A Tribute to Rail Transport in Great Britain

This month we pay a special tribute to the railroads of Great Britain. Just as Britain influenced colonial America, they too influenced the development of railroad transportation in the US.

England holds claim to the earliest experiments with railroads and practical application of steam locomotives. In 1802, Richard Trevithick designed and built the first (unnamed) steam locomotive to run on smooth rails. The first commercially successful steam locomotive was Salamanca, built in 1812 by John Blenkinsop and Matthew Murray for the 4 ft (1,219 mm) gauge Middleton RailwaySalamanca was a rack and pinion locomotive, with cog wheels driven by two cylinders embedded into the top of the center-flue boiler.

In 1813, William Hedley and Timothy Hackworth designed a locomotive (Puffing Billy) for use on the tramway between Stockton and DarlingtonPuffing Billy featured piston rods extending upwards to pivoting beams, connected in turn by rods to a crankshaft beneath the frames which, in turn, drove the gears attached to the wheels. This meant that the wheels were coupled, allowing better traction. A year later, George Stephenson improved on that design with his first locomotive which was the first locomotive to use single-flanged wheels.

That design persuaded the backers of the proposed Stockton and Darlington Railway to appoint Stephenson as Engineer for the line in 1821. While traffic was originally intended to be horse-drawn, Stephenson carried out a fresh survey of the route to allow steam haulage. The Act was subsequently amended to allow the usage of steam locomotives and also to allow passengers to be carried on the railway. The 25-mile (40 km) long route opened on 27 September 1825 and, with the aid of Stephenson’s Locomotion No. 1, was the first locomotive-hauled public railway in the world.

Train carrying passengers

In 1830 the Liverpool and Manchester Railway opened. This set the pattern for modern railways. It was the world’s first inter-city passenger railway and the first to have ‘scheduled’ services, terminal stations and services as we know them today. The railways carried freight and passengers with also the world’s first goods terminal station at the Park Lane railway goods station at Liverpool’s south docks, accessed by the 1.26-mile Wapping Tunnel. In 1836, at the Liverpool end the line was extended to Lime Street station in Liverpool’s city center via a 1.1 mile long tunnel.

That railroad development was noted in the US and America’s First Railroad, the Baltimore & Ohio was chartered in 1827. B&O elected to scratch build its steam locomotive fleet however two pioneer US railroads the Baltimore & Susquehanna (1828) and the Camden & Amboy (1831) turned to Great Britain for their first steam locomotives named Herald and John Bull respectively. (Both the B&S and C&A became part of the giant Pennsylvania Railroad)

The railway companies ceased to be profitable after the mid-1870s. Nationalization of the railways was first proposed by William Ewart Gladstone as early as the 1840s, and calls for nationalization continued throughout that century.  The entire network was brought under government control during the First World War, and a number of advantages of amalgamation and planning were revealed. However, the Conservative members of the wartime coalition government resisted calls for the formal nationalization of the railways in 1921.

Finally on 1 January 1923, almost all the railway companies were grouped into the Big Four: the Great Western Railway, the London and North Eastern Railway, the London, Midland and Scottish Railway and the Southern Railway companies. A number of other lines, already operating as joint railways, remained separate from the Big Four; these included the Somerset and Dorset Joint Railway and the Midland and Great Northern Joint Railway. Great Britain celebrated the 100th anniversary of railroading with a mammoth pageant of their oldest display locomotives up to the newest designs of the 1920s. That celebration was the impetus for the landmark for the Fair of the Iron Horse to mark the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Baltimore & Ohio in 1927.   In that era the US populace had firsthand encounters with British steam locomotives that were sent to this country for exhibitions and special events. Included in that mix were the King George V (1927), The Royal Scot (1933), the Coronation Scot (1939) and the Flying Scotsman (1969-1970). The “Big Four” were joint-stock public companies and they continued to run the railway system until 31 December 1947 when they were merged to form British Railways (later British Rail) in early 1948.

Flying Scotsman Train

Passenger levels decreased steadily from the late fifties to late seventies. Passenger services then experienced a renaissance with the introduction of the high-speed InterCity 125 trains in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The 1980s saw severe cuts in government funding and above-inflation increases in fares, but the service became more cost-effective. Following sectorization of British Rail, InterCity became profitable. InterCity became one of Britain’s top 150 companies operating city center to city center travel across the nation from Aberdeen and Inverness in the north to Poole and Penzance in the south. 

Between 1994 and 1997, British Rail was privatized. Ownership of the track and infrastructure passed to Railtrack, passenger operations were franchised to individual private sector operators (originally there were 25 franchises) and the freight services sold outright (six companies were set up, but five of these were sold to the same buyer).  Passenger levels have since increased strongly.

Since privatization, numbers of passengers have grown rapidly; by 2010 the railways were carrying more passengers than at any time since the 1920s. and by 2014 passenger numbers had expanded to their highest level ever, more than doubling in the 20 years since privatization. 

Locomotives and rolling stock in Great Britain have always represented the highest levels of craftsmanship and design made more impressive by impeccable maintenance. That early start and commanding presence in their culture, ignited the popularity of toy trains and later the start of scale model railroading and once again, Great Britain led the way.

For all those reasons we felt that this tribute was long overdue and a good reason to celebrate that fascinating history and positive impact on railroading. It is also an excellent time to draw close to your own model railroad empire and perhaps enhance that with a selection from our current inventory of model railroad equipment and supplies, with every purchase supported by our nationally recognized Rewards Program. Our staff is determined to serve you in every way possible so you can take pleasure in one of the most outstanding hobbies in the universe.