage of the line and to reduce grades on a gently rolling natural surface. A firm causeway was pushed across Chat Moss (swamp) to complete the line's quite considerable engineering works. When it was opened in September 1830, the event was turned into a festival, with a reported 40,000 spectators lining the route. A trumpeter was appointed to every carriage or set of carriages and a full military band was stationed at the head of the procession. Unfortunately the event also saw the first casualty of the railway age- the death of the politician, William Huskisson.

The railways extended
In 1830 there were just under 100 miles of railway open in Britain. By 1852 there were some 6,000 and the main body of Britain’s railway system, comprising some 2,200 miles of line, was in place. ‘It is difficult to conceive how progress could have been faster’. By this time London was linked to Bristol and most of the Channel ports to London. Robert Stephenson’s London and Birmingham lines linked London with the Midlands and the North. The Great Northern Line had reached Doncaster (following the line of the old Great North Road).

The free market
This boundless energy was underscored by the free market. By 1844 Britain had 104 separate railway companies. But the great railway entrepreneurs aimed at monopoly through amalgamation. By 1848 the great Victorian railway companies were in place: the London and North-Western, the Great Western and the Midland. Between them they accounted for slightly more than half the mileage then open.

In the early 1840s there were tentative efforts at state control. Following a Select Parliamentary Committee in 1839 Acts were passed in 1840 and 1842, giving the existing legal powers of the state to a railway department of the Board of Trade. The department had the right of inspection, collected statistics of traffic and accidents, and could undertake legal proceedings for neglect or illegality. It also inspected new projects. But vested interests in Parliament were too strong and most of the provisions of the Railway Acts proved a dead letter. For practical purposes the work of the department ceased after 1845 though the Board of Trade retained a general responsibility for railway matters.

Reaction to the railways
Reaction to the railways could be one of fascinated horror. When Thomas Carlyle journeyed on the Grand Junction Railway in September 1839, he saw the railway as the devil’s mantle; a month earlier Lord Ashley, journeying from Manchester to Liverpool, remarked that if the devil had travelled he would have gone by train. Nothing in nature exceeded the speed of 30 mph. The railway companies had to alleviate people’s fears of travelling at ‘unnatural’ speeds through tunnels. This is why the interior of the Edge Hill tunnel was painted white and it was illuminated by gas jets at regular intervals. Dickens’s Mrs Gamp believed that the railways caused miscarriages.

As the navvies worked on the cuttings of Stephenson’s London and Birmingham trunk line (some of them 60 or 70 feet deep), they exposed fossils in the rocks and amateur geologists, already familiar with Lyell’s Principles of Geology (1830-33) flocked to view the rock exposures. One of Lyell’s correspondents wrote to him in February 1838 of the fascinating sections uncovered in making parts of the Forfar-Dundee railroad. In July 1845 Joseph Hooker wrote to Darwin about the way cutting open railways caused a change of vegetation.

The construction of the railways had many political implications. The authorizing Acts gave the railway companies the novel right of compulsory purchase, which the Tory landowning class saw as an affront to their status. The Acts gave companies the authority
‘to enter, survey and even to excavate private land situated on a prescribed route’.
This was the most dramatic infringement of private property rights since the Civil War. Notices of intention to purchase were issued, and, failing a response from the landowner, the railway company were entitled to have the matter settled by a sheriff’s jury. The Illustrated London News of 1845 compared the powers granted under the Acts to a Russian ukase.

Landowners fought hard to block or frustrate the course of individual lines. For example, the earls of Sefton and Derby vigorously opposed the Stockton and Darlington Railway which was to run across their land. In the first survey of the line in 1822 the antagonism of the landed interest was such that the railway venturers resorted to hiring a prize-fighter to carry the theodolite. In subsequent surveys much of the levelling was done by moonlight and by torchlight. In one case, in the face of clerical opposition to the London and Birmingham Railway, the survey team had to carry out their work during the hours of church services when the opposition would be otherwise engaged. In many cases the landlords’ labourers and hired bullies fought pitched battles with the teams of surveyors. But George Eliot’s sensible Caleb Garth in Middlemarch says:
Now, my lads, you can’t hinder the railroad: it will be made whether you like it or not.’
When he saw the first train pass through the Rugby countryside, Thomas Arnold, headmaster of Rugby, remarked that feudalism had gone for ever. Wordsworth saw the railway capitalists as part of ‘the Thirst of Gold, that rules o’er Britain like a baneful star’

There was deep social unease about the fact that the railways were underpinned by industrial capital. The Doric portico entrance to Euston station (now much mourned!) was derided as the grandiose triumphalism of the new manufacturing class. It was also an engineering victory – celebrating the conquest of the engineers over the subterranean waters and quicksands of Kilsby.

