BBC Homepage World Service Education
BBC Homepagelow graphics version | feedback | help
BBC News Online
 You are in: UK
Front Page 
Northern Ireland 
UK Politics 
Talking Point 
In Depth 

Thursday, 26 October, 2000, 13:59 GMT 14:59 UK
Were trains any better 100 years ago?
Modern train and steam engine
Steaming ahead: Train travel now and then
With many train lines across the UK nearly grinding to a halt, it has been claimed that rail travel was faster in 1900 than it is during the current safety crisis. Was the golden age of steam better for travellers than today?

The social revolution the railways heralded meant that for many, the train was a symbol of immense pride. The Great Western Railway, for instance, was dubbed God's Wonderful Railway.

The early years of this century are commonly thought of as the golden age of railways. But what was the real picture?


In 1900, the rail industry was split into rival companies which competed against each other, often between the same destinations.

Cherie Blair
"Third class? Back of the train, I'm afraid."
The battleground for competition was comfort. The introduction of luxurious Pullman cars transformed many trains into hotels on wheels.

But well-off travellers were not the only ones to benefit from Mr Pullman's plush seats. The coaches vacated by the rich were rebadged as second class.

In their turn, the proles of third class - 95% of passengers - were allowed to upgrade. It had taken an Act of Parliament to bring third class travellers in from the cold - rail companies had regularly offered them open carriages, if any at all.


Colin Divall, professor of railway studies at the University of York, says rail travel has always been expensive.

"There were no great bargains to be had, and a much smaller range of tickets, really just single or return. If you were a working man you would have travelled third class. "


steam train
The golden age of rail travel?
Companies would race against their rivals to claim new records, and primarily competed on the lines between London and Aberdeen. Journey times on this route were cut from 11.5 to 8.5 hours within a few weeks.

Improved train brakes helped unlock the full potential of steam. Passenger trains were beginning to travel at speeds approaching 100mph. In the 1890s, though, there was a high speed derailment at Preston, caused partly by the race to the north. But after the accident, schedules were considerably slackened.


At the end of the 19th Century, it was not unusual for 100 people a year to die on the railways. Jim Rees, a rail historian at the Beamish Museum in Durham, says, "It was still the same balance between profit and safety, but without the safety culture we have today.

"When you crashed a wooden carriage lit by gas, my God, you had a disaster on your hands."

Regulation helped improve matters with the introduction of a signalling system, the principles of which are still widely in use today.

From the film Brief Encounter
Smoke gets in your eyes
It took the deaths of some 80 passengers in an Armagh crash to prompt parliamentary action on brakes. A locomotive had failed to take a gradient - when several rear carriages were unhooked, they rolled back into a following train.

The Regulation of Railways Act (1889) insisted passenger trains were fitted with continuous automatic brakes - a safety feature previously dismissed as too expensive.


In 1900, the companies were still profitable. By World War I, profits were falling, which lead in part to rationalisation into four companies.


The companies were in competition, which led to a large amount of duplication. Nottingham, for instance, had two separate lines linking it with London. Manchester had three main stations.

But where could you go?

The British people could - at rail's peak - travel on 23,000 miles of track around the country. Now that total is just 11,000, the greatest cut coming in the Beeching Report of 1963 which did for branch lines and deprived many smaller towns and villages of their stations.

Public affection

In 1900 as in 2000, the rail system was subject to an enormous amount of criticism, particularly about nationalisation, which eventually happened in 1947.

Steam train
Steaming into criticism
Colin Divall says: "Those in favour of nationalisation argued that the duplication of services was often wasteful. There was a lot of criticism too from the railway workers and by the Trade Union movement that was developing."

Merchants and manufacturers were also critical, suffering from pilfering en route and disappearing goods wagons.

Search BBC News Online

Advanced search options
Launch console
Internet links:

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Links to more UK stories are at the foot of the page.

E-mail this story to a friend

Links to more UK stories