Railways During the Victorian Era

Railways during the Victorian Era molded the current landscape of Britain as it stands today. The innovations and advances during this time improved economic prosperity, and vastly improved quality of life.


The Victorian Era was one of great advancement in Britain. During this time, Britain had just emerged victorious from the Napoleonic wars, increasing positive viewpoints of Britain across the globe. It marked the beginning of the country’s industrial revolution, and changed the way people lived worldwide. In addition to the industrial revolution, British imperialism was prevalent throughout the 19th and early 20th, as they occupied various territories throughout the globe. Additionally, back home in Britain, the country’s agriculture and steel industries were beginning to prosper. Thus, the railways played a major role in the advancement of both the economy, and lifestyle.

During the industrial revolution, many new industries began to arise throughout the country, moreover, existing industries such as textiles and coal began to grow and thrive. This rise in industry saw a need to transport goods quicker and more efficiently than the then current canal and carriage routes. Additionally, it was prevalent that there was a need to reach rural and remote areas of the country, in order to ship crops and other goods. With the recent invention and trials of the steam locomotive, many industrious engineers proposed railways as the viable solution.

Christian Roland

The development of the steam engine was the tool that propelled the country into the industrial revolution. It made the manufacturing of goods more efficient, producing products more rapidly than ever before, and allowed the middle class to incur wealth to invest in various businesses, most notably, the railways. However, because the industry was in its infancy, regulation was sparse, which led many investors to file for bankruptcy. This issue plagued the early industrial age for many years until regulation was implemented.

Perhaps the greatest achievement of the country during this time would be the invention of the railway. During the Victorian Era, the world’s very first railway, the Stockton & Darlington was beginning to take shape, and would soon be whisking cargo between the two towns, and beyond. During the Victorian era, many prominent railway engineers emerged to make their mark on the future of transportation. Names such as Stephenson, Brunel, and Gooch are all familiar in early railway engineering. Up until the time of railway transport, especially the Stockton & Darlington, the primary mode of transportation was either horse and carriage or boat, via canals. Oftentimes, these journeys took weeks, and proved to be quite treacherous.

Therefore, the most important aspect of the Victorian railways were the ability to quickly ship goods throughout the country, in a short period of time. This promoted an economic boom, as now farmer’s crops in these rural areas could be shipped to market. Additionally, perishable food could be transported throughout the country without spoiling before reaching its destination. The railway were to play a vital role in the future of Britain, and the world as a whole.

The World’s First Railways

Before construction of the Stockton & Darlington Railway, canals were the primary mode of transport to ship and receive coal from the various collieries throughout Tyneside. However, after Richard Trevithick’s locomotive trials on the Pen-y-daren tramway in South Wales, interest shifted to the railways. It was decided that the Stockton & Darlington Railway would be worked by steam locomotives, manufactured by George Stephenson. An exception to the locomotive workings were a few steep hills near Bishop Auckland, where two stationary engines were placed on either side to haul the wagons over the hill. These stationary engines were the subject of much debate, as many believed these should be used on the entire line, not just to conquer steep grades.

Opened in 1825, the Stockton & Darlington was in fact, the world’s first railway powered by steam locomotive traction, which both amazed and concerned residents along the line. Many prominent landowners did not fancy these behemoths traversing through their properties, and took the railway to many legal battles.Despite these feverish attempts to hinder progress, Stephenson continued to develop further railway aspirations.

The completion of the railway demonstrated to engineers and investors that rail travel was well worth the investment, as it significantly reduced the cost of coal transport to the collieries. Although the Stockton & Darlington Railway was the first to use locomotive haulage, the presence of the stationary engines did not make it a completely locomotive hauled railway. Additionally, it only carried shipments for the collieries, thus did not transport passengers.

However, Stephenson’s next venture, the Liverpool & Manchester Railway, was the first railway to be entirely locomotive powered and haul passengers. The Liverpool & Manchester was important, as it connected Manchester, which encompassed most of the textile industry, and Liverpool, the country’s busiest port. However, during this time, many prominent engineers, mainly canal builders, fought against locomotive workings as they were not proven and many were in favor of horse haulage. However, many advocates of the locomotive were rapidly promoting steam traction, therefore, a trial was to be held to decide which motive power would be used, horse or locomotive.

