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Roads and Railways : Introduction
TWO CENTURIES OF REVOLTIONARY CHANGE
The Industrial Revolution
The Development of the Railway
Gare de Lyon, Paris © Shirley Burchill
The development of the railway can really be divided into two parts. These are the evolution of the railway itself (the rails and wagons), and the development of motive power (the method of pulling the wagons along.)
The concept of a wagon running on parallel tracks is an old one. Medieval drawings show that miners made tracks by pinning down two parallel lengths of wood which crossed beams of timber, called sleepers. The miners ran wagons on these tracks to make the removal of material from the mine much easier.
By the end of the 18th century canals had been developed to carry minerals from mines and quarries. However, some mines were not located in areas where canals could be built easily or economically. To overcome this problem some mines had tracks laid to the nearest canal, road or costal port. At first these tracks were wooden and the wagons were either pushed by hand or pulled by horse.
In the mid-18th century an industrialist called Abraham Darby made a "plateway" of cast iron on top of wooden rails. Initially his "plateway" was just a method of storing the cast iron when the demand for iron was slack. It allowed him to keep his furnaces running and he would be able to lift the iron plate when the demand for iron increased. However, the cast iron "plateway" was found to be so useful that he kept it in place. A letter written by Mrs. Abiah Darby to a friend, around 1775, describes the success of her husband's "plateway":
Although records are incomplete, it is thought that Abraham Darby first laid is "plateway" some time before 1767. He began to cast plateway rails for the first time in the same year. However, this was still not technically a railway because it did not have any method of keeping wagons on the plateways.
Flanged plateway or L-shaped rail © Shirley Burchill
A later development was an "L" shaped rail which held the wagon onto the plateway. A further development by William Jessop, in 1789, was the introduction of wagon wheels with cast flanges on the inner rim. These held the wagons firmly on the track.
Flanged wheel © Shirley Burchill
This simple concept became the standard and is still in use today. Many of the original plateways were constructed using stone blocks to link the cast plate and rails together. The stone blocks were later replaced by wooden sleepers set in a gravel track-bed, or ballast.
Generally, these railways, (or tramways as many were called), had wagons pulled by horses. In some cases they were constructed in such a way that the tramway ran down from the mine (or quarry) to the canal (or port). This meant that gravity was responsible for the movement of the loaded wagons.
Although tramways showed that heavy loads could be transported with far less effort than before, most people still looked at them as just a way to move produce to the nearest canal. Very few people realised their potential. This was because there was, as yet, no suitable method for moving long, heavy trains. As long as the horse was the only method of motive power, the railway system could not advance. This is not to say that no one had thought of the idea of a passenger carrying railway. In fact the first railway to carry fare-paying passengers was built in Wales in 1806. The Oystermouth Railway was horse-drawn and ran between Oystermouth and Swansea.
The concept of steam locomotives came about because a number of far-sighted engineers saw that there was a great future for the railway if the power of steam could be harnessed to pull it. Steam engines, such as the Boulton and Watt engine, were already being used to pull loads up the shafts of coal mines. Engineers saw that these engines could be adapted to tow a train along a track.
Some of the earliest railways were built to operate with a series of engines spaced out along the track at regular intervals. The train was attached to a winding rope which was hauled in towards the engine house. Once there, the train was attached to the next winding rope and the haulage continued. This method was expensive both in engine power and in fuel consumption, and it was very slow. There was an obvious need for a portable form of steam engine which could actually draw the train along. Such a steam engine needed to be small enough and light enough to be supported by the often brittle, cast iron track.
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