TRING: History About Library Contact TRING: Home

Contents Maps and Plan Site Search








“I would here remark, that when competition was developing the present high velocities upon railways, generally Mr. Robert Stephenson gave it in evidence as his opinion, that the limit would be found, not in any particular gauge, or in the evaporating power of the engines, but in the economic endurance of the permanent way to bear the additional weight which must, as a matter of necessity, accompany every increase of speed.  Time is, in my opinion, rapidly demonstrating the truth of this observation.”

From a Report by R.B. Dockray, Engineer to the LNWR, 23rd August 1848.

Picture Bermicourt

The term ‘permanent way’ originated in the early days of mainline railway construction.  Contractors laid temporary track on which to run the earth wagons that they used to remove spoil from excavations and carry it onto embankments being formed.  This lightweight track could easily be slewed into different positions to better accommodate their operations as they progressed.  When the work was complete, the ‘contractor’s way’ was dismantled and moved elsewhere.  Ballast was then spread over the trackbed to provide support and drainage, and onto this was laid the railway.  The rails, fasteners, sleepers and ballast that was to carry the railway company’s traffic became known as the ‘permanent way’, despite each of these components being anything but permanent, their lifespan depending on factors such as the type and volume of traffic, atmospheric conditions, curves and braking conditions.

Parallel and fish-bellied rails.
The fish belly profile was believed to increase strength.

Today the dominant form of track consists of flat-bottom welded steel rails [1] of uniform cross-section supported on timber or pre-stressed concrete sleepers laid on crushed stone ballast.  This position was only reached after many years of experiment and development.

The first breakthrough came in 1820, when John Birkinshaw of Bedlington Ironworks in Northumberland developed rolled wrought iron fish-bellied rails in 15 feet lengths.  They were strong enough to bear the stresses imposed by a locomotive hauled train ― which earlier brittle cast-iron rails, even in shorter lengths, were not ―  and they marked the beginning of the modern rail era.  Rails of the Birkinshaw type were used on the Stockton and Darlington and the Liverpool and Manchester railways:

“The material of which the Rails were to be composed, whether of cast or forged iron, was a matter of some importance.  Each description of Rail has its advocates; but after due consideration and enquiry into their respective merits, the Directors [of the Liverpool and Manchester railway] determined to adopt the forged or rolled iron Rail, in lengths of five yards each . . . . A similar Rail is used on the [Stockton and] Darlington way, but somewhat lighter; the Darlington Rail weighing 28lb., and the Liverpool and Manchester 35 lb., per lineal yard.  The Rails are supported every three feet, on stone blocks, each block containing nearly four cubic feet of stone.  Two holes, six inches deep, and an inch diameter, are drilled in each block, and into these are driven oak plugs, and the cast-iron chairs or pedestals to which the Rail is immediately fitted and fastened, are firmly spiked down to the oak plugs, forming altogether a construction of great solidity and strength.  On the embankments, where the foundation may be expected to subside, the Rails are laid on oak sleepers.”

Remarks on the Comparative Merits of Cast Metal and Malleable Iron Railways, Longridge and Birkinshaw (1832).

A section of fish-bellied rail on stone block sleepers, Stockton & Darlington Railway.
Darlington Railway Museum.

Horse-drawn wagonways had used rails mounted on rows of stone blocks, but without any cross ties between them to maintain the correct gauge (unnecessary for light, slow-moving traffic).  The use of blocks left a clear path for the horses’ hooves, which would have been denied them had transverse wooden sleepers been put down, unless they were buried in the ballast where they would have been more prone to rot.  And so the builders of the first public locomotive-worked railways, Robert Stephenson among them, followed the wagonway model.  Joseph Locke was a notable exception. [2]

Locke, Engineer to the Grand Junction Railway, [3] realised that locomotive traction required a degree of flexibility in the track that stone blocks did not provide, but that transverse wooden sleepers laid at intervals did.  Furthermore, the stresses imposed on the track by much heavier, faster moving traffic, required the rails to be held firmly to gauge ― wooden sleepers met this requirement much more readily than stone blocks, which traffic gradually eased out of gauge unless the blocks were fitted at intervals with metal tie rods.

Rails fastened in iron chairs laid on stone block sleepers.

There were other disadvantages associated with stone block sleepers.  The impact of train wheels against their unyielding surface caused the rails to shake loose in their supporting chairs; their lack of elasticity provided a train’s passengers with an uncomfortable ride ― as one contemporary commentator put it, “The clatter caused by the stone blocks, which were used before the wooden sleepers replaced them, added to the unpleasantness of the journey” ― and, generally speaking, they were more expensive than wood.  However, one problem that did not affect stone was rot, which was probably an important factor in its choice.

During the construction of the London and Birmingham Railway, the preparation much in vogue for protecting timber against rot was that discovered by John Howard Kyan and first patented in 1832:

“Kyan’s Patent Preparation ― a process of preserving timber from the dry rot, recently invented by Mr. Kyan, consisting of a solution of corrosive sublimate [mercuric chloride], in which the timber is immersed, whereby the primary element of fermentation is neutralized, and the fibre of the wood rendered indestructible.  It also effectually seasons the timber, occupying a space of only two or three months instead of from two to six years, which is usually consumed in laying it to dry, by the common method; and it also protects it from the ravages of insects.  The preparation has become generally employed for railway sleepers, and for all timbering employed in engineering works, which from their exposure to the weather are very liable to premature decay.”

A Glossary of Civil Engineering, S. C. Brees (1844).

The claims made in favour of ‘kyanizing’ were such that many railways built at the time applied it to their sleepers.  However, the solution was highly poisonous, the process was expensive and, if not applied properly, its efficacy was limited or neutralised.  Nevertheless, kyanizing was considered the best rot preventive then available and, despite its drawbacks, it was used on those sections of the London and Birmingham Railway laid with wooden sleepers.  These were mainly embankments and other sections where the formation was more likely to settle when under load:

“On embankments transverse sleepers of Scotch fir, larch, and oak, are used as the foundation for the rails; and in cuttings, stone blocks; but on many parts of the line sleepers have been substituted to a great extent.  The are 7 feet in length, having a scantling of 9 inches by 5 inches; the cost is about 7s. each, exclusive of kyanizing, which adds 9d. additional to each sleeper.”

The London and Birmingham permanent way, from The Railways of Great Britain and Ireland, Wishaw (1842).

However, the results obtained from the process were mixed.  On the Great Western Railway it was found to be satisfactory, but on the London and Birmingham it was not, and was soon discarded:

“With reference to the durability produced by this process, accounts are somewhat contradictory.  How far success in this respect may be owing to careful and complete performance, or, on the other hand, failure be promoted by careless and incomplete Kyanizing, we have no means of determining.  Upon the application of the process for the Great Western Railway, it was reported in August, 1843, that a part taken from the centre of one of the longitudinal timbers forming the base of the railway which had been Kyanized six years before, was as sound as on the day on which it was first put down . . . . On the London and Birmingham Railway, on the contrary, the engineer reported, that the sleepers, which were all Kyanized, were, after lying three years, found to exhibit symptoms of decay, that many of them had been removed absolutely rotten, and Kyan’s process had been consequently abandoned.”

Professional Papers of the Corps of Royal Engineers (1845).

Kyanizing gradually fell out of favour after a patent covering the use of ‘creosote’ [4] to treat timber was taken out by John Bethell in 1838.  The ‘Bethell process’ involved sealing timber in a pressure chamber and then applying a vacuum to remove air and moisture from its cells.  The timber was then pressure-treated in order to impregnate it with the preservative, following which the vacuum was reapplied to separate the excess solution from the timber:

This process has been adopted by the following eminent engineers, viz. Mr. Robert Stephenson, Mr. Brunel, Mr. Bidder, Mr. Brathwaite, Mr. Buck, Mr. Harris, Mr. Wickstead, Mr. Pritchard, and others; and has been used with the greatest success on the Great Western railway, the Bristol and Exeter railway, the Manchester and Birmingham railway, the North Eastern, the South Eastern, the Stockton and Darlington, and at Shoreham Harbor; and lately, in consequence of the excellent appearance of the prepared sleepers, after three years exposure to the weather, an order has been issued by Mr. Robert Stephenson, that the sleepers hereafter to be used on the London and Birmingham railway are to be prepared with it before being put down.

