You know nothing of progress if you do not know the 19th century.
Let us think for a moment about railroads. Before they came, most rural Europeans lived and died within 20 miles of where they were born. Not because there weren’t adventurous souls among them, but would you want to walk from the back end of nowhere in France to Paris, England to London, or the Italian states to Rome? And you would be making that journey without the slightest idea of what to expect when you got there. News traveled to those tiny villages as haphazardly and tardily as it had in medieval times. At fault was the road system. Without mechanization, making roads fit for the peasant to travel was hard and expensive — so it did not happen. King’s ‘high’ ways and turnpikes improved commercial movements and rich folks’ travelling plans, but all of this required travelers either owning or paying for passage by some form of horse transportation. Even then road networks did not venture far outside major cities. In Britain for example most freight across most of the wilder parts of the country was still being moved by trains of pack horses right up to the start of the 19th century.
And of course for the farmer’s boy or girl there was no cheap nor speedy means of getting about, other than putting one foot in front of the other.
The year Queen Victoria was enthroned, the roads had become good enough that (again for rich folks only) average speeds had crept up to around 11 miles an hour. The 22,000 miles of commercially-funded turnpike roads were then noisy with jingling and trumpeting of more than 3,000 mail coach lines each holding a government contract for delivering letters between two points, but also moving passengers.
Then came the railway. And boy did it change things — and fast.
This was a world which ran on one energy source alone — coal. The fire in the hearth; coal. The gas light in the street; coal. The coke in blast furnaces; coal. The thousands of stationary steam engines powering looms and lathes, pumping water out of mines and sewage out of sewers; coal. Unlike today’s energies, electricity or gas that come down wires or pipes, the tons of black rock had to be physically moved to where it was needed each day, each week to keep towns and cities working. The city of Manchester was using 1,000 tons of the stuff each day. Though there were two canals between where the coal was, near Liverpool and where it was needed in Manchester, a railway line’s shorter distance and greater carrying capacity would save coal customers £100,000 each year in carriage alone — a sum calculated in the billions in today’s money.
The Liverpool to Manchester rail line opened in 1830. Work began in June 1826, just one year after the Stockton and Darlington became the world’s first steam locomotive passenger railway in the world.
Imagine shifting 720 million cubic yards of spoil by hand just for the cuttings alone. Imagine building embankments of 277,000 cubic yards. Imagine building a railway line across four and a half miles of Chat Moss, a bog so soft that a pedestrian could not walk over it unless it had been an unusually dry summer and an iron bar would sink under its own weight. After tons of ballast dumped to consolidate the swamp disappeared without trace an ingenious solution was to use a raft of the moss itself with copious drains and culverts, upon which to lay the ballast to hold the rails.
Add to the construction tasks a 70 foot high brick-built viaduct, a stone bridge across the river Irwell and a tunnel through just over a mile of wet earth, sand and sandstone, and you begin to appreciate the scale of complexity to build just one 31-mile long railway.
If a statistic were needed to illustrate the speed of change, consider the number of stagecoach drivers and guards made redundant in the following decade. Already just a few years into rail travel in 1842 the number had fallen to only 2107. The following year and contemporary source says it was then just 146.Think about whether the 21st century could come close to matching this for the rapid introduction of a novel infrastructure that would overturn accepted reality quite as fast.
The prospect of free movement for poor people previously enslaved by geography was not welcomed by all, even by some Americans, though this comment comes from a canal owner. Canals, like stage coaches, were surpassed by the speed, cost and security advantages of trains.
This man predicted (rightly as it happened) that railroads would set the whole world ‘a-gadding’. “Twenty miles an hour, sir! Why you will not be able to keep an apprentice-boy at his work; every Saturday evening he must take a trip to Ohio, to spend the Sabbath with his sweetheart. Grave plodding citizens will be flying about like comets. All local attachments must be at an end. It will encourage flightiness of intellect. It will upset all the gravity of the nation. Upon the whole, sir, it is a pestilential, topsy-turvy, harum-scarum whirligig.”