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Benjamin Outram's Little Eaton Gangway in July 1908 with the last train of loaded coal wagons arriving.

Wagonways (or Waggonways) consisted of the horses, equipment and tracks used for hauling wagons, which preceded steam-powered railways. The terms "plateway", "tramway" and in some places, "dramway" are also found. The advantage of using wagonways was that far bigger loads could be transported with the same power.

Ancient developments[edit]

The idea of using "tracked" roads is at least 2000 years old; quarries in Ancient Greece, Malta and the Roman Empire used cut stone tracks to haul loads pulled by animals, as the Greek Diolkos did for transporting ships overland.

Early modern developments[edit]

Cart from 16th century, found in Transylvania

Around 1568, German miners working in the Mines Royal near Keswick had knowledge of tub railways: archaeological work at the Mines Royal site at Caldbeck in the English Lake District has now confirmed the use of "hunds", as track fragments have been found.[1][2] The wooden tubs, known as "hunds" ("dog" in German) ran on two wide boards or rails and were used to move ore within the mines. These hunds used a guide pin system, utilising the slot between the two board rails to keep them on course.

The first true railways, using a flange to keep the wheel on a rail, were developed in the early 17th century. In 1604, Huntingdon Beaumont completed the Wollaton Wagonway, built to transport coal from the mines at Strelley to Wollaton Lane End, just west of Nottingham, England. Wagonways have been proven to exist between Broseley and Jackfield in Shropshire from 1605, used by James Clifford to transport coal from his mines in Broseley to the River Severn. It has recently been suggested that these are somewhat older than that at Wollaton.[2][3]

Wagonways improved coal transport by allowing one horse to deliver between 10 to 13 long tons (10.2 to 13.2 t; 11.2 to 14.6 short tons) of coal per run— an approximate fourfold increase. Wagonways were usually designed to carry the fully loaded wagons downhill to a canal or boat dock and then return the empty wagons back to the mine.

Until the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, the rails were made of wood, were a few inches wide and were fastened down, end to end, on logs of wood or "sleepers", placed crosswise at intervals of two or three feet. In time, it became a common practice to cover them with a thin flat sheathing or "plating" of iron, in order to add to their life and reduce friction. This caused more wear on the wooden rollers of the wagons and towards the middle of the 18th century, led to the introduction of iron wheels, the use of which is recorded on a wooden railway near Bath in 1734. However, the iron sheathing was not strong enough to resist buckling under the passage of the loaded wagons, so rails made wholly of iron were invented.

Iron rails[edit]

The first iron rails[edit]

In 1760 the Coalbrookdale Iron Works began to reinforce their wooden railed tramway with iron bars,[4] which were found to greatly facilitate the passage of the waggons and diminished the current expenses of the line. As a result, in 1767, they began to cast iron rails. These were probably 6 ft (1,829 mm) long, with four projecting ears or lugs 3 in (75 mm) by 3 34 in (95 mm) to enable them to be fixed to the sleepers. The rails were 3 34 in (95 mm) wide and 1 14 in (30 mm) thick. Later, descriptions also refer to rails 3 ft (914 mm) long and only 2 in (50 mm) wide.[5]

Flangeways, plateways[edit]

Recreated track section for original railway in England (circa 1803) as built by Richard Trevithick. The track was originally used for horse-drawn carriages. It has the flanges on the track rather than the wheels, so that it is a flangeway rather than an edgeway.

A later system involved "L" shaped iron rails or plates, each 3 ft (915 mm) long and 4 in (100 mm) wide, having on the inner side an upright ledge or flange, 3 in (75 mm) high at the centre and tapering to a height of 2 in (50 mm) at the ends, for the purpose of keeping the flat wheels on the track.

Subsequently, to increase the strength, a similar flange might be added below the rail. Wooden sleepers continued to be used— the rails being secured by spikes passing through the extremities— but, circa 1793, stone blocks also began to be used, an innovation associated with the name of Benjamin Outram, who, however, was not the first to make it. This type of rail was known as the plate-rail, tramway-plate or way-plate, names which are preserved in the modern term "platelayer" applied to the men who lay and maintain the permanent way of a railway.

The wheels of flangeway wagons were plain, but they could not operate on ordinary roads as the narrow rims would dig into the surface.

Edgeway, edge rails[edit]

Cast iron fishbelly edge rail manufactured by Outram at the Butterley Company ironworks for the Cromford and High Peak Railway (1831). These are smooth edgerails for wheels with flanges.

