In the Beginning

The use of rail to transport goods goes back over 2,500 years where it is recorded that in 500 BC the Ancient Greeks operated a rail system to carry boats across the route of the current Corinth Canal.

Quarries in Greece, Malta and the Roman Empire used cut stone tracks to haul loads pulled by animals. Wheeled vehicles pulled by men and animals ran in grooves in limestone, which provided the track element, preventing the wagons from leaving the intended route.

One of the most important additions to daily life at the start of the railway era was the introduction of standard time. Until then, different parts of the country had no requirement for precise timing. Goods were transported by road and canal, but in the railway era when there was a variation in time, even by a few minutes, it could cause problems meeting trains. It might say 12 noon in London, but in Devon the locals might have it as 12.03pm. Nowadays we have radio controlled clocks that pick up a signal from a military base in Cumbria. Read here for more about GMT.

Back to the ancient history…

The Diolkos was in use for over 650 years, until at least the 1st century AD. Paved trackways were later built in Roman Egypt.

In 1556 German miners used wooden tubs known as ‘hunds’ running on two wide boards for rails to move ore within mines. These hunds used a guide pin system for steering utilising the slot between the two board rails. The miners called the wagons Hunde (“dogs”) from the noise they made on the tracks.

Around 1568, German miners working in the Mines Royal near Keswick used such a system. Archaeological work at the Mines Royal site at Caldbeck in the English Lake District confirmed the use of “hunds“.


In 1604, Huntingdon Beaumont completed the Wollaton Wagonway, built to transport coal from the mines at Strelley to Wollaton Lane End, just west of Nottingham.

Wagonways have been discovered between Broseley and Jackfield in Shropshire from 1605, used by James Clifford to transport coal from his mines in Broseley to the Severn River. It has been suggested that these are somewhat older than that at Wollaton. Wikipedia

Top: hund trucks and hund rail
Bottom: wagonway, Blenkinsop rail and wheels. (1783 – 22 January 1831) was an English mining engineer and an inventor of steam locomotives, who designed the first practical railway locomotive. Photos of National Railway Museum collection.
(Click for slideshow)

Metal Rails

Until the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, rails were made of wood, were a few inches wide and were fastened end to end, on logs of wood or “sleepers”, placed crosswise at intervals of two or three feet. In time, it became common to cover them with a thin flat sheathing or “plating” of iron, in order to add to their life and reduce friction. This caused more wear on the wooden rollers of the wagons and towards the middle of the 18th century, led to the introduction of iron wheels. However, the iron sheathing was not strong enough to resist buckling under the passage of the loaded wagons, so rails made wholly of iron were invented.

In 1760, the Coalbrookdale Iron Works began to reinforce their wooden railed tramway with iron bars, which were found to facilitate passage and diminish expenses. As a result, in 1767, they began to make cast iron rails. These were probably 6 ft (1.829 m) long, with four projecting ears or lugs 3 in (75 mm) by 3+34 in (95 mm) to enable them to be fixed to the sleepers. The rails were 3+34 in (95 mm) wide and 1+14 in (30 mm) thick. Later, descriptions also refer to rails 3 ft (914 mm) long and only 2 in (50 mm) wide.

Images: National Railway Museum collection.


plateway is an early kind of railway, tramway or wagonway, where the rails are made from cast iron. They were mainly used for about 50 years up to 1830, though some continued later.

Plateways consisted of “L” shaped rails where a flange on the rail guided the wheels in contrast to edgeways, where flanges on the wheels guide it along the track.

Plateways were originally horsedrawn, but cable haulage and small, light locomotives were sometimes used later on.

A later system involved “L” shaped iron rails or plates, each 3 ft (915 mm) long and 4 in (100 mm) wide, having on the inner side an upright ledge or flange, 3 in (75 mm) high at the centre and tapering to 2 in (50 mm) at the ends, for the purpose of keeping the flat wheels on the track. Subsequently, to increase strength, a similar flange might be added below the rail.

Wooden sleepers continued to be used – the rails were secured by spikes passing through the extremities – but, circa 1793, stone blocks began to be used, an innovation associated with Benjamin Outram, although he was not the originator. This type of rail was known as the plate-rail, tramway-plate or way-plate, names that are preserved in the modern term “platelayer” applied to the workers who lay and maintain the permanent way. The wheels of flangeway wagons were plain, but they could not operate on ordinary roads as the narrow rims would dig into the surface. Wikipedia

The image, right, shows a modern rail lying on concrete sleepers and the mechanism to hold it in place. Nowadays the track sections are welded together to create a smooth ride.

A plateway rail from the collection at the National Railway Museum in York.


Another form of rail, the edge rail, was first used by William Jessop on a line that was opened as part of the Charnwood Forest Canal between Loughborough and Nanpantan in Leicestershire in 1789. This line was originally designed as a plateway on the Outram system, but objections were raised to laying rails with upstanding ledges or flanges on the turnpike. This difficulty was overcome by paving or “causewaying” the road up to the level of the top of the flanges.

