Engineers and Mechanics Encyclopedia 1839: Railways: Early Beginnings
The earliest account we have of the introduction of railways, is in the “Life of the Lord Keeper North," from which it appears that about the year 1670, they were made use of at Newcastle-upon-Tyne, for transporting coals from the mines to the shipping in the river Tyne.
At that time, coal came generally into use as a substitute for wood fuel in London, and other places to which there were easy means of transport by sea. But the greatest difficulties were experienced at the mines in conveying the coals from them to the ships in the Tyne. Previous to the erection of these railways, it was no uncommon thing for the occupiers of the mines, to employ five or six hundred horses and carts each, in the same traffic.
It therefore became an object of vast importance to adopt some plan of reducing the very great expense incurred in the keeping of so many horses and drivers, wear and tear of carts, and the making and repairing of roads. After giving the subject much consideration, wooden rails, consisting of straight pieces of timber, were laid down and embedded in the road. These were found so advantageous at Newcastle, that they were speedily copied at other mining districts, and remained in use for a considerable period of time.
The mode of constructing these rude railways has been thus described. “Plots or slips of ground, of the breadth required for the railway, were marked out, extending from the pits to the river, and either leased or purchased by the owners of the coal works. In some cases it was found necessary to make a considerable variation from the direct line, in order to obviate the inequalities of the ground, and to obtain the most regular and easy descent. And in other cases, where these inequalities were inconsiderable, the roads were carried straight forward, and a regular slope obtained by embankments and cutting.
After the ground had been levelled and smoothed, as in the formation of an ordinary road, sleepers, composed of large logs of wood, and cut into lengths corresponding with the breadth of the road, were laid across it, at short distances, and firmly bedded into it, for the purpose of supporting and keeping fast the rails on which the waggon-wheels were to run. The rails were connected end to end, forming two continued lines, running in a parallel direction on each side of the road, and crossing the large logs at each of their extremities which formed the foundation for them to rest upon, and to which they were nailed, or otherwise secured, to keep them in their places.
These rails were of course very imperfect, and were rapidly worn away, or broken, by the continued friction of the wheels upon them. In order to repair or reconnect them when their continuity or evenness was destroyed, slips or pieces of timber of a smaller scantling were laid over the dilapidated portions; and the strength which the latter thus derived, led to the introduction of double-rails throughout the line; and this improvement was distinguished by the term of a "double-way," in contradistinction of the former plan, afterwards denominated the "single-way." The advantages of the double-way chiefly consisted in the circumstance that the upper, or covering rail, might be completely worn out and renewed, without destroying or materially disturbing the substructure.”
The annexed description of these double-ways is obtained from Mr. Wood's valuable work on railways. The subjoined figure exhibits a side elevation. a-a are the rails fastened down upon the cross sleepers b-b-b-b similar to those of the single-way (which it represents); a1-a1 is the upper rails laid upon the other, and firmly secured to them by wooden pins, in the same manner as the other are fastened to the sleepers.
In the single way, the joinings of the rails are necessarily upon a sleeper, as shown at c-c; but in the double-way it is not so, for, being fastened down upon the surface of the under rail, which in every part presents a proper bearing, they can be secured any where upon it; d-d show the joinings of the upper rail, which are midway between the sleepers, but which can be raised at pleasure. This prevents the under rail from being destroyed by the frequent perforation of the pin-holes in receiving the upper or wearing rail, and saves the waste of timber occasioned by use of the single-stay.
The sleepers in this description of road were generally formed of young sap, lingo, or strong branches of the oak, obtained by thinning the plantations, and were six feet long by five or six inches in thickness, and about the same breadth. At their first introduction, the under rail was of oak, and afterwards of fir, mostly six feet long, reaching across three sleepers, each two feet apart, and about five inches broad on the surface, by four or five inches in depth. The upper rail was of the same dimensions, and almost always made of beech or plane tree. The surface of the ground being formed pretty even, for about six feet in width from the pits to the staiths, or the whole length of the intended railroad, or "waggon-way," as it was termed, the sleepers were then laid down two feet apart, and the under rail properly secured to them.
The ashes or material forming the surface of the ground, were then beat firmly against the surface of the rail, which was thus strengthened and made more rigid. The upper rail was then placed upon the other, and firmly bound down by the pins or pegs of wood.
This combination had many very obvious advantages over the single-rail; for, independent of the waste of timber before alluded to, the destruction of the sleepers in the single-rail by the feet of the draught-horses was considerable. The double-rail, by increasing the height of the surface whereon the carriages travelled, allowed the inside of the road to be filled up with ashes or stone to the under side of the upper rail, and consequently above the level of the sleepers, which thus secured them from the action of the feet of the horses. This description of railroad appears to have continued in use for a considerable period of time, especially amongst the collieries of Durham and Northumberland.