Another form of rail, the edge rail, was first used by William Jessop on a line which was opened as part of the Charnwood Forest Canal between Loughborough and Nanpantan in Leicestershire in 1789. This line was originally designed as a plateway on the Outram system, but objections were raised to rails with upstanding ledges or flanges being laid on the turnpike road. This difficulty was overcome by paving or "causewaying" the road up to the level of the top of the flanges. In 1790, Jessop and his partner Outram began to manufacture edge-rails. Another example of the edge rail application was the Lake Lock Rail Road used primarily for coal transport. This was a public railway (charging a toll) and opened for traffic in 1798. The route started at Lake Lock, Stanley, on the Aire & Calder Navigation, near Wakefield, and ran to Outwood, a distance of approximately 3 miles (4.8 km). Edge-rails (with a side rack) were also used on the nearby Middleton-Leeds rack railway (a length of this rail is on display in Leeds City Museum).

The wheels of an edgeway have flanges, like modern railways and tramways. Causewaying is also done on modern level crossings and tramways.

These two systems of constructing iron railways, the "L" plate-rail and the smooth edge-rail, continued to exist side by side until well on into the 19th century. In most parts of England the plate-rail was preferred. Plate-rails were used on the Surrey Iron Railway (SIR), from Wandsworth to West Croydon. The SIR was sanctioned by Parliament in 1801, and finished in 1803. Like the Lake Lock Rail Road, the SIR was available to the public on payment of tolls; previous lines had all been private and reserved exclusively for the use of their owners. Since it was used by individual operators, vehicles would vary greatly in wheel spacing (gauge) and the plate rail coped better.

In South Wales again, where in 1811 the railways were connected with canals, collieries, ironworks, and copper works, and had a total length of nearly 150 miles (241 km),[4] the plateway was almost universal. But in the North of England and in Scotland the edge-rail was held in greater favor, and by the third decade of the century its superiority was generally established. Wheels tended to bind against the flange of the plate rail and mud and stones would build up.

Lengths of fishbelly rail on stone support blocks. These are edgerails for wheels with flanges.

The manufacture of the rails themselves was gradually improved. By making them in longer lengths, a reduction was effected in the number of joints, always the weakest part of the line; and another advance consisted in the substitution of wrought iron for cast iron, though that material did not gain wide adoption until after the patent for an improved method of rolling rails granted in 1820 to John Birkinshaw, of the Bedlington Ironworks, Northumberland. His rails were wedge-shaped in section, much wider at the top than at the bottom, with the intermediate portion or web thinner still, and he recommended that they should be made 18 ft (5.49 m) long, even suggesting that several of them might be welded together end to end to form considerable lengths. They were supported on sleepers by chairs at intervals of 3 ft (914 mm), and were fish-bellied between the points of support. As used by George Stephenson on the Stockton & Darlington and Canterbury & Whitstable lines, they weighed 28 lb/yd (13.9 kg/m). On the Liverpool and Manchester Railway they were usually 12 or 15 ft (3.66 or 4.57 m) long and weighed 35 lb/yd (17.4 kg/m), and they were fastened by iron wedges to chairs weighing 15 or 17 lb (6.8 or 7.7 kg) each. The chairs were in turn fixed to the sleepers by two iron spikes, half-round wooden cross sleepers being employed on embankments and stone blocks 20 in (508 mm) square by 10 in (254 mm) deep in cuttings. The fish-bellied rails, however, were found to break near the chairs and starting in 1834, they were gradually replaced with parallel rails weighing 50 lb/yd (24.8 kg/m).

The wagonway had come into considerable use in connection with collieries and quarries before it was realized that for the carriage of general merchandise it might prove a serious competitor to the canals, of which a large distance had been constructed in Great Britain during that period. In the article on "Railways" in the Supplement to the Encyclopædia Britannica, published in 1824, it is said: "It will appear that this species of inland carriage is principally applicable where trade is considerable and the length of conveyance short; and is chiefly useful, therefore, in transporting the mineral produce of the kingdom from the mines to the nearest land or water communication, whether sea, river or canal. Attempts have been made to bring it into more general use, but without success; and it is only in particular circumstances that navigation, with the aid either of locks or inclined planes to surmount the elevations, will not present a more convenient medium for an extended trade." It must be remembered, however, that at this time the railways were nearly all worked by horse-traction, and that the use of steam had made but little progress.