Recent improvements in arts, manufactures, and mines, Andrew Ure (1845).

Fortuitously, creosote became established as an affective rot protection agent at much the same time that wooden sleepers were replacing stone blocks for supporting rails:

“I find, as a general result, that stone blocks are not adapted to high speeds, ― they are rigid, the chairs cannot be retained firmly upon them, and from this cause they are subject to rapid wear; and as they are in this district very expensive in first cost, I should recommend their being renewed with sleepers.”

From a Report by R. B. Dockray, Engineer to the LNWR, 23rd August 1848.

The Company was then faced with the task of disposing of many thousands of tons of redundant stone blocks, which, according to Lecount, had cost the Company dear:

“The stone blocks for the whole line may be estimated at 152,460 tons, and their cost at £180,000; the expense being pretty nearly divided into three parts ― viz., one-third for the cost of stone, one-third for freight to the Thames, and the remainder for delivery on various parts of the works.”

The London and Birmingham Railway, Roscoe and Lecount (1839).


Redundant stone block sleepers in use as a boundary marker
outside the Pheasant public house at Tring.

“The difficulties, which attended the use of stone blocks at length led to the substitution of wooden sleepers, which have now almost altogether superseded them.  The traveller on the London and Birmingham line may notice, at intervals, extensive piles of the blocks which have been removed, any number of which may be purchased for about eighteen pence each.  Wooden sleepers are now almost universally employed, and they serve at once as a support for the chair and rails, and as ties for keeping the line in gauge.

Our Iron Roads, F. S. Williams (1852).

Today, many of the Railway’s former stone sleepers can be seen in use as coping stones along the banks of the nearby Grand Junction Canal.  Some found their way into more domestic and decorative applications, such as Abbot’s Hill House (King’s Langley), once home to the paper magnate John Dickinson, which is built with redundant blocks, and the attractive granite boundary markers fronting the Pheasant public house at Tring (above).

The use of stone blocks undoubtedly led to significant wasted investment, which Locke, then building the Grand Junction Railway, managed to avoid to a great extent. [5]  But problems with the Railway’s permanent way did not rest solely on the question of sleepers.  The use of fish-bellied rails was another instance of obsolete technology being employed, [6] while the correct spacing of the supporting chairs (and hence of the blocks or sleepers) became yet a further problem:

“The next [General] meeting was in August 1835.  The money then expended was £639,051; and eighty-six miles of the railway were let to contractors, below the estimates of the engineer-in-chief, and two-thirds of the whole land purchased.  This was the season of brightness and hope; no reverses had come on, and all was sunshine and harmony, except the unfortunate discussions on the rails question.”

The History of the Railway Connecting London and Birmingham, Peter Lecount (1839).


Rails, chairs and sleepers.
These illustrations are of track from a later era, but they serve to show the terminology.

Although Lecount does not state it explicitly, he nevertheless gives the impression that on the question of rails the exchange of views between Stephenson, the Board, and their consultants, may have been frank.

Fish-bellied line showing (in plan) the half-lapped joint between the rails.


Peter Barlow FRS (1776-1862),
mathematician and physicist.

The Railway was originally to be laid on the same plan as that adopted by the Liverpool and Manchester Railway ― wrought iron, fish-bellied rails of 50 lbs. per yard (Liverpool first used 35 lbs.) laid mostly on stone blocks, the supporting chairs being set at 3 feet intervals and the joints between the rails being half-lapped.  The chairs were to be of Stephenson’s patent design.

At an early stage in construction some Board members became dissatisfied with Stephenson’s plan for the track.  The reason for this is unclear, but as the debate that later took place on sourcing locomotives for the line centred on objections to Stephenson receiving royalties for the use of his Patentee class ― and led to the use of Edward Bury’s engines ― it is possible that the same objection (among others) applied to the use of his patent rail chairs:

“The London and Birmingham Railway Company, after a long discussion, decided to try four and five feet [chair spacing] with a parallel form instead of a fish-belly, which, requiring one third more height in the chair, had in addition to other disadvantages, that of being more liable to wring the chair from the block, which is found in practice to take place directly as the height of the chair.  The block is also more loosened in the ground by a high chair, and the continual repairs arising from this loosening, amount to one-half the wages expended in repairing the way in general; hence every means of diminishing such a heavy item, which can possibly be devised, should he put in practice.  As usual, where all was theory, there were considerable diversities of opinion . . . .

. . . . On the Primrose Hill contract, which was laid with four-feet bearings, it was found much more troublesome to keep the permanent way in order, than with bearings of three feet.  With the four-feet bearings, it was found, that, in a very short time, the rails were put out of gauge, the width continually increasing, until it became absolutely necessary to readjust the whole.  This was observed in a very marked manner with a part of the line near KiIburn, which had been recently laid down.”

A Practical Treatise on Railways, Explaining Their Construction, Peter LeCount (1839).

Stephensons patent chair.
From A Glossary of Civil Engineering, S. C. Brees (1844).

Whatever the cause of the Board’s dissatisfaction with Stephenson’s plan, the outcome was a competition, with a prize of 100 guineas going to the person who could devise the best design of track . . . .

“The Board of Directors of the London and Birmingham Railway Company, desirous of carrying on the great work in which they are engaged on the most scientific principles; and, if possible, to avoid the enormous cost of repairs which has attended some large works of a similar description, offered, by public advertisement, a prize of one hundred guineas ‘for the most improved construction of Railway Bars, Chairs, and Pedestals, and for the best mariner of affixing and connecting the Rail, Chair and Block to each other, so as to avoid the defects which are felt more or less on all Railways hitherto constructed;’ stating, that their object was to obtain, with reference to the great momentum of the masses to be moved by locomotive Steam Engines on the Railway:

1. The strongest and most economical form of Rail.

2. The best construction of Chair,

3. The best mode of connecting the Rail and Chair; and also the latter to the Stone Blocks or Wooden Sleepers.  And that the Railway Bars were not to weigh less than fifty pounds per single lineal yard.”

Experiments on the transverse strength and other properties of malleable iron, Peter Barlow (1835).

The Board engaged three judges to select the winning entry from among the schemes submitted; J. U. Rastrick and Nicholas Wood were both civil engineers (and former judges of the Rainhill locomotive trials), while Peter Barlow was a distinguished mathematician and physicist who held an appointment at the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich:

We met accordingly in London; and after a long and careful examination of the several plans, drawings, and written descriptions, recommended those we thought entitled to the prize, which was awarded by the Directors accordingly.  But that part of our instructions which required us to recommend one or more rails for trial, we were unable to fulfil to our satisfaction principally for want of data to determine which of the proposed rails would be strongest and stiffest under the passing load, and whether permanently fixing the rail to the chair, for which there were several plans, would be safe in practice.  No experiments on malleable iron having ever been made bearing on these points, it was considered better to leave the question unanswered, than to recommend, on no better ground than mere opinion, an expensive trial which might ultimately prove a failure.

Experiments on the transverse strength and other properties of malleable iron, Peter Barlow (1835).

Following the competition, a Company meeting was held in Birmingham at which Barlow was commissioned to undertake further research into the strength of various types of rails and supports, and to make recommendations.  The result was a series of tests; some, carried out under laboratory conditions at Woolwich Dockyard, aimed to establish the strength of various types of iron bars, while in others, carried out on the Liverpool & Manchester Railway, Barlow measured the extent to which rails were deflected by passing traffic under different conditions.

