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Photo: 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.

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 first railway

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Photo: Britannica

The two most important components in the railway – the track and the locomotive – were developed during the industrial revolution (1750-1840). The first railway line in the world dates back to 1825 when George Stephenson connected the towns of Stockton and Darlington in England by rail.

Stockton & Darlington Railway, in England, the first railway in the world to operate freight and passenger service with steam traction. In 1821 George Stephenson, who had built several steam engines to work in the Killingworth colliery, heard of Edward Pease’s intention of building an 8-mile (12.9-km) line from Stockton on the coast to Darlington to exploit a rich vein of coal. Pease intended to use horse traction. Stephenson told Pease that a steam engine could pull 50 times the load that horses could draw on iron rails. Impressed, Pease agreed to let Stephenson equip his line.

A real railway with regular service for passenger transport did not appear until 1830. In that year the first railway line between Manchester and Liverpool was opened. This railway established the norms of modern railways. 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.

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Photo: raillynews.com

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 was constructed; the majority of cities, towns, and even villages had at least one rail connection, and some had two or even three.

The Stockton and Darlington Railway (S&DR) was a railway company that operated in north-east England from 1825 to 1863. The world's first public railway to use steam locomotives, its first line connected collieries near Shildon with Darlington and Stockton-on-Tees in County Durham and was officially opened on 27 September 1825. The movement of coal to ships rapidly became a lucrative business, and the line was soon extended to a new port at Middlesbrough. While coal wagons were hauled by steam locomotives from the start, passengers were carried in coaches drawn by horses until carriages hauled by steam locomotives were introduced in 1833.

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