The World the Railways Made

The World the Railways Made

by Christian Wolmar

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A new edition of a railway classic: how the "Iron Road" turned the world upside down, with a new chapter on the future of rail
Across American prairies, through Siberian tundra, over Argentinian pampas, and deep into the heart of Africa, the modern world began with the arrival of the railway. The shock was both sudden and


A new edition of a railway classic: how the "Iron Road" turned the world upside down, with a new chapter on the future of rail
Across American prairies, through Siberian tundra, over Argentinian pampas, and deep into the heart of Africa, the modern world began with the arrival of the railway. The shock was both sudden and universal: railways transformed the world, carrying empire, capitalism, and industrialization to every corner of the planet. For some, the "Iron Road" symbolized the brute horrors of modernity; for others the way toward a brighter future. From 1825, when the first passenger service linked Stockton and Darlington to the outbreak of World War I, Nicholas Faith presents a compelling journey through the first century of rail, introducing visionaries, engineers, surveyors, speculators, financiers, and navigational engineers—the heroes and the rogues of the mechanical revolution that turned the world upside down.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Faith ( The Winemasters ) applies himself with limited success to the monumental task of surveying the railroad's effects on every aspect of the world's societies from 1830 to the beginning of WW II. Just one brief chapter considers politics and how the world's leading nations came quickly and diversely to regard the railway as a symbol of national unity. A nod is also given toward such themes as the railroad's facilitating role in the creation of new industries, its masterminds and captains, its place in literature and its role in military strategy and mass tourism. While his organization and research are admirable, Faith has tried to encompass so much material in a relatively short volume that readers may be left feeling like passengers on a speeding train trying in vain to take in the passing landscape. (Oct.)
From the Publisher
"A bounty of railroad lore for anyone who fondly remembers Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express, Thomas Wolfe's lyrical description of rail journeys into the American heartland, or even their own rides on the locomotive."  —Kirkus Reviews

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The World the Railways Made

By Nicholas Faith

Head of Zeus Ltd

Copyright © 2014 Nicholas Faith
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-78185-836-3



I will do something in coming time which will astonish all England. – George Stephenson

Stockton to Darlington 1825:

Stephenson on the sparkling iron road –
Chimney-hatted and frock-coated – drives
His locomotive while the Lydian mode
of Opus 132 may actually be
In the course of making. At twelve miles an hour
The century rushes to futurity,
Whose art will be mankind-destroying power.

– Roy Fuller

In the third and fourth decades of the nineteenth century British engineers triumphantly demonstrated that steam locomotives provided adequate power to propel economic loads of passengers or freight along a railway; that such railways could be built over or through the most rugged terrain; and that the resulting lines could be highly profitable for the promoters and benefit the towns and landowners along their route. By 1840, railways had become the most important symbol of industrial, economic and financial power, the most characteristic vehicle for men's dreams of power, wealth and glory. It was soon equally clear that they would also bear an inescapable load of financial malversation.

The idea of a 'rail-way' was not new. For hundreds of years horse-drawn carts had run on tracked ways to carry coal from the face to the pithead and then to the nearest navigable waters. In 1803, in the face of fierce hostility from the manufacturers of low-pressure steam engines, a high-pressure steam locomotive designed by Richard Trevithick had hauled a ten-ton load along a 'rail-way' near a Cornish tin-mine.

Yet the idea of steam locomotion is indissolubly associated with the name of George Stephenson. His triumph, like that of Winston Churchill over a century later, was based on his character, on an obstinate determination, on fixity of purpose, combined with the luck of being the right man in the right place at the right time. Like Churchill, Stephenson is honoured more in retrospect than during a long career largely spent battling the established order. 'Almost to a man', wrote his biographer L. T. C. Rolt, 'his fellow-engineers dismissed him as an unprincipled and incompetent schemer, but all their shafts broke against the armour of that stubborn determination to succeed which was to triumph over every obstacle, including his own weaknesses.' These included an almost pathological jealousy of other engineers, total autocracy, and a profound managerial incompetence.

The applause is not undeserved. In John Rowland's words, he 'did not originate the steam locomotive, he did not invent a new type of machine; but he used other people's inventions and improved them so completely as to make them peculiarly his own'. Stephenson was lucky: during the first quarter of the nineteenth century the North-East of England, where he first found fame as the leading expert on mining engines, contained a concentration of mines, of rail-ways – and thus of capital – denied to Trevithick in distant Cornwall. Stephenson had lived almost all his life on a 'tramway line' from a mine to navigable water, so he could also draw on the experience of dozens of colleagues, all accustomed to the manufacture and maintenance of steam-engines reliable enough for men's lives to depend on the pumps they powered. So he was backed by both the money and skills required to assemble the package – engine, wheels, track – required to make steam locomotion an economic proposition.

His experiments covered the ten years after the Battle of Waterloo, a period when the price of fodder – and thus of horse-power – was rising rapidly. The resulting replacement of natural fodder with industrial coal was a major step in freeing mankind from dependence on nature. But the railway also improved the very nature of movement. In his Observations on a General Iron Rail-Way, Thomas Gray emphasised how 'no animal strength will be able to give that uniform and regular acceleration to our commercial intercourse which may be accomplished by railway'. Without the efforts of Gray and other propagandists the railway promoters could never have mobilised the capital and labour required, and the public would never have accepted the massive upheavals involved in building railways on a large scale.

