Why Were Railways Unpopular In Victorian Times?

Why were railways unpopular in Victorian times?During the Victorian times, railways were in their infancy. As a result, much uncertainty surrounded whether trains were safe and able to handle such speeds. Additionally, there was a common belief that trains could cause insanity, leading many passengers to become violent.

In the beginning of the 19th century, numerous new technologies began to evolve. Richard Trevithick, known for pioneering the very first operational steam locomotive, ran his landmark locomotive design on the Pen-y-Daren tramway in South Wales in 1804. With this groundbreaking feat, many began following in his footsteps, as famous railway engineers such as the Stephensons and Brunel began to make their mark on history. From this point on, the world was propelled into the modern era. However, many Victorians rejected the technology on the grounds of dangerous operations and maniacal behavior on board.

During the Victorian era, and at the beginning of the British industrial revolution, productivity was at its peak. People and goods were being transported quicker than ever before. Undoubtedly, the progression of the railways sparked the industrial revolution in Britain, as they altered the manner in which people lived.  Amidst this progress, there was much anxiety concerning the safety and viability of the new technology, as the speeds of even 25 mph were considered lightning quick in the 19th century. The railways also caused concern from landowners, who would retaliate against laying tracks across their property. According to L.T.C Rolt’s book, “George and Robert Stephenson”, Stephenson and his fellow surveyors were required to survey sections of the Stockton & Darlington Railway after dark because of the threat from these meddling landowners.

A.B. Clayton/Public Domain

Similar to any new piece of technology, even today, there is some uncertainty of its implications. Imagine in the Victorian times, when the only mode of land transport was a horse and carriage. However, one day, a steaming behemoth comes hurtling down the tracks at neck-breaking speeds, promising to be the new standard mode of transport. Many were often skeptical of train safety, as if the train malfunctioned, they feared the results could be catastrophic, as the unregulated railways were operated by private entities with little regard to safety. Additionally, early Victorian railways employed open carriages, with meant passengers had no shelter from precipitation and other weather elements. Later, enclosed railway carriages were utilized, however, carriage doors failing to lock properly led to passenger falling from moving trains.

In their infancy, Victorian trains, although revolutionary, caused much uneasiness for some. Stories of “railway madmen” attacking passengers quickly reached the headlines, and discouraged many from traveling. A common belief in the medical field during this time was that trains could cause nerve damage, due to its swaying motion. Other passengers feared for their safety due to attacks by other passengers, and lack of communication to seek assistance. The lack of regulation, safety equipment, and passenger comforts made the Victorian trains unappealing to many throughout the country.

Danger On the Rails

Although the early railways are oftentimes romanticized in Victorian Britain, this proved to be quite the contrary. Victorian trains were noisy, rough riding, and fraught with threats of attack by other passengers. These factors discouraged many from riding Victorian trains, however, many found excitement of the unknown implications of rail travel. The dangers of the early railways were made known by the Victorian press, who enjoyed writing articles highlighting the latest railway drama.

The most common danger on Victorian trains was the threat of attack by “railway madmen”. Many of these individuals seemed like ordinary passengers upon boarding the train, however, began lashing out when the train was in motion. As an attempt to curtail these attacks, the railway carriages were fitted with enclosed sections with a locked door. However, this failed to negate the issues, as oftentimes, victims of these attacks were locked in the room with the insane passenger. Additionally, lack of communication with guards and other attendants were non-existent, hindering communication when assistance was needed during these circumstances.

Public Domain

It is believed that this insanity was due to the noise and rocking of the train carriages, as when a train reached the next station, the insane individual would be calm until the train was once again set into motion. Many medical professions during this time also held the belief that the rocking and jolts of the train shattered nerves in the brain, leading to uncontrollable behavior. As a deterrent, various measures before boarding the train were implemented to curtain this  obscene behavior. One measure included denying persons on board who were not in a stable mental state, however, this measure did not take into account those who only engaged in this behavior once in motion. Many professionals believe that these episodes were due to passengers experiencing “mania”, which included mind-racing, quickly speaking, and feeling empowered.

According to Punch magazine, a renowned British publication known for their various cartoons, an illustration was published in one of their Victorian era magazines of railway tracks, with a final destination leading to a mental institution. This is due to the fact that patients in these institutions who escaped, sought freedom on the rails, and terrorized travelers on board. Oddly enough, towards the end of the 19th century, and as railways became more commonplace, attacks on board trains subsided substantially.


Although revolutionary at the time, railway infrastructure during the Victorian era lacked standardization, regulation, and ease of use. In a few parts of the network, rail gauges, the length between the rails, differed. This made it difficult for travelers to remain on one train for the entirety of their journey. Passengers were required to switch trains when running on a different railway until break of gauge was introduced, which consisted of rails that were dual gauge on the same rail line. According to the Office of Road and Rail, responsible for the safety and regulations in Britain, it was not until the Railway Regulation Act was passed in 1840, that railways were required to be inspected prior to operation. Additionally, during the “Railway Mania” of the late 1830s and 40s, many railways were hastily constructed without much attention to safety or structural integrity. This was due to funding via private investors wanting to reap their share of the railway fortune.

Because of the lack of knowledge about locomotive construction during this time, crucial elements of the locomotives, such as the boilers, either malfunctioned or the crew exceeded its maximum pressure, resulting in a boiler explosion. Inadequate rails were a constant issue on the Victorian system, as the cast iron rails proved too light to carry the immense weight of the train, and were prone to severe cracking, resulting in a derailment. Additionally, signaling and other warning systems were sparse, which proved nerve wracking to travelers, as block signaling was not introduced until the 1850s. This type of signaling restricts more than one train from entering a section of railway or “block” at a given time. This prevented accidents, as trains were given ample distance to stop in case of emergency, however, in early Victorian times, this type of signaling had not yet existed.

London Paddington 1896

Stopping power proved an issue as well, as the Westinghouse air brake had not been patented until 1869. Prior to the air brake, train brakes were applied on each car separately, which prohibited prompt stopping power, and increased the likeliness of accidents. Upon the introduction of the air brake, the entire braking system could be controlled from the locomotive, similar to the operations in the present day. The invention of the air brake significantly increased the viability of rail travel, and increased its attractiveness to the general public. Structural integrity of locomotives was unregulated as well, as boiler explosions proved troublesome during this time. Similar to other aspects of the early railways, locomotive construction was largely unregulated, and were built without any regard to safety. Amidst various occurrences of boiler explosions, regulations, along with regular inspections became commonplace.

Upon the enactment of proper legislation to regulate and inspect the hundreds of railways throughout the country, the railways became safer and more economical to build, and more attractive to the general public. Additionally, when tragedy along the railway struck, inspectors were sent out to the site to investigate and study the incident, to enact proper regulation to prevent any similar incidents in the future. A more regulated railway proved promising for the general public, as the rails became a viable, world-class mode of transportation for both freight and passenger travel, which still stands true today.



Lifelong Rail Enthusiast and Owner of Worldwide Rails

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