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.
Planning laws explain that!
Wow, I had a book about Stephenson as a child, and it didn't mention his having to avoid thugs! ... Its amazing how much economic growth and new technology came about because coal allowed such a large percentage of the population to not be dedicated to farming and could do other things with their time. I can imagine what will happen when we finally unlock nuclear fusion and energy becomes "free".
Thanks - it's fascinating to see the multiple factors which influence the development of the railways. I looked at it from the perspective of the landowners and the privileges they secured to permit access: https://thecountryseat.org.uk/2022/12/20/halt-who-goes-there-the-arrival-and-departure-of-landowners-private-and-privileged-railway-stations/
The importance of grain and fossil fuels, in this case coal, is a common theme in economic history. They truly are two of Five Keys to Progress.
I like how you mention the incredible importance of the horse for transportation, agriculture and manufacturing well into the 19th Century. I had not heard of the book you mentioned, "City of Beasts". I just put it on my reading list. There is another book, "Horses at Work" that sounds similar. It is about the role of horses in 19th Century America.
You can read a summary here:
From Smiles's biography of the Stephensons, re the Liverpool & Manchester Railroad:
“In the evidence given before the Committee of the House of Commons, the promoters stated their expectation of obtaining about one half of the whole number of passengers which the coaches then running could carry, or about 400 a day. But the railway was scarcely opened before it carried on an average about 1200 passengers daily; and five years after the opening, it carried nearly half a million of persons yearly. So successful, indeed, was the passenger traffic, that it engrossed the whole of the company's small stock of engines.”
(Unclear me to me, though, whether energy, goods, or passenger transport is more needed at the margin in any given economy at the moment.)
Three years before Stockton and Darlington the Hetton Colliery Railway was the first end to end steam railway, albeit a series of locomotives and inclines, that delivered coal 8.5 miles from Hetton to the staithes on the Wear at Sunderland http://hcr200.org/Railway-History.html. It had the same ingredients as S&D; George Stephenson (poached by S&D before Hetton started), the same bank and same partnership structure. It was also the first colliery to extract coal from beneath the limestone plateau thus starting the East Durham deep coalfield, the first non-aristocracy partnership -'adventurers', and the miners first assembled to create the Durham Miners Association.
An interesting post, Anton, that give cause to my comments.
First, sort of an aside, allow me to bemoan your choice of relative pronoun: “… we should remember that it was grain-fed horses who powered much of the early machinery …” For me, who is used for people; which for animals or objects; that for animals, people or objects.
Now for your discussion of transport. In terms of cost difference between transport modes, we can think in £ & pence per ton or some measure of weight or volume for bulk goods like coal, grain and so on. But we can also think in terms of days taken, and that is most relevant when moving people. And commented upon more by travelers at the time. As I noted in my 2021 book on the Chinese economy, steam transformed space-time in China from the late 19thC. The first major north-south Beijing-Hankou Railway (completed 1905) slashed travel time between the cities from 50 days to two. Combined with steam ships on the Yangzi River, the journey from Chengdu in Sichuan via Hankou to Beijing was shortened form 80 days to 10 days. The southern extension of the Beijing-Hankou line to Guangzhou (Canton) reduced travel time from 90 days to 3.3 days in 1936; in 1982 it took me still 2.5 days but just 9.5 hours on the high-speed trains today. Those changes were transformative for people and the economy.
On railroads and tech, early horse drawn rail wagons such as used for moving coal used wooden tracks - iron/steel tracks were far too expensive if not technologically infeasible. These wood rail systems were around for a millennium before the steam train. In the 18thC as coal fueled furnaces made cast iron cheaper we see this being used to strengthen wooden rails but iron/steel rails were a 19thC thing, I reckon (correct me if I’m wrong).
I find the observation in final para rather strange. That increasing mobility of people (labor) was “certainly a nice-to-have, though less obviously a basis for further growth.” Less obvious but not less important. To me this misses or at least underplays the albeit hard-to-measure economies of information that came from increased movement of people and that were increasingly important over the course of the 19-20thC. The changes in travel time I note for China above transformed lives; they made a difference to personal economies and opportunities for engaging in the market economy far beyond the village, and this I would argue to the growth of national economies too.
It also misses the national (and nationalistic) integration of space that railways produced. Eugene Weber’s Peasants into Frenchmen (1976) attributes a lot to railways in shaping modern France. It for one led to the dialect of Paris becoming the national lingua franca. Another dimension of this was the creation of “railway time” or specific time zones. The technology required that everyone’s clock within the rail network was on the same time, not whatever time the local village clock tower said it was, if there was to be a railway timetable (and to avoid accidents). In Britain before the railway there were dozens if not hundreds of separate ‘time zones’, not that anyone was really conscious of a time zone as such since we moved between places too slowly to be concerned with the difference between the time in the place we had left several hours (days) earlier and the one at which we arrived. You no doubt know of EP Thomason’s classic essay on industrial time, but another that touches on this is Walter Licht’s Working for the Railroad (1983), which helped shaped my PhD “Chinese Railway Lives, 1912-1937” (ANU, 1995), as well as Engels’ Conditions of the English Working Class and Dickens’ Hard Times.
Still, an engaging post that recalled things I had worked on many years ago. Thanks.