Barlow published his results during 1835. [7]  To the layman at least, neither ― particularly the second ― is a model of clarity, but according to Francis Wishaw they were influential in determining the form of track:

The rails originally introduced on this line were of the fish-bellied form, weighing about 50 lbs. to the yard, a few of which still remain at Kensall Green and Watford; but Professor Barlow’s report to the Directors of this Company completely set this question at rest, and now fish-bellied rails are almost discarded.  The larger proportion of this way is laid with 65 lbs. and 75 lbs. parallel [i.e. uniform cross section] rails in 15 feet lengths; the bearings for the parallel rails being 3 feet 9 inches and 4 feet respectively.  The rails are fixed in chairs of ordinary form, and secured thereto by compressed wooden keys, according to the now generally adopted plan . . . . The intermediate chairs weigh each 26½ lbs., and the joint chairs 31lbs.”

The Railways of Great Britain and Ireland, Francis Wishaw (1842).

In his account, Wishaw fails to mention that the Directors originally decided to position the chairs at much wider intervals, but this did not work in practice.  The problem was not that the rails failed to sustain the load on a wider bearing, but that the stone blocks failed to sustain the outward thrust and were pushed out of gauge.  The original spacing had, therefore, to be reinstated . . . .

“. . . . the parallel rails laid down on the Grand Junction, and the London and Birmingham railways.  The left hand one is sixty-four lbs. per yard on the London and Birmingham, and sixty-two lbs. per yard on the Grand Junction.  The right hand one is the London and Birmingham seventy-five pound rail.  Rails of this kind are laid on seventy-five miles of that railway, and were intended to be at five feet bearings, but proved a complete failure at that distance, which had to be reduced to three feet nine inches.  The left hand one was intended to be at four feet bearings.  These rails were laid down contrary to the opinion of the engineer, Mr. Stephenson, and have entailed a vast expense on that company.  They have wooden wedges.”

A Practical Treatise on Railways, Explaining Their Construction, Peter LeCount (1839).

It is interesting to note in Lecount’s record of events (which contain a hint of ‘I told you so’) that the Directors, rather than Stephenson, were in the driving seat; but as considerable savings in the cost of sleepers, chairs &c. and labour were to be had by adopting a wider chair spacing, it is, perhaps, unsurprising that on this the money men took control:

“As usual, where all was theory, there were considerable diversities of opinion.  Those who wish to enter more at large on this subject, may consult Professor Barlow in favour of lengthening the bearings, and Lieutenant Lecount against it.  As the matter has had a fair trial, it is only necessary here to state the results.

On the Primrose Hill contract, which was laid with four-feet bearings, it was found much more troublesome to keep the permanent way in order, than with bearings of three feet.  With the four-feet bearings, it was found, that, in a very short time, the rails were put out of gauge, the width continually increasing, until it became absolutely necessary to readjust the whole.  This was observed in a very marked manner with a part of the line near KiIburn, which had been recently laid down.

On the Harrow contract, from the crossing of the Harrow road to No. 12 cutting, the permanent road was used for conveying away the material from a side cutting.  The traffic was of course considerable, but not by any means such as to account for the absolute difficulty which the contractors had in keeping the railway in gauge.  They were obliged to put sleepers at the joints in addition to the regular number of blocks, which of course kept the rails in gauge at those points; but notwithstanding this, the intermediate blocks moved outwards . . . .

On the Berkhamsted contract, where five feet bearings were in use, and where a locomotive engine was at work, the contractors made heavy complaints of the greater difficulty they had experienced in keeping the rails in gauge than there was with the shorter bearings.  In fact, in the eighteen months prior to June 1837, the three-feet rails in some parts of the line, had more work than they now have, where the line is open; yet they stood it well, whilst the five-feet have been so put out of gauge by one day’s work, that the waggons had to be stopped till one and two additional sleepers for each five feet could be laid down, and even then they were but indifferent; and similar complaints having come in from other quarters, together with the fact that the five-feet bearings on the Liverpool and Manchester railway were found to cost double the sum for keeping the way in repair that was required with three feet nine inches bearings, the whole question had to be opened again, and the directors resolved to shorten the bearings from five feet to three feet nine inches.

This lateral deflection is of most serious importance, when we recollect that the rails being out of gauge will throw the trains off the line.”

A Practical Treatise on Railways, Explaining Their Construction, Peter LeCount (1839).

A drawing from Stephensons specification for the permanent way.
Above: stone blocks (right of drawing) were laid diagonally, instead of vertically.  This was thought to have the effect of steadying the rails,
 while it gave the workmen access to the four sides to set them right if they became displaced.  Below: detail.  Chairs placed at 3 feet spacing.

Mail coach, Liverpool & Manchester Railway.
The coach is sitting on fish-bellied rails seated on diagonally laid stone blocks of the pattern used on the London and Birmingham line.


The following describes the London to Birmingham track in the year in which the line was opened:


The total length of the line is 112½ miles.  The part between Euston Grove and Camden stations is laid with four double lines of rails; the remainder with two double lines.  The sidings, or passing-places, with the stations, &c., make an addition of one tenth to the quantity of the rails, so that there will be about 125 miles of double line of railway.

The width of each double line of way is five feet.  The space in the centre, between the lines, is six feet.

The rails used on the line are all of malleable iron.  Those originally laid upon the Liverpool and Manchester line were of the weight of 35 lbs. to the yard; but they have been found insufficient for the immense traffic, and they have accordingly been increased.  On the London and Birmingham line 10 miles are laid with rails of unequal depth termed fish-bellied, 50lbs. to the yard; 25 miles with parallel rails 65lbs to the yard; and the remainder with parallel rails 75lbs to the yard.

The rails are supported by cast iron chairs or pedestals of an average weight (of about 25lbs) fixed to stone blocks or wood sleepers; a piece of felt being placed between each chair and block.  The chairs under the 50lbs. rails are 3 feet from centre to centre, under the 65lbs. rails 4 feet, and under the 75lbs. rails they were intended to have been 5 feet; but, this latter bearing having been considered too great, has been altered to 3 feet 9 inches in the cuttings and small embankments, and to 2 feet 6 inches on the higher embankments.

The rails are raised above the ground rather more than an inch; they are wedged to the chairs with oak keys.


The stone blocks under the chairs are 2 feet square and 1 foot deep, excepting those under the joints of the 75lbs rails which are 1 foot 3 inches deep.  They are laid in a direction diagonally to the rails.  The descriptions of stone are various, ― viz. Granite, Limestone, Portland, Bramley Fall, and Whitby.

The sleepers are mostly of larch and oak, some few are of beech; all 9 feet long, 9 inches wide, and 5 inches deep.

The blocks are used in the excavations and on the smaller embankments; the sleepers on the large embankments.

The chairs are attached to the blocks by drilling two holes in each block, into which oak trenails, or plugs, are driven, and a spike inserted through them and the chairs.  The chairs are attached to the sleepers by a couple of pins or spikes.

The trenails are 6 inches long, with a hole bored through for the spike.

The ballasting of the line is about 2 feet in thickness, being 10 inches under the bottom of the blocks, and 18 inches under the sleepers.  Open brick drains, to take off the soakage, are laid along the centre of the ballasting, and each side in the excavations.

Where the common roads pass the railway on a level, the part of the road between and on each side of the rails is paved with granite carriage-way paving.

The Iron Road Book and Railway Companion, Francis Coghlan (1838).

L.N.W.R. permanent way using 75lb rail,
from The Practical Railway Engineer, G. D. Dempsey (1855).


On an engine, in the night-time,
    Flying through the starlit gloom;
Not a word between us spoken:
    On great caution hangs our doom.
Watch the gauge ― turn on the water ―
    Ope the gleaming furnace-door,
Making us appear like demons,
    In the glare, and smoke, and roar!
Ho! the signal! Put the break on!
    Shut off steam ― reverse the gear!
Now the monster throbs and struggles,
    While we stare ahead and fear.
To man’s frail limbs the mighty engine
    Yields obedience, and we stand
Beneath the lofty danger-signal.
    (Isn’t this description grand?)

