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Stockton and Darlington Railway

The Stockton and Darlington railway (S&DR) was the world's first railway to successfully use steam locomotives and carry passengers, and is considered the world's first modern railway.

The line was 26 miles (40 km) long, and was built between Stockton-on-Tees and Darlington and from Darlington to several collieries near Shildon in north-eastern England. The line was initially built to connect inland coal mines to Stockton where coal was to be loaded onto sea going boats.


The S&D was constructed in the early 1820s and was initially meant to be an ordinary horse-drawn wagonway, which were then commonplace in England. However George Stephenson persuaded the S&DR's builders to permit steam locomotives to operate experimentally on the line.

The line's structures included one of the first railway bridges, designed by architect Ignatius Bonomi, the so-called 'first railway architect'.

Steam locomotives were then a new and unproven technology, and were slow, expensive and unreliable. Many people weren't convinced that they were a viable alternative to the horse. So at first, horse traction predominated on the S&DR, until steam could prove its worth.

The parliamentary bill allowing construction of the line, however, included provisions for the use of steam locomotives, and the transporting of passengers, which at the time were regarded as little more than a sideline.

George Stephenson constructed the locomotives which ran on the line, with assistance from Timothy Hackworth. The first locomotive to run on the S&DR was the Locomotion No 1.

The official opening of the line on September 27th, 1825 was to change the course of history, the first steam hauled passenger train ran and carried up to 600 passengers. The first passenger train was however not fast, taking two hours to complete the first 12 miles of the journey. Most of the passengers sat in open coal wagons, but one experimental passenger coach was built called "The Experiment" which resembled a wooden shed on wheels, which carried various dignitaries.

An experimental regular passenger service was soon established. The early locomotives were slow and unreliable, but as steam technology advanced, the journey time was gradually reduced. The S&DR however, was principally a freight carrying line and passenger transport was little more than a sideline.

Steam traction was expensive in comparison to horse drawn traffic, but it soon proved that it was viable and economic. Steam locomotives could haul more wagons, and haul them faster, so in a typical working day, the expensive steam engine could haul more coal than the cheaper horse.

It soon became apparent that mixing steam-hauled and horse-drawn traffic was slowing the operation down, and so as steam technology became more reliable, horse-drawn traffic was gradually abandoned.

At first, the organisation of the S&DR bore little relation to that of most modern railways, and was run in the traditional manner of the wagonways of the time. The S&DR merely owned the tracks and did not operate trains, anyone who paid the S&DR money could freely operate steam trains or horse-drawn wagonloads on the line. And there was no timetable or form of central organisation. Trains ran whenever they wanted, and fights often broke out when rival operators came into conflict over right-of-way on the tracks.

This chaotic situation was tolerable on competely horse-drawn traffic wagonways, but with faster steam trains it soon became unworkable, as the faster speeds meant a collision could have serious consequenses. With the advent of steam, new operating methods had to be developed.

By 1833 the S&DR had become entirely steam operated, and it gradually began to resemble a modern railway. The S&DR company became the sole train operator on the line, two parallel tracks were built for trains traveling in different directions, timetables were established and a crude signaling system was established to prevent collisions. Methods of operation which became standard on railways across the world.

The Stockton and Darlington proved a huge financial success, and paved the way for modern rail transport.

The expertise that Stephenson, and his apprentice Joseph Locke, gained in railway construction and locomotive building on the S&DR, enabled them a few years later to construct the Liverpool and Manchester Railway, the first purpose built steam railway, and also his revolutionary Rocket locomotive.

The Stockton and Darlington railway company, was absorbed into the North Eastern Railway in 1863, which was eventually merged into the London and North Eastern Railway in 1922. Much but not all of the original S&DR line is still operating today.

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