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Railway (R)evolution: How England Transitioned from Wooden Tracks to High-Speed Trains

Railway (R)evolution: How England Transitioned from Wooden Tracks to High-Speed Trains
photo: Wikimedia commons / Hitachi Rail / CC BY 3.0/Drawing of locomotive rocket and modern High Speed 2
04 / 07 / 2024

In England, it all started with miners and wooden tracks in the 15th century. From there, they progressed from steam locomotives to modern high-speed trains. Pioneering ideas like replacing wood with steel and the advent of steam locomotives transformed the world of transportation. Join us as we explore the fascinating journey from the first carts to super-fast trains. We are launching a new series mapping the development of railways in various countries.

The first mentions of railways in England date back to the 1460s when miners in Cumbria began using carts powered by animal force to transport coal. This technology gradually improved over the following centuries, culminating in 1793 with the first kilometer-long tramway. It used wooden tracks and was created by Benjamin Outram. However, these tracks faced the limitations of wooden materials under higher loads—they broke, absorbed water, and were brittle. These deficits were ingeniously solved by John Birkenshaw by simply replacing wood with steel. From a 21st-century perspective, it seems a simple and logical solution, but at the dawn of the smoke-filled 19th century, it was a step that enabled the explosive growth of railways and laid the foundation for their future success.

But let's go back a few years. At the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries, a propulsion revolution occurred. Until then, animal power was the absolute standard. That was about to change. In 1802, when English engineer and experimenter Richard Trevithick built the first steam-powered locomotive, it was clear that the days of horsepower on the railway were numbered.

The first commercially used steam locomotive was the legendary Salamanca, a rack locomotive built in 1812 by engineers John Blenkinsop and Matthew Murray. It was the first foray into steam power. Other English engineers followed. The culmination of efforts to perfect the steam locomotive was the work of George Stephenson and his locomotive Rocket, with a top speed exceeding 40 km/h. This English genius is also associated with the first railway line built for steam operation. It was the line connecting Stockton with the town of Darlington, 40 kilometers away, opened in 1825. Another notable achievement of George Stephenson was the line connecting two rapidly growing industrial cities, Liverpool and Manchester, which opened for regular operation in 1830.

As the speed of locomotives increased, so did the density of the railway network. This development was extraordinarily rapid. By 1850, the network was practically complete, with most towns and villages having rail connections. The railway was now experiencing its golden age in England. With the expansion came increased state involvement in railway affairs. Beyond safety on the tracks, the government recognized the strategic potential of the railway network. Taking control of it was a logical step. Most lines continued to be built for private purposes, but the government maintained some level of oversight, which steadily increased.

In 1899, the first attempt to build a railway line for higher speeds was made with the Great Central Main Line. This ambitious project was led by railway entrepreneur Sir Edward Watkin, who dreamed of a route connecting Liverpool with the French capital, Paris, via a tunnel under the English Channel. Although the tunnel plan was not realized, the line operated at least between Sheffield and London.

The main problem with the English railway was not the connection to France, but the enormous number of operators and the resulting fragmentation of the network. This issue was resolved in early 1923 by consolidating these companies into the so-called Big Four: Great Western Railway, London and North Eastern Railway, London, Midland and Scottish Railway, and Southern Railway. This system lasted until 1947. In the first half of the 20th century, however, a new competitor arose for the railway: road transport. The competition for customers would continue between the two types of transport from the 1920s until the new millennium. The railway's advantage was its speed. Hence, in 1923, the Flying Scotsman locomotive was introduced. It broke the magical speed barrier of 100 mph (161 km/h). More locomotives followed quickly. In 1938, the iconic Mallard locomotive broke another speed record, reaching 126 mph (200 km/h), making it clear that road transport could not compete with the railway over long distances. However, operational speeds did not exceed 100 mph (161 km/h) until the 1970s due to insufficient quality infrastructure on most tracks.

Source: / Paul Wordingham / CC BY 2.0

During World War II, the companies forming the Big Four effectively merged into one entity. Supporting the war effort placed a heavy burden on resources, leading to significant delays in maintenance. After 1945, for practical and ideological reasons, the government decided to nationalize the railway. Gradually, the inefficient steam power was replaced by the somewhat less inefficient diesel power.

The next technological leap for British railways had to wait until the 1970s, partly due to the ongoing costly Cold War. During this period, British Rail began exploring new technologies that would allow higher speeds on existing infrastructure. This concept was entirely different from most other countries; in France, for example, new lines were being built for the TGV, and in Japan for the Shinkansen. Additionally, in response to the oil crises, Britain began reconsidering its power sources, gradually replacing diesel with electricity and starting the electrification of tracks.

The first sign of increased speed was the Advanced Passenger Train (APT) with a maximum speed of 155 mph (249 km/h). The experimental version, APT-E, was tested between 1972 and 1976. It was equipped with a tilting mechanism that allowed the train to tilt in curves. It was fully operational from 1980 to 1986. Initial reactions to these trains were positive; their speed allowed further reductions in travel time, and they were comfortable for passengers. However, they were plagued by technical problems from the start, eventually leading to their withdrawal from service.

The APT project was eventually overshadowed and replaced by the parallel InterCity 125 project. With a top speed of 125 mph (201 km/h), the diesel-powered train crisscrossed England from 1976 and was the first high-speed train in England. The success of the diesel set was no surprise, leading British Rail to follow up with the InterCity 225 project. This electric sibling of the InterCity 125 had a top speed of 140 mph (225 km/h). However, for safety reasons, its speed was limited to 125 mph (201 km/h). The critical speed of 201 km/h was not surpassed even by the new Pendolino unit, designed for 140 mph (225 km/h), but its speed was also reduced to 125 mph (201 km/h) for safety reasons.

Source: 225GROUP / Public Domain

In 1994, another major project was completed: the fulfillment of Sir Edward Watkin's dream of a tunnel connection between France and England under the English Channel. The appropriately named Eurotunnel was officially opened by Queen Elizabeth II and French President François Mitterrand. This construction was directly related to the completion of a new backbone route in the UK, the high-speed railway High Speed 1 (HS1).

High Speed 1 (officially the Channel Tunnel Rail Link) is the first mainline railway built in the UK in over 100 years. Its construction marked another key milestone in the history of British railways. The first section from the mouth of the Eurotunnel to the River Medway was completed in 2003, and the section between the River Medway and London was completed in 2007, all precisely on time. This new line significantly reduced travel times and increased the reliability of railway transport. The construction of HS1 also enabled the introduction of a new domestic high-speed line between London and Ashford. It became the first line in the UK to allow a maximum speed of 300 km/h during regular operation.

Source: Wikimedia commons / Clem Rutter, Rochester Kent / CC BY-SA 3.0

A successful project typically leads to another, and so it is with HS1, followed by the High Speed 2 (HS2) project, a high-speed railway connecting the English metropolises of London, Birmingham, and Manchester. This brings us to 2023. Currently, the first phase of HS2 construction is underway. The line is designed for a maximum speed of 400 km/h, but in regular operation, it will run at "only" 330 km/h. The goal is to complete it by 2033. Additionally, in October 2023, it was decided that this line would not extend beyond Birmingham. Instead, funds will go to the Network North program, consisting of hundreds of transport projects, mainly in northern England and the Midlands, including new high-speed lines connecting major cities and new rail hubs in the UK. The backbone of the railway network in Britain is now formed by the East Coast Main Line and the West Coast Main Line, which connect England to Scotland along the western and eastern coasts, respectively. These lines are designed for speeds up to 225 km/h.


Source: Britannica Money, The Railways of Great Britain-A Historical Atlas