Industrial Railways

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Ever since mankind settled in one place there has been a need to move large objects such as stone or wood for building, or later to move commodities, for example coal, or ironstone, in bulk, sometimes over long distances. Naturally the wheel, the horse drawn cart, and the boat, played an important part in transportation across land, and via rivers and waterways.

It is known from old manuscripts and prints from the 16th century that in Germany metal miners used crude wagons pulled by men or horses to bring ore to the surface, and when coal began to become exploited for its mineral value, then improved methods of transport became essential for this bulky commodity. Wooden tramways were known in Elizabethan times; simple wagons based on carts ran on crude timber rails. Increasing demand lead to further experiment, and in 1804 Trevithick’s locomotive ran on cast iron rails on the industrial tram road at Penydarran in South Wales. In 1813 Hedley’s “Puffing Billy” was in use at a colliery at Wylam in Northumberland. As he watched these engines at work George Stephenson was inspired to develop the locomotive to move increasing loads over longer distances reliably. Others pioneered steam, George Stephenson made it work; with his son Robert he laid the foundations of practical rail transport.

By displacing horse-drawn transport and the canal the industrial railway was the parent of the freight and passenger carrying trains we know today.

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During the 19th century the pace of development of industry, commerce, mechanisation, and exports increased rapidly. The aim of Victorian entrepreneurs was to move goods at a profit; main line railways were built by private companies, and during that century the railways of Britain replaced the canals and developed into a interconnected network of main lines joining towns and cities, and branch lines connecting the sidings of factories and works to the main network. The notion of passenger transport was secondary to the profit of moving goods to market. Britain became “the workshop of the world.” At the end of the 19th century when Britain’s railways were at their greatest extent it is said that nowhere in the whole of the mainland of the British Isles was more than 18 miles from a railway line.

Ribble Steam Railway has a locomotive collection based on the industrial locos which worked in the sidings of factories, warehouses, and docks, usually away from the public eye.  The locos on display in the museum and those in steam were developed to work as economically and as efficiently as possible, just as their more distinguished passenger brethren were built for speed and style. Many of the locos had very long working lives, for example those made by Barclays of Kilmarnock and Hunslet at Leeds. Thousands were made both for the home and overseas markets. Many can still be steamed and perform useful work nearly 100 years after they were made, although most of the mechanical working parts will have been renewed or replaced over time.

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The development of industrial railways generally followed that of the main lines. Larger, heavier, more economical locos appeared, together with many adapted by the makers for specific purposes or locations. The first flame-free fireless design for industrial use was produced by Borsig of Berlin in 1901 and quickly copied. Electric locos appeared in the early years of the 20th century, and the first practical diesel shunters in the 1930s.

Some industrial complexes were very large. For example the railway at the Beckton Gas Works in east London, which supplied gas to the Greater London area, had 70 miles of tracks in 360 acres, its own signalling system, 34 locos, and 1000 privately owned wagons to cope with the enormous input of coal to produce town gas. Closer to home the Manchester Ship Canal Co had an extensive network to service and maintain the canal; in Preston the Preston Dock Co had 28 miles of tracks and up to 8 locomotives in operation.

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Unseen and uncelebrated industrial locomotives spent unglamorous years trundling up and down pushing or pulling wagons, making up outgoing, or dividing down incoming trains, or just standing about waiting to be told about the next job. They were usually quite well maintained, mostly by the driver and fireman; their crews often took great pride in their appearance, although the occasional neglected loco that was allowed to run down was, and is, a sorry spectacle. A 1989 survey revealed 11 steam locos still at work in private industry; 7 Barclays – one fireless, 1 Hunslet, 1 Peckett, and 2 by Robert Stephenson & Hawthorns. The fireless Barclay was built in 1917. A tribute to good design and sound workmanship; we hear more than 100 examples of locos from this famous Scottish maker are in preservation today. Engine makers were proud of their locos and often attached handsome works plates to the cab sides to proclaim their origin.

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Just as important as the locos that moved them were the goods wagons and vans that earned the revenue to keep industry in business. The first crude wagons were modelled on horse-drawn carts; these were replaced over time by higher capacity wagons when steam loco power replaced the horse. For many years the industrial scene was dominated by the 4 wheeled wagon, built of timber on a timber or steel frame and with a carrying capacity of 10-12 tons. As demand increased wagons became larger and heavier to carry greater loads and specialised wagons were developed for specific purposes, for example the bottom discharge hopper wagons which can be seen on our sidings. Plain grease lubricated axle bearings gave way to oil-filled boxes, and to roller bearings in the most sophisticated wagons. Simple hand applied brakes on each individual wagon became compulsory after 1887, but, incredibly, continuous train brakes applied from the loco were not generally adopted until after 1948 – hence the guard’s brake van.

Produced for Visitors To The Museum, Ribble Steam Railway.

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