The railway mania transformed the English stock market. A few made millions, but many more were ruined. In the early 1850s the Darwin family’s portfolio ran to some £14,000 or railway stock. Having initially opposed the railways many aristocrats began to invest in them. The earls of Leicester invested in lines in Norfolk and the earls of Yarborough in Lincolnshire.
The early railway companies formed their own police forces modelled on Peel’s Metropolitan Police. The government began to use the railways to transport troops to sites of political demonstrations. In 1842 they embarked from Euston on trains of the London and Birmingham Railway for destinations in the northern manufacturing districts.

Railways were initially viewed as the enemies of nature. Carlyle: they forced
‘a second or produced nature’.
Ruskin: the railways brutally amputated every hill in their path and raised mounds of earth across meadows faster than the walls of Babylon. Dombey and Son:
the railway ‘was defiant of all paths and roads, piercing through the heart of every obstacle’.
When the London and Dover Railway Company’s works reached the Channel coast in February 1843, the engineers blew up part of a cliff and the nobility and gentry came to witness the event.

The railway telegraph
The ultimate representation of the railroad’s war with nature was in the clocks which observed railway time. Initially it was a cumbersome process, involving the carrying of a watch the length of the journey in order to standardize time. But after the setting up of the Railway Clearing House in 1842 this practice gave way to the observance of Greenwich Time at stations around the country, a practice made easier by the spread of the telegraph. The first railway telegraph seems to have been installed in the Great Western between Paddington and West Drayton and was operating by the spring of 1839. In 1842 and improved telegraph consisting of double-needle instruments and only two wires was ordered. The wires were suspended overhead on upright standards of cast-iron and at intervals of up to 150 yards. By 1848, 1,800 miles of railway were so equipped in the country as a while. This offered ‘a wholly novel simultaneity of experience’. It enabled Greenwich or ‘railway’ time to become standard in Britain by the 1850s.

The Great Western Railway
In March 1833, the 27 year old Isambard Kingdom Brunel was appointed chief engineer of the Great Western Railway. The strategy was to build a railway that would link London and Bristol. The first section of the track that went from London to Taplow (Maidenhead) was opened in 1838. The line was completed to Bristol in 1841 and helped to establish Brunel as one of the world's leading engineers. Impressive achievements on the route included the viaducts at Hanwell and Chippenham, the Maidenhead Bridge, the Box Tunnel and the Bristol Temple Meads Station.

Swindon was about halfway between London and Bristol and was chosen as the junction for the line to Gloucester. It was also the site of the Great Western Locomotive Works. Daniel Gooch, who had worked with Robert Stephenson in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, was put in charge of production. Gooch was told by the company to produce a ‘colossal locomotive that should easily surpass anything that had gone before’.

In 1839 the Samuda Brothers had pioneered the Atmospheric System. This involved making the pressure of the atmosphere available as a propelling force, achieved by sucking air from a continuous line of pipe along the permanent way, so creating a partial vacuum. In September 1847 passenger trains began using it on the South Devon line and a maximum speed of 68 mph was recorded on a train of 28 tons.

The battle over the gauge

Early British development was not characterised by a uniform gauge. Most of the initial lines were built to a gauge of 4 feet 8 ½ inches (1422mm), which accorded with the track dimensions used by the Romans. It was the preferred choice of gauge for George and Robert Stephenson. But in 1835 Brunel convinced the Board of the Great Western that a gauge of 7 feet 0 ¼ inches (2140mm) was technically superior. As a result the ten years from the mid 1840s saw a dramatic struggle among railway proprietors. A Royal Commission tried to adjudicate. Though accepting the technical capabilities of the broad gauge, it viewed the narrow gauge as best suited to the general needs of the country and recommended the compulsory extinction of the broad gauge. But Parliament did not feel able to insist on this and the broad gauge continued to expand after the Gauge Act of 1846. The ‘break of gauge’ created problems for passengers and goods as they had to be transferred from one train to another, especially Gloucester where the Great Western met the Birmingham and Gloucester line. By 1866 there were thirty places where ‘break of gauge’ occurred. Queen Victoria, travelling from Balmoral to Osborne had to change trains at Gloucester and Basingstoke. One of the consequences of using the broad gauge was that Great Western locomotives could not use Euston and Brunel had to build its own station at Paddington, which was not completed until 1854. But although passengers preferred the broad gauge, Brunel lost the war and by the end of the 1860s he was forced to start the process that ended in the adoption of the narrow gauge.

Thomas Cook
In 1841 the Baptist Thomas Cook (1808-92) persuaded the Midland Counties Railway Company to run a special train between Leicester and Loughborough for a temperance meeting on July 5. It was believed to be the first publicly advertised excursion train in England. Three years later the railway agreed to make the arrangement permanent if Cook would provide passengers for the excursion trains. During the Paris Exposition of 1855, Cook conducted excursions from Leicester to Calais. The next year he led his first Grand Tour of Europe.