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Transport – arrival of the railways


Stephenson’s Blucher

RAILWAYS did not spring into the world fully formed. their constituent parts had been around for years before they were finally brought together early in the 19th century to form a viable transport system.

Wooden wagonways, using either human or horsepower, had been used in Europe from as early as the 16th century, and by 1770 James Watt had turned the steam engine into a viable motive force.

Having done all the hard work, however, Watt declined to get involved with the search for a lightweight engine that could be made mobile, and it was left to his adversary Richard Trevithick to come up with a solution. By dispensing with Watt’s condenser and allowing steam from his high-pressure engine to exhaust into the atmosphere, Trevithick laid the foundations for the locomotive, and he built his first vehicle, a steam-powered road car, at Camborne in 1801. Three years later came his first railway engine.

It ran on the normally horse-drawn line at Penydaren in South Wales, pulling 10 tons of iron and 70 men. Unfortunately the cast-iron rails of the tramway were not strong enough to support the weight.

However, an engine similar to the Penydaren one was built to Trevithick’s specifications at Newcastle the following year, and it seems highly likely that George Stephenson saw this machine.

Stephenson had first-hand knowledge of tramways, living alongside one at Killingworth colliery in Northumberland where he had been appointed enginewright in 1812. Within two years, he had built his first locomotive, the Blucher. It was hardly a success on the wooden tramlines, but it gave Stephenson valuable experience and in 1821 he was appointed engineer to the embryoStockton-Darlington railway Stockton and Darlington railway, the world’s first freight- and passenger-carrying steam line. For this, he built his famous engine Locomotion, now in the Science Museum.

The Stockton –Ā Darlington line

The Stockton-Darlington line opened on September 27 1825, with Stephenson at the controls of Locomotion as she hauled a train of 36 wagons filled with coal and flour. Soon, Stephenson’s Newcastle-based engineering company was contracted to build the seven-mile Bolton-Leigh railway, which opened in 1929 with power provided by the Robert Stephenson designed Lancashire Witch, and the following year, the Rocket inaugurated the Liverpool-Manchester Railway, which provided a big boost to the cotton trade with a fast, efficient link with the sea for imports and exports.
The instant success of the Liverpool-Manchester line signalled the beginning of the end for the canals. Many canal companies saw the writing on the wall and built rail lines themselves, while others withered away slowly.

Just like the Canal Mania of the late 18th century, the railway boom was breathtaking in its speed and scope. Within a month, the new line had forced the closure of no fewer than 14 daily inter-city stagecoaches, and within five years, it was carrying nearly 500,000 passengers and 350,000 tons of freight a year.