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The idea of transporting products and people on rails started many hundreds of years before the most modern electric railways we recognise today.  In fact, the very first railway dates back over 2,500 years to the 6th Century BC!   However it was very different to the railways we recognise today because it was really just a track for horses to drag carts on designed by the Greek ruler Periander.


Over the next 2,000 years, engineers and inventors often used rails to transport goods but it wasn’t until the British development of the steam engine in the 18th and 19th centuries that rail transport began to take the shape that we recognise today.


Inventions such as  James Watt's patented steam engine of 1769 provided a stepping stone in technology that soon inspired others to use the power to create train engines (also called ‘locomotives’).  


One of these people was an engineer called Richard Trevithick, who in 1804 designed the first locomotive called ‘Wylam’ to run at a mine in a place called Pen-y-Darron in the town of Merthyr Tydfil, Wales.   Although this locomotive was the first of its kind and encountered many problems, it was very powerful, managing to pull a load of 10 tons of iron, 70 men and five extra wagons for 9 miles, taking 2 hours to do so!


This was soon followed by other engineers who quickly improved Trevithick’s design to make better and more reliable locomotives until, in 1825, a man called George Stephenson designed the first practical public steam railway between Stockton and Darlington in the North East of England.

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Stephenson's Rocket in 1829 and our actual working workshop model used by pupils

From horse and carts to steam power!

This was a major turning point in the birth of the first railways because Stephenson proved that steam trains could be used to pull people as well as goods.  In fact it was so successful that within a year an act of parliament was passed for the building of another railway by Stephenson between the cities of Liverpool and Manchester in the North West of England.  


Although preparations had been going on for some time by businessmen who wanted to compete with the nearby Bridgewater canal, it was Stephenson's success in Darlington that truly made it possible, with the vision to change a canal journey of 12 hours into just a 3 hour railway journey.


But first the actual tracks had to be laid over some very difficult obstacles and George Stephenson had to overcome these challenges before he could even consider putting a train on them that would be safe and comfortable enough for members of the public to use.


Firstly there was the problem of Chat Moss, a peat bog just outside Manchester that with its soft marshy soil looked an almost impossible surface on which to build a railway.  However, Stephenson wasn’t to be deterred and he found a way to float the railway on a bed of tied heather and tree branches topped with tar and covered with stones.  

George Stephenson leads the way

Chat Moss and the Wapping Tunnel

He also faced the problem of how to get the goods from Liverpool docks through a busy city and for this he designed the one and a quarter mile long Wapping Tunnel, which at the time was the first tunnel in the world to be built under a city.  In addition, he also had to create a two-mile long 80 feet deep rock cutting at a place called Olive Mount and also a large railway bridge (called a ‘viaduct’) across the Sankey Valley.

The Rainhill Trials: a new age for transport!

By the end of the construction process, Stephenson’s triumph over these challenges had created a quick, reliable railway that just needed trains to be put on it to become a great success, so on the 6th October 1829 a competition was held at a place called Rainhill near Liverpool to find the best locomotive for the job.


Called the ‘Rainhill Trials’, with a prize of £500 (worth about £30,000 in today’s money) and a promise of a contract to supply all the trains for the railway, the competition drew many entries from different engineers.  In addition, many members of the public were given a day off work to watch, which resulted in a large crowd of over 10,000 people who came to witness the exciting new examples of locomotive power.  


The main requirement was for locomotives to make ten journeys up and down a three mile track in the shortest time possible with the minimum amount of breakdowns but they also had to be below a certain weight and have suspension to make an easier ride for the passengers.


Although ten trains entered the competition only five were left by the time it started. These were Cycloped, Novelty, Perseverance, Sans Pareil and Rocket, designed by the builder of the railway George Stephenson and his son Robert.  As the trains took their turns on the track the crowd cheered them on eagerly, excited to see the magnificent metal beasts perform in front of them.  Over the next several days each locomotive was tested for its reliability and speed while a committee of judges watched from the stands.


A pupil powering 'Rocket' in our own Rainhill trials!

The first train to break was Cycloped, which instead of using steam power featured two horses walking side by side on a conveyor belt to move the train forwards.  It’s trial was soon over when the belt snapped and the horses fell through on to the track!


The next train to encounter problems was San Pareil (Meaning ‘without equal’ in French) whose cylinder broke when it was half way down the track, causing several days of long difficult repairs.  Afterwards, it was revealed that the cylinder had been made in the factory of Robert Stephenson,  the designer of another competitor, ‘Rocket’ and also the son of George Stephenson, the man who had built the railway, which led some people to conclude that it had been deliberately sabotaged (although this was never proven).


Other trains also encountered problems.  ‘Perseverance’ was unfortunately dropped from a crane when it was being delivered and broke immediately, resulting in the judges awarding the owners a £25 prize just for trying hard (a nice coincidence because the name Perseverance actually means to try hard!) and ‘Novelty’, which had travelled a grand speed of 28 miles per hour on the first day, also broke and had to withdraw.


The unfortunate  (and very strange!) 'Cycloped'

Finally only George Stephenson’s ‘Rocket’ was left intact.  It managed to run successfully many times without breaking over the course of the trials, meaning on the final day it was declared an outright winner, taking the prize of £500 and a very profitable contract to supply more locomotives for the railway which would make George and Robert Stephenson very wealthy men.


One of the main reasons that Rocket won was because of its unique boiler design of 25 fire tubes, which were designed to heat the water more quickly and create more steam pressure.  In fact the design was so successful that every steam train afterwards copied the same design, including Harry Potter’s Hogwart’s express!


At the opening of the railway in 1830, huge excited crowds gathered once more to watch Rocket make the first journey on the Liverpool and Manchester Railway.   Many important people of the time also attended such as the Prime Minister, The Duke of Wellington, and the politician William Huskisson.  However, disaster struck when Huskisson walked directly in front of Rocket to wave to the prime minister and was killed!  The immediate result of this was very strict safety rules with trains only being allowed to travel at a speed of 17 miles per hour from then onwards.  


However this didn’t put people off using the new trains and within months of the railway opening it was carrying many thousands of passengers and goods between the two cities, inspiring many other cities across Britain to do the same and build their own railways.  But this was not all, for the invention of the railway spread across the world to the extent where even the space between the rails of 4 feet and 8.5 inches set by George Stephenson on that first railway is still used by over 60% of the world's railways today.


Within twenty years of the opening of the Rainhill trials, the British rail network extended far across the country, carrying tens of thousands of people and the future of the first railways was secured forever.

Rocket wins and the railways are born!