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A Brief History of Railway Construction in Britain

As one of the most popular modes of travel available today, it’s no surprise that the history of our rail systems is so vast. From horsepower all the way to high-speed locomotives, railway construction has led to some of the most innovative feats of engineering on record, with pioneers coming up with new ways to perfect the intricate art of train travel.


Although early predecessors of the railway system can be traced back to the Corinthians in Ancient Greece, the first proper step in the evolution of rail travel took place in Salzburg, Austria in the 16th century, when the first-ever funicular was built. The Reisszug was used to cart passengers and goods up to Hohensalzburg Castle, and is still in operation today!

The 1760s saw another major breakthrough in railroads in the form of metal rails. This change in rail material came about thanks to higher volumes of iron production and allowed wooden rails to have a radical upgrade. Iron was later replaced by steel as its quality improved over time.

Along Came Steam

Arguably the most drastic innovation in railway history was the application of steam. While steam power had long been used for operating water pumps, the work of engineer James Watt changed transportation forever with the invention of a reciprocating engine which, when combined with his research on the use of high-pressure steam on pistons, saw the creation of the first ever steam locomotive in 1784. With the stage set for a steam-powered revolution, the first fully operational steam railway was opened near Merthyr Tydfil in 1804. 

People on the Move

Until this point, bar the Reisszug, railways weren’t explicitly used for human transportation. However, this all changed in 1807 when the Mumbles and Swansea train line was adapted to be solely passenger-based. This once outlandish idea swept across the UK, first using steam power before the invention of electric locomotives several years later. The Mumbles line closed in 1959, but its impact on railway construction history is undeniable.

Electric Evolution

Next came electric railways in 1837, with the first built in Scotland by chemist Robert Davidson. His design ran on batteries which was later built into a larger locomotive: the ‘Galvani’. Sadly, the Galvani was destroyed by disgruntled railway workers, but this didn’t stop electric railway systems from becoming popular.

The Age of Diesel & High-Speed Rail

Diesel-powered railways took train travel to the next level, offering a more efficient fuel source than that of coal and electricity. The first diesel railway was built in Switzerland in 1906 and took off almost straight away, naturally leading to the railway systems we in the UK are familiar with today.

And so, what’s next? The most recent development post-diesel was the introduction of the high-speed train. Originating in Japan, these futuristic trains can reach astonishing high speeds of 276 miles per hour and are soon set to become a common feature of Britain’s rail network in the future. With the success of high-speed networks across Japan, it’s clear that the future of rail travel in the UK is bright.

, Staffordshire Fabrications are directly on the pulse of the future of Britain’s railways – supplying both directly and indirectly to the HS2 project and Network Rail. We have highly specialised teams of engineers, project managers, fabricators and welding experts that work together to deliver some of the most complex engineering challenges for our clients. To find out more, please get in touch.