In 1790, Jessop and his partner Outram began to manufacture edge-rails. Another example of the edge rail application was the Lake Lock Rail Road used primarily for coal transport. This was a public railway (charging a toll) and opened for traffic in 1798, making it the world’s oldest public railway. The route started at Lake Lock, Stanley, on the Aire & Calder Navigation, running from Wakefield to Outwood, a distance of approximately 3 miles (4.8 km). Edge-rails (with a side rack) were used on the nearby Middleton-Leeds rack railway (a length of this rail is on display in Leeds City Museum).

The wheels of an edgeway have flanges, like modern railways and tramways. Causewaying is also done on modern level crossings and tramways.

This can be seen in the Old Hall district of the town where a branch line from the Cheshire Lines Railway into Burtonwood air base is still in place but no longer in use.

These two systems of constructing railways, the plate-rail and the edge-rail, continued to exist side by side until well on into the 19th century. Wikipedia

Cast iron fishbelly edge rail manufactured by Outram at the Butterley Company ironworks for the Cromford and High Peak Railway (1831). These are smooth edgerails for wheels with flanges.

Image by Chevin is used under Creative Commons licence.

The Middleton Railway

The Middleton Railway, which opened in September 1758, was created by the very first Act of Parliament concerned with the building of a waggonway or railway. The railway attracted visitors from all over the world, enthusiasts and businessmen alike.

In 1815 Blenkinsop’s technical design was published in a French science and industry journal and the Prussian government built an engine to his design. The Leeds railway went on to great success, but in 1960 things began to change when the then-owners, the National Coal Board, cut back in coal transportation from the colliery and part of the track was purchased by a neighbouring company, Clayton’s.

The Middleton Railway Preservation Society (later to become the Middleton Railway Trust) was allowed to run goods traffic for them. Goods traffic began to decline in 1969 and the railway is now run as a preserved railway, operating most weekends throughout the year. Read more at their website.

English: “The Collier”, in George Walker The costume of Yorkshire, Plate 3, by Robinson & Son, Leeds, Augt., 1813. First painting of a locomotive. Watercolour of George Walker representing the Blenkinsop’s locomotive hauling coal wagons at the Middleton Colliery. Image used under Creative Commons licence.

Blenkinsop’s rack locomotive Salamanca, Middleton to Leeds (UK) coal tramway, 1812. Image used under Creative Commons licence.

Salamanca was the first commercially successful steam locomotive, built in 1812 by Matthew Murray of Holbeck, for the edge railed Middleton Railway between Middleton and Leeds in Yorkshire. It was the first to have two cylinders and was named after the Duke of Wellington’s victory at the battle of Salamanca which was fought that same year.

Salamanca was the first rack and pinion locomotive, using John Blenkinsop’s patented design for rack propulsion. A single rack ran outside the narrow gauge tracks and was engaged by a large cog wheel on the left side of the locomotive. The cog wheel was driven by twin cylinders embedded into the top of the centre-flue boiler. The class was described as having two 8″x20″ cylinders, driving the wheels through cranks. The piston crossheads worked in guides, rather than being controlled by parallel motion like the majority of early locomotives. The locomotive weighed 5 tons and saw up to twenty years of service.

Four such locomotives were built for the railway. Salamanca was destroyed six years later, when its boiler exploded. According to George Stephenson, giving evidence to a committee of Parliament, the driver had tampered with the boiler safety valve.

Richard Trevithick’s “Pen-y-Darren” locomotive

In 1802 Trevithick built one of his high-pressure steam engines to drive a hammer at the Pen-y-Darren Ironworks in Merthyr Tydfil, Mid Glamorgan . With the assistance of Rees Jones, an employee of the iron works and under the supervision of Samuel Homfray, the proprietor, he mounted the engine on wheels and turned it into a locomotive. In 1803, Trevithick sold the patents for his locomotives to Samuel Homfray.

Homfray was so impressed with Trevithick’s locomotive that he made a bet with another ironmaster, Richard Crawshay, for 500 guineas that Trevithick’s steam locomotive could haul ten tons of iron along the Merthyr Tydfil Tramroad from Penydarren to Abercynn, a distance of 9.75 miles (15.69 km). Amid great interest from the public, on 21 February 1804 it successfully carried 10 tons of iron, 5 wagons and 70 men the full distance in 4 hours and 5 minutes, an average speed of approximately 2.4 mph (3.9 km/h).

Trevithick’s 1804 locomotive. This full-scale reconstruction is in the National Waterfront Museum, Swansea. Image used under Creative Commons licence.

The first member of the British Royal Family to travel by train was the Dowager Queen Adelaide who took a train from Nottingham to Leeds on 22 July 1840.

Queen Victoria was the first British monarch to travel by train, on 13 June 1842.

This model of Queen Victoria is on display at the National Railway Museum. I thank them for permission to photograph their collection and to use the images on mywarrington.

Some information on this page from Wikipedia, the free encyclopaedia.

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