Wednesday, April 18, 2012

picks from picard: railways

Today's I'd like to focus on Liza Picard's Victorian London: The Tale of a City 1840-1870 section on railways.

image source: The Victorian Web
Before the railways the fastest anyone had traveled was on a galloping horse (note: off the top of my head I think this speed averaged a whopping 75 miles per day).  When the trains came the speeds one could travel increased significantly- by the 1850s many trains designed could average 60 to 70 m.p.h., and one company at the Great Exhibition even boasted of being able to run safely at the unheard of speed of 80 m.p.h.  Most express trains of the period, however, usually ran from 36-48 m.p.h.

Another first that the trains brought was the ability for the country to synchronize their watches, as railway clocks had to be very accurate indeed.  

The construction of railways developed rapidly between 1830 and 1847.  Picard says that by 1847 6.7 percent of British national income was being invested in railway shares.  Many elaborate train stations were built around this time, such as Euston station, Paddington station, Waterloo station, and King's Cross station.

Here Picard interjects with some information about ticket taking and a funny anecdote about one of the many incidents of passengers trying to cheat the ticket system: 
A little girl was being sent to her aunt in the country to recover her health after a childhood illness in Bethnal Green. 'About half way on the journey I was pushed under my aunt's crinoline when a man came to look at the tickets... no ticket had been taken for me.'  Even if the ticket collector had suspected her presence it would be unlikely that he could ask a female to raise her crinoline, just in case.
[Insert Victorian TSA joke here.]

By the 1870s the main London lines had been built.  But they were not to everyone's liking- many  of the rails were built on raised arches that ran above the houses and backyards of the often poor residents who resided beneath them.  Shanty towns and other hovels of the poor were often demolished to make way for the new stations.  

Accidents on the railways were minimal.  According to statistics gathered by Picard:
  • fatal accidents were 653,637 chances to one
  • injuries were 85,125 chances to one
  • 40 percent of accidents were caused by passengers getting into or out of the train while in motion
  • 28 percent of accidents were caused by passengers sitting or standing in an improper place
With the advent of rail travel so came the ability for people to travel further away from their hometowns than they had ever been able to before.  Some, like Thomas Cook, used the opportunities provided by rail to eventually establish organized "tours" to Liverpool, Wales, Scotland, and the Great Exhibition in London by gradually learning how to negotiate special terms with various railway companies for large groups of people traveling to and from the same destination:

A typical Cook's party was a group of 3,000 Sunday-school children who arrived in Euston from the Midlands and were safely shepherded across London to the Exhibition, and back to Euston in time for the nigh train.

For the passengers traveling on the trains, the experiences could vary.  With the great din created by the machinery and the steam and soot produced from the engine, it was advised that one keep the windows shut.  Unlike the 21st century, however, smoking restrictions were yet to be invented, so a closed window could leave one to the fumes of a fellow passenger's cigar or pipe.

First class carriages were rather comfortable- one could travel in their own private carriage if they so chose, and one train even provided a drawing room where men could lounge around a table and smoke if they so wished.  Second class was not as luxurious as first class, and was often, especially for long journeys, rough, as the railway lines sometimes made the seats as uncomfortable as possible in the hopes that passengers would go for the more expensive first class option instead.  Third class tickets were more often than not barely glorified cattle cars, open above waist height with no protection from the elements or debris from the engine.  As a result most tickets purchased were second class, then first class, and finally third class.  

By the 1850s and 1860s many of the vendors one recognizes in a modern train station or airport had found their way into the termini of London.  One could buy newspapers, books, food, and even stoves on which one could cook food in a train compartment.

Trains also helped improve communications.  Telegraph wires were first used to reinforce the railway signalling system, but were eventually applied to non-railway business (which Picard attributes to the capture of Franz Muller for the murder of Thomas Briggs on a train in 1864.).

Other than being able to travel great distances simply for sight-seeing purposes, the train system also encouraged the working classes to do something they had not done before- live further away from work.  Before the train systems artisans, tradesmen, and the poor had lived where they worked or just around the corner.  In 1844 it was decreed that every line had to run a train charging only a penny a mile every day for the working class who had to get to their jobs long before the civil servants and merchants of the higher classes went to work.

Traffic had always been a major problem in Victorian London.  Trains made it worse by bringing more passengers and goods into the city than ever before, often miles from their destination.  How, then, was the city to combat this problem?  The answer: build a train system  under the city.

After a slow start a great Victorian engineering feat was created and in operation by January 1863- the London Underground.  The Underground was an immediate success.  Despite a constant foggy mist created by the steam-powered engines in the stations, the carriages themselves were well lit by gas lamps enough so one could read, well ventilated, and comfortably furnished with cushioned seats for first class carriages (with third class reverting to the glorified cattle car of the above-ground trains).  It also helped that trains arrived every two minutes during rush hour, and every ten minutes during less busy times of the day.

Sounds like the Victorians had better systems of transportation in place than does 21st century Pittsburgh.

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