The first crucial sign that the steam locomotive running on an iron way was the transport medium of the future came in 1818, when Thomas Telford, greatest of canal engineers, pronounced himself in favour of an iron way rather than a canal for a new route between a mine and a river. That same year George Overton, builder of the tramways used by Trevithick, wrote that: 'Railways are now generally adopted and the cutting of canals nearly discontinued.'

Overton's report, and Stephenson's insistence on steam traction, led to the construction of the Stockton & Darlington Railway, financed by local Quaker capital, the first railway line designed from the outset to employ steam locomotives as well as the horses used exclusively on earlier railways. The S & D – 'the Quakers' Line' – opened in 1825 – the same year that Beethoven was writing his last quartets. It used the 15-ft long, malleable iron rails invented by a local engineer the previous year which immediately replaced the existing and inadequate wrought-iron rails. Stephenson had already proved that locomotives with flanged wheels could run on edged rails, a great improvement in efficiency. By that time it was understood, as a French author put it in 1821, that: 'The railroad and its carriages [should] be considered as one machine.'

The Stockton & Darlington, the world's first public railway, did not involve much technical innovation. Appropriately it was the sun which provided the fire for the first run of 'Locomotion', the Stockton & Darlington's first locomotive. In the words of an old labourer, that day: 'Lantern and candle was to no use so No 1 fire was put to her on line by the pour of the sun.' Thus, accidentally, through impatience rather than design, a direct link was established between the fire in heaven and a man-made flame which was to travel round the globe.

From its opening in 1825 the Stockton & Darlington was a triumphant success. Unexpectedly, it carried not only passengers by their thousands, but also coal by the hundreds of thousands of tons. A local grandee, Mr Lambton, had tried to sabotage the prospects of the line as a freight railway by ensuring that coal destined to be sent onwards by sea would pay only the apparently ruinously low railway freight rate of one shilling and twopence per ton per mile, an eighth of the rate to be charged if the coal were to be used locally. Yet, far from ruining the S & D, the low rate enabled the new means of transport to show its economic potential. It was soon carrying half a million tons of coal annually, fifty times the anticipated figure.

The S & D also gave birth to Middlesbrough, the first town which owed its very existence to the railway. Like so many of its future brethren it grew up where a busy railway line reached navigable water. According to Samuel Smiles: 'When the railway was opened in 1825 the site of the future metropolis of Cleveland was occupied by one solitary farmhouse and its outbuildings. All round was pasture-land or mud-banks; scarcely another house was within sight.' The local municipality wouldn't help, so four years after the S & D was opened 'Mr Edward Pease ... joined by a few of his Quaker friends, bought about 500 or 600 acres of land, five miles lower down the river – the site of the modern Middles-brough – for the purpose of there forming a new seaport for the shipment of coals brought to the Tees by the railway. The line was accordingly extended thither; docks were excavated; a town sprang up; churches, chapels and schools were built, with a custom-house, mechanics' institute, banks, shipbuilding yards, and iron-factories. By Smiles's time, a couple of decades later, the port of Middlesbrough had a population of 20,000, and was one of the busiest ports in the North East of England.'

While the Stockton & Darlington was being built William James, the true 'Father of the Railways', had surveyed an ambitious national rail network to be worked by steam engines. In doing so he freed railways from their previous automatic connection with mining. James was almost a second father to young Robert Stephenson, who clearly found his real father, George, such an unbearable autocrat that he spent some years seeking his fortune in the mines of Latin America.

James's dreams had one major practical result: they awoke the merchants of Liverpool and Manchester to the potential the railway offered to break the monopoly of transport between the two towns held for fifty years by the Bridgewater Canal Company. As recounted in the note about him at the end of this chapter James got into financial difficulties and the scheme was transformed into a practical project by a local man, Joseph Saunders, who called in George Stephenson. In the absence abroad of his son, the father made virtually no progress in improving his locomotives. His limitations were further exposed during Parliamentary hearings over the vague and unsatisfactory survey he had conducted for the projected line.

However, after the early setbacks he demonstrated the confidence and the innovatory common-sense required of all railway and locomotive builders, when he showed how to tackle Chat Moss, the much-dreaded marsh between the two cities. Orthodox drainage ditches simply filled with water, but George Stephenson triumphantly showed that railways would be able to overcome natural obstacles previously considered to be impassable. In L. T. C. Rolt's words: 'Stephenson's plan of floating his railway embankment across the Moss on a raft of brushwood and heather was put into operation. A vast tonnage of spoil was tipped only to be swallowed up, but Stephenson never lost heart and gradually a firm causeway began to stretch out into the Moss to confound the sceptics.'

