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History of Trains in Britain

Stephenson's Rocket

Earliest Trains

The earliest trains or locomotives were powered by steam engines which were devised in the early 1700s. James Watt (1736-1819), a Scottish mechanical engineer, invented a steam engine, the design of which was used to power the early locomotives. A fire burning coal or wood heated up water inside a boiler which generated steam. The steam was used to drive cylinders called pistons backwards and forwards and rods from these turned the wheels of the train. One renowned and popular steam locomotive was designed by George Stephenson (1781-1848), an English civil and mechanical engineer in 1829, and it was called the Rocket.

Stephenson's Rocket Locomotive at the London Science Museum



The Flying Scotsman in Doncaster, England (public domain) (public domain)

During the 1800s, railway tracks were laid down and steam trains made travel very much possible for large number of passengers. Steam trains are still in routine use in some countries of the world. In Great Britain, steam trains are popular tourists attractions, especially in science museums where visitors can learn a great deal of history. Many old locomotives have been restored, and famous ones such as the Flying Scotsman and the Mallard, which set the speed record for a steam train in 1938 of over 200kmph, are household names.

The Mallard Locomotive

The Pen-y-Darren Steam Locomotive

Richard Trevithick (1771-1833) built the first steam locomotive in 1803 in Wales. This construction of Trevithick is believed to be the world's first railway that traveled over 9 miles from the Pen-y-Darren iron works to the Merthyr-Cardiff Canal in the South of Wales, and that journey took place on the 21st February 1804. This in fact means that Richard Trevithick was the real boss of the railways, and not George Stephenson. Trevithick had some stationary engines of high pressure at the Pen-y-Darren factory and he used and mounted one of the engines on wheels to make his first steam train. It was called the 'unnamed locomotive', or also known as the Pen-y-Darren. Unfortunately, his locomotive was not very successful because the engine was far too heavy and it broke the rail tracks.

The Unnamed Locomotive

Richard Trevithick's replica of the unnamed locomotive.

Richard Trevithick's replica of the unnamed locomotive.

Old Steam Trains of the 1940s in UK

French TGV

After the Second World War, locomotives powered by diesel engines quickly replaced the old stream trains. These diesel-powered trains were faster, smoother and kind to the environment than the steam locomotives and, along with electric trains, form the basis of modern railway networks. Electric trains are run on electricity which is obtained either from an overhead cable or from a 'live' rail in the center of the train track. These trains are especially associated with the underground railways system in London and many other cities in Great Britain, but they also run above ground.

Some underground trains are totally automatic, being operated by electronic signals generated via the track from a central control unit. One of the fastest trains in the world, which can achieve the high speed of over 520kmph, is the French TGV (train a grande vitesse), which is electrically-operated.

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Inter-city 125 Train



One of Britain's Intercity series, the 125, is the fastest diesel train being able to reach a speed of 233kmph. The speed record is held by a Japanese locomotive, the Bullet, which is capable of reaching speeds of up to 260kmph.

Trains have always been used to move freight as well as passengers, and a variety of special trucks are used depending upon the materials being transported.

Japanese Bullet Train at the National Railway Museum, York

Historical Quiz on Trains For Fun

For each question, choose the best answer. The answer key is below.

  1. Which country has the longest network of railways?
    • France
    • China
    • USA
    • Russia
  2. In what year was the First Continental Railroad completed?
    • 1901
    • 1869
    • 1854
    • 1789
  3. What is the acronym for the high-speed trains in France?
    • FTO
    • GLX
    • TGV
    • FTD
  4. Which city was the first underground railway to be built in 1863?
    • London
    • Paris
    • New York City
    • Madrid
  5. What kind of trains are used to climb mountains and steep hills?
    • Cargo trains
    • Steam trains
    • Cargo & rack trains
    • Electric trains
  6. Before the invention of trains, what was the fastest type of transport?
    • Airplane
    • Horse-drawn Stagecoach
    • Car
    • Rickshaw
  7. What kind of fuel was used to power American steam trains in the 19th century?
    • Electric
    • Gas
    • Coal
    • Wood
  8. Which two cities did the Orient Express run between?
    • London - Edinburgh
    • Paris - Istanbul
    • Beijing - Peking
    • Tokyo - Moscow
  9. In which city is the National Railway Museum in Britain?
    • York
    • Birmingham
    • Glasgow
    • Cardiff
  10. Which James Bond movie involves the Orient Express?
    • Moonracker
    • The Spy Who Loved Me
    • From Russia With Love
    • Live Or Let Die

Answer Key

  1. USA
  2. 1869
  3. TGV
  4. London
  5. Cargo & rack trains
  6. Horse-drawn Stagecoach
  7. Wood
  8. Paris - Istanbul
  9. York
  10. From Russia With Love


Deborah Brooks Langford from Brownsville,TX on January 20, 2013:

wow how interesting.. I just saw on the history channel about how trains got started and it was fascinating.

great hub

voted up and sharing


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