From Fifty years of the London & North Western Railway,
David Stevenson (1891)

Railway signalling and telecommunications (originally the electric telegraph) evolved in partnership, almost from the start of the steam worked public railway era.  These two disciplines were later to be joined by a third, digital computing.  Nowadays, components from each combine to form systems capable of providing a distant traffic control centre with the ability to transmit instructions to any part of the network and to receive a wealth of information on the location of trains and on the status of track and other equipment.  By comparison, the signalling system first employed on the London and Birmingham Railway was primitive:


Whats the matter guard?
Oh, nothing particular, sir.  Weve only run into an excursion train!
But, good gracious! there's a train just behind us, isnt there?
Yes, sir!  But a boy has gone down the line with a signal, and its very likely theyll see it!

From Punch (magazine)

Until the deployment of the electric telegraph ― which was not as quick as it might have been ― there was no means of even monitoring the progress of a train.  If it was unduly late, all that could be done to discover why was to despatch a spare locomotive (or a horse and rider) to find it.  As this section attempts to illustrate, the appearance of effective railway safety took time ― even the introduction of the locomotive’s steam whistle had to await a level-crossing accident. [8]

A railway policeman (right) giving the all clear.

In its bare essentials, railway signalling is designed to prevent collisions between trains.  However, an accident that occurred at Harrow in November 1840 demonstrates another aspect to the problem, which modern railway signalling systems control by automatically stopping trains that pass signals set to danger.  In this case the driver of the ‘train engine’ of a double-headed goods train ignored a stop signal, causing his train to collide with a stationary engine with fatal consequences:


“At the inquest on the two men killed by the collision near the Harrow station of the London and Birmingham Railway, the evidence proved that the blame rested principally with the driver of the second engine of the waggon train; who did not shut off the steam, though warned; and the train consequently ran against the engine which was standing on the line.  The man lost his life for his want of care; and the fireman of the first engine was also killed ― he had jumped off, it is supposed, and been run over by the waggons.  The driver of the engine which was standing on the line was also blameable for having left his engine in the care of the stoker, whilst he went to a public-house to obtain refreshments for the men at work in clearing the railway from the obstruction caused by the break-down of a waggon-train in the early part of the afternoon.  It appeared from the examination of the witnesses at this inquest, that Bradbury, the driver of the first engine of the waggon train, cannot write his name, or read.  It was stated also that many of the men employed as engine drivers are equally illiterate.”

From The Spectator, Volume 13 (1840).

The illiteracy the article refers to implies a further risk to railway safety, for being unable to read the company’s operating instructions can negate aspects of safe working and traffic control.

The Weekly Herald, 31st March 1839.

Accidents can also result from problems with the railway infrastructure, such as a track or signalling failure: [10]

The maintenance of the permanent way in perfect efficiency is of the utmost importance. To provide for this, the line is divided into sections, each of about a score of miles, to which overlookers are appointed. These sections are subdivided into short lengths, superintended by a foreman, or a squinter, as he is technically designated, with two or three assistants. The duty of the foreman is to visit his portion of line every morning before the first train passes, to see that the rails and sleepers are perfectly secure, to observe whether the keys are fitted in the chairs, and generally to inspect the fences and works. In case of repair being required, he summons his men to the spot, and if it is sufficient to interfere with the passage of trains, or to warrant the exercise of special caution on the part of engine-drivers, a signal flag to that effect is placed eight hundred yards above the injured spot, until the patch is completed.

Our Iron Roads, F. S. Williams (1852).

Even the simplest of signals, such as the flag mentioned above, by halting traffic and isolating the problem serve to prevent matters becoming worse.  Being guided by fixed rails, railway traffic is highly vulnerable to accidents caused by line obstruction (such as that mentioned in the Weekly Herald article above) or track failure, particularly as trains sometimes operate at speeds that prevent them being halted within the driver’s line of sight.

The Standard, 14th Sept. 1839

Thus, from the earliest days, it was recognised that an effective signalling system together with operating rules (Appendix) were crucial to safe railway operation.  However, before describing the railway signalling of the period, it is first necessary to say something about the ‘policemen’ who operated the system, for their role has changed significantly over the years.

Established in 1829, the Metropolitan Police was the U.K.’s first police force; it was not until 1856 [11] that county and borough police forces became compulsory throughout the rest of England and Wales.  In 1830, the Liverpool and Manchester Railway formed a ‘police establishment who have station houses [police stations] at intervals of about a mile along the road’.  Three years later, the London and Birmingham Railway obtained their first Act, which required the Company to create and maintain a force of special constables to police its property.  In 1837, the authority of the London and Birmingham force was extended to a distance of half a mile on either side of the line:

“XXV. And be it further enacted, That it shall be lawful for any Justice of the Peace acting within his Jurisdiction and he is hereby required to appoint such fit and proper Persons as he shall think proper to be Special Constables within the said Railway and other Works and every or any Part thereof; and every Person so appointed shall make a solemn Declaration, to be administered by the same or any other Justice of the Peace, duly to execute the Office of Constable for the said Premises; and every Person so appointed, and having made such Declaration as aforesaid, shall have Power to act as a Constable for the Preservation of the Peace and for the Security of Persons and Property against Felonies and other unlawful Acts within the Limits of the said Premises, and within Half a Mile therefrom, and shall have, use, exercise, and enjoy all such Powers, Authorities, Protection, and Privileges for the apprehending Offenders, as well by Night as by Day, and for doing all Acts, Matters, and Things for the Prevention, Discovery, and Prosecution of Felonies and other Offences, and for the Preservation of the Peace, as Constables duly appointed now have by the Laws and Statutes of this Kingdom; and it shall be lawful for any such Justice to dismiss or remove any such Constable from his Office of Constable, and upon every such Dismissal or Removal, all Powers, Authorities, Protections, and Privileges by virtue of such Appointment as aforesaid vested in any Person so dismissed or removed shall wholly cease.”

An Act to amend the Acts relating to the London and Birmingham Railway, 1 Victoriæ, cap. lxiv, R.A. 30th June 1837.

Today, points and signals are operated by signalmen, but in the early days the railway policemen performed this task.  A railway policeman’s duties also included collecting tickets, serving on occasions as booking clerks, and performing (on railway land) the law enforcement duties that police perform in the community today:

The original Metropolitan Police uniform.  London and
Birmingham Railway police were similarly attired.

The inspector at each station has a portion of these men under his orders; they are on duty ― that is, walking backwards and forwards on their beat ― from half an hour before the passing of the first train in the morning till after the passing of the last train at night.  I can vouch to their promptitude from personal knowledge, having spoken with every man from London to Birmingham, when I surveyed the line . . . . and I am convinced that, were the Directors themselves placed on the line, they could not display greater anxiety than these men do for the protection and safety of those travelling on the railway.  Each man, besides being in the employ of the Company, is sworn as a county constable; they receive the same pay, and wear a dress similar to that of the metropolitan police, except in colour which is green.  Watch boxes are placed at certain distances on the line, to protect the men from bad weather . . . . The principal stations at present are at Watford, Tring, Denbigh Hall, Rugby and Coventry.  At each of these places, two clerks, a police inspector, and several policemen and porters, are in attendance.  At the secondary stations, which are the Harrow, Boxmoor, Berkhamsted, and Leighton Buzzard, there is but one clerk, an inspector, and a less number of policemen and porters.

The Iron Road Book and Railway Companion, Francis Coghlan (1838).

Because the London and Birmingham Railway was double-tracked throughout, in normal operation all that was required of the signalling system (excluding control over points and junctions) was to ensure that trains were spaced sufficiently far apart to avoid one train colliding with the rear of the train in front.  Policemen, stationed at intervals along the line (‘blocks’) used sand glasses to time the interval between trains.  If a train passed shortly before the following train arrived, then the driver of the following train was instructed to slow down or stop in order to increase the distance between it and the train in front.  This method is called ‘time interval working’, and the means by which a railway policeman halted a train, or indicated to its driver the status of the block he was about to enter, was by using flag signals or different coloured lights during darkness:

Throughout the journey travellers will have observed a number of policemen stationed along the Railway, who not only prevent intrusion, but are charged with the important duty of keeping the road free of obstruction and making signals as the train passes.  The police are placed along the line at distances varying from one to three miles, according as local circumstances render it necessary.  Each man has his beat and duties defined, and is provided with two signal flags, one of which is red and the other white: the white flag is held out when no obstruction exists; and, on the contrary, the red flag indicates that there is danger, and that the train must not pass the signal till it is ascertained that the cause of danger is removed.

