rail system

views updated

rail system. Means of conveyance by wheeled vehicles guided on fixed tracks, especially when propelled by locomotive. English usage of the flanged wheel and long-distance horse-drawn links between mines and water transport distinguished the wagon-way from the European hund (truck). It is first recorded at Woolaton (Notts.) c.1604 and Broseley (Shropshire), and was introduced by Huntingdon Beaumont to Northumberland by 1605. Diffusion of ‘wagon-ways’ was widespread around the rivers Tyne and Wear in the century after 1660, and lesser systems appeared in Shropshire, Yorkshire, Cumberland, and Fife. Charles Brandling's wagon-way built to supply Leeds with his coal was the first to employ the private act to secure wayleave (1758), and to apply steam commercially in the Murray and Blenkinsop locomotive (1812). The wagon-way was an integral element of most canals, advanced with the introduction of iron rails from the 1790s, and attained its ultimate development in the Stockton and Darlington railway (1825).

The Liverpool and Manchester railway (completed 1830) was the effective transition to the rail system, being designed for steam haulage throughout; for communication between two major towns; and to convey passengers as a principal element of the business. Secondary consequences followed: the exclusion of public access on grounds of safety; by this the establishment of monopoly; and transport at speeds beyond that of a horse transformed the psychology of travel. It was followed by the Grand Junction from Crewe to Birmingham (1837) and the London and Birmingham railway (1838). England thus established a long-distance link between the capital and the industrial north-west. The companies founded in or before the ‘railway manias’ of 1836–7 and 1844–7 had largely completed the rail system by 1854, with more than 6,000 route miles open, and a further 3,200 authorized. The third mania of 1863–6 concentrated upon branch and subsidiary lines, and London suburban development, bringing route mileage to over 15,500 by 1870.

Subsequent development continued the pattern: the bridging of the Scottish estuaries of the Tay (1878 and replacement 1887) and Forth (1890) completed the direct line to Aberdeen, and the Severn tunnel (1886) cut journey times into south Wales, but no major additional trunk routes were added after 1870. The Midland railway attempted to abandon the last navvy-built trunk line, the Settle–Carlisle (opened 1876), in 1868–9, but was forced to complete, and the Great Central's entry to London at Marylebone (1894) was a highly engineered superfluity. Mileage in Britain reached 21,000 by 1914 and was maintained until 1938, before falling to below 19,000 at the end of the 1950s and 12,000 in 1970, of which passenger mileage was around 9,000.

Remarkable traffic growth before 1914 was accompanied by rising costs and falling levels of profit. Freight rose from c.38 million tons in 1850, to 167 million in 1870, and 513 million in 1912, of which 60 per cent was coal and coke, and passenger journeys grew from 73 million in 1850 to 337 million in 1870, and 1,580 million in 1912 (c.2,000 million including London). Competition in services and facilities, the rising ratio of running costs to gross receipts, and falling labour productivity characterized much of the period 1870–1914. Railway direct employment peaked at just under 750,000 in 1921. The railway system was more important to the British economy in 1914 than in 1870, measured by its estimated specific contribution to economic growth, or ‘social saving’.

Passengers gained accordingly in the quality and volume of services: sleeping cars were introduced in 1873, as were the first lavatories outside royal trains; the ‘express’ from the 1870s; the Pullman in 1874; dining cars in 1878; and corridor stock in the early 1890s. All were costly in terms of passengers carried per ton hauled: the best corridor stock before 1914 carried 2.4 passengers per ton, 30 per cent better than the ratio for 1875, but comparing poorly with suburban carrying capacity of 3.5. This growing weight of trains demanded increasing investment in more powerful locomotives.

The system had been the creation of individual joint-stock companies, perhaps Britain's first experience of large-scale business, which provided the core securities traded in the new provincial stock exchanges. There were 366 railway companies in the mid-1860s, and still around 100 in 1914, and the system was unplanned by comparison with that of Belgium or France. Government competition policy inhibited amalgamations, but ‘end-on’ linkages such as the LNWR (1846), the NER (1854), and territorial monopolies such as the Great Eastern (1854) did emerge, and left the system dominated by four English and three Scottish units at the grouping into four companies in 1923. London's Underground Electric Railways Company, formed by Charles Tyson Yerkes in 1900 to establish a coherent system, soon neared bankruptcy and merged into the London General Omnibus Company in 1912, taking in the remaining tube lines in 1913. Most joined the London Passenger Transport Board in 1933, and London Transport on its formation in 1948.

The pressures of the First World War left the system severely run down, and the grouping of 1923, a compromise between public and private ownership, failed to eliminate wasteful competition in cities such as Birmingham and Leeds, and coincided with the downturn of traffic and the rise of road competition. In response, only the Southern railway electrified extensively, at a cost of £21 million, and was able to improve services to its short-haul passenger base at reduced fares: for the system as a whole, investment proved insufficient to redress falling income, and operating ratios remained poor. Nationalization in 1948 found an exhausted system, beset by the structural and competitive weaknesses of pre-war years, in urgent need of modernization, rationalization, and the standardization of its equipment. Subsequent experience of shifting government policy, uneven conditions of competition with road and air travel, and uncertainty about the balance to be struck between commercial and service objectives left a still under-capitalized system, privatized in the 1990s in a dutch auction of subsidies, and Railtrack in possession of a potential property bonanza. But spectacular crashes at Paddington and Hatfield, together with persistent complaints of poor service, led to Railtrack being put into administration in 2001 by the government, and its shareholders facing the probable loss of most of their investment.

J. A. Chartres


Dyos, H. J., and and Aldcroft, D. H. , British Transport: An Economic Survey from the Seventeenth Century to the Twentieth (Leicester, 1969);
Freeman, M. J., and Aldcroft, D. H. (eds.), Transport in Victorian Britain (Manchester, 1988);
Gourvish, T. R. , British Railways, 1948–73: A Business History (Cambridge, 1986);
Simmons, J. , The Railway in England and Wales, 1830–1914, vol. i: The System and its Working (Leicester, 1978);
Simmons, J., and and Biddle, G. , The Oxford Companion to British Railway History (Oxford, 1997).