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  • 200 Years of Railroads

    Posted by David Foster on August 12th, 2012 (All posts by )

    On August 12, 1812, the Middleton Railway put two steam locomotives into regular service, marking the beginning of the railroad era—the social, economic, and political consequences of which would be vast. The poet Heinrich Heine, living in Paris in 1843, vividly captured the sense of the smaller world enabled by the railroad:

    I feel the mountains and forests of all countries advancing towards Paris. Already, I smell the scent of German lime-trees; the North-Sea breaks on my doorstep.

    The August 1812 event marked the first regular use of trains which were mechanically self-propelled…railroad technology itself goes back much further, beginning with tracks cut in stone in ancient quarries and continuing with the use in Germany, circa 1558, of wooden rails for the movement of ore within mines and with the introduction in Britain, in 1604, of flanges for keeping wheel on rail. These “wagonways,” as they were called, allowed one horse to haul about 4 times more freight than the same horse could handle with wagons operating over conventional roads.

    The Middleton Railway was created as a result of commercial pressures: in 1745, a mine owner named Charles Brandling was finding it difficult to compete with other miners who, unlike him, had access to water transportation. Brandling’s agent, Richard Humble, proposed the creation of a wagonway, which soon extended to a location near the River Aire. (About 35 miles.) The line was privately financed; Brandling did however obtain an act of authorization from Parliament, which gave him the power to obtain “wayleave,” which seems to have been a form of delegated eminent domain.

    Although horsepower in the literal sense was the major prime mover in this railway’s early history, a stationary steam engine was applied to help the horses over a particularly steep hill. By 1808, though, the Napoleonic wars had caused the price of horse feed to rise and the resulting high costs of transporttaion were again making the Brandling colliery uneconomic. John Blenkinsop, the newly-appointed colliery manager, designed and patented the rack and pinion method of traction and contracted with a local foundry to build two locomotives, which were named Salamanca and Prince Regent. Steam operations continued until the 1830s, when the line reverted to horse-drawn traction (a couple of boiler explosions were involved in the decision, I’d also suspect changes in the ratio between the prices of horse feed and coal), switching back to steam in 1866. The Middleton Railway was used for coal-hauling until 1967, and is now operating as a tourist railroad. The railway held its 200th anniversary celebration in June of this year, commemorating the first public demonstration of its steam engines on June 24, 1812.

    Railroading in the US began with the first section of the Baltimore & Ohio in 1830 and the South Carolina Canal and Railroad Company in the same year. Today, the US railroad industry is viewed by many as a backwater, but actually, as railroading enters its third century the industry is doing pretty well. Total freight hauled by US railroads is running about 1.7 trillion ton-miles per year, which compares with 300 million ton-miles in 1913, 750 million ton-miles in 1975 and about 1 trillion ton-miles in 1990. Financial performance of the industry has been pretty decent; see stock price history for the three major US railroads here. Considerable efficiencies have been achieved: inflation-adjusted prices for rail freight transportation are about half what they were in 1981. Overall, the rail freight industry is a very significant national asset for the United States, a point that tends to go unrecognized by those who harp on our passenger-rail inferiority when compared to many other countries. (See Coyote Blog for a view of some of the psychology behind this.)

    I summarized a Popular Mechanics article (from 2006) on some of the current directions in railroad technology, here.

    Some other relevant links:

    Middleton Railway history
    Middleton Railway’s website
    Early locomotive history
    Fanny Kemble’s vivid description of her 1830 train ride
    A useful (if self-promotional) summary of the current state of the US freight rail industry

    Disclosure: I’m an investor in several railroads

     

    15 Responses to “200 Years of Railroads”

    1. Michael Kennedy Says:

      The container revolution has got to have much to do with the continuing success of railroads. Wish I’d thought of it.

    2. David Foster Says:

      A little bit about the Malcolm McLean, instigator of the container freight revolution, here:

      http://photonplaza.blogspot.com/2004_12_26_photonplaza_archive.html#110409836956862219

    3. Michael Kennedy Says:

      David, I had read the story of the guy watching a ship loading and thinking about using his truck as a container. I had forgotten the rest of it. It went from piggybacking to containers in railroads. Interesting that Wiki doesn’t mention McLean.

