This year the theme for the David Winter
Collectors Guild is "The Railways". To celebrate I felt that a little bit of
history is required.
Even though the first steam railway service in Britain
wasnt opened until 1825, the principals of early railways date back to as
early as the 17th century when wagonways were used to transport coal to ports.
However, it was not until 1803 that an engineer, Richard Trevithick, built the
worlds first steam locomotive (pictured right) at Coalbrookdale in
Shropshire. A replica of this engine can be seen at the Science Museum in
Even though Richard Trevithick built the first
steam engine it was not until 1829 and the construction of a railway line
between Liverpool and Manchester that a pinnacle event in history was created.
As the opening of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway drew closer it was
decided to hold a competition to choose the design for the locomotive which was
to run on the railway.
In October, the
'Rainhill Trails' took place and George Stephenson's 'Rocket' (pictured right)
won. With the opening of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway the railway, as a
means of transporting passengers as well as goods, was born.
By the end of the 1800's many railway
companies had been created all over the British Isles. The most famous was the
Great Western Railway (GWR) which opened its first section of railway from
Paddington to Maidenhead in 1938. Despite George Stephenson's 4 foot 8.5 inch
gauge being used across the country Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the first chief
engineer of Great Western Railway, thought that a wider gauge of 7 feet would
be a lot safer. However, in 1846 Parliment decided that Stephenson's 4 foot 8.5
inch gauge would become Britain's standard. Isambard Kingdom Brunel resisted
this change and it wasn't until 1892 that Brunel's 7 foot gauge was finally
converted to the standard 4 foot 8.5 inch gauge.
In 1921 a The Railway Act stated that most of
Britain's railway companies should be merged to form four larger companies.
London, Midland and Scottish (LMS), London and North Eastern (LNER), Great
Western (GWR) and Southern (SR). This created greater standardisation with each
of the four companies creating their own corporate image and with both rural
branch lines and main lines taking pride in their own stations and trackside
With both passenger and freight transportation in great
demand there were some major advancements in both engine and rolling stock
designs. There was also a lot of competition between the four companies. This
rivalry was especially obvious between the LMS and LNER as to who could travel
between Scotland and London the fastest. In 1938 LNER's A4 Pacific, designed by
Sir Nigel Gresley, No. 4468 'Mallard' (pictured left) achieved the world speed
record for steam traction when a speed of 126 mph was reached between Grantham
and Peterborough on the 3rd July. This world famous locomotive, which can be
seen fully restored at the National Railway Museum in York, still holds this
However, by the end of the Second World War Britain's
railways had became run down and were in great decline. It was therefore
decided in 1948, after a Royal Assent of the Transport Act of 1947, to
nationalise the railways and so British Railways was formed. Continued
advancements were still being made in engine design with diesel and then
electric slowly taking over from steam. However, it was not long before, in
1959, a locomotive called 'Evening Star' became the last ever steam engine to
be built for British Railways.
nationalised large parts of the railway network were running at a financial
loss. So in 1961 the British Transport Commission was set up to investigate why
this was so and to offer a solution. The chairman of this commission was a Dr
Richard Beeching and on 1st January 1963 the 'Beeching Report' recommended that
the loss-making lines should be closed. As a result, hundreds of lines and
thousand of stations were shut down. By 1968 not only was steam locomotive
power finally eliminated from the British Rail network but many railway
employees found themselves out of work.
It is a strange fact that it was the large canal network
that was put out of business due to the coming of the railway and it was the
increase in road transport which did the same for the railways. One final twist
in this story is that the steam engine has not been allowed to die. Many ended
up in scrap yards and unfortunately only a few were saved from the acetylene
torch. Most of those that did survive remain in full working order after years
of hard work and dedication so that they are preserved along with the buildings
and the railways they worked on for generations to come. Many once closed lines
and stations have been saved and are now visited by rail enthusiasts and
The biggest irony regarding
Britain's railways is that despite Dr Beeching steam pulled trains can still be
seen on the British main line on special occasions and charity events.