The Working and Management of an English Railway/Chapter 1

The Working and Management of an English Railway by George Findlay
Chapter 1 — Introductory and Retrospective



Introductory and Retrospective.

It may at first sight appear that the subject of "The construction, working, and management of an English Railway " is one calculated only to enlist the attention of a limited class, namely, of those who are, or may be, directly or indirectly, connected with the working of railways, either in this country or abroad, but a little reflection will probably suffice to show that the theme is one which should appeal to a much larger circle of readers, and,:n fact, to almost every class of the community. If the attention of an individual is drawn to any new law, any fresh discovery or social reform calculated to promote his personal comfort or well-being, his interest is at once aroused; and the circumstance that, in this case, the revolution has been effected and the benefit is actually being reaped should surely not suffice to rob the subject of its interest. The railway, in its present phase of development, enters so intimately into the social life of the community in its every detail, and has become so potent a factor in its every movement and operation, whether of business or of pleasure, that it must clearly be material for every individual to know something of the great agency which does so much for his happiness and welfare, and to realise clearly what are its obligations and liabilities towards himself, and what he has a right to expect from it. Such knowledge it is hoped this work may impart; but it has the further aim of constituting a practical guide or hand-book for those who, whether in this country or in our numerous colonies, may find it necessary, for whatever reasons, to acquire a knowledge of the principles upon which a great English railway is constructed and managed, and the methods and appliances by means of which its business is carried on.

It is not the intention of the present writer to enter into a detailed history of the conception and growth of the railway system from its earliest period to the present time. The story is one full of interest, and, having been recounted by many other and abler pens, may, in its main features, be said to be fairly well known. It may not, however, be out of place to allude, briefly,- to the state of things which prevailed before the genius of a great engineer and the courage and enterprise of a few Liverpool merchants inaugurated the enormous social revolution which has since displayed such extraordinary development, and has so greatly contributed to the happiness and prosperity of the human race.

If we go no further back than the commencement of the present century, only a few years before the first railway was projected, we find that, although the difficulties of earlier locomotion had been to some extent obviated by the introduction of fast and well-appointed coaches, running between some of the most important cities in the kingdom, the only means of communication between the smaller towns was by means of post-chaises, or private carriages for the wealthy, and, for the less well-to-do, the humble carrier's cart or the slow and ponderous stage waggon. Travelling was so expensive a luxury that a journey was only undertaken under the most pressing necessity; many of the roads were so ill-constructed that in bad weather they were almost impassable, besides being at all times infested by highwaymen and footpads. Merchandise was conveyed from town to town by heavy and slow-moving waggons, and the cost of land carriage between Manchester and Liverpool, a distance of not more than thirty miles, was forty shillings per ton. To-day, Manchester bales are carried to Liverpool by railway at six shillings and tenpence per ton, and they are conveyed to London, a distance of upwards of 180 miles, for twenty-five shillings per ton. In those days, a journey from London to Birmingham, if all went well, and no mishaps were encountered, occupied ten or twelve hours at the least; while now. a man of business may break his fast in London, be in Birmingham before noon, transact his affairs, and be back in town before dinner. At that time a journey from London to Scotland was something to ponder well upon before it was undertaken, for, apart from heavy expense and dangers, difficulties and fatigue to be encountered, it occupied several days; whereas now, a traveller may leave London at 8.0 p.m. or 8.50 p.m.; can retire to rest as comfortably as if he were, in a well-appointed hotel, and awake in the early morning to find himself in Glasgow or Edinburgh, or even further north. Merchants are able to be in frequent personal communication with their correspondents in the most distant towns; young folks, exiled from their homes in pursuit of their various careers, are enabled to spend even the shortest holiday in the family circle; letters posted in the evening are read at breakfast tables hundreds of miles distant the following morning; coals and every necessity of life are cheapened to the consumer, and every branch of business has been enormously stimulated and developed by the facilities thus brought to bear upon it; and, in fact, the speed and certainty with which the inland and import and export trade of the country is carried on are nothing less than astonishing. Goods are punctually collected, carried hundreds of miles between all the most important towns in England, and delivered to their consignees within the day of twenty-four hours, and even between England and places in Scotland, and the seaport towns of Ireland, within forty-eight hours. The Yorkshire manufacturer who attends the London wool sales today can have the wool he purchases in his warehouse to-morrow. The Lancashire cotton spinner will buy cotton in the Liverpool market one day, and it will probably be in actual consumption in his mill the next. Dead meat from Scotland and from abroad, poultry, butter and eggs from Ireland, vegetables, fruit, and all perishable goods of the kind, are despatched by the growers with the narrowest possible margin of time to catch a particular market; and all this is done with the utmost certainty and punctuality, making allowance, of course, for trifling miscarriages, which will occur in every large business, often from circumstances that no foresight could control.

