This week in history: railway mania

Primitive railways had been used to move goods since the Dark Ages. However, until the 19th century people or animals provided the power, limiting their use.

In 1804 Richard Trevithick showed it was possible to use a steam locomotive, although it was scrapped after breaking the rails. Seven years later John Blenkinsop’s locomotive carried coal on the Middleton wagonway in Leeds, although it did not carry passengers.

The 26-mile Stockton and Darlington railway, opened on 27 September 1825, was the first railway to use steam technology to carry freight and people. Even though the first journey was at an average speed of six mph, and the 600 passengers sat in coal wagons, it drew a crowd of 40,000. The railway was disorganised, with the track open to anyone willing to pay a fee.

The publicity resulted in more formal, faster services. In 1830 the Liverpool and Manchester and Baltimore and Ohio lines opened. By the 1840s, ‘railway mania’ was in full flow, with 272 British rail companies set up in 1846 alone.

Economists disagree over the economic impact, with Nobel prizewinner Robert Solow arguing that even by 1890 railways had boosted US GDP by less than 3%. However, the ability to make journeys in hours that had once taken days had a big impact on society, shaping the urbanisation of America.