The crossing of Chat Moss by the Liverpool and Manchester Railway. The creation of a stable trackbed across this treacherous area of deep peat bog was one of the most difficult challenges faced by the constructors of the line (1830, END/10/5/1/6]

EARLY RAIL

The crossing of Chat Moss by the Liverpool and Manchester Railway. The creation of a stable trackbed across this treacherous area of deep peat bog was one of the most difficult challenges faced by the constructors of the line (1830, END/10/5/1/6]
The crossing of Chat Moss by the Liverpool and Manchester Railway.
The creation of a stable trackbed across this treacherous area of deep peat bog was one of the most difficult challenges faced by the constructors of the line (1830, END/10/5/1/6]

With all the discussion surrounding the future of the our rail infrastructure, we take a look back at how the technology and network developed. The IMechE hold collections from engine cross sections, to notebooks on the development of railway related inventions which help to illuminate this.

The railway system of Great Britain is the oldest in the world. The system was originally built as a series of local rail links operated by small private companies. These isolated links developed during the railway boom of the 1840’s into a national network, still run by dozens of competing companies. These amalgamated or were bought by competitors until only a handful of larger companies remained: the entire network was brought under government control during the First World War but were not nationalised (nationalisation was first proposed by William Gladstone in 1844). In 1923 almost all the remaining companies were grouped into the “big four”: the Great Western Railway, the London and North Eastern Railway, the London, Midland and Scottish Railway and the Southern Railway. These were joint-stock public companies and they continued to run the railway system until 31 December 1947, the Transport Act 1947 legislated for nationalisation.

Chat Moss threatened the completion of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway, until George Stephenson succeeded in constructing a railway line through it in 1829; his solution was to “float” the line on a bed of bound heather and branches topped with tar and covered with rubble stone.

The earliest “railways” were straight and were constructed from parallel rails of timber on which ran horse-drawn carts. These were succeeded in 1793 when Benjamin Outram constructed a mile-long tramway with L-shaped cast iron rails. These rails became obsolete when William Jessop began to manufacture cast iron rails without guiding ledges – the wheels of the carts had flanges instead. Cast iron is brittle and so the rails tended to break easily. In 1820 John Birkenshaw introduced a method of rolling wrought iron rails, which were used from then onwards.

In 1804 Richard Trevithick designed and built the first steam locomotive to run on smooth rails. The first passenger-carrying public railway was opened by the Oystermouth Railway in 1807, using horse-drawn carriages on an existing tramline. The first commercially successful steam locomotive was Salamanca, built in 1812 by John Blenkinsop and Matthew Murray for the Middleton Railway. Salamanca was a rack and pinion locomotive, with cog wheels driven by two cylinders embedded into the top of the centre-flue boiler.

Daniel Gooch's North Star locomotive for the GWR
Daniel Gooch’s North Star locomotive for the GWR

In 1813 William Hedley and Timothy Hackworth designed a locomotive (Puffing Billy) for use on the tramway between Stockton and Darlington. It featured piston rods extending upwards to pivoting beams, connected in turn by rods to a crankshaft beneath the frames that, in turn, drove the gears attached to the wheels. This meant that the wheels were coupled, allowing better traction. A year later, George Stephenson improved on that design with his first locomotive (Blücher) the first locomotive to use single-flanged wheels.

That design convinced the backers of the proposed Stockton and Darlington Railway to appoint Stephenson as Engineer for the line in 1821. While traffic was originally intended to be horse-drawn, Stephenson carried out a fresh survey of the route to allow steam haulage. The Act (allowing the works) was amended to allow the usage of steam locomotives and also to allow passengers to be carried on the railway. The 25-mile long route opened on 27 September 1825 and, with the aid of Stephenson’s Locomotion No 1, it the first locomotive-hauled public railway in the world.

With increasing rapidity lines were built, often with scant regard for their potential for traffic: the most rapid growth was the 1840’s. In 1840 railway lines were few and scattered but within ten years a virtually complete network had been laid down; the vast majority of towns and villages had a rail connection. The period also saw a steady increase in government involvement, especially in safety matters. The 1840 “Act for Regulating Railways” empowered the Board of Trade to appoint railway inspectors. The Railway Inspectorate was established in 1840, to enquire into the causes of accidents and recommend ways of avoiding them. In 1844 Parliament legislated for a minimum standard for construction of carriages and the compulsory provision of 3rd class accommodation for passengers – so-called “Parliamentary trains”.

Archives, Institution of Mechanical Engineering

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