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Timeline of the British railways

Below is a brief timeline showing the development of the steam railway in Britain.

1712     Thomas Newcomen develops an inefficient industrial stationary steam engine, which condenses steam under a vacuum.

1758     First "railway" is built - the Middleton Colliery Railway in Leeds, to carry coal to the River Aire using horses.

1765     James Watt improves upon the steam engine with the invention of the "Separate Condenser".

1776     Cast iron L-shaped plates are laid by John Curr at a colliery near Sheffield.

1789     Cast iron edge rails are laid by William Jessop on the Loughborough and Nanpanton Railway.

1801     Opening of the horse-powered Surrey Iron Railway (Croydon to Wandsworth) - the first public freight railway.

1804     5th February: "Trevithick" locomotive runs on Penydarren Tramway in South Wales. Hauls 10 tons for nine miles at five miles per hour.

1807     Opening of Oystermouth Railway, Swansea, a horse-powered railway believed to be the first to carry passengers.

1812     First commercial use of locomotives on Middleton Colliery Railway, Leeds, using Murray & Blenkinsop engines.

1813     Blackett & Hedley build "Puffing Billy" for use on Wylam Colliery Railway.

1814     "Blucher", first locomotive built by George Stephenson and weighing six tons, runs on Killingworth Colliery Railway.

1821     Bill is passed by Parliament for construction of famous Stockton & Darlington Railway, with George Stephenson as engineer.

1824     George Stephenson is appointed as engineer to develop the Liverpool & Manchester Railway.

1825     Stockton & Darlington, the world's first public railway, is opened. Stephenson's 4' 8" gauge is now standard.

1829     Rainhill Trials to find steam locomotive for Liverpool & Manchester Railway is won by Stephenson's "Rocket".

1830     15th September: The Liverpool & Manchester Railway, the world's first "inter-city" route, is opened by the Duke of Wellington.

1836     20th April: Ffestiniog opens as the world's first narrow-gauge railway using 1' 11½" gauge.

1838     Great Western Railway, engineered by Isambard Kingdom Brunel, opened from Paddington to Maidenhead on a broad gauge (7').

1842     Edinburgh to Glasgow railway opened on 26th February; rail route from Edinburgh to London completed.

1844     First large-scale amalgamation of several railways to form single company. George Hudson of York is Chairman.

1846     "Railway Mania": 272 Acts of Parliament for new railways, few of which passed the initial planning stage.

1853     The first train passes through Herefordshire with the opening of the Shrewsbury to Hereford via Leominster line.

1863     Opening of the Metropolitan Railway, the world's first underground line and the UK's highest main line (1,484 feet above sea level).

1876     Special Scotch Express journey time reduced to nine hours by the "Flying Dutchman" (Kings Cross to Edinburgh).

1879     First restaurant service on British railway on trains between London and Leeds.

1890     Opening of the first electric underground railway, the City and South London line. Forth Bridge in Scotland opened.

1892     The 4' 8½" standard gauge, first recommended by Royal Commission in 1846, wipes out the GWR "Broad Gauge".

1899     Last main line into London, the Great Central Railway from Sheffield and Manchester to Marylebone, is opened.

1904     The Plymouth - London mail train becomes the first steam locomotive to attain a speed in excess of 100 mph.

1911    First national rail strike succeeds in gaining increased wages and additional power for the Railway Trade Unions.

1914    Railways come under government control as World War I breaks out. Many women take on jobs on the railways.

1923     "Big Four" created - Great Western, Southern, London & North Eastern and London, Midland & Scottish.

1935     "Silver Jubilee", Britain's first streamlined train, sustains 100 mph for over 40 miles on a Kings Cross - Newcastle train.

1938     All-time record for steam traction achieved at 126 mph for a Peterborough to Grantham train.

1939     World War II begins and the railways come under government control again. Railways become a prime target for bombing.

1945     Labour government reintroduces the "Big Four" and pledges nationalisation but funds are low.

1947     Royal Assent is given to Transport Act; this provides for national ownership of the railways and canals.

1948     Nationalisation: "Big Four" becomes six regions - Southern, Western, London Midland, Eastern, North Eastern and Scottish.

1955     British Transport chairman announces £1.2m plan for replacement of steam with diesel/electric traction.

1960     Last British Railways steam locomotive completed at Swindon: No. 92220, "Evening Star".

1961     Dr. Beeching appointed chairman of British Transport Commission.

1963     Beeching proposes cuts to railway system, many smaller village stations and lines are closed. The Great Train Robbery takes place at Seers Crossing.

[Original author: Miranda Greene, 2003]