Each policeman, also, is furnished with a revolving signal lamp, to be used after dark; which shows, at the will of the holder, a white light when the line is clear; a green one when it is necessary to use caution, and the speed of the train be diminished; and a red light, to intimate the necessity of immediately stopping
.  The whole of the police department is under the able control and superintendence of Captain C. R. Moorsom, R.N., a gentleman who has been connected with the Company since its formation, as one of the Secretaries.  It is but justice to add, that the police arrangements on the London and Birmingham Railway are more complete than on any other line.

The London and Birmingham Railway, Roscoe and Lecount (1839).

1. When the Line is clear and nothing to impede the progress of the Train, the Policeman on duty will stand erect, with his Flag in hand, but show no signal thus . . . .

2. If it be necessary to proceed with Caution the Green Flag will be elevated thus . . . .

3. If it be necessary to proceed with Caution from any defect in the rails, the Green Flag will be depressed thus . . . .

4. If required to stop, the Red Flag will be shown and waved to and fro, the Policeman facing the Engine.

5. Engine-Drivers must invariably Stop on seeing the Red Signal.

6. As soon as the Engine passes, the Policeman will bring his flag to the shoulder.

7. Every Policeman will be responsible for having his Hand Lamp in good order.

From the London & North Western Railway signalling rules, 1848.

When writing about some of the problems that occupied the Board during the early days of the Railway, David Stevenson, a former employee, included railways signalling:

The working of the line went struggling towards a state of order.  The rails were found to be too light for the traffic ― 56lb fish-bellied rails in some cases ― the stone blocks a failure; fires to luggage on the tops of the carriages frequent; signals by flag and hand lamps insufficient.  The signalmen, dressed in police uniform, had been drilled by Mr. Superintendent Bedford, formerly of the Guards and lately of the Metropolitan Police, and they brought the flag-staff round to the shoulder, as the trains passed, with true military precision.  But they were not enough, and signal posts were contemplated.  These and many other defects occupied the Board and Management.

Fifty years of the London & North Western Railway, and other memoranda in the life of David Stevenson, (1891).

It is unclear exactly when the signals mounted on posts that Stevenson refers to were introduced, but in the account given by Frederick Williams (in which he also refers to flag signals) he describes the signalling posts in use by the London and North Western Railway a few years after its formation, but without saying whether they were in use on the southern section (the former London and Birmingham Railway).  Nevertheless, they are indicative of the state of railway signalling at the time:

The signal arrangements at the intermediate stations on the [London and] North Western line are various, but all are simple and complete.  A station signal is provided for both the up and the down line, one being usually erected at each end of the station, and of the kind represented in the Engraving.  On a train stopping, or travelling slowly through an intermediate station, the signal which is painted red on one side is shown for five minutes in the direction from which the train has come, in order to stop any following train; the green signal, on the shorter post, is then turned on for five minutes, to complete the ten minutes precautionary signal . . . . As the lamps and the boards are connected together, the lamp has only to be lighted at night or in a fog, and the arrangement is complete.  When the vane is presented edgewise to the driver of an approaching train as is seen in the Engraving, it shows that all is right.  The higher mast supports the red signal and the lower one with the lamp has the green.

Our Iron Roads, F. S. Williams (1852)

Besides these there are auxiliary signals at most of the principal stations, worked by means of wires, which permit their being placed at almost any distance from the spot where they are regulated.  These auxiliaries are especially valuable in thick weather; for as they are constructed several hundred yards up or down the line; drivers of engines can obey them when it would be impossible for them to see the station signals with distinctness.  They are constructed with only the green or ‘caution,’ and the ‘all right’ signals; the presence of the former intimating that the red signal is turned on at the station, and that it is therefore to be approached slowly.  In the Engraving of the station signal, the reader may observe the lever by means of which the auxiliary signal is worked.

Our Iron Roads, F. S. Williams (1852)


Where junction lines unite, or lines cross one another at the same level, it is essential that a complete system of signalling complete system of signalling should be adopted.  The Engraving . . . . represents a junction or double signal station.  It consists of two masts, to the summits of which fan-like arms and lamps are attached; these convey the desired information to the drivers of approaching trains.  When the arm which is painted red, and is always on the left of the engine-driver, is at right angles to the mast, it signifies danger, and the train must be immediately stopped; if it be at an angle of forty-five degrees, caution must be observed; and if the arm be parallel with the post, it announces the signal all right.

Our Iron Roads, F. S. Williams (1852)

FOG SIGNALS. ― In foggy weather both day and night signals are given; but in addition, when accident or sudden emergency requires, ‘Cowper’s Fog Signal’ is used.  This is a detonating compound, packed in the shape of a small circular box, with flanges to fasten it to the rail, and which, on a train passing over it, explodes with a tremendous noise.  The signal thus given is the warning immediately to stop the train.  Our engraving shows a policeman placing one in front of an advancing train.

Illustrated London News, 14th December 1844.



Early railway travel — note the telegraph wires (right background).

Separating trains using time interval working was the best that could be achieved when the Railway first opened.  However, this method had an inherent risk ― a policeman had no way of knowing whether a train that had passed him had in fact cleared the block.  If, for any reason, that train subsequently slowed appreciably, or stopped, the crew of a following train had no way of knowing unless it was clearly visible to them and at a sufficient distance in which to bring their train to a halt.  With the invention of the electrical telegraph it became possible for policemen to exchange messages between the ends of a block to confirm that the block was clear and to prevent more traffic from entering if it was not.  This method is called ‘block’ working, but for many years its use was considered an unreasonable restriction on the free flow of railway traffic ― profit came before safety:

“The fundamental principle of the ‘block’ was at first derided, and the name chosen was considered as characteristic of the condition traffic was likely to get into under any such system of working.  That there should be any reason to prevent a driver from proceeding as far as his visionary powers assured him the line was clear, or that any train should be prevented from ‘bumping’ a preceding train gently, of course was considered absurd, and there were not wanting those who predicted the early demise of this or any other system which involved restrictions being put on the free passage of traffic.  This, of course, was before the era of express trains travelling at rates varying between 60 and 70 miles per hour.”

Railway ‘block’ signalling, James Pigg (1898).


Sir Charles Wheatstone F.R.S. (1802-75), physicist.

Sir William Fothergill Cooke (1806-79), inventor.

In the U.K., the first successful demonstration of an electric telegraph took place on 25th July 1837, when a system developed by William Fothergill Cooke and Charles Wheatstone was used to exchange messages between Euston Station and the stationary engine house at the top of the Camden Incline:

“AFTER repeated experiments and numerous accessory discoveries of scientific men, both in this country and abroad, the famous invention of electric telegraphy was at length brought to the test of a fair and satisfactory trial on the night of the 25th June, 1837, or just thirty years ago.  For the purposes of this experiment, a mile and a quarter of telegraphic wire had been laid down between the two stations of Euston Square and Camden Town, of what was then the new London and Birmingham Railway.  Professor Wheatstone seated in a small ill-lit room at Euston Station, and surrounded by several men since known to fame, and notably by Robert Stephenson, held anxiously the one end of the mystic wire, whilst his co-adjutor, Mr. Fothergill Cooke, attended at the other extremity in Camden Town.  We all know the result.  The old inquiry: ‘Canst thou send lightnings that they may go and say unto thee, Here we are?’ had often been asked, and sometimes half-answered; now, however, a positive reply was made possible; ‘Never did I feel,’ says Professor Wheatstone, ‘such a tumultuous sensation before, as when in that still room I heard the needles click; and as I spelled out the words, I felt all the magnitude of the invention now proved to be practicable beyond cavil or dispute.’  Wheatstone and all concerned might well exult in this triumph!  The telegraph has, from this humble beginning, and within the short space of thirty years, become an indispensable agent of civilized society.”

Telegraphic Reform ― The Post Office and the Electric Telegraph. The Post Office (1867).

