Yorkshire Transport: Railways

Yorkshire Transport: Railways

Although railways began to supersede the canal transport system in the 1840s, a rail network had in fact begun to emerge much earlier. The first ‘railway’ in Yorkshire was built by Charles Brandling, a Leeds colliery owner, who secured an Act of Parliament in 1758 to construct a waggonway on an incline connecting his colliery in Middleton to Old Staithes on the river Aire, via Hunslet Moor. The waggons were originally hauled up the incline by horses, which were later replaced by a fixed steam engine, until John Blenkinsop, an employee of Brandling’s, experimented with a steam engine design by Richard Trevithick. The engine used a rack and pinion method to haul the coal waggons and began regular service in 1812 with two steam engines, the Salamanca and the Prince Regent, hauling 38 fully laden waggons at a speed of three m.p.h.

Brandling’s railway aroused great interest and was visited by George Stephenson, who was later to build the world’s first passenger railway, and by the Grand Duke Nicholas of Russia. The economic value of the railway was quickly realised and Brandling was able to secure control of the coal supplies to Leeds. One of the drawbacks was that a great deal of iron-30 lb. for every yard—was used to construct the rack and pinion rail, resulting in a cost per mile almost as great as the total cost of a steam engine (the Prince Regent, built at Hunslet, cost £380). Other coal owners in Yorkshire began to follow Brandling’s lead and many waggonways were constructed, sometimes on inclined wooden tracks. In Bradford, for example, several waggonways carrying waggons hauled by horse and pulley were constructed in the 1780s, connecting coal pits and iron works with the Bradford canal.

A viable public railway system did not exist until 1825, when George Stephenson built a railway running from Stockton to Darlington. An extension of this railway was opened to Middlesbrough in 1830, making it the first public steam-worked railway in Yorkshire.

We have already noted how, by the 1830s, the industrial expansion of the West Riding was being held back by increasingly inadequate transport facilities. The building of the Knottingley-Goole canal had eased some of the problems but at the same time had damaged the trading status of Selby. A railway from Leeds to Selby had been advocated as early as 1802 and the first detailed plan for the line was put forward in 1821; this plan was shelved, mainly because no-one could resolve the question of what sort of locomotive power should be employed. The plan was resurrected in 1829, by which time the steam engine was being successfully used on a number of lines. Even so the promoters of the line con­sidered using horses to pull the railway waggons, before choosing steam engines. The Pickering-Whitby line, opened in 1836, continued to use horses as a means of locomotion until 1847. When the Leeds-Selby line opened in 1834 it was the first public railway to operate wholly within Yorkshire. The building of the railway and its operation highlighted the competition taking place between canals and railways, although the relationship between the different forms of transport was at first ambiguous; the Leeds-Selby line, while competing with the Knottingley­Goole canal, nevertheless only existed because of its dependence on the river trade from the Ouse and down the Humber to Hull. The railways, carrying thousands of passengers each week by the 1840s, also competed with the turn­pike, though stage coach operators benefited by transporting passengers to and from the railway stations. Passengers on the Leeds-Selby line were the first in the world to travel by steam locomotive through a tunnel—the 637 m.-long (700 yds.) Richmond Hill tunnel at Marsh Lane. By 1840 the line had been extended to Hull, thus eliminating the need for connecting river transport.

Yorkshire's railway system
Yorkshire’s railway system

People quickly began to realise the importance of railways; not only were they a better form of transport—heavier loads could be carried faster at cheaper rates than by road or canal and the public could travel in greater comfort—they also opened up new markets for goods and created a great demand for iron and steel and other products in their constructicn. They also required a great deal of labour, both in the building and maintenance of the railway system and in other industries which benefited from improved transport. By the 1840s finance for new railway lines was easier to find, and thousands of small investors were placing their money with schemes which had little hope of making money. The greatest rush to build, between 1845 and 1847, was known as ‘railway mania’. In 1847, 76 Bills were presented to Parliament for schemes affecting Yorkshire and by 1860 most of the modem railway network in the county had been completed. By the end of the 1840s both York and Leeds were connected to most major towns and cities in the country. Bradford, by means of two rail links to Leeds, was also connected to the network.

The railway competition was so fierce that some towns in Yorkshire were served viaduct n1thSettle by several lines. Leeds had three stations, Sheffield and Bradford had two each and even Pontefract had three to itself. The largest scheme to be proposed was the Great Northern Railway running from London to Doncaster which aroused intense opposition from George Hudson, the ‘Railway King’, who rose to fame when he successful  tried to establish York as a major railway centre. Hudson, who already had an East Coast route which would be affected by the Great Northern, strongly objected but to no avail. The Great Northern then had to contend with the four major companies in the West Riding—the London & North Western, the Lancashire & Yorkshire, the Midland, and the Manchester, Sheffield & Lincolnshire Railway—which combined to try to force it out of business. This attempt also failed and the Great Northern became one of the foremost railway companies in the country.

