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Railroads in 19th Century Europe : Great Britain, France, Germany, and Russia

Korean Minjok Leadership Academy
International Program
Cha, Sung Jik
Term Paper, AP European History Class, May 2008

Table of Contents

I. Overview
II. Great Britain
III. France
IV. Germany
V. Russia
VI. Conclusion
VII. Notes
VI. Bibliography

I. Overview
            The first markings of a modern railway appeared with the employment of the steam locomotive. In 1804, the first steam locomotive railway, the Penydarren, was built by the British engineer Richard Trevithick and was used to haul iron from Merthyr Tydfil to Abercynon in Wales. Yet, railroads in the early 19th century were impractical due to weak iron rails and differing standards for gauge length. Such technical imperfections were fixed by British engineer George Stephenson, also known as the "Father of Railways," who developed designs to strengthen the iron casting of rails and created the "Stephenson Gauge" of 1435 mm, a standard that was used in most parts of Europe. In continental Europe, the history of modern railways is considered to have begun after the implementation of steam engines and the Stephenson Gauge.

Figure 1 : Total Railway Length (1)

Figure 2 : Railway Length per 100,000 sq km (2)

Figure 3 : Railway Lines per Million People (3)

            In the "Railroad Era" of the 19th century that began in Great Britain in 1830, European railways grew quickly in length and freight/passenger traffic. The figure above shows the growth in total railway length by country between 1840 and 1900. The following sections will cover in detail the growth and development of modern railways of the first four European countries to begin construction of nationwide networks, namely Great Britain, France, Germany, and Russia.

II. Great Britain
            The first railway to be approved by the British parliament was the Stockton and Darlington Railway. The 40km long railway, of which Stephenson was the provider of locomotives for, was granted permission in 1821 and was constructed in 1825. The S&DR was the first railway to carry both freight and passengers.
            In 1830, Stephenson engineered the Liverpool and Manchester Railway, in which the locomotive "Rocket" gained worldwide attention, thus starting the Railroad Era. By 1939, the total length of railway lines in Great Britain grew well over 1,500 km, compared to the less than 90 km of 1829 (4).
            Then in the 1840s, speculation on railway share prices led to the Railway Mania. During this period 272 Acts of Parliament were passed, many of which charted the opening of new railroad companies. Despite its being a stock market bubble doomed to collapse (5), the Railway Mania resulted in a substantial growth in the length of railway lines; by 1950, there were some 9,000km of track in Great Britain (6).
            In the 1830s and 1840s, Britain's railways played an important role in fueling the Industrial Revolution by connecting the rich inland coal and iron supplies of North England to the port cities of the East and West. In the later part of the Industrial Revolution, railways proved indispensable in providing transportation of freight; during the 1890s, freight traffic by railways amounted to over 400 million metric tons a year, a considerable growth compared to the 60~80 million metric tons in the 1850s (7). Furthermore, the railways provided an effective means of transportation for passengers, many of whom started from rural areas and ended up remaining in cities, resulting in an influx of workers liable for factory-employment; by 1899, over 1,000 million travelers were buying tickets for trains (8).

III. France
            In France, the first railway appeared in 1828, three years after Great Britain's first railway. In the 1820s and 1830s, French railways were mostly short mineral lines scattered throughout the country. Compared to Great Britain, progress was slow until the legalization of the main railway system in 1842, due to a number of political, economical, and geographical factors.
            The Napoleonic Wars ended in 1815, and France's economy then was not yet fit to bolster the construction of a nationwide railway network. The French coal and iron industries were underdeveloped compared to Great Britain, one cause being a lack of coalfields; by the 1900s, Great Britain was producing well over 200 million tons of coal a year, while France lagged behind with only about 35 million tons a year (9).
            Furthermore, during the July Monarchy of 1830-1848, France lacked a strong central government compared to countries like Belgium or Prussia/Germany, with decisions made only after long parliamentary debates (10); neither did it have a well-developed laissez-faire free-market system that had provided the basis for the Railway Mania in Great Britain (11).
            Also, France had many navigable waterways and had invested a great deal of capital in the construction of canals. France did not need an extensive network of railroads, which would only hurt the water-transport industries. In 1832, the Rouen Chamber of Commerce opposed the construction of a railway that would connect Rouen and Paris, arguing that it would hurt local canal and riverside businesses.
            In 1842, the French government passed a law allowing and subsidizing private companies to build railways connecting Paris to other major cities. Because of the negative factors mentioned above, government intervention was severe, which unfortunately proved to be inefficient. All the cities were connected only to Paris and not with each other. This greatly inflated interregional shipment costs, and advancement of troops and supplies were greatly hindered, a fact contributing to the French defeat in the Franco-German War (1870-1871). In 1870, about 1,000 km of track were destroyed and later rebuilt. But by the 1880s, France had caught up with Great Britain in total railroad length, with 37,494 km of track compared to Britain's 29,828 km of track in 1899 (12).