This instrument gives all the letters of the alphabet, the numerals, and a vast number of conventional signals; which follow each other with perfect distinctness at the rate about thirty five per minute, and can be read off with the greatest facility even by an unpractised eye.

Before the operator is placed an instrument, which gives the exact signals which he is conveying to a distance; if therefore, through carelessness, an error is committed, it is immediately perceived, and corrected by the succeeding signal.  These signals are communicated from either terminus with equal facility, and literally with the speed of lightning, both instruments being synchronous in their action.

When the telegraph is about to be put into action, the person communicating rings an alarm bell by striking a key, or by the same motion he may release a weight, which can be attached to the wrist of the person who has the working of the instrument at the distant point.  This perhaps will be the most effective mode of attracting the attention, particularly at night, or if deaf and dumb persons were so employed.  By this simple contrivance, the unceasing vigilance necessary for every other description of telegraphs is dispensed with; whilst by night as well as by day, sunshine or rain, fog or storm, the electro-magnetic telegraph performs its silent mission, uninfluenced by those disturbing causes which render the ordinary
[i.e. optical or semaphore] telegraph useless during four-fifths of the year.”

The London and Birmingham Railway Companion, Arthur Freeling (1838).


Cooke and Wheatstone indicator panel and, below,
transmission keys. Photo: Milton Keynes Museum.

Cooke and Wheatstone’s 5-needle telegraph.
The needles are pointing to the letter ‘G’.

The Camden trial was followed shortly afterwards by a radically different approach to telegraphy developed in the U.S.A. by Samuel Morse and Alfred Vial.  What became known (somewhat unjustly to Vial) as the ‘Morse’ system, was first demonstrated on the 11th January 1838 at the Speedwell Ironworks near Morristown, New Jersey.  It was the practicalities of this system and the Morse Code in its various adaptations that quickly led to its universal adoption for both line and, later, wireless telegraphy.  But within the U.K. (and throughout the British Empire) simplified versions of the Cooke and Wheatstone system continued to be used in railway signalling applications for many years.  The system did not require its operators to become proficient in the use of Morse Code nor to be literate, an important factor in an age when illiteracy was common.  All that it required was for the operator to watch the left or right deflections of a needle and/or listen to the ‘dings’ of a signal bell.

“. . . . Cooke and Wheatstone’s Telegraph still keeps its ground.  Superseded on all the principal commercial telegraph systems, namely, those worked for the public by the Telegraph Companies, it is still in demand for Railway Telegraphs and other lines where simple apparatus is required, as it is generally in the hands of porters, brakesmen, and other inexperienced workmen.  It owes this, no doubt, as much to the character it earned in the first stage of Telegraphic operations, as to its simplicity and durability . . . . ”

An Illustrated Hand Book to the Electric Telegraph, Robert Dodwell (1862).

The history of the Cooke and Wheatstone telegraph is a study in itself, as indeed was the complex relationship between its inventors (reminiscent of that between Gilbert and Sullivan).  Of the pair, Cooke was the impresario with the commercial acumen and ambition who wished to profit from the invention, and did.  Professor Wheatstone was the scientist, possessing the technical ability to deliver a working system, the principles of which he wished to release gratis to the world at large.  Conflict between the two was inevitable and at one stage Marc Brunel (father of I. K. B.) was appointed to arbitrate between the collaborators over who should receive credit for the invention ― after hearing the evidence he distributed the honours evenly.

The initial design of the Cooke and Wheatstone system required for its operation five signal wires.  To transmit a character, current was sent along two of the five wires by operating two of five transmission keys.  At the receiving station, the five signal wires terminated on an indicator panel comprising five needles, each of which could swivel to left or right.  In the system’s idle state all the needles pointed vertically, but when energised by signals sent from the transmitting station, two of the five needles swivelled to point to the letter on the indicator panel that corresponded to that being transmitted.  In the example shown in the accompanying diagram, the two energised needles (coloured yellow) intersect at the letter ‘G’.

The problem with the Cooke and Wheatstone system in this form lay in the number of conductors it required.  A five-wire circuit [12] was expensive to install, added to which the limited technology of the time gave poor electrical insulation, which quickly perished, thereby affecting the system’s reliability.  However, those who attended the Camden demonstration ― including Robert Stephenson and Charles Fox ― were impressed by what they saw:

“London and Birmingham Railway, Engineering Department,
Camden Station, September 18th 1837.

My dear Sir, ― I have great pleasure in adding my testimony to that of many others, who have been gratified by witnessing the very beautiful experiments exhibited by yourself and Professor Wheatstone to prove the practicability of transmitting signals by means of electro magnetic fluid.  Nothing can have been more satisfactory than these experiments, which have placed beyond a doubt that the principle may be applied with unerring certainty.

                                                                     I am dear, Sir, yours very truly,

                                                                                           Charles Fox, Resident Engineer.

W.F. Cooke, Esq.”

A Reply to Mr. Cooke’s Pamphlet, ‘The Electric Telegraph . . . .’, Wheatstone and Cooke (1855).

Circuit diagram of the 5-needle telegraph transmitting the character A. Picture: Spinningspark

However, the Directors were only prepared to lay down telegraph lines between London and Birmingham provided that their counterparts at the Grand Junction Railway Company continued the circuits northwards to Liverpool; this they refused to do.  As a result, the telegraph languished for the remainder of the Railway’s independent existence, with signalling between the ends of the cable-worked Camden Incline being conducted over a pneumatic system.

In the meantime, that imaginative but occasionally flawed genius I. K. Brunel also saw the possibilities of the electric telegraph.  In 1838, he encouraged the Great Western Railway Company to establish a five-needle system between Paddington and West Drayton, a distance of 13 miles.  It seems that, in the history of railway signalling, the laurels for introducing block working using the electric telegraph, albeit in a rudimentary form, must go to the Great Western Railway, for . . . .

“. . . . the germ of the present system was brought into use between Paddington, West Drayton, and Hanwell, on the Great Western Railway, at the instance of Cooke and Wheatstone, as early as December, 1839.  The system there brought into operation was an adaptation of the ordinary telegraph system the departure and arrival of trains being telegraphed, and instructions issued to stop a second train on its arrival at any of the telegraph stations until the arrival of the first train at the advance station was telegraphed back.  This is the earliest record from official sources of the application of electricity to the preservation of a space limit between successive trains on the same line of rails.”

Railway ‘block’ signalling, James Pigg (1898).

London and North-Western Railway junction signal box and telegraph lines, 1855.

The Manchester Guardian,  20th November 1847.

The electric telegraph did not appear on the London and Birmingham line until after the company mergers of 1846, from which emerged the London and North Western Railway.  In the following year telegraph circuits were laid between London and Rugby and onwards to the north, while from Euston Square connections had already been established with the south and south-east coasts.  But these circuits were used principally to convey revenue-earning commercial traffic.  Although the telegraph could convey messages between stations connected to the system, signals and points were still operated from adjacent external ground-frames, rather than being grouped together in enclosed signal-boxes, so their operation was physically separated from the telegraph.  And so time interval signalling continued until . . . .

. . . . About 1855 an epoch-making change in the matter of signalling took place on the London and North-Western, for, about this time, the North-Western inaugurated on the southern division [the former London and Birmingham Railway] a system of signalling known as the two-mile telegraph systemPrevious to this it must be confessed that almost everywhere signalling had been in an extremely crude state, and fast travelling in consequence fairly risky, the chief safeguard being a long time interval between trains and a good lookout ahead.

The History of the London & North Western Railway, Wilfred L. Steel (1914).


A block instrument set to its default position of ‘line blocked’.

Devised by Edwin Clark, the two-mile telegraph system was the first use on the Railway of telegraph technology that was capable of supporting block working, the principle behind which is to allow only one train at a time to occupy a defined section of track, the ‘block’:

Among the more recent improvements adopted by the London and North-Western Company for securing perfect safety of travelling over their line, has been the establishment of a special train telegraph, with signal stations every two miles.  At each station a policeman is on duty night and day, in whose watch-box there is a telegraph dial with a single needle.  By inclining the needle to the left hand, the person in charge gives notice to the next station that a train had passed on to the two miles of the road entrusted to his special care; while inclining it to the right hand would show that the train had passed off that portion of the line.  There were in fact but two signals, train on and train off, but as it might happen that an accident occurred upon the two miles of road between the telegraph stations, the guard and breaks-man (sic) were instructed instantly to sever the special train wire, which has the effect of placing the needle at each adjacent station in an upright position.  The policeman on duty at once becomes aware by this movement that something is wrong, and can act according to circumstances.

