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he World The Railways Made

Nicholas Faith

Impact under-estimated. Railways collectively constituted the most massive effort of public building as yet undertaken by man. They reached into the centre of great cities, where they were celebrated with gigantic railway stations, and into the remotest stretches of the countryside where no other trace of C19 civilization penetrated.

George Stephenson had an almost pathological jealousy of other engineers, he was a total autocrat and an incompetent administrator. He did not invent anything, but he used other people's inventions and improved them so completely so as to make them his own. He was in the right place at the right time. The North-East of England during the first quarter of C19 contained a concentration of mines and tramways and capital that was denied to Trevithick in distant Cornwall. And Stephenson could draw on the experience of dozens of engineers all accustomed to the manufacture and maintenance of stean-engines reliable enough for men's lives to depend on the pumps they powered. So he was backed by both the money and skills required to assemble the package - engines, wheels, track.

The Duke of Wellington was a guest at official opening of the first railway (the Liverpool and Manchester) in 1830. He was so scared that he couldn't be tempted on to another train for 13 years.

The new railways did not immediately replace canals, but they slaughtered the road transport system. The London to Brighton line, opened in 1841, proved that rail beat even the most efficient coach service. With the coaches went the coaching inns, the ostlers and the carters. And not only was it much quicker, rail had a better safety record. Only two deaths of the five million passengers carried by the Liverpool and Manchester in its first decade.

The first generation to experience rail carriage were in awe - the locomotive with its noise, fiery breath and earth-shaking rumble. It may not have been comfortable by today's standards, but a vast improvement on coaches. But above all it was the speed that people noticed - whereas the horse took you through the countryside at a leisurely pace, the train ripped you through the landscape in a way that set you apart from the world.

Both the promoters and the contractors got large-scale, suddenly earned and greatly-resented wealth. These nouveau rich were sneered at for their pretensions, then gradually absorbed, their expensively educated offspring merging imperceptibly into the upper classes.

During the Cultural Revolution in China people used to kill themselves by jumping in front of trains - too poor to buy poison, and China Railways had to pay for the burial.

Rail brought capitalism to rural areas that had preciously existed at basic subsistence level. And it created new regions of industry where none had been possible before.

Developers reviled as "Robber Barons" but if governments had tried to build the railroads would have taken much longer.

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