These trials, called the Rainhill trials, took place for locomotive traction to prove their superiority. George Stephenson’s son, Robert, entered a locomotive in the competition. Driven by his father George, Robert Stephenson won the competition with his famous “Rocket”, against other prominent early locomotive engineers. Stephenson’s competitors included Timothy Hackworth, and his Sans Pareil, Timothy Burstall’s Perseverance, John Ericsson and John Braithwaite’s Novelty, and Thomas Shaw Brandreth’s Cycloped. Brandreth’s locomotive was nothing more than a horse on a belt, therefore,powering the wheels. Nevertheless, Stephenson reigned victorious and won the contract for construction of several locomotives for the railway, ending the opposition’s attempts to introduce horse haulage.

The railway was so successful, it encouraged prominent engineers to invest in railway construction and operation, sparking the “Railway Mania”,thus, a feverish railway boom began, as by 1850, even the most remote sections of England were connected by rail.

Thus, Stephenson, and his son, Robert, opened the famous Robert Stephenson & Company (later English Electric), to produce his locomotives for the railway. One of the first locomotives produced was called the Northumbrian. The Northumbrian was similar to the Rocket, and was utilized during the grand opening of the railway. Many subsequent Rocket type locomotives were produced at the works, some even shipped abroad. As a result, many similar locomotive manufacturers sprang up throughout the country, as the construction of the Great Western Railway resulted in the opening of various shops, including the storied Swindon Works.

Railway Mania

As perceptions of railways creating significant revenue increased, various prominent businessmen took advantage of the idea, and by the 1840s, railways were spread throughout the country. This”bubble” as it is called in financial terms, created much of the railways of modern Britain, including various trunk lines such as the West and East coast mainline. Although this was a time of great prosperity in Britain, many investing firms were harvesting unlawful business practices, which negatively affected the investors once the “bubble” popped. This is a result of unfulfilled promises, as there was little to no regulation during this time.

One of the most prominent sources of the boom was the increase in industry and manufacturing, of which, railways could transport goods throughout the country, while doing so efficiently and at a low rate. According to Victorian Webalthough many losses during this time were due to fraudulent dealings, much was blamed on sub-par business practices, poor planning, and investors not having ample capital on hand.Many prominent businessmen were enticing investors with railway shares in order to interest them in other business dealings, therefore, the promised railway was never built, leaving investors in colossal debt.  As a result of these massive debts and lack of capital, the economy of Britain took a downward turn.

Oftentimes, this was due to the repeal of the “Bubble Act”, that had been in place since 1720. Once this act was repealed, anyone with abundant savings was able to invest in the new railway companies, especially those who lived in the towns the railway was promised to journey through, therefore,lack of return left many without their hard-earned savings. These laissaz-faire economic policies caused the economy of Britain to collapse, until the banks lowered interest rates to 10%, therefore, interest in railways decreased. Due to these economic policies, railway lines could receive parliamentary approval without proof of profitability, therefore, many were never built or abandoned.

As a result, various large railways such as the Great Western Railway (GWR), attained much of the abandoned or unfinished rail lines and turned them into profitable enterprises. However, although the railway mania plagued many with bad fortune, the quick construction of railway lines led to a rapid growth in the country’s economy during the mid 19th century.

As railway mania faded into the past, railways became profitable as regulatory measures were implemented. Although, railway mania differed from most negative economic affairs, as the event sparked interest in the railways and began rapid construction throughout the country. This is significant, because in just two short years 1844-1846, 6,220 miles of railway were built.

Traveling on Victorian Trains

Traveling on Victorian trains is oftentimes romanticized, however, this could not be further from the truth. Many were frightened to ride the railway, as threats of accidents scared potential passengers. Derailments and accidents on the early railways were prevalent, as with all new advancements, little was known about the budding industry.

Additionally, a Victorian belief that a train ride could cause insanity was prevalent during this time. Therefore, threats of attacks from these individuals were common fears. It is believed that the motion and sounds of the train could cause a sane person to become insane once the train was in motion. It is recalled from numerous passengers that these individuals seemed calm when the train came to a station stop, however, threw tantrums once the train was in motion. It was also believed that the vibrations of the trains could cause nerve damage, and even more peculiar, cause a person to disintegrate at high speeds, usually in excess of 50 mph.

