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The Birth of Public Railways

John Blenkinsop

John Blenkinsop is little known today but made an important contribution to steam locomotion.

In 1812 Blenkinsop built a rack and pinion railway at Middleton Colliery near Leeds. His engine weighed five tons and regularly hauled trains of 90 tons of coal. Similar locomotives were built for collieries near Wigan and for collieries near Newcastle-upon-Tyne.

It was the locomotives sent to Newcastle that would influence the next generation of engine builders.

William Hedley

William Hedley was born in 1779 and became a manager at Wylam Colliery near Newcastle upon Tyne. He was interested in steam locomotion and knew of Blenkinsop's rack and pinion engines, but he believed they were too complex and expensive.

He built a locomotive to Richard Trevithick's design in 1812, but it did not work well. He then incorporated elements of John Blenkinsop's design to build the famous Puffing Billy in 1813. This was followed by a second locomotive called Wylam Dilly. Both engines remained in service until 1862

William Hedley built the first practical and reliable steam locomotives. It was George Stephenson who would take up his ideas and conquer the world with them.

George Stephenson

George Stephenson was born at Wylam, 9 miles west of Newcastle upon Tyne in 1781. He worked at Wylam Colliery under William Hedley. His parents were very poor, and George was illiterate until the age of 18

George Stephenson married in 1802, although his wife sadly died in 1806 when their son, Robert, was three years old. Working at the collieries around Killingworth near Durham, George Stephenson became an expert in the steam engines that operated there. He designed his first locomotive in 1814, and it could haul 30 tons of coal at 4 mph.

Stephenson built up to 16 locomotives for the collieries around Killingworth. In 1817 he supplied a locomotive to the Kilmarnock and Troon Railway – the first railway in Scotland to use a steam locomotive. However, the engine damaged the track and was withdrawn.

It was the poor quality of cast iron rails that hindered the development of the steam locomotive at that time, but wrought iron rails began to be used in the 1820s.

Assisted by his son Robert, George Stephenson was hired to build the Hetton colliery railway, which was completed in 1822 and was the first railway in the world to operate entirely with steam traction. The line was 8 miles long and worked by five Stephenson built locomotives, with two sections of rope hauled inclined plane operated by stationery steam engines.

The owners of Hetton colliery were not satisfied with George Stephenson's work, and he was dismissed in 1823. But better things would come.

The Stockton and Darlington Railway

There were rich coalfields around the town of Darlington in County Durham, but road transport was slow and expensive, and the nearest port was Stockton on Tees, 12 miles away.

A canal had been proposed as early as 1810, but opposition from local landowners meant none was built. In 1818 a tramway was proposed but the planned route opposed. A new route was surveyed and, finally, agreed, and the Stockton and Darlington Railway Act was passed by Parliament in 1821. There was no mention in it of steam locomotives, and early documentation suggested that wagons would be hauled by horses.

George Stephenson was elected engineer for the line in January 1822, and he suggested the use of steam locomotives, as well as a slightly shorter and easier route. This was approved the following year. George Stephenson used malleable rails in the construction, rather than the fragile cast iron. He also designed an iron bridge for the route.

George's son, Robert, established the world's first locomotive works in Newcastle upon Tyne in 1823 and was commissioned to build four locomotives for the line.

The Stockton and Darlington railway opened in 1825 and drew vast crowds to see it in operation. The line was intended to transport coal and became highly profitable. Passenger operations also started in 1825, and around 40,000 passengers were carried on the line between 1826 and 1827.

The Stockton and Darlington railway was the first steam-hauled public railway in the world. This was the dawn of the railway age.

The first public railway in Scotland was the Monkland and Kirkintilloch Railway near Glasgow, which opened in 1826 but which didn't move to steam locomotion until 1831.

The Rainhill Trials

After his success with the Stockton and Darlington Railway, and then the Bolton and Leigh Railway opened in 1828, George Stephenson was appointed principal engineer for the Liverpool and Manchester Railway, which was to be the first inter-city railway in the world.

The route featured a number of gradients, and the directors of the railway were not sure that steam locomotives would be suitable. The Rainhill Trials were organised to test the abilities of the steam engines of the time. Rainhill was the steepest section of the line. Five locomotives took part on the day, and two of those were withdrawn. George and Robert Stephenson designed a new type of locomotive for the trials – the famous Rocket, which proved vastly better than the other engines reaching 24mph on one of its runs.

In the days following the trials, the Rocket took trains of 40 passengers up and down part of the route as a PR exercise to convince the local population.

The Liverpool and Manchester Railway Company ordered six locomotives from Robert Stephenson and Company, engine builders, and the line officially opened in September 1830. It was hugely popular and highly profitable. The railway age had arrived, and the period called Railway Mania was about to begin – but that is another story.

Thank you for listening to this lesson. In our next lesson, we move onto the story of coal, coke, and iron.

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Written by

Ross Maynard