Steam power[edit]

In 1804, Richard Trevithick, in the first recorded use of self-propelled steam power on a railway, ran a high-pressure steam locomotive with smooth wheels, on an 'L' section plateway near Merthyr Tydfil, but it was found more expensive than horses. He made three trips from the iron mines at Penydarren to the Merthyr-Cardiff Canal and each time broke the rails that were designed for horse wagon loads. There was general doubt at the time in the grip that smooth wheels could obtain on smooth rails, and this resulted in proposals using rack or other drive mechanisms. Mr Blenkinsop of Middleton Colliery patented the use of cogged wheels in 1811, and in 1812, the Middleton Railway (edgeway, rack rail) successfully used twin cylinder steam locomotives made by Matthew Murray of Holbeck, Leeds. George Stephenson made his first steam locomotive in 1813 (patented 1815) for the Killingworth colliery,[4] and found smooth wheels on smooth rails did give adequate grip. Although he later recounted that they called this locomotive 'My Lord' as it was financed by Lord Ravensworth, it seems it was known at the time as Blücher. In 1814 William Stewart was engaged by Parkend Coal Co in the Forest of Dean for the construction of a steam locomotive, which when trialled was reported to be very successful,[4] but Mr Stewart didn't receive his expected reward and the two parties parted on bad terms and he was 'obliged to abandon the engine to that Company'.[6] In 1821, a wagonway was proposed that would connect the mines at West Durham, Darlington and the River Tees at Stockton, George Stephenson successfully argued that horse-drawn wagonways were obsolete and a steam-powered railway could carry 50 times as much coal.[citation needed] Shortly after the completion of the Stockton and Darlington railway in 1825, coal transport prices began falling rapidly.

Stationary steam engines for mining were generally available around the middle of the 18th century, wagonways and steam-powered railways that had steep uphill sections would employ a cable powered by a stationary steam engine to work the inclined sections. British troops in Lewiston, New York used a cable wagonway to move supplies to bases before the American Revolutionary War. The Stockton and Darlington had two inclined sections powered by cable.

The transition from a wagonway to a fully steam-powered railway was a gradual evolution. Railways up to 1835 that were steam-powered often made runs with horses when the steam locomotives were unavailable. The Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, which initially opened in 1830 with 13 miles (21 km) of track, was horse-powered. Railroads powered by stationary engines and cables (San Francisco cable cars) and horse-drawn trams (Isle of Man, Douglas Bay Horse Tramway) are still in use today.

In 1999, the Beamish Museum in North East England replicated a steam-operated railway of 1825, the "Pockerley Waggonway", going on to recreate a wooden wagonway alongside.


Even in the steam age, it was convenient to use horses in station yards to shunt wagons from one place to another. Horses do not need lengthy times to raise steam in the boiler, and can also take short cuts from one siding to another. At Hamley Bridge tenders were called for the supply of horses, in part because normal railway staff lacked horse handling skills.


A number of short and isolated lines were originally operated by horse, unless connected to the main system and converted to locomotive operation. These include:

  • Goolwa tramway from 1850. Later converted to steam locomotive operation.
  • Port Broughton tramway which was always isolated until closure.
  • Port Wakefield tramway until lengthened and converted to locomotive operation.


Early horse-drawn passenger rail system in Mayagüez, Puerto Rico, c. 1872.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Warren Allison, Samuel Murphy, and Richard Smith, 'An Early Railway in the German Mines of Caldbeck' in G. Boyes (ed.), Early Railways 4: Papers from the 4th International Early Railways Conference 2008 (Six Martlets, Sudbury, 2010), 52-69.
  2. ^ a b "Time line for early railway developments & Wollaton Waggonway associated dates". Stephenson Locomotive Society & Waggonway Research Circle. 15 October 2007. Retrieved 1 September 2009. 
  3. ^ Peter King, ‘The First Shropshire Railways’ in G. Boyes (ed.), Early Railways 4: Papers from the 4th International Early Railways Conference 2008 (Six Martlets, Sudbury, 2010), 70-84.
  4. ^ a b c d "Historical Notes on Railways". The Practical Mechanic and Engineers Magazine, November 1844, pp57-60
  5. ^ Lewis, Michael Jonathan Taunton (1970). Early Wooden Railways. London: Routledge & K. Paul. pp. 160–165. ISBN 0-7100-6674-0. OCLC 138270. 
  6. ^ "Inventors and Capitalists", William Stewart, The Practical Mechanic and Engineer's Magazine, October 1844, p24


  • Smiles, Samuel; Stephenson, George (1857). The life of George Stephenson, Railway Engineer. London. OCLC 162233825. 
  • Westwood, John Norton (1988). The Pictorial History of Railways. London: Bison Books. ISBN 0-86124-446-X. OCLC 34774624. 

External links[edit]

Public Domain This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainChisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "article name needed". Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.