Civil Engineer & Architect’s Journal, Vol. 19 (1856).

In 1855, the system was installed between Euston Square and Rugby, a distance of 83 miles, using 2½-mile signalling blocks.  The use of permanently flowing current along the signal wire introduced a valuable safety feature; it kept the needles pointing to their settings until reset.  However, in other respects danger crept in, for the principle of block working was not strictly adhered to:

Mr. Edwin Clark (M. Inst. C.E.) perfected the scheme of Mr. Cooke, in the system he introduced upon the London and North Western Railway, which was fully described.  The needle instrument was employed, but its indications were made permanent by the use of continuous currents of electricity.  It not only showed when the line was clear, and when there was a train on the line, but also the occurrence of an accident.  This last signal was produced by rupturing wires that descended every alternate pole on the line; but this plan was thought to be dangerous.  The London and North Western Railway Company did not strictly adhere to the block system.  They allowed two, three, and sometimes four trains to be on the same length at the same time.  The train on line signal was only accepted as a caution, and not as a danger signal.  This was a partial expedient, which provided a certain amount of safety, but it was not considered sufficient under all circumstances to prevent collision.

The Civil Engineer and Architect’s Journal, Volume 26 (1863).

. . . . and the system’s inventor had this to say . . . .

It will be observed that in the following system it has not been thought desirable to forbid two trains entering on the same length of line between the signal stations, it is, however, evident, that if the stations are placed sufficiently near together to avoid delays from stoppages, that by such an arrangement all accidents from collisions will be quite impossible, and in this case the caution signal will be entirely cancelled.

As has previously been said, the two-mile system was a great advance on any previous signalling system, but even then absolute security was not by any means obtained, and trains over-running one another and collisions were not infrequent.  And this state of affairs continued until the absolute block system was afterwards adopted, which made travelling as safe as any signalling possibly could do.

The History of the London & North Western Railway, Wilfred L. Steel (1914).

Following the Armagh rail disaster ― the worst in the U.K. during the 19th Century and Ireland’s worst railway disaster ever ― [13] the Regulation of Railways Act 1889 (52 & 53 Vict. c. 57) was enacted and the use of the absolute block system on passenger carrying lines became mandatory.





At a Meeting of the Board of Directors held on the 11th of September, 1847, it was

That the following code of Rules and Regulations be, and the same is hereby approved and adopted for the guidance and instruction of the Officers and Men in the service of the London and North-Western Railway Company, and that all former Rules and Regulations inconsistent with the same be cancelled.

That every person in the service do keep a copy of these Regulations on his person while on duty under a penalty of five shillings for neglect of the same.

By order of the Board of Directors.
                 General Manager,
     London and North Western Railway.

1. No Engine shall pass along the wrong line of Road, but if, in case of accident, an Engine shall be unavoidably obliged to pass back on the wrong line, the Engineman is to send his Assistant, or some other competent person, back a distance of not less than 800 yards, before his Engine moves, to warn any Engine coming in the opposite direction, and the Assistant shall continue running, so as to preserve the distance of not less than 800 yards between him and the Engine.  If dark, the man shall take his light and make a signal by waving the same up and down, and the Engineman of the Engine moving on the wrong line shall keep his Steam Whistle constantly going, and must not move in the wrong direction farther than to the nearest shunt, where he is instantly to remove his Engine off the wrong line of Road; and it is expressly forbidden that any Engine should move on the wrong line of Rails at a greater speed than four miles an hour.

2. All Engines travelling on the same line shall keep 800 yards at least apart from each other, that is to say, ― the Engine which follows shall not approach within 800 yards of the Engine which goes before, unless expressly required.

3. No person, except the proper Engineman and Fireman shall be allowed to ride on the Engine or Tender, without the special permission of the Directors or one of the Chief Officers of the Company.

4. The Engineman and Fireman must appear on duty as clean as circumstances will allow and every Driver must be with his Engine 30 minutes, and every Fireman 45 minutes, before the time appointed for starting, in order to see that the Engine is in proper order to go out, has the necessary supply of coke and water, and that the Signals are in a fit state for use.

5. The Front Buffer Light of a Passenger Train is White, and of a Goods or Cattle Train Green, except on the Liverpool and Manchester Section.

6. Every Engineman shall have with him at all times in his Tender the following Tools:―

1 complete set of Lamps

1 Screw Jack

1 complete set of Screw Keys

A quantity of Flax and Twine

1 large and small Monkey Wrench

4 large and small Oil Cans

3 Cold Chisels

Plugs for Tubes

1 Hammer

2 Fire Buckets

1 Hammer

Fog Signals and Red Flag

2 short Chains with Hooks


7. When the Engine is in motion the Engineman is to stand where he can keep a good look out a head and the Fireman must at all times be ready to obey the instructions of the Engineman and assist him in keeping a look out when not otherwise engaged

8. No Engine is permitted to stand on the main line (except under very special circumstances) when not attached to a Train, and the Engineman shall not at any time leave his Engine or Train, or any part thereof, on the main line, unless there be a competent man in charge to make the necessary signals.

9. No Engine shall cross the Line of Railway at a Station without permission.

10. An Engineman is never to leave an Engine in Steam, without shutting the Regulator, putting the Engine out of gear, and fixing down the Tender Break.

11. No Engine is allowed to propel a Train of Carriages or Waggons, but must in all cases draw it, except when assisting up inclined planes, or when required to start a train from a Station, or in case of an Engine being disabled on the road, when the succeeding Engine may propel the train slowly (approaching it with great caution) as far as the next shunt or turn-out, at which place the propelling Engine shall take the lead.

12. No Engine is to run on the Main Line Tender foremost, unless by orders from the Locomotive Superintendent, or from unavoidable necessity.

13. Every Engineman on going out is to take his Time Table with him, and regulate by it the speed of his Engine, whether attached to a Train or not; and when not attached to a Train, he is on no account to stop at second-class Stations unless specially ordered, or there is a signal for him to do so.

14. Enginemen are not allowed (except in case of accident or sudden illness) to change their Engines on the Journey, nor to leave their respective Stations, without the permission of their Superintendent.

15. When the Road is obscured by steam or smoke (owing to a burst tube, or any other cause) no approaching Engine is allowed to pass through the steam, until the Engineman shall have ascertained that the road is clear; and if any Engineman perceive a Train stopping from accident or other cause, on the road, he is immediately to slacken his speed, so that he may pass such Train slowly, and stop altogether if necessary, in order to ascertain the cause of the stoppage, and report it at the next Station.

16. Where there is an accident on the opposite Line to that on which he is moving, he is to stop all the Trains between the spot and the next Station, and caution the respective Enginemen, and further he is to render every assistance in his power in all cases of difficulty.

17. In case of accident to his Engine or Tender (when alone) he is to send back notice by his Fireman to the nearest Policeman on duty: but if the Policeman is too distant, the Fireman is to remain stationary not less than 600 yards in rear of his Train (until recalled), showing his Red Signal until he has rejoined his Engine. (See Rule 17, page 182.)

18. Enginemen are strictly prohibited from throwing out of their Tender any small coke or dust, except into the pits made for that purpose at first-class Stations.

19. Enginemen with Pilot or Assistant Engines must be prepared (while on duty) to start immediately on receiving instructions from the Locomotive Foreman or the Station Master.

20. Enginemen are strictly enjoined to start and stop their Trains slowly, and without a jerk, which is liable to snap the couplings and chains; and they are further warned to be careful not to shut off their steam too suddenly (except in case of danger), so as to cause a concussion of the carriages. ― This rule applies more especially to Cattle Trains, the beasts being liable to be thrown down and injured by a sudden check.

