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The Amazing History of the Steam Train

However much we might grumble about them today, Britain’s railway network has a remarkable history. It is in fact the oldest in the world, having recognisably taken shape as a national network in the mid-19th century. While the first railway lines were used by miners in Europe in the 16th century to transport produce, these were horse-pulled trains. It would take another two centuries for the first steam trains to appear, and they were pioneered in Great Britain.

At Snowdon Mountain Railway, we’re proud of our collection of trusty steam (and diesel!) locomotives which have served us and our passengers so well over the years. That’s why we thought we’d take a quick trip back in time and delve into the fascinating history of the steam train.

The early days of rail and the big boom
Arguably the first true railway line to appear in Great Britain was built in the early 16th century, running between the mines at Strelley and Wollaton in Nottingham. By the mid-17th century, industrial tramlines were pretty common on Britain and by the dawn of the 19th century stretched over considerable differences. They were used mainly to take coal and some other minerals from the source to canals where they could then be transported over longer distances by boat.

The real rail revolution began with the arrival of Richard Trevithick’s steam locomotive in 1804. The unnamed engine was used on the tramway at the Pen-y-darren Ironworks in Merthyr Tydfil. Three years earlier, in 1801, Trevithick had built the ‘Puffing Devil’ locomotive, which he used to transport six passengers along Fore Street in Camborne in his native Cornwall.

Just three days after this successful trip, however, the engine broke down. Its operators then popped into a nearby pub only for the water to boil off and the engine to overheat while they were away, destroying it.

By 1812, the Middleton Railway near Leeds was regularly running haulage by steam train. In 1825, the first public passenger and freight railway in the world – the Stockton and Darlington Railway – opened. A patchwork of private regional operators had emerged by the middle of the century, and the railway boom was underway, bringing with it a whole host of economic and cultural changes to which we’ll return shortly.
(Image by Stephen Bedser http://steamtube.ning.com/photo/puffing-devil?context=latest)

Stephenson’s Rocket

Easily the most famous of all the steam locomotives of this era is Robert Stephenson’s Rocket, which is occasionally mistaken for being the first steam engine. It wasn’t, of course – it arrived in 1829, nearly 30 years after Trevithick’s Puffing Devil. Stephenson’s father George was also a successful civil engineer whose own father had been the fireman for the pumping engine at Wylam Colliery in the family’s home village. This would ignite George Stephenson’s interest in all things mechanical.

In 1813, William Hedley designed Puffing Billy, which was used at Wylam Colliery to haul coal wagons around – a job the engine did so effectively it was in use for 50 years. George Stephenson would design his own steam locomotive in 1814, having by this time become firmly established as an expert in steam-driven technology. The engine, Blücher, was designed for hauling coal along the tramway at Killingworth Colliery where Stephenson worked as enginewright, building and repairing steam engines of various sorts. Stephenson designed a number of other locomotives at Killingworth – as many as 16, historians believe.

By 1821, Parliament had passed a bill permitting the construction of the Stockton and Darlington Railway. The railway was needed mainly to allow for the easier transportation of coal, and George Stephenson was tasked with the job of designing it. Robert Stephenson, meanwhile, was despatched to help his father with the survey. By September 1825, the railway was operational, although steam engines didn’t run on it until 1833. Stephenson senior’s reputation was such that he was subsequently recruited to design the Liverpool and Manchester Railway – opened 1830 – which would become the world’s first inter-city railway line.

However, the company providing the finance for the new railway was unconvinced that existing steam trains could be run successfully along it, so it organised a competition – to be held at Rainhill, near Liverpool – to find a new type of locomotive more suited to the job. The winner of the 1829 Rainhill Trials, as they became known, was Robert Stephenson’s Rocket with a blistering top speed (for the time) of around 30mph. The rest, as the old saying goes, is history.
(Image from http://collectionsonline.nmsi.ac.uk/)

Why did steam take off?

The arrival of the steam engine represented a huge leap in travel and haulage. It provided a massive boost to the developing coal, iron and steel industries, effectively paving the way for the Industrial Revolution. Raw materials and manufactured commodities could be transported further, faster. The railways were also largely unaffected by bad weather, unlike canal and coastal shipping. With the arrival of the steam engine, road transport went into a sharp decline from which it didn’t recover until the 20th century.

Steam also brought with it huge social changes. The scale of the boom was huge, and by 1900 there were 22,000 miles of track across Britain. Railway travel broke down cultural barriers and enabled the rise of the first effective national political movements such as those of the Chartists and the Anti-Corn Law League. The transportation of post and national newspapers became much more effective, facilitating quick mass communication for the first time. Middle-class professionals could commute to the city from the suburbs, while working-class families could take the train to seaside holiday resorts.

The legacy of the steam boom can still be seen today in a number of ways. For instance, some of today’s best-known consumer brands – including Cadbury’s, Rowntree and Guinness – benefited hugely from the arrival of steam as they could sell their products in every corner of Britain. While steam trains were phased out by British Rail in the late ’60s, in recent years they’ve been given a new lease of life as heritage railways run by enthusiasts have sprung up across the UK.

The Great Little Trains of Wales

Special mention must also go to Wales’ own Great Little Trains. The scheme consists of eleven narrow-gauge railways – of which the Snowdon Mountain Railway is one – all of which were originally built to transport slate and other minerals away from the mountains. These railways all have individual histories stretching back over a century, and offer a relaxing way to take in the stunning surrounding scenery.

Many of the Great Little Trains of Wales railways continue to use steam locomotives dating back to the time when they were first opened. Here at Snowdon Mountain Railway, we’ve got two operational steam engines in our collection – Enid and Wyddfa – from 1895, while two more – Snowdon and Moel Siabod – from 1896 are awaiting an overhaul. We’ve also got Padarn, built in 1922, as well as Ralph and Eryri, both dating from 1923.

So if you’re planning to visit Snowdon, no trip to the region would be complete without a steam train trip up the Snowdon railway. Why not pay us a visit and savour Snowdonia in style?

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