Full steam ahead

Proceedings on railway Bills were far from a foregone conclusion. Many of the best-known railway projects failed at their first attempt. These included the Liverpool and Manchester in 1824 because George Stephenson gave inadequate answers about the engineering aspects and the Great Western in 1834 following 57 days in committee.

Increasingly the fiercest opponents were rival railway companies that often had competing schemes. In 1862, it was reported by the Select Committee on Standing Orders Revision that about a quarter of opposed Bill committees were "a regular gladiatorial fight".

An opposed Bill Committee on a railway Bill would usually hear from many people. These included the line engineer, a company official (to demonstrate that the money could be raised), local businessmen and others (on the traffic the new line would carry) and witnesses on the proposed route. The great engineers and directors were regular visitors to Westminster.

Brunel, for example, made 233 appearances, and Sir Edward Watkin, Chairman of the Manchester, Sheffield and Lincolnshire Railway, 173. Transport schemes account for a high proportion of the five million pages of evidence in the Parliamentary Archives, and of the 200,000 appearances by witnesses from 1771 to 1917.

Speeding forward

Railway legislation forced Parliament to reform the way it handled Private Bills. This was mainly by replacing committees of around 120 Members (which included the local Members) with small tribunals comprising four or five Members. Members had no personal or constituency interest in the Bill, and were expected to act in a quasi-judicial capacity.

As well as Private Acts, there was much public legislation on railways, covering matters such as safety, level crossings, charges for traffic, accounting and telegraph wires. An Act of 1844 required at least one third-class train per day to operate along every line with a fare not exceeding 1d per mile. These became known as "parliamentary trains".

Related information

Find out about current parliamentary business on railways

Read about the work of committees

Search the Parliamentary Archives online catalogue for documents relating to transport schemes

Find out more about Private Bills and Acts

Biographies

You can access biographies of

George Stephenson
Isambard Kingdom Brunel
Edward Watkin

from the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography for free, online, using your local library card number (includes nine out of ten public libraries in the UK) or from within academic library and other subscribing networks.