Such are a few of the advantages which have resulted to the community from the invention of railways, but the list might be multiplied indefinitely.

The first dawn of the idea of a railway was, no doubt, about the beginning of the seventeenth century, when some inventive genius hit upon the plan of laying down parallel blocks of timber to form tram-roads in the vicinity of mines, to enable the mineral products to be drawn more easily by horses to the riverside. More than a hundred years later (about the year 1768), as we are told by Mr. Francis in his admirable "History of the English Railway," cast-iron rails were substituted for the wooden blocks, and this was a distinct step in advance. By the commencement of the nineteenth century, the application of steam as a motive power was no longer unknown, for it had been applied to the working of stationary engines in mines and elsewhere, and, in fact, as early as 1804, a machine had been constructed at a Welsh ironworks, which moved upon rails, drawing after it a load of ten tons of bar iron, and which was, to all intents and purposes, a locomotive engine. The construction of the Stockton and Darlington Railway followed in 1821, but the first railway made with public money, and for the public benefit, and which marks the birth of the railway system as we know it to-day, was the Liverpool and Manchester. The conflict which was sustained by the promoters of that undertaking with the forces of ignorance and prejudice was really the decisive one, and when the struggle was over and the battle had been won, the floodgates of enterprise were opened wide and the era of railways had commenced.

About the year 1820, the relations between Manchester, as the great manufacturing town of the north, and Liverpool, as the nearest shipping port, had created a large traffic between the two places, for the conduct of which the road waggons and canal barges had proved to be totally inadequate. In the year 1821, therefore, a committee of merchants of Liverpool was formed to draw up a scheme for the construction of a railway or tramway between Liverpool and Manchester, the question of the motive power to be employed being left for a time an open one as between horses and the steam engine, with which Mr George Stephenson was then experimenting. There was no idea at first of conveying passengers, but the scheme grew in importance as time went on, until at length it aroused a perfect storm of enthusiasm on the one side and of embittered opposition on the other. Much has been said and written as to the incredible lengths to which that opposition was carried by the enemies of the undertaking, and the story is one not without its painful, as well as its ludicrous, features, but it need not here be enlarged upon. Suffice it to say that every weapon that the prejudice and narrow-mindedness of the many, or the alarmed avarice of the few, whose interests were threatened by the impending change, could devise was brought to bear without scruple, even to the length of personal abuse and calumny levelled against the promoters. The most absurd statements were gravely put forward and believed in; the smoke of the engines would kill the birds, cattle would be terrified, and cows would cease to give their milk; the sparks from the engines would set fire to the houses and manufactories on the line of route; the race of horses would become extinct, and many other direful consequences would ensue, amidst which the absolute ruin of the country would shrink to the insignificance of a detail! The first surveys had to be accomplished, in many cases, by stealth, and were, in some cases, resisted to the extent of the employment of armed force.

After the lapse of sixty years, we can afford to smile at the folly of those who seriously maintained such theories as these; but the opposition to be encountered was no laughing matter, we may be sure, to the earnest pioneers of the new movement who had staked their means and their reputations upon the issue of the undertaking, and devoted themselves heart and soul to the effort to carry it to a successful termination. At length, in March, 1825, the survey, in spite of all difficulties, had been completed, and the Bill was in Committee; but, after a lengthened discussion, extending over thirty-seven days, and chiefly owing to the opposition of the landowners and canal proprietors, it failed, and its enemies were for the time being triumphant. The sequel, however, shows that their exultation was premature and but short-lived.

The simile of Dame Partington striving with her mop to keep back the waves of the Atlantic is one sufficiently trite and well-worn, but it recurs almost irresistibly to the mind in contemplating the futile and hopeless attempt of these enemies of progress to arrest the march of that tremendous social revolution which, within the span of a single generation, was destined to change the whole face of the earth.

