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The Golden Age of Steam in Britain

Travelling by steam train was once the fastest and most efficient mode of transport in Britain. Eclipsing the top speeds of canal boats and horse-drawn carriages, it was your best option if you needed to cover a long distance in the shortest time possible. However, steam trains originally started out as a method of transporting heavy goods from part of the country to the other. It wasn’t until the 1830s that long distance, comfortable passenger trains were in full-blown operation. 

So, what was it really like to travel by steam? And why were these marvellous examples of engineering eventually replaced?  

Modern Train Travel 

Most people have travelled by train at least once, with many commuters using it as their daily form of transport to and from work. Modern trains are fast, clean and usually a bit more reliable than local bus companies. Travelling by rail means that you can zip from Yorkshire to London in just two hours, rather than the four hours it would take to drive the same distance.  

Modern-day travellers are used to comfortable upholstered seats, heating, air con, and even free WiFi so that they can check Instagram, play a few spins at Poker Casino, or browse The Sport News whilst they speed through the landscape. However, during the age of steam, things looked very different. 

Whilst today’s passengers may complain about overcrowded carriages, delayed journeys and expensive ticket prices, 19th century train travel was a whole different ball game. 

The Stage Coach 

The first passenger trains were born from the already established idea of a stagecoach. No, not the cosy and comfortable motor coaches of today, with their mod cons and built-in facilities. The original stage coach was a horse-drawn carriage; first class passengers could sit inside the coach, whereas all other passengers were relegated to the roof or a large basket attached to the back of the vehicle.  

The first stage coaches didn’t even have glass in the windows, simply a curtain drawn over them. Altogether this made for a dirty, dusty, cramped and bumpy ride, whatever type of ticket you were travelling on. However, this precursor to rail travel worked out some important kinks in the transportation of people over long distances. These included experimenting with making more comfortable interiors and seating, as well as establishing routes between major cities. 

The First Railway Carriages 

Passenger railway carriages started out as a development of the aforementioned stagecoach; a first class ticket bought you an upholstered seat in an enclosed carriage, second class meant you were still inside but with no upholstery, whereas third class saw you sitting on hard benches in the open air. At least you were no longer required to sit on the roof! 

As railway travel continued to expand, greater comforts were added. Heating was provided by the steam from the engine, and oil lamps lit the carriages’ interiors. Adjustments to the construction of the carriages and wheels meant that passengers could enjoy a smoother ride, and the journey became safer. 

In the 1860s, sleeper carriages started to appear, so that passengers travelling overnight could lay down in a sleeping berth and snooze the miles away. Naturally, this luxury was only made available to those holding first class tickets, and came with personal attendants as well as updated plush décor. 

The Engines  

Of course, railway travel would not have been possible without the invention of the steam engine. Whilst the first locomotives were being developed in the very early 1800s, they were only used for shorter distances and to transport goods like iron or coal. The first ever passenger steam train actually opened in 1825, travelling the 25 miles between Stockton and Darlington. It was built by George Stephenson, a former miner and engine-wright. However, it wasn’t until the Liverpool and Manchester Railway opened in 1830 that rail travel became a more commonplace mode of passenger transport. 

This was, in part, made possible by George’s son, Robert Stephenson, who invented the Rocket engine. This locomotive had a top speed of 30mph and ran on coke (a high carbon content fuel). It went on to become incredibly famous around the world, and is often the model that comes to mind when people think of the first steam trains.  

Steam train

The End of Steam Travel 

Alas, the Golden Age of steam did not last for long past the turn of the 20th century, as new diesel-electric locomotives were introduced for general use. These engines were supposedly cleaner, less likely to break down and cheaper to run. There also didn’t punish the railway tracks quite so hard, meaning that less maintenance was needed. The final steam-powered journey made on British Railway lines happened in the late 1960s; however, some smaller steam railways remained in regular operation until the 1980s. 

These days, steam engines are seen as a novelty, used mostly within the confines of a preserved heritage line or one-off excursion rather than as an everyday mode of transport.