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Age of Invention: Freight Expectations
With many countries’ recent productivity woes, there’s been a lot of focus lately on trying to build more transport infrastructure. Buses, railways, tramlines, airports and roads are seen as essential tools for boosting growth.
Certainly, everybody loves using great transport infrastructure (even if they don’t always enjoy having it built near them). In Japan a couple of months ago, I was gobsmacked at the speed and convenience of the famous bullet trains. They pull up to a platform like a spaceship from the year 2100 sliding effortlessly into a docking station. And if you happen to be walking onto the platform not expecting there to be an express about to pass through, it really is like a gigantic bullet — the shock of it was enough to make me actually take a whole step back. Meanwhile in Britain we apparently can’t even build a single high-speed line between our two largest cities without it taking well over a decade and tens of billions of pounds.
But as nice as it is to enjoy fast and convenient travel when you happen to want to visit a place, it is not always necessarily going to lead to much growth. We look back, of course, to the dramatic infrastructure-building projects of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In 1600, England and Wales had only about 950 miles of river that were navigable by boat, rising by 1835 to about 4,000 miles. Less well-known, between 1680 and 1830 over 14,000 miles of road were improved to drastically shorten travel times. And that’s before we get into the rise of steam-powered locomotives on railways from the 1820s onwards. In 1830 there were just over 125 miles of railway in Britain, rising by 1871 to over 13,000 miles — a more than hundred-fold increase in just four decades.
The initial expansion, however, particularly of navigations, canals, and the very earliest railways, had very little to do with moving people. Although today the most visible use of transport infrastructure is for passengers, we’d be committing the historian’s cardinal sin of present-ism to assume that that was always the case. The overwhelming use of this infrastructure, instead, was to do with transporting goods and energy — especially grain, for muscle energy, and coal.
The demand for coal in Britain very suddenly and dramatically began to increase over the course of the late sixteenth century (I’ll discuss the reasons for this another time, as I disagree with the usual narratives you may have heard). All known British coal seams, whenever they were conveniently placed next to a navigable river or the sea, and whenever they were within 10-12 miles’ journey overland to a population centre, were rapidly exploited to a degree never before seen. It was overwhelmingly used for heating homes, displacing the traditional fuels of peat, gorse, and firewood. And having become plentiful in many cities — especially London, which drew its coal all the way down coast from the seams of Northumberland and Durham — it was then adapted to a growing list of industries, from brewing, baking, and working metals, to making pottery, bricks, salt, lime, and glass.
Coal allowed for the greater concentration of people into cities. It allowed land close to cities that had been set aside for producing other fuels, like forest, marsh, or heath, to be devoted to producing only food. It was used for burning lime, which was used as a soil acidity regulator to increase the productivity of agriculture. And the city-made goods coal fuelled, along with the coal itself that cities stored, could in turn be traded for food produced in regions further afield without access to coal supplies of their own. As a visitor to coal-rich Staffordshire remarked in surprise in 1776, when following a newly-opened canal through arid hills lacking in farmland, “it seems that wherever fuel can be had cheap, there inhabitants are never wanting.”
As for grain, we should remember that it was grain-fed horses who powered much of the early machinery of Britain’s cities. I recommend a book by the historian Tom Almeroth-Williams, City of Beasts, which really opened my eyes the sheer scale of literal horsepower used in eighteenth-century London. Horse-driven machinery was used for grinding all manner of things, from dye pigments and snuff, to the essentials like grain for bread and beer. They were used for cloth-fulling, paper-making, and in metalwork, as well as for hauling goods and transporting people. And of course the muscle power of humans — also fuelled by grain — was used for essentially everything else, from spinning and weaving cloth, to tilling fields and working finer trades. Humans hauled a lot of goods themselves, especially when other animals could not, such as in the loading and unloading of carts, boats, and ships.
Coal and grain had an especially low value compared to their bulk, so they were only worth transporting when transportation costs were low. This was why overland haulage of coal was limited to a radius of about 10-12 miles — it was significantly cheaper to float it in a barge downriver or in a ship along the coast. The navigation of rivers, digging of canals, and building of railways was thus akin to extending a modern electrical grid. They did not just convey goods for sale, but extended access to power.
