Rail Freight in Great Britain - A

Rail Freight in Great Britain - A

The railway network in Great Britain has been used to transport goods of various types and in varying volumes since the early 19th century. Network Rail, which owns and maintains the network, aims to increase the amount of goods carried by rail. In 2015-16 Britain's railways moved 17.8 billion net tonne kilometres, a 20% fall compared to 2014-15. Coal accounted for 13.1% of goods transport in Britain, down considerably from previous years. There are no goods transported by railway in Northern Ireland.

Rail Freight in Great Britain History

Rail Freight in Great Britain Pre-19th Century

Even in the 16th century, mining engineers used crude wooden rails to facilitate the movement of mine wagons steered by hand. In Nottingham, 1603, a tramway was constructed to transport coal from mines near Strelley to Wollaton. Horse-drawn lines were increasingly common by the 18th and early 19th centuries, chiefly to haul bulk materials from mines to canal wharves or areas of consumption.

Rail Freight in Great Britain 19th Century

The world's first steam locomotive engine was demonstrated by Richard Trevithick in 1804. Steam powered rail freight operated regularly on the Middleton Railway, near Leeds, long before any passenger services. Many of the early railways of Britain carried goods, including the Stockton and Darlington Railway and the Liverpool and Manchester Railway. The LMR was originally intended to carry goods between the Port of Liverpool and east Lancashire, although it subsequently developed as mixed passenger-goods railway.

The network expanded rapidly as small private firms rushed to build new lines. Over the course of the 19th and early 20th centuries, these amalgamated or were bought by competitors until only a handful of larger companies remained (see Railway mania).

The Post Office began using letter-sorting carriages in 1838, and the railway quickly proved to be a much quicker and more efficient means of transport than the old mail coaches. It was estimated in 1832 that using the LMR to transport mail between the two cities reduced the expense to the government by two-thirds. It was also much faster to send newspapers across Great Britain.

Rail Freight in Great Britain Early 20th Century

The First World War was dubbed the "Railway War" at the time. Indeed, thousands of tonnes of munitions and supplies were distributed from all over Great Britain to ports in the South East of England for shipping to France and the Front Line. Due to pre-war inefficiencies in the rail goods transport, a number of economisation programmes were needed to allow the railways to meet with the huge demand that was being put on their services.

The Common User Agreement for wagon usage and regulation of coal services through the Coal Transport Act of 1917 are examples of such programmes, which enabled better utilisation of railway assets across the industry. The success of such schemes was entirely down to the collaboration of more than 100 railway companies, who abandoned the fierce competition of the pre-war years to work together in the national interest. In no sector was this more obvious than in rail goods transport.

During the Second World War, vast quantities of materials were moved around Britain by rail. During the early stages of the war, goods trains ran to rural stations in Norfolk to enable airfields to be constructed. In 1944, 500 special trains ran every day on the network and over a million wagons were controlled by the government's Inter-Company Freight Rolling Stock Control organisation.

Beer was a major rail-hauled commodity, but gradually switched to the improving road network. The complex network of brewery railways in Burton upon Trent became disused by 1970. Likewise, milk was widely transported by rail until the late 1960s. The last milk tank wagons ran in 1981.


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