210 Years of rail innovation


Since the first steam powered train hit the UK railroad over 200 years ago, the British rail industry has seen a number of exciting technological innovations. We take a look back at the story of UK rail and celebrate some of its milestones in the last two centuries.


After years of trying to create a high pressure steam engine with mixed results, British inventor Richard Trevithick made a breakthrough. On 21 February 1804 he introduced the ‘Pennydarren Locomotive’, the first full-scale functioning railway steam engine. Its first journey ran 9 miles under four hours.



English steam engine and machine tool manufacturer Matthew Murray builds the first commercially successful steam locomotive. The engine, named the Salamanca, is the first locomotive to feature two cylinders and the first to use the rack and pinion linear actuator, which converts rotational motion to forward motion.


George Stephenson, an English civil engineer also known as the ‘Father of Railways’ is the first in the world to build a steam powered intercity railway line. The railway line runs between Liverpool and Manchester and puts Britain at the forefront of the steam train revolution.


On 10 January, The Metropolitan Railway opens the world’s first underground railway. More than 30,0000 passengers board on the first day to travel between Paddington (previously called Bishop’s Road) and Farringdon Street.


Werner von Siemens, founder of automation company Siemens AG, showcases the first experimental electric passenger train. The need for cleaner energy on trains in underground subways and tunnels makes electric locomotives a popular choice for decades to come and still play an important role in high speed services today. However, the high cost of powering electric locomotives makes it difficult to implement on a larger scale.


Dr Rudolf Diesel patents the original diesel engine in 1892. Diesel engines are found to be cheaper, can run for longer miles and is easier to operate than steam power. Developments  lead to diesel-electric locomotives which become so popular, that they replace most steam powered engines by the end of World War II.


By the mid twentieth century, plans for nuclear-electric and gas-turbine electric locomotive start to emerge. However, diesel-electric engines prove to be superior and become the industry standard around the world well into the twenty-first century. Eco-friendly engines such as hybrid trains which use rechargeable energy storage systems (RESS) also emerge.


High Speed Train (HST) services open nationwide between London and Bristol-South Wales. Brits can now travel long distances at 125 miles (200 km) per hour, thanks to the train’s twin 2,250-horsepower diesel engines. Disk brakes and suspension system equipped with helical coil springs and air-bag springs also provide a comfortable ride for passengers at maximum speed.


The Docklands Light Railway (DLR) opens on 31 August 1987 and becomes the UK’s first and only fully automated train system.


The Eurostar is opens on 6 May 1994. Services begin running from Waterloo International to Paris Gare du Nord, Brussels-Midi/Zuid and Lille Europe. Nine years later, the Eurostar will hold the UK’s speed record of 208 miles (334 km) per hour.


The Oyster card is introduced in June, allowing passengers in London to pay as you go electronically.


Transport for London (TfL) creates the London Overground as a way to upgrade four lines within London — Richmond to Stratford, Watford Junction to Euston, Clapham Junction to Willesden Junction and Gospel Oak to Barking. An extension in East London is later opened in 2010, connecting West Croydon to Dalston Junction and later Highbury & Islington. This marks the start of a faster, frequent and more accessible orbital railway link for many passengers in the capital.


As part of a move towards eco-friendly transport, the UK government announces its plan to remove all diesel rolling stock from Britain’s railways by 2040. Companies like Eversholt Rail and Alstom are working together to bring Britain’s first hydrogen powered trains, or ‘hydrail’ to the UK by the early 2020s.  

The RIA Future Focus Conference at Railtex 2019 will feature a series of talks on High Speed Rail, Digital Rail and Sustainable Rail. Visit www.railtex.co.uk for more.


Tags: , , , , , ,

Posted by Railtex 2019 on April 26, 2019 12:41 pm

<< Back to blog overview

Latest News


Railtex Newsletter

Your source for the latest news and technologies impacting the rail industry