Look at nearly all of the early river navigation projects and you will see the same story. In 1635 it was a no-brainer to make the River Thames navigable all the way from London to Oxford — it made it easier to bring more grain from the inland counties to London, and more coal to Oxford. The same was done for its tributary the Wey from 1651 onwards, extending coal further into the Surrey countryside and thereby swelling the size of towns like Guildford, while London gained access to more timber and grain.
And exactly the same considerations motivated the canal-building mania of the late eighteenth century, once the number of rivers that were worth making navigable had begun to dwindle. The Sankey Canal of 1757 — the opening salvo of the canal age — was dug to connect the growing port of Liverpool to the coal fields at Haydock and Parr, because its traditional supply of coal from Prescot had become too expensive. And the inspirational Bridgewater Canal of 1761, which even flowed over a river through an aqueduct and under hills through tunnels, was dug to supply Manchester from the coal mines of Worsley. The Bridgewater Canal even helped to drain the mines, while relieving the region’s roads from the excessive strain of coal-hauling carts and waggons.
As for railways, they were also… well, you can probably see a theme emerging. Long before steam locomotives were put on rails, horses were hauling coal (and sometimes quarried stone) along waggon- and rail-roads to nearby rivers, canals, and the sea. As I’ve noted before, rail-roads were seemingly a lot more common a lot earlier than one might imagine.
Steam locomotives were used commercially on the Middleton Railway from as early as 1812, to transport coal to Leeds. And the Stockton and Darlington Railway, albeit famous for being the first public passenger railway to use steam power from 1825, initially only used the steam locomotive for its freight — bringing coal from the mines of south-west County Durham to Stockton on the River Tees, where it could be shipped on to London. Passenger services between Darlington and Stockton were instead, until 1833, largely leased out to the drivers of horse-drawn coaches. (A public railway was one enabled by Act of Parliament to form a joint-stock corporation able to build and manage the line, with powers to cross other people’s land, though it typically had to conform to certain conditions like allowing others to use the line so long as they used appropriate carriages and paid the specified tolls. The Stockton and Darlington Railway Company’s motto, Periculum Privatum Utilitas Publica, translated to At Private Risk for Public Service.)1
The first public passenger railway to exclusively use steam locomotives — the 1830 Liverpool and Manchester Railway — was likewise largely built with freight in mind, as a means of undermining the monopoly of the canals. George Stephenson had to survey the route by stealth, to avoid the canal owners’ hired thugs. The railway, which ran through the Lancashire coal fields, promised cheaper coal for Liverpool and access to more markets for Lancashire farmers, along with the conveyance of other goods.2 It proved to be a highly popular passenger route too, but unexpectedly so — a novelty for having connected two already-large cities.3
Passenger services also, increasingly, served a major economic purpose. First railways and then the car expanded the effective size of major cities, allowing them to draw in workers from a far wider orbit — see these dramatic illustrations collected by Tomas Pueyo. These undoubtedly improved the ability of firms to hire from a wider pool of people, to find the most suitable workers, and for people to find better-suited jobs. They made labour markets much more efficient, so that talent became less likely to go to waste.
But the history of transport infrastructure reveals to us a sort of hierarchy of applications when it comes to promoting economic growth: above all access to energy, secondarily to markets for other goods, and only then to labour. The convenience of other passenger transportation, beyond commuting in and out of major cities, is instead a benefit in and of itself — it is certainly a nice-to-have, though less obviously a basis for further growth. You’d be amazed at how many governments’ decisions and pronouncements on infrastructure-building fail to reflect this.
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Maurice W. Kirby, The Origins of Railway Enterprise : The Stockton and Darlington Railway, 1821-1863 (Cambridge University Press, 2002)
Frank Ferneyhough, Liverpool & Manchester Railway, 1830-1980 (London: R. Hale, 1980), p.18, p.92