As these issues became commonplace, separate berths with locked doors became available. However, in some instances, this could put passengers in greater danger,as now they would be trapped in the berth until help arrived. Although many were fearful of the implications of traveling on Victorian trains, the newspaper and media enjoyed publishing elaborate stories about the trials and tribulations of the rails.

In addition to the conditions aboard the train, infrastructure proved to be an issue as well, as Victorian trains often had derailments and other accidents. Additionally, because many of the carriages were open in the early Victorian era, travelers would suffer from smoke inhalation from the locomotive, as well as ear piercing noises. In addition to these shortcomings, the carriages were often rough-riders, as the early running gear did not implement any kind of shock absorption. It was not until the later Victorian era when the railway bogey was implemented.

Cargo transport also proved challenging, as much of the cargo transported had to be loaded onto another railcar, due to gauge differences between the various railways, most notably, the GWR. Gauge is the length between the rails, as most of the Victorian network was 4ft 8 1/2in, the GWR was 7ft, called the “Broad Gauge”. The engineer of the GWR, Isambard Kingdom Brunel ,believed the broad gauge was superior for his high speed locomotives operating on the railway. Although the difference in gauge hindered the speed of the transport of goods, it remained much quicker than the horse and carriage or canal alternative.

Although early Victorian trains were plagued with issues, it opened an abundance of possibilities. The early railways proved that there was an esteemed interest in rail travel, and that with time and experience, will become a viable form of transport that could heighten the economy, and promote growth not only in Britain, but throughout the world.

Railway Gauges

Throughout the years of the early railways, the various engineers all had their own beliefs on how the ideal railway should look and operate. Thus, a differentiation in track gauge was prominent throughout the country, increasing the difficulty of early railway travel. Therefore, Stephenson believed that a gauge of 4ft 81/2 in should be implemented, as that was the gauge that the various collieries throughout Tyneside used, and the gauge of his famous “Rocket”, and saw no reason for change. Meanwhile, Brunel believed that Stephenson’s gauge was not capable of handling the speeds of his locomotives. Brunel’s locomotive engineer, Daniel Gooch, had developed his broad gauge locomotives to reach speeds of 67 mph, speeds not yet seen on Stephenson’s rails. Thus, whenever a passenger or goods train entered the GWR territory, passengers had to de-train, and freight unloaded, in order to transfer them to a carriage or wagon of correct gauge.

Therefore, a gauge battle ensued, as John Ellis of the Midland Railway had leased the Bristol & Birmingham Railway, one of Brunel’s satellite companies, and laid Stephenson’s gauge(Called narrow gauge during this time), with Brunel’s broad gauge already in place. This was the first break of gauge railway in the world, and although was a defeat for Brunel, proved easier on the transshipment of goods and travelers alike. Moreover, if the gauge battle had not occurred, London Paddington station may have never been built. Brunel’s reasoning for constructing the beautiful example of Victorian architecture, was that his broad gauge trains could not fit in Euston station, due to the London & Birmingham railway using the narrow gauge.

Due to the complexities of steam power and locomotive haulage, especially on steep grades, atmospheric railways were proposed as a solution. This technology seemed revolutionary to many engineers and railway investors, as a locomotive was not required. The atmospheric railway operated by way of a series of pipes laid along the track, and in most cases, the entire train acted as a piston as the air was forced into the cylinder located underneath the train. This type of railway was successful, however, was not cost effective due to a pumping station needed to be erected every three miles. Thus, Brunel and the rest of the early railway magnates remained faithful to the steam locomotive, and continued to develop its capabilities to create the ideal machine for transport throughout the country.

The Importance of Victorian Railways

Victorian railways, although somewhat treacherous, introduced railway construction throughout the country. Victorian railways attracted passengers and goods customers due to the speed and efficiency at which they operated. It signaled to potential investors that the railways were profitable enterprises if financed and operated correctly. It allowed news to travel faster than ever before, as newspapers and other mail could be transported throughout the country in a matter of hours.

In addition to British railways, railway construction sparked interest throughout the world due to the Victorian’s ingenuity. In fact, many British locomotive manufacturers exported locomotives to the United States for various 19th century railroads, many built by Robert Stephenson & Co. Because of the Victorian’s innovations, the world was forever changed, quality of life improved, and economic prosperity loomed for all.









Lifelong Rail Enthusiast and Owner of Worldwide Rails

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