After examining the Standedge Tunnel and the London Underground, we return above ground with this part of our continuing series, to look at the oldest continuously operated public railway in the world: the Middleton Railway.

In the 1750’s, the Middleton coal pits were facing a disadvantage; their competitors in Rothwell were able to use the river to transport coal into Leeds, whereas they had to transport over land. The solution that Charles Brandling came up with was simple; a waggonway or tracked road from Middleton to Leeds, making it easier to transport coal. Construction began in 1757, and in order to ensure that it would be a permanent solution Brandling sought an Act of Parliament – the first to authorise the building of a railway.

Of course, at this time it was not a railway as we would recognise it today; it was originally built with wooden rails, and rather than being drawn by locomotives the wagons were drawn by horses. Because they ran on rails, however, this was more efficient than road transport, and the horses could draw heavier loads.

In 1799, the rails began to be replaced with stronger, sturdier iron rails, and further developments were not far behind. In 1804, Richard Trevithick was attempting to use a steam locomotive between iron mines and the canal in Wales; each of his three trips broke the rails. The problem was that an engine light enough to run on the tracks without breaking them would have trouble with the weight of the wagons and the often steep gradients of the track. Back in Middleton, colliery manager John Blenkinsop had a solution. He relaid the track on one side with a toothed rail – patented in 1811 – and approached engineer Matthew Murray to design a locomotive with a pinion to mesh with the rail. The resulting Salamanca became the first commercial steam locomotive to operate successfully in 1812.

Because it was the first railway to regularly use steam locomotives, the Middleton Railway also lays claim to other firsts; they employed the first regular professional train driver in the world, a former put labourer named James Hewitt. More tragically, a 13 year old boy called John Bruce was killed in February 1813 whilst running along the tracks – almost certainly the first member of public killed by a locomotive but far from the last.

A series of accidents, including a boiler explosion in 1834 which killed driver James Hewitt, led to steam power being largely abandoned for some years; use of the railway continued under horsepower. Steam locomotives returned in 1866, and in 1881 the railway was converted to a standard gauge which allowed it to connect to the Midland Railway. When the Middleton colliery became part of the National Coal Board and parts of the line were abandoned, preservationists were allowed to take over; this meant that when the pit eventually closed, they were able to expand into the rest of the line. In June 1960, the Middleton Railway became the first standard gauge railway to be operated by unpaid volunteers, with regular operation of passenger services from 1969 to the present day.

As proud British manufacturers, it’s good to acknowledge the achievements of British engineers – especially ones local to us here in Yorkshire, where we’ve been making springs for seventy years! For more information on our products and services, get in touch with us on 01535 643456.