Nothing daunted by their first failure, the great engineer and his courageous backers returned to the charge. A fresh survey was made, by which many of the difficulties which had been raised were overcome or circumvented; the Bill was re-deposited in the ensuing session of Parliament, and this time the enterprise of its promoters was rewarded by success. The Bill received the Royal assent on the 7th May, 1826; the works were at once vigorously proceeded with, and the railway was actually opened for public traffic on the 16th September, 1830. It was, however, of a very different construction to the well-appointed and perfectly equipped railways of the present day. It consisted, it is true, of a double line of rails; but those rails were of so light a description that they soon succumbed to heavy wear and tear, and large sums had afterwards to be expended in taking them up and replacing them with others of a more substantial character. Instead of the timber sleepers, now universally in use, the rails were laid upon huge stone blocks, soon to be found expensive and unsuitable. The passengers were conveyed, either in open cars, unsheltered from the weather, or in covered carriages only a degree less comfortless, and presenting a strong contrast to the luxuriously appointed vehicles in which the traveller of to-day is accommodated. The trains, at first, started at irregular intervals, and were few and far between, and it was not until after some time had elapsed that the time-table became a recognised institution. The journey between Liverpool and Manchester, which is now easily accomplished in forty-five minutes, occupied at that time an hour and a half. Of the engines employed, more will be said hereafter; but it will be readily believed that they were of an extremely primitve character compared with those of a later date. As first projected, the railway terminated, at the Liverpool end, at Crown street, near Edge Hill, and omnibuses were employed for conveying the passengers to and from the City; but this was soon found to be a great hindrance to the development of the traffic, and in the session of 1832 powers were obtained for the construction of the tunnel under the City to Lime Street, which was completed and opened for traffic in August, 1836. Despite all its shortcomings, however, the undertaking was, from the very outset, a much greater success than even its authors had ever ventured to predict, and indeed their anticipations proved to have fallen almost ludicrously short of the results actually realised. They had expected to earn £10,000 a year from passenger traffic, whereas in the first year after the opening the receipts from that source were £101,829. They had estimated the gross receipts from merchandise at £50,000 per annum, but in 1833 the actual amount received was £80,000. From the very commencement, the shareholders obtained a dividend at the rate of 8 per cent, per annum, afterwards rising to 9 and 10 per cent, and remaining at the latter figure for some years.

The great success of the Liverpool and Manchester railway, as might naturally have been expected, let loose a flood of railway enterprise all over the country. Lines were soon projected between all the towns of any importance in the kingdom and even between remote; villages. One enthusiast went so far as to propose a railway under the sea between Dover and Calais, and was no doubt looked upon by his contemporaries as a fitting candidate for a lunatic asylum, but probably the distinguished promoter of the Channel Tunnel scheme of to-day may hold a different opinion upon that point. The most important result that immediately followed, however, was the revival of the scheme which had previously been mooted, but had been abandoned, for the construction of a railway between London and Birmingham. The Bill for this line, which was the parent of the London and North-Western Railway, was first deposited in November, 1831; but, after passing the House of Commons, was thrown out in the House of Lords on the 10th July, 1832. The opposition to this Bill was as unscrupulous, and of precisely the same character, as that which its precursor—the Bill for the Liverpool and Manchester Railway—had had to encounter; but in the end it was overcome, and the line, having been sanctioned in 1833, was finally opened to the public in 1838.

For the purposes of this work, it is not necessary to follow, step by step, the gradual, yet rapid, development of the railway system throughout the country. It will be sufficient to record that by an Act obtained in 1846 the London and Birmingham, the Grand Junction (with which, under an Act obtained earlier in the same year, the Liverpool and Manchester Railway had already been incorporated), and the Manchester and Birmingham Railway Companies were amalgamated under the title of the "London and North-Western Railway Company." During the lapse of time since that period this Company has gradually absorbed the South Staffordshire, the Chester and Holyhead, the Lancaster and Carlisle, and some forty smaller companies, many of which, for a time, were only leased, and retained their separate capitals with varying rates of interest and, in some cases their independent boards of directors. But in 1877 an Act was obtained, commonly called the "Consolidation Act," the effect of which was to weld all these separate companies into one homogeneous undertaking, the London and North-Western Railway, as it exists to-day, having a consolidated stock of upwards of £108,000,000, possessing more than 1,800 miles of railway, with nearly 650 stations, and employing a staff or an army, as it may be called, of 55,000 men.

It may here be stated that, although much of what follows may be taken as being more or less generally applicable to all the principal railways of the United Kingdom, yet the one, the working of which is more particularly described in the succeeding chapters, is the London and North- Western, with which the writer has been connected for a great number of years, and with which he naturally therefore possesses a more intimate acquaintance than with any other.