World’s first railroad didn’t expect to carry passengers, but made money doing so

Posted by Malcolm Kenton
on Saturday, September 6, 2014

I find myself back in class this semester after having been out of school for six years. I received my bachelor’s degree in 2008 and, though I have weathered the Great Recession better than many in my cohort, I’ve decided to pursue a master’s degree as a way to improve my career prospects and eventually put myself in a position to play a satisfying role in the nascent resurgence of passenger rail and other alternatives to the drive-fly duopoly that permeates Americans’ choices for getting around. I’m enrolled in the unique Master of Arts in Transportation Policy, Operations and Logistics program, housed at George Mason University’s School of Policy, Government and International Affairs. My classes meet at the Fairfax, VA-based university’s satellite campus in Arlington, VA (just across the Potomac River from Washington, DC), located in the middle of a corridor anchored by Metrorail’s Orange Line (now shared with the Silver Line) that is a worldwide model for transit-oriented development.

One of my courses this semester is Pubic Policy 715: Introduction to Transportation Systems. It offers a historical overview of the development of modern transportation systems, with an eye towards the commonalities between the stories of each transport mode in its creation, evolution and maturity, as well as how public policy has shaped, and been shaped by, these developments. My first reading assignment in the course textbook, The Transportation Experience by William L. Garrison and David M. Levinson (2014), tells the story of the early development of inland waterways and railroads. While I considered myself fairly familiar with the timeline of railroads’ coming into being before reading these chapters, they gave me a greater understanding of the pivot point in transportation history that took place in 1820s England. I was struck by one fact in particular. 

Drawing of the Stockton & Darlington's opening procession, with passengers riding in coal wagons, artist unknown. From Robert H. Thurston's (1878) 'A history of the growth of the steam engine,' New York City: D Appleton and Company, p. 192. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
The concept of moving vehicles on fixed guideways, or tracks, has existed since the 17th century. The use of wagon ways — fixed guideways for carrying metals out of mines — developed in England in the mid-1700s. Other technologies that were necessary for railroads to function, such as the steam engine (developed around 1780), the use of L-shaped iron plates as “rails,” and the use of engineering to create level grades to more easily move animal-powered vehicles on wheels, also existed for some time before the first entity emerged that can truly be called a railroad. Those who established the world’s first railroad, England’s Stockton and Darlington (1825), used existing technologies and concepts in novel ways. This line was originally conceived as a plateway, but came to be known as a railway.

Garrison and Levinson identify the characteristics that define a railroad, as opposed to a pre-existing plateway or guideway, lie in its design, rather than its technology or administrative framework. These include the use of steam power to carry multiple wagons in a train, and the common carrier concept, which the Stockton & Darlington borrowed from canals and applied for the first time to overland transport. Common carriers are bound to carry any traffic they are capable of carrying at a set schedule for anyone willing to pay the established fare, without discriminating agains any potential customer based on any factor other than ability to pay the going rate. 

The growth of plateways complemented the growth of canals. They were used to carry minerals from mines to the nearest point on a canal for transfer to canal boats. Some also served as sections of canals, making the portage of canal boats over land easier. The Stockton & Darlington was considered a risky investment because its route was too long compared to then-extant British plateways, and its topography was unfavorable to the easy movement of carts to and from mines. It hired engineer George Stephenson, who improved upon best practices in using a combination of near-level grades and short, sharper grades “to be worked with self-acting plans or seam engine-rope haulage.” The pioneering line also came to prove that Richard Trevithick’s steam locomotive (also itself an improvement on existing technologies) was an effective substitute for horses as they could move multiple cars at once. 

The Stockton and Darlington was designed with one purpose in mind: to efficiently move large loads of minerals from mines to a waterway. Its founders didn’t think it would be useful for carrying people. But “much to the surprise of managers,” Garrison and Levinson write, “passenger traffic swelled and became an unexpected source of revenue.” They go on to say that passengers were first carried in coal cars, and that the first purpose-built passenger cars were too heavy to be carried upgrade when loaded. Yet, as the authors conclude, “experience says that revolutionary change occurs in market niches and by design.” The first railroad filled a niche that hadn’t been considered in that, despite its dangers, it was superior to walking, horseback riding and using horse-drawn carriages as a way for people to get from the hill country to the river relatively quickly.

Today, in spite of great advances in roads and aviation, railroads (or technologies, such as Maglev, based on the railroad concept) remain the fastest, safest and most efficient way to move large volumes of people (as well as freight) over land. The fact that a concept whose origin dates back several centuries is the backbone of a thriving industry that still has tremendous growth potential is truly a testament to its inherent superiority as a terrestrial conveyance suitable to so many mobility needs.

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