21. No Engineman is to start his Train until the proper Signal is given: he is invariably to start with care, and to observe that he has the whole of his Train before he gets beyond the limits of the Station.

22. It is very important that Engine-Drivers use the utmost caution when shunting Waggons into sidings, so as to avoid injuring the Waggons or other property of the Company.

23. Enginemen in bringing up their Trains are to pay particular attention to the state of the weather and the condition of the Rails, as well as to the length of the Train: and these circumstances must have due weight in determining when to shut off the Steam.  Stations must not be entered so rapidly as to require a violent application of the Breaks, and any Engineman over-running the Station will be reported.

24. Enginemen and others are required to be careful in turning their Engines on the Tables, so as not to swing them round rapidly.

25. Engines running alone, or taking luggage or empty carriages, must not exceed a speed of 20 miles an hour without distinct orders in each case or some urgent necessity.

26. Enginemen and Firemen are to pay immediate attention to all Signals, whether the cause of the Signal is known to them or not; and any Engineman neglecting to obey a Signal is liable to immediate dismissal from the Company’s service.  The Engineman must not, however, trust to Signals but on all occasions be vigilant and cautious, and on no account be running before the time specified in his Time-Table.  He is also to obey the Special orders of the Officers in charge of Stations, when required for the Company’s service.

27. Whenever he sees the Red Signal, or any other which he understands to be a Signal to stop, he is to bring his Engine to a stand close to the Signal, and on no account to pass it.

28. In addition to the usual Red Signals, the Police have orders to place Detonators on the Rails in foggy weather, and every Engineman, when he hears a Detonating Signal, is to bring his Engine to a stand as quickly as possible.  The Enginemen also are supplied with these Signals to be used in the same manner. (See Rule for Fog Signals.)

29. Ballast Engines are prohibited from passing along the Main Line in a fog, except when authorised to do so under special circumstances.

30. As a further precaution in foggy weather, no Engineman is allowed to leave a Station with a Train until the preceding Train has been started at least ten minutes; and before starting, the Clerk in charge of the Station, or the Policeman on duty, is to give the Engineman the exact time when the preceding Train started, and where it is next to stop.

31. Enginemen are at all times to use great caution in foggy weather, and especially in approaching Stations, from the difficulty of discerning the regular Signals until close upon them; and they are to be prepared to bring their Engines to a stand, should it be required.

32. No Engineman is to pass from a Branch on to the Main Line until the Policeman at the Junction Points signals the Main Line clear, and in foggy weather he is to bring his Engine to a stand before reaching the Junction Points, and not to enter upon the Main Line till he has ascertained from the Policeman how long the preceding Train or Engine has passed.

33. To avoid risk of collision on single Lines, from the meeting of another Engine, no extra Engine, with or without a Train, is allowed to pass along the Line without previous notice.

34. Every Engineman is to be careful, when he passes a Station, or when the way is under repair, to proceed slowly and cautiously; and he is also to do so whenever he sees the Green Signal.

35. Luggage, Coal, and Ballast Trains are always to give way to Passenger Trains by going into the nearest siding.

36. The Whistle is to be sounded on approaching each Station and level crossing, and on entering the Tunnels.  Three short sharp whistles, rapidly repeated, must be given when danger is apprehended, and when it is necessary to call the attention of the Guards to put on the Breaks.  When more than one Engine is attached to the Train, the Signal is to be given by the Leading Engineman; and in case of danger is to be repeated by the following Enginemen, who will forthwith reverse their Engines and attach their Tender Breaks. Frequent use must be made of the Whistle in foggy weather.

37. Enginemen with Luggage Trains are to approach all stopping places at a speed not exceeding ten miles an hour, when within a quarter of a mile of the stopping place, and to signal the Breaksman by two distinct Whistles to put on his Break before the Tender Break is put on.

38. Luggage Enginemen must refuse to take up waggons of goods. if they are of a nature to take fire by a spark or hot cinder; unless such goods are completely sheeted.  Enginemen are to see that the cinder-plates at the back of their Tenders are in good order.

39. Should fire be discovered in the Train, the Steam must be instantly shut off, and the Breaks applied, and the Train be brought to a stand, the Signal of obstruction to the Line be made, and the burning waggon or waggons be detached with as little delay as possible.  No attempt must ever be made to run on to the nearest water column, if it is more than 300 yards from the place where the fire is discovered, as such a course is likely to increase the damage.

40. The movements of all Trains are under the orders of the Guard, to whose instructions as to stopping, starting, &c., the Engineman is to pay implicit attention.

41. If any part of a Train is detached when in motion, care must be taken not to stop the Train in front before the detached part has stopped, and it is the duty of the Guard of such detached part to apply his Break in time to prevent a collision with the carriages in front, in the event of their stopping.

42. Whenever a Red Board or Red Flag is carried on the last carriage or waggon of a passing Train, it is to indicate that a Special or Extra Train is to follow; and when such Extra Train is to run at night, an additional Red Light must be attached to the tail of the preceding Train.

43. Every Engineman at the end of his journey is to report to the Superintendent of Locomotive Power, or his Foreman, or to the Clerk in attendance

First As to the state of his Engine and Tender.
Second As to any defect in the Road or Works Electric Telegraph posts or wires or any unusual circumstance that may have taken place on the journey.

44. He is also to see that his Signal and Gauge Lamps are taken into the Porter’s Lodge, for the purpose of being trimmed.





The first steel rails date from 1857.


As was I. K. Brunel.  On the Great Western Railway, Brunel employed a system consisting of bridge rails continuously supported on longitudinal sleepers, which rested on piles driven into the trackbed.  Gauge was maintained using transverse ties.  This system remained in use for many years ― and in a modified form continues to be used today, mainly in special applications ― but it was gradually phased out in favour of conventional transverse sleepers.


Locke took over the role following George Stephenson’s resignation.  The Grand Junction Railway ran for 82 miles, from Birmingham (where it shared a terminus at Curzon Street with the London and Birmingham Railway) via Wolverhampton, Stafford, Crewe and Warrington, then via the existing Warrington and Newton Railway to join the Liverpool and Manchester Railway at Newton Junction.  The line opened on the 4th July 1837; in 1846 it amalgamated with other railways to form the London and North Western Railway.


Creosote is the portion of chemical products obtained by the distillation of a tar that remains heavier than water.  The two main types in industrial production are wood-tar creosote and coal-tar creosote.  The coal-tar variety, having stronger and more toxic properties, has chiefly been used as a preservative for wood.


Some stone blocks had been laid by George Stephenson, but were soon replaced with wooden sleepers.


Again, Locke was ahead of the game with his constant cross-section (or parallel) bullhead rail, which became the standard on British railways for many years.




George Stephenson is believed to have invented the ‘steam trumpet’ (whistle) following an accident on the Leicester and Swannington Railway, when a train hit either a cart or herd of cows on a level crossing, and there were calls for a better way of giving a warning.


Today, a coroner’s jury can only determine the cause of death and its ruling does not commit a person to trial.


Railway signals fail safe ― the default position of every railway signal is thus DANGER.


The County and Borough Police Act 1856 (19 & 20 Vict c. 69).  Some constabularies did exist before 1856 (Cheshire being an example), but the Act made it compulsory for a police force to be established in any county which had not previously formed one.


Some systems had a sixth wire to increase the number of characters it could handle.


The Armagh rail disaster, Ulster, occurred on 12th June 1889.  A crowded Sunday school excursion train had to negotiate a steep incline, but the steam locomotive was unable to complete the climb and the train stalled.  The train crew decided to divide the train and take forward the front portion, leaving the rear portion on the running line; it was inadequately braked and ran backwards down the gradient colliding with a following train. Eighty people were killed and 260 injured, about a third of them children.

Within 2 months of the disaster, Parliament enacted the Regulation of Railways Act 1889, which authorised the Board of Trade to require the use of continuous automatic brakes on passenger railways, along with the block system of signalling and the interlocking of all points and signals.  This is often taken as the beginning of the modern era in U.K. railway safety.