Ahead of their time

The arrival of the railway heralded a new age more than almost any other technological development. But the idea of combining fixed paths with wheeled vehicles was much older than the great nineteenth century inventors and the age of steam.

Christopher Woolmer opens his book Fire and Steam, a history of the railways, with this quite arresting story:

“One of the least known facts about Louis XIV is that he had a railway in his back garden. The Sun King used to entertain his guests by giving them a go on the Roulette, a kind of roller-coaster built in the gardens of Marly near Versailles in 1691.”

The Roulette at Versailles - a rather more courtly (and sedate) version of the train

The first passenger service on rails is widely believed to have been the Swansea and Mumbles Railway, completed in 1806. This curious conveyance would be powered by horses and, when appropriate, sails, and carried passengers along the romantic scenery of the south Wales coastline.

Woolmer goes on to highlight the use of crude, wooden rails in early mining operations and dates them to as far back as the sixteenth century. The move to steam-powered traction would not begin in the grounds of royalty or as a distraction for seaside tourists but in the coalfields of Britain’s industrial North East.

By the start of the 18th century, the UK was producing more coal than any other country in the world. Coal was crucial to the development of railways and not just as fuel to be shovelled into the furnaces, but also as the precious cargo that inspired the ancestors of the railway.

The Causey Arch, the world's oldest surviving railway bridge, near Stanley, County Durham, England by John-Paul Stephenson on 11 August 2005

An intricate system of wooden tramways had developed in County Durham through the seventeenth century. By the end of the century the network was so identified with its area and principal port that they became known as Newcastle Roads. The Newcastle Roads were a network of wooden rails that carried wagons hauled by horses.

And this was no ramshackle enterprise – the hub of the network was the ‘Grand Allies’ roads, laid by a group of wealthy mine owners and merchants including the Liddells, George Bowes, the Montagues and Thomas Ord. They even built the first piece of major engineering work in the form of the Causey Arch to take the railway over the Causey Burn.

There were, of course, limitations in the technology – wooden tracks, wooden wheels and only as much cargo as could be controlled by a single horse – meant that around 2.5 tonnes of coal could be transported per load. Still, the Newcastle Roads were incredibly popular, with up to 2,000 wagons a day heading to the markets. Over 900 horse-drawn wagons crossed the Causey Arch each day using the Tanfield Railway.

Tanfield_Railway_pic_3 brian clark [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

It would take the combination of improvements in steam-power, led by engineers such as Richard Trevithick, William Hedley, Timothy Hackworth and George Stephenson and the insatiable demand for coal and improvements in transport for the first steam-powered railway to emerge as the Stockton to Darlington Railway in 1825. The Liverpool and Manchester Railway would follow it in 1830 as the first regular steam-powered passenger railway.