Railways had their origin in the tramways (q.v.) or wagon-ways which at least as early as the middle of the 1 6th century were used in the mineral districts of England round Newcastle for the conveyance of coal from the pits to the river Tyne for shipment. It may be supposed that originally the public roads, when worn by the cartage of the coal, were repaired by laying planks of timber at the bottom of the ruts, and that then the planks were laid on the surface of special roads or ways1 formed between the collieries and the river. "The manner of the carriage," says Lord Keeper North in 1676, "is by laying rails of timber .... exactly straight and parallel, and bulky carts are made with four rowlets fitting these rails, whereby the carriage is so easy that one horse will draw down four or five chaldrons of coals " (from I0'6 to I3~2 tons).
The planks were of wood, often beech, a few inches wide, and were fastened down, end to end, on logs of wood, or sleepers," placed crosswise at intervals of two or three feet.
In time it became a common practice to cover them with a thin sheathing or plating of iron, in order to add to their life; this expedient caused more wear on the wooden rollers of the wagons, and, apparently towards the middle of the 18th century, led to the introduction of iron wheels, the use of which is recorded on a wooden railway near Bath in 1734. But the iron sheathing was not strong enough to resist buckling under the passage of the loaded wagons, and to remedy this defect the plan was tried of making the rails wholly of iron. In 1767 the Colebrookdale Iron Works cast a batch of iron rails or plates, each 3 ft. long and 4 in. broad, having at the inner side an upright ledge or flange, 3 in. high at the centre and tapering to a height of 2~ in. at the ends, for the purpose of keeping the flat wheels on the track. Subsequently, to increase the strength, a similar flange was added below the rail. Wooden sleepers continued to be used, the rails being secured by spikes passing through the extremities, but about 1793 stone blocks also began to be empluyed—an innovation associated with the name of Benjamin Outram, who, however, apparently was not actually the first to make it. This type of rail (fig. I) was H known as the plate-rail, tramway-plate or barrowI I way-plate——names which are preserved in the modern term "platelayer " applied to the men who lay and maintain the permanent way of a railway.
Another form of rail, distinguished as the edge rail, was first used on a line which was opened between Loughborough and Nanpantan in 1789.
This line was originally designed as a "plate way " on the Outram system, but objections were raised to rails with upstanding ledges or flanges being laid on the turnpike road which was crossed at Loughborough on the level. In other cases this difficulty was overcome by paving or "causewaying" the road up to the level of the top of the flanges, but on this occasion William Jessop, of the Butterley Iron Works, near Derby, proposed to get over it by laying down two plates of iron, perfectly flat and level with the road but each having on its outside a groove 3/4 in. wide and 3/4 in. deep to control extra guiding wheels which were to be of somewhat larger diameter than the bearing wheels and to be affixed to them. The rest of the line was laid with what were substantially plate-rails placed on their edge instead of flat. These were cast in 3 ft. lengths, of a double-flanged section, and for the sake of strength they were " fish-bellied " or deeper in the middle than at the ends.
At one end of each rail the flange spread out to form a foot which rested on a cross sleeper, being secured to the latter by a spike passing through a central hole, and above this foot the rail was so shaped as to form a socket into which was fitted the end of the next rail. Each length was thus fastened to a sleeper at one end, while at the other it was socketed into the end of its fellow. This method, however, was not found satisfactory: the projecting feet were liable to be broken off, and in 1799 or 1800 Jessop abandoned them, using instead separate cast-iron sockets or chairs, which were fastened to the sleepers and in which the rails were supported in an upright position. In the first instance he proposed to place the guiding wheels outside the bearing wheels, and the Nanpantan line was laid on this plan with' a width of 5 ft. between the guide wheels; but before it was opened he decided not only to cast the guiding wheels and bearing wheels in one piece but also to put the former inside the rails, arguing that with this arrangement the edge-rails themselves would keep the wheels in position on the axles, whereas with that first contemplated fastenings would have been required for them (fig. 2). Jessop thus produced what was virtually the flanged wheel of to-day, having the flanges inside the rails, and further, it is said, established what has become the standard gauge of the world, 4 ft. 8.5 in., or 5 ft. minus the width of two of his rails.
These two systems of constructing railways— the plate-rail and the edge-rail—continued to exist side by side until well on in the I9th century. In most parts of England the plate-rail was preferred, and it was used on the Surrey iron railway, from Wandsworth to Croydon, which, sanctioned by parliament in 1801, was finished in 1803, and was the first railway available to the public on payment of tolls, previous lines having all been private and reserved exclusively for the use of their owners.
Ed August 2003