It was Robert Stephenson who finally ensured that the mobile steam engine would triumph over its stationary equivalent, which, it was generally assumed at the time, would be required if any substantial load were to be hauled up any kind of gradient. Trevithick had already shown that the power of a locomotive could be greatly increased by diverting the exhaust steam into a specially narrowed chimney. In the late 1820s both Henry Booth, the treasurer of the Liverpool & Manchester, and the French engineer Marc Séguin, suggested that the two tubes in the boiler be replaced with a host of smaller ones, thus 'drawing hot gases from a separate fire box and so greatly increasing the heating surface ... at last they had solved the steam-raising problem and ensured that the locomotive would be capable of a sustained power output over long distances.' But it was Robert who put these ideas into practice with a quick succession of improved engines.

As a result of the partnership between father and son the modern world was conceived on 8th October, 1829, during the trials held at Rainhill to decide how the trains on the Liverpool & Manchester would be powered. Robert Stephenson's Rocket attained a steady 29 mph on his later runs, proving that his design was far more reliable than the competing locomotives.

These came from two sources: other engines from Northumbria and, also, and more fundamentally, entries from London. In the capital a whole group of manufacturers had developed steam-powered locomotives designed to haul economic loads on ordinary roads, and these were the clear favourites before the Rainhill trials. The Stephensons' triumph at Rainhill, therefore, was not only personal: it also deprived roads of their hopes of carrying mechanically-propelled vehicles for three quarters of a century.

In the year between the trials and the opening of the railway itself Stephenson garnered a great deal of mostly favourable publicity by driving specially-favoured visitors along the completed sections of the line. The ecstatic reactions of the actress Fanny Kemble quoted below were not necessarily typical. The gossip and man-about-town, Thomas Creevey, was scared stiff. At twenty miles an hour, 'the quickest motion is to me frightful; it is really flying and it is impossible to divest yourself of the notion of instant death to all upon the least accident happening. It gave me a headache which has not left me yet.' But even he had to admit that at 23 mph they were travelling 'with the same ease as to motion or absence of friction as the other reduced pace' – the passengers were comparing travel in the four-wheeled unsprung carts used as railway carriages with even rattlier horse-drawn coaches. Moreover he – and the equally frightened Lord Sefton – were in the minority. 'He and I seem more struck with apprehension than the others.'

On 15th September, 1830, the Liverpool & Manchester Railway was officially opened. After what today would be termed amazing media hype, and amid scenes which combined tragedy and farce in equal proportions, eight special trains carried six hundred important guests between the two cities. These included the Tory Prime Minister, the much-hated Duke of Wellington, and the most out-spoken Tory reformer, William Huskisson, MP for Liverpool and friend of the city's merchants, victim that day of the world's first and most-publicised railway accident, which also nearly cost the life of the Austrian ambassador, Prince Esterhazy.

(The Duke had to be protected from the mobs which swarmed all over the tracks. Uncharacteristically this war hero was so scared that it took considerable persuasion to get him to complete the journey to Manchester. The whole episode, including Huskisson's death, was so traumatic that he could not be tempted onto another train for thirteen years.)

Less publicly, Rainhill had also introduced the idea of technological obsolescence. The railways replaced canals built in the previous half-century, and the post-coaches running over macadamised road surfaces introduced in the previous two decades. Yet these had represented the biggest advance in road transport since the Romans left Britain fourteen centuries earlier. Travelling time between major British cities had halved between 1770 and 1830.

But the locomotives themselves became obsolescent in a matter of months, not decades. By the end of 1830 Rocket had been replaced by Northumbrian, another of Robert Stephenson's designs. 'In all essential particulars,' in L. T. C. Rolt's words, 'the boiler of the Northumbrian was the same as that fitted to every orthodox locomotive from that day to this.' Within a few years the immortal Rocket had been relegated to the sidings. But it had served its purpose. It had seen off the opposition and proved that a mobile steam locomotive could replace horses, fixed engines and steam-powered road carriages.

The immediate success of the Liverpool & Manchester sent shock waves, first throughout Britain, and then, with some delay, round the world. By 1833 a Railway Companion describing an excursion along the line could claim that 'already locomotive power is rapidly superseding every other species of conveyance throughout the civilised world.'

Within fifteen years lines had been built between London and most of Britain's major cities, although London's first line (and the first urban railway in the world) from London Bridge to Greenwich, was completed only in 1838, its arches soaring high over the slums and market gardens along the way. Robert Stephenson's line between London and Birmingham was even more significant, and its parliamentary passage a crucial battle between the railway and the canal interests. It was not only the first link between the capital and a major provincial city (and thus, albeit indirectly, between the capital, Liverpool and Manchester), but it also ran parallel – and often very close to – the country's foremost man-made waterway, the Grand Junction Canal, with its twenty-six speedy daily flyboats for urgent goods, and Watling Street, with its sixteen coaches daily between the two towns. With the London & Birmingham the newly almighty – private – railway interest had dealt a deadly blow to the public, communal thoroughfares, canal and road, where the small man could compete on equal terms with major carriers.


Excerpted from The World the Railways Made by Nicholas Faith. Copyright © 2014 Nicholas Faith. Excerpted by permission of Head of Zeus Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Nicholas Faith writes for the Independent on Sunday (London) and many other publications, and is the author of The BronfmansChristian Wolmar is the author of Blood, Iron & Gold; Engines of War; and The Great Railroad Revolution.

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