Railways in early nineteenth century Britain
The first purpose built passenger railway, the Liverpool and Manchester Railway, was authorised by Act of Parliament in 1826. The South Eastern Railway Act was passed just ten years later.
Even in those first ten years, railways were beginning to lead to significant changes within British society. Road transport could not compete. As well as being much more time consuming, it was also more expensive. In 1832 an essay on the advantages of railways compared road travel and rail travel between Liverpool and Manchester before and after the opening of the railway. By road, the journey took four hours and cost 10 shillings inside the coach and 5 shillings outside. By train, the same journey took one and three-quarter hours, and cost 5 shillings inside and 3 shillings 6 pence outside. Compared to canal the time savings were even more significant. The same journey had taken 20 hours by canal. The cost of canal carriage was 15 shillings a ton, whereas by rail it was 10 shillings a ton.
The Post Office began using railways right at the very beginning, when the Liverpool and Manchester Railway opened in 1830. They began using letter-sorting carriages in 1838, and the railway quickly proved to be a much quicker and more efficient means of transport that the old mail coaches. It was estimated in 1832 that using the Liverpool and Manchester Railway to transport mail between the two cities reduced the expense to the government by two-thirds. Newspapers could also be sent around the country with greatly increased speed
Railway expansion at this time was rapid. Between 1826 and 1836, 378 miles of track had opened. By the time the South Eastern Railway opened as far as Dover, in 1844, 2210 miles of line had been opened, making travel around the country faster, more comfortable and less expensive.
Railways allowed people to travel further, more quickly. This allowed leisure travel, and contributed to the growth of seaside resorts. It also allowed people to live further from their places of work, as the phenomenon of commuting took hold. Railways even contributed to the growth of cities, by allowing the cheap transport of food, as well as bricks, slate and other building materials.
They also gave a great stimulus to industry by reducing the freight costs of heavy materials such as coal and minerals, as well as reducing costs of transporting finished goods around the country.