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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":

"They used to carry their coal upon horses' backs, but he (Abraham Darby) got roads made and laid with sleepers and trails, as they have in the north of England. And one wagon with three horses will bring as much as 20 horses used to bring on their backs. But this laying the road with wood caused a scarcity (of wood) and raised the price of it, so that of late years, the laying of the rails of caste iron was substituted, which through expensive, answers well for wear."

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

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

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 clocks were later replaced by wooden sleepers set in a gravel track-bed, or ballast.

Rail track with wooden sleeper ©  Shirley Burchill

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© Shirley Burchill, Nigel Hughes, Richard Gale, Peter Price and Keith Woodall 2014