Railroads in Victorian Britain


Railroads Made Britain the Workshop of the World

The history of British railways in the 19th Century saw a major boom in rail construction and the maturation of steam engine technology.

By 1830, Manchester had begun to grow rich on the profits made from spinning cotton. Similarly, Leeds was also growing wealthy from weaving. Canal development was restricted and textile manufacturers increasingly began to turn to the railway as a means to ship their goods. The use of railways was further encouraged by the abundant quantities of coal that could be found at that time in Yorkshire and the Northeast.(Ransom, P.J.G. (July 1989). The Victorian Railway and How It Evolved. London: William Heinemann)

Early Development of British Railroads

Railways did not immediately supplant canals as a principle means of long distance transportation in Britain, however, they proved to be immensely popular with the public and passenger train travel became incredibly popular, not to mention highly profitable.

Although an act of Parliament was needed before construction could begin, many wealthy land owners objected to the construction of railway lines on their land and tried to block the passage of railway bills by Parliament. Others responded by charging outrageous sums of money for the right of way on their land. This resulted in railroad lines being resurveyed to avoid such obstacles. In addition, steam engines in this period were still relatively underpowered and were not able to climb hills with steep grades. Britain’s early twisting railway lines led to the development of tilting trains more than a century later.(Science Museum (November 1972). The Pre-grouping Railways: Their Development and Individual Characters: Part 1. London: The Stationery Office Books)

Throughout the mid-19th Century, the British government encouraged railway construction. It stimulated the economy and provided a way to move troops around the country quickly. However, it was easier to convince investors to back shorter routes that had a clearly defined purpose. The result was that, unlike Canada or the United States, the British rail network was added to as the need arose over a period of several decades.(Ransom, P.J.G. (July 1989). The Victorian Railway and How It Evolved. London: William Heinemann.)

All 19th Century railway construction in Britain was driven by commercial interests. The success of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway, among others led to a frenzy of speculation that peaked in 1846, when the government passed legislation calling for tighter controls on railway construction and operation in Britain. Unlike most stock market bubbles, however, this one had permanent and long lasting benefits. It also resulted in the major expansion of the British rail network.

Britain’s Railway Mania

The legacy of Britain’s Railway Mania can still be seen today. Duplication of routes by competing lines was common. Sometimes rival railways were forced to share the same set of tracks. This led to the construction of stations that had no connections to each other. The best example of this can be seen in London, which has 12 major train stations. This was the result of competing railways trying to drive their routes as deeply into the heart of the capital as they could.(Wolmar, C, 2007, Fire & Steam: A History of the Railways in Britain, Atlantic Book (London))

It also led to the adoption of safety standards following a serious railway accident at Sonning in 1841.

By 1850, numerous railways had reached the fringes of London, unable to proceed any further. Passengers were forced to either take a carriage into the city, or walk. This created major congestion and directly led to the construction of the London Underground.(Rose, Douglas (1999). The London Underground, A Diagrammatic History. Douglas Rose/Capital Transport.)

Impact of Early Railroad Development

Due to the lack of competition, the success of Britain’s early railroads was phenomenal. In the mid-19th Century, paved roads were non-existent outside of big cities like London. When the Industrial Revolution began to gather steam in the 1830s, railroads became an attractive alternative for transporting people and goods quickly and cheaply over long distances.

By 1923, there were nine major railroads in Britain and five in Scotland, in addition to numerous shorter lines in England and Wales.

The railroad’s ability to move goods quickly and cheaply, combined with Britain’s industrial capacity made Great Britain the workshop of the world in the 19th Century


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