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The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 14, Issue 4 (July 1, 1939)

The Origin and Progress of the Railway System

The Origin and Progress of the Railway System.

Theatrical Anecdotes, and a poem—“To a Desponding Belle”—filled the next pages, following which came an article—even more interesting to-day than in 1853—“The Railway System; its Origin, Progress, and Moral Issues.”

“The impossibilities of to-day are the practices of to-morrow.” With this apt quotation the writer opened, for he believed that its truth was illustrated in an unusually striking manner by the “wonderful appliances now available for rapid communication, which are included under the general term of Railway System.”

The reader's attention was called backward to the time when, only a hundred years before, the traveller in the Chester stage had plenty of time to observe the country through which he passed on his way to London, for he was six days getting there.

Travelling facilities were gradually improved by the setting up of turnpikes or toll-gates; the money thus collected being used for the upkeep of the roads. The establishment of mail coaches, under Palmer of Bath, and the introduction by Macadam, and others, of new methods of road making, helped greatly towards the comfort of the traveller. Toward the close of the 18th century, tram-roads—for the purpose of conveying heavy material in different directions—were extensively employed in mining and colliery districts. After a time castiron plates and cast-iron rails with flanges and edge, were substituted for wood.

In 1805 an iron tram road was opened between Wandsworth and Croydon, and it was proposed to extend the system along the turnpike roads. But there were difficulties in the way; and had the invention of the steam locomotive not superseded the tractive power of horses, it is probable that the tram roads would have been used only for conveying coal from the pit mouths to the place of shipment.

The idea of the “steam-horse being harnessed to carriages and eventually supplanting the stage coach,” was in the minds of but few, and was first brought before the public in 1820, when Mr. Thomas Grey published a work proposing “a general iron railway, or land steam conveyance to supersede the necessity of horses in all public conveyances.” He maintained that the railway would be much superior, both as regards economy and speed, to “all the present pitiful methods of conveyance by turnpike roads, canals, and coasting traders.” Ridicule was heaped on Grey's suggestion. “Men contended that even if a speed of 15 miles an hour were attained, the dangers of bursting boilers and broken wheels would be so great that people would suffer themselves to be fired off upon a rocket, sooner than trust themselves to the mercy of a machine going at such a prodigious rate.”

However, the growing wants of society, caused by the progress of commerce, demanded some new and more rapid mode of inter-communication throughout the country.

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The Stockton and Darlington railway—opened in 1825—was the first established for public traffic; and though horses were still employed as the motive power, the number of passengers travelling between the towns was increased at least forty-fold, and an average speed of ten miles an hour was attained.

To the success of this railway may be traced the beginning of all the others, and the name of its originator—Mr. Joseph Pease—“must never be forgotten in the history of this now mighty, world-wide system.”