The waggons made use of were pretty nearly on the present construction, but sufficiently large to contain several tons of coal; the wheels, called rollers by some authors, were exceedingly low, the smoothness of the road rendering high wheels unnecessary. An ordinary horse, on these roads, drew three tons of coals without difficulty to the driver. Where any declivity more than usually steep occurred, it was termed a run; and whilst on it, the progress of the waggons was retarded and regulated by a species of crooked lever or brake, managed by the driver, and attached to the waggon. It is stated by some authors, that these wooden rails were subsequently improved upon by making ledges at their sides, to prevent the waggons from going out of their tracks; a form which was subsequently given to them in cast-iron and termed tram-plates, hereafter described.
To avoid descending the steep declivities from the high banks at Newcastle to the river, staids or high platforms are erected, projecting over the river, and so as to be nearly level with the banks; whence the coal waggons are run by a very slightly inclined plane on to these staiths, and there discharged through shoots or spouts, either directly into the holds of ships moored underneath, or into capacious intermediate reservoirs conveniently planned for the subsequent loading of ships.
In most cases the wooden railroads, from the mine to the place of shipment, were made so as to follow very nearly the undulations of the country over which they passed; excepting only here and there at very steep ascents; and for a long period of time no attempts were made to counteract the rapid descent of the carriages down the declivities, except by means of brakes, which, depending wholly upon the strength and dexterity of the waggoners, often failed, and were productive of many sad accidents.
Sometimes, owing to the state of the weather, the rails became so slippery, as to render a suspension of the work unavoidable. Frequently, where very steep descents occurred, and a train of waggons were left on the declivity, owing to an obstruction caused by the weather, the falling of a shower of rain would release all the waggons together, and they would descend by their own gravity. Under such circumstances, men were employed to draw ropes across the line of road to arrest their progress; and if this were effected before the momentum became considerable, any very great damage was thus prevented; but if the momentum were sufficient to break the ropes, serious disaster resulted.
When cast-iron wheels were first introduced, they were only used for the fore-axle, the wooden wheels being retained on the hind-axle, from the idea that the brake could only be applied effectively to the wooden wheels. At length it was contrived, by an extension of the lever, to apply a brake to the metallic; and then all the four wheels were made of iron.
The next improvement was the adoption of iron for wood, which alone enabled the horse to take double his previous load. This change was not first introduced at Newcastle, as is generally supposed, but at the iron-works of Colebrook-dale, in Shropshire, about the year 1767. Our authority for this statement is derived from the reports of a Committee of the House of Commons, on the subject of roads and carriages. It occurs incidentally in a letter to the Committee, from the ingenious Hornblower, the rival and contemporary of the celebrated Mr. Watt; who observes:
"Railways have been in use in this kingdom time out of mind, and they were usually formed of scantlings of good sound oak, laid on sills or sleepers of the same timber, and pinned together with the same stuff. But the proprietors of Colebrookdale Iron Works, a very respectable and opulent company eventually determined to cover these oak rails with cast-iron, not altogether as a necessary expedient of improvement, but in part as a well-digested measure of economy in support of their trade. From some adventitious circumstances, (which I need not take time to relate,) the price of pigs became very low, and their works being of great extent, in order to keep the furnaces on, they thought it would be the best means of stocking their pigs, to lay them on the wooden railways, as it would help to pay the interest by reducing the repairs of the rails; and if iron should take any sudden rise, there was nothing to do but to take them up, and send them away as pigs.
"But these scantlings of iron (as I may call them) were not such as those which are now laid in some places; they were about five feet long, four inches broad, and one inch and a quarter thick, with three holes, by which they were fastened to the rails, and very complete it was both in design and execution. Hence it was not difficult, if two persons on horseback should meet on this road, for either to turn his horse out of the road, which, on the railways now introduced, would be attended with some serious doubt as to the consequences. But it would be impossible on the best railways to afford that facility of travelling which we now enjoy on a spacious well-managed road; and in my opinion would prove of greater detriment than all the obstacles we have to deplore in the present uncomfortable state of the roads."
We have extended our extract from Mr. Hornblower's letter this far, to show, that however inadmissible the employment of edge-rails or turned-up train-plates are on the public roads, the same objection or difficulty of travelling does not apply to the "scantlings of iron " employed at Colebrook-dale; on which point we shall hereafter have some remarks to make.
The introduction of metallic surfaces to the wooden rails was, however, at first productive of serious evils; for the resistance or adhesion to the surface in descending inclined planes was thereby so much reduced, that the ordinary brake was found to, be quite ineffective in counteracting the force of gravity. Recourse seas therefore had to the double or self-acting inclined planes, by which the surplus force of gravity of the load descending one plane was employed to drag up the empty waggons on the ascending plane. At this period of time the steam-engine was employed in raising mineral from the pits by means of ropes coiled round barrels; the application, therefore, of a similar process to the raising of a train of loaded waggons up an inclined plane became obvious, and was extensively adopted in the north of England.