George Hudson confused his private business interests with his public office (he was three times Lord Mayor of York) and went to extraordinary lengths to outwit competitors. He paid £470,000 to the 6th Duke of Devonshire for his 12,000-acre Londesborough estate in the East Riding to prevent all other railway companies from building lines to Hull, before selling part of it back to his own company so that he could build his own line. When he took charge of the North Midland Railway objections were raised that he cut wages and salaries; he responded by sacking the protesters without notice on Christmas Eve. Such tactics did not endear him to the public, but as long as his companies paid good dividends few would complain. When railway profits began to fall, Hudson’s methods were more carefully scrutinised and his corrupt practices were exposed. The lasting benefit of George Hudson’s work was the amalgamation of many small lines into larger companies, culminating in the formation of the North Eastern Railway in 1854.

By the end of ‘railway mania’ Yorkshire had a comprehensive railway system, but it was established as much by the principles of greed and avarice as by the need to provide a rational system of transport and communication. The services offered by the railway companies gradually improved; open third-class carriages were no longer to be seen; upholstered seats and improved suspension and brakes became quite common. More lines were built in Yorkshire in the 1860s and 1870s extending into more rural areas. When the line along Wharfedale was opened in 1865 the villages and towns along its route began to expand, especially Ilkley, where many Bradford businessmen began to build their homes. In 1866 the Midland company applied for permission to build a line from Settle to Carlisle via Ribblesdale and the Eden valley. When the line was opened in 1875 it had cost a total of £3,500,000 and involved great feats of engineering, including a one-and­a-half mile tunnel cutting 500 ft. under Blea Moor and also the Ribblehead viaduct. It is perhaps the most interesting and certainly the highest main-line in England, rising to 1,169 ft. at the Aisgill summit. lhe Hull and Barnsley Railway, opened in 1885, linked the south Yorkshire coalfields with Alexandra Docks in Hull, and also provided improved passenger access for villages in the Yorkshire Wolds and Howdenshire. The Hull and Barnsley Company was amalgamated with the North Eastern in 1922 and the line was closed in stages between 1959 and 1964. A small section of the high level line through Hull remains open to convey Hull City Football Club supporters from the city centre to their team’s home ground at Boothferry Park.

The building of the railways attracted thousands of navvies to Yorkshire, many of whom came from Ireland. When the Settle to Carlisle line was built the men were housed in shanty towns named after far away places—Sebastopol, Jericho, Salt Lake City etc.—which sprang up along the route. The navvies left when the building work was complete, leaving behind the farming communities which must have experienced quite a shock on their arrival.

The subsequent history of Yorkshire’s railways is one of amalgamation, consolidation and, finally, contraction. The North-Eastern Railway Company had absorbed over 50 smaller companies by 1914. A Railways Act of 1921 divided the companies into four groups, the Great Western, the Southern, the London & North-Eastern, and the London, Midland & Scottish, the latter two operating most of the lines in Yorkshire. A Railway Rates Tribunal fixed charges based on earnings in 1913, although none of the companies achieved their pre-war levels of income.

The First World War was in fact a watershed for the railways. Motorised road transport enabled motor-buses and private cars to compete with short-distance rail passenger traffic, while road hauliers, able to deliver goods straight to the door, began to take business away from railway goods traffic. By the mid-1930s road transport had taken half the traffic away from the railways and the total workforce had fallen 18 per. cent. The railways were nationalised after the Second World War and in 1963 the Beeching report recommended a major reorganisation of the network involving the closure of thousands of miles of track. Many of the rural lines in Yorkshire were closed and the emphasis was placed on rapid urban and inter-city services.

The railway network in Yorkshire is now much reduced from the vast array• of tracks laid down in the 19th century. Diesel Multiple Units are a common sight on most lines in the region and inter-city services link the major towns and cities with the rest of the country. The travel time from Leeds to London has been reduced to 2 hours 9 minutes. Some steam trains, however, still run, carrying rail enthusiasts on special excursions, such as those from Leeds and York to Scarborough. The importance of York as a railway centre is remembered in the Railway Museum which attracts thousands of visitors each year. In the summer months special Dalesrail excursions are organised from Leeds and Bradford along the Settle-Carlisle line and tourists and hikers fill the trains each weekend. Some of the disused lines have been taken over by preservation groups which run them as tourist attractions. The Worth Valley railway, running from Haworth to Keighley, is sometimes used by film companies because of its scenic qualities, and steam trains are run on the line across the North York Moors between Pickering and Grosmont.