    4. David Foster Says:

      The wider version of the Panama Canal is nearing completion, and will allow larger ships to transit from the Far East to the US East Coast ports. See post at the Blue Heron Journal:

      https://sites.google.com/site/blueheronjournal/made-in-the-americas-sm-the-new-panama-canal

      Direct sea shipment in large container ships for East Coast destinations could offer significant freight-cost savings vis-a-vis bringing the freight into the West Coast and then sending it eastward by rail/truck, BUT the tradeoff is significantly longer transit times, with consequent impacts on inventory levels, customer service, and (in some cases) product obsolescence. For sure, some of the duller minds in American business will only look at the freight costs savings and ignore those other factors.

    5. Michael Kennedy Says:

      “For sure, some of the duller minds in American business will only look at the freight costs savings and ignore those other factors.”

      They might also consider the Longshoreman’s strike in Los Angeles/Long Beach a few years ago that was due to the objection to GPS units in containers that identified contents and destination. The clerks in the union caused the strike to try to stop their use so they could continue to collect $100 k salaries for climbing over containers in the port.

      The guy whose boat was next to my slip was a retired longshoreman with a much nicer boat than mine.

      The strike shut the port down for weeks.

    6. David Foster Says:

      A lot of businesses apparently jumped on the let’s-all-outsource-to-China bandwagon without making any serious attempt to assess the impact on the overall logistics chain—our blogfriends at Evolving Excellence have covered this topic frequently. I’d hope the lesson would have been learned, but there are always some laggards.

    7. Robert Schwartz Says:

      We are reading Victorian Novels now. We had finished Dickens’ Pickwick Papers, and are almost done with “Can You Forgive Her” the first of Trollope’s Palliser novels. The former was published in 1837 and the latter in 1864.

      In the Pickwick papers the characters travel about England in coaches drawn by horses. The inns where they stop, the ostlers, and the coachmen are all important participants in the action.

      In the Trollope novel published a generation later, the characters travel about England by railroad. One of the young women remarks to an elderly aunt that of course she will come to visit as it is so easy to get about England these days. The trip to Paris, takes only a day. They still use horse drawn vehicles in London. We can wonder though whether they could get around London more easily than we can.

    8. David Foster Says:

      RS…”We can wonder though whether they could get around London more easily than we can”

      Perhaps the % of the population that could afford individual horses/carriages in those days was smaller than the % that can afford cars today, meaning that in the Victorian era most people were restricted to foot travel or maybe horse-drawn ominbuses/tramways, leaving the road capacity relatively free for the higher classes…

      Wikipedia says that horse-drawn tramways in London started circa 1860-70 and lasted until full electrification in 1915:

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trams_in_London

    9. Michael Kennedy Says:

      “our blogfriends at Evolving Excellence have covered this topic frequently.”

      I’ve added that site to my list. There is no industry worse managed than health care. The hospital where I practiced for years and started a trauma center now has a group of Persian relatives running things. The assistant administrator managed to oust his boss and is now hiring relatives. Last week, my wife tells me that one of them, a non-licensed MD from Iran, was escorted out of the hospital at the order of a neurosurgeon who kicked him out of his OR during a case. I’m sure the Iranians will get revenge on the neurosurgeon but, until Obamacare takes place, doctors still have other options. From the sound of it, somebody may end up in jail by the time this runs its course. Amazing what is happening to medicine.

    10. David Foster Says:

      MK…another blog you might find interesting is Lean Blog:

      http://www.leanblog.org/

      …written by Mark Graban, a former manufacturing manager who has now focused his Lean consulting practice on healtcare.

    11. Michael Kennedy Says:

      I attended a series of meetings on lean health care a few years ago. The company is called Lean Healthcare West. I was doing some work for a company in California that had done a lot of management consulting for aircraft industry. They decided that health care was a promising new line. After a year or so, they gave up. Dartmouth had a pretty good program although a lot of the policy folks are typical academics. I got a masters there.

    12. renminbi Says:

      Nice reference to tramways. London didn’t go in for cable cars,but the US did,in a big way. Twenty eight cities had cable cars in the last quarter of the 19th century. They were mostly killed by the electric tramway by the turn of the century.

    13. dearieme Says:

      It’s interesting that the steamboat was developed before the steam railways.
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charlotte_Dundas

    14. David Foster Says:

      Dearieme…I expect that much of the steamboat-first phenomenon was driven by the weight and bulk of the engines of the time…evidently, some of the early experiments with steam locomotives failed because the weight of the locomotive crushed the rail. (The Middleton initially used the rack-and-pinion drive because there was concern about adequate adhesion with lighter locos)

    15. dearieme Says:

      I’ve seen some ancient film of a horse-drawn tram in Belfast. The number of people who could be transported by a single horse (on the flat, on steel rails) did surprise me. Most impressive.