The earliest railway in Britain was a wagonway system, a horse drawn wooden rail system, used by German miners at Caldbeck, Cumbria, England, perhaps from the 1560s.[20] A wagonway was built at Prescot, near Liverpool, sometime around 1600, possibly as early as 1594. Owned by Philip Layton, the line carried coal from a pit near Prescot Hall to a terminus about half a mile away.[21] On 26 July 1803, Jessop opened the Surrey Iron Railway, south of London erroneously considered first railway in Britain, also a horse-drawn one. It was not a railway in the modern sense of the word, as it functioned like a turnpike road. There were no official services, as anyone could bring a vehicle on the railway by paying a toll.

The oldest railway in continuous use is the Tanfield Railway in County Durham, England. This began life in 1725 as a wooden waggonway worked with horse power and developed by private coal owners and included the construction of the Causey Arch, the world’s oldest purpose built railway bridge. By the mid 19th century it had converted to standard gauge track and steam locomotive power. It continues in operation as a heritage line. The Middleton Railway in Leeds, opened in 1758, is also still in use as a heritage line and began using steam locomotive power in 1812 before reverting to horsepower and then upgrading to standard gauge. In 1764, the first railway in the Americas was built in Lewiston, New York.[24] The first passenger Horsecar or tram, Swansea and Mumbles Railway was opened between Swansea and Mumbles in Wales in 1807.[67] Horse remained preferable mode for tram transport even after arrival of steam engines, well till the end of 19th century. The major reason was that the horse-cars were clean as compared to steam driven trams which caused smoke in city streets.

In 1812, Oliver Evans, an American engineer and inventor, published his vision of what steam railways could become, with cities and towns linked by a network of long distance railways plied by speedy locomotives, greatly speeding up personal travel and goods transport. Evans specified that there should be separate sets of parallel tracks for trains going in different directions. However, conditions in the infant United States did not enable his vision to take hold. This vision had its counterpart in Britain, where it proved to be far more influential. William James, a rich and influential surveyor and land agent, was inspired by the development of the steam locomotive to suggest a national network of railways. It seems likely[68] that in 1808 James attended the demonstration running of Richard Trevithick‘s steam locomotive Catch me who can in London; certainly at this time he began to consider the long-term development of this means of transport. He proposed a number of projects that later came to fruition and is credited with carrying out a survey of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway. Unfortunately he became bankrupt and his schemes were taken over by George Stephenson and others. However, he is credited by many historians with the title of “Father of the Railway”.[68]

It was not until 1825, that the success of the Stockton and Darlington Railway in County Durham, England, the world’s first public railway to combine locomotive power, malleable iron rails, twin tracks and other innovations such as early signalling, proto-Station buildings and rudimentary timetables in one place It proved to a national and international audience that the railways could be made profitable for passengers and general goods as well as a single commodity such as coal. This railway broke new ground by using rails made of rolled wrought iron, produced at Bedlington Ironworks in Northumberland.[69] Such rails were stronger. This railway linked the coal field of Durham with the towns of Darlington and the port of Stockton-on-Tees and was intended to enable local collieries (which were connected to the line by short branches) to transport their coal to the docks. As this would constitute the bulk of the traffic, the company took the important step of offering to haul the colliery wagons or chaldrons by locomotive power, something that required a scheduled or timetabled service of trains. However, the line also functioned as a toll railway, on which private horse-drawn wagons could be carried. This hybrid of a system (which also included, at one stage, a horse-drawn passenger traffic when sufficient locomotives weren’t available) could not last and within a few years, traffic was restricted to timetabled trains. (However, the tradition of private owned wagons continued on railways in Britain until the 1960s.). The S&DRs chief engineer Timothy Hackworth under the guidance of its principal funder Edward Pease, hosted visiting engineers from the USA, Prussia and France and shared experience and learning on how to build and run a railway so that by 1830 railways were being built in several locations across the UK, USA and Europe. Trained engineers and workers from the S&DR went on to help develop several other lines elsewhere including the Liverpool and Manchester of 1830, the next step forward in railway development.


A replica of the Planet, which ran on the Liverpool and Manchester Railway from 1830

The success of the Stockton and Darlington encouraged the rich investors in the rapidly industrialising North West of England to embark upon a project to link the rich cotton manufacturing town of Manchester with the thriving port of Liverpool. The Liverpool and Manchester Railway was the first modern railway, in that both the goods and passenger traffic were operated by scheduled or timetabled locomotive hauled trains. When it was built, there was serious doubt that locomotives could maintain a regular service over the distance involved. A widely reported competition was held in 1829 called the Rainhill Trials, to find the most suitable steam engine to haul the trains. A number of locomotives were entered, including Novelty, Perseverance and Sans Pareil. The winner was Stephenson’s Rocket, which steamed better because of its multi-tubular boiler (suggested by Henry Booth, a director of the railway company).

The promoters were mainly interested in goods traffic, but after the line opened on 15 September 1830, they were surprised to find that passenger traffic was just as remunerative. The success of the Liverpool and Manchester railway added to the influence of the S&DR in the development of railways elsewhere in Britain and abroad. The company hosted many visiting deputations from other railway projects and many railwaymen received their early training and experience upon this line. The Liverpool and Manchester line was, however, only 35 miles (56 km) long. The world’s first trunk line can be said to be the Grand Junction Railway, opening in 1837 and linking a midpoint on the Liverpool and Manchester Railway with Birmingham, via Crewe, Stafford and Wolverhampton.

Further development