IV. Germany (13)
            In 1826, two Prussians Karl von Oeynhausen and Heinrich von Dechen arrived in Great Britain to examine its railway industry. 3 years later, they reported to the Prussian authorities saying they were "strongly of the opinion that railways should take in civil engineering a far reaching share that until now has been little cultivated (14)." Such reports on Britain's booming industries and railroad network were to some extent exaggerated, but had a great effect on public and government opinion.
            In the 1830s, many German authorities and economists like Friedrich List believed that railways were necessary in the unification of the German states. There were also many British capital investors wishing to start construction in industrialized areas like Saxony and mine-rich states like Bavaria.
            In 1835, Germany's modern railway history started with the commencement of the 6 km railway in Bavaria, the Bayerische Ludwigsbahn (15). In Saxony, the first long-distance railway Leipzig-Dresden railway began operation in 1837. The next year, Prussia and Braunschweig also established state-owned railways, followed by Anhalt, Hessen-Darmstadt and Baden in 1840. These railways were mostly funded by private companies, and soon fierce competition and speculation started taking place. Consequently, states like Prussia passed laws to prevent something similar to the Railway Mania in Britain from happening.
            In the following years of the 1840s, the railway network expanded with great rapidity; by 1849, there were over 5,000 km of track compared to the 2,467 km of France (16). With an increasingly dense railway network, interstate travel and trade increased greatly. In 1850, 783 million passengers per kilometer and 303 million tons per kilometer of freight traffic were on rails (17). This paved the road to German unification as people with the same language and culture became economically tied by a tight railway network.
            Prussia's extensive railway network proved vital in mobilizing troops and supplies in the Seven Weeks War of 1866 and the Franco-German War of 1870 (18). In 1871, German unification was finally achieved, with 25 states each having state railways called Länderbahnen. In 1873, Germany's total railway length surpassed that of Great Britain's by about 1,000 km of track (19). During the years between 1840 and 1880, 90% of Germany's total rail length was constructed. The two figures below show the rapid growth of German rail lines in 1880 compared to 1840.

Figure 4 : German Lines in 1840 (20)

Figure 5 : German Lines in 1880 (21)

V. Russia
            In Russia, railways were a major breakthrough in solving the problem of transportation. Before the construction of railways in Russia, rivers and roads were the main modes of transportation, but they were mostly useless in winter. Ironically, Russia was slow in implementing and developing railroads for similar reasons as France.
            While the czar (Nicholas I) himself was supportive, many of Russia's noblemen protested against the construction of railways, skeptical of their profitability and the effects such innovations would have on the existing order of Russia's society (22). Count Kankrin, the Minister of Finance, "was an economist who considered that the welfare of the people would not benefit from the diversion into railway-building of capital which could be used to improve agriculture" (23). Count K. F. Toll, the Director of Ways and Communications, also opposed railways and supported the development of canals.
            In the late 18th and early 19th century, Russia did have primitive tramways in mining areas, but it was not until the 1830s that Russia began building modern railways. Between 1834 and 1836, serf mechanic E.A. Cherepanov and his son M.E. Cherepanov built 20 steam engines and a 3.5 km railway connecting the Vyskii Factory to the Mednyi Mine, the first of its kind in Russia.
            In 1835, Austrian engineer Franz Anton von Gerstner, who was the engineer of the Danube-Moldavia line, proposed to Nicholas I to start construction of an extensive railway network in Russia. He argued that railway lines could operate even in extreme winter conditions, that they were the ultimate transportation system in the wide, flat terrain of Russia, and that they were more than necessary for a continental country like Russia for mobilizing troops.
            In 1836, Nicholas I issued the decree for initiation, and the 27 km long Tsarskoe Selo Railway connecting St. Petersburg to Tsarskoe Selo was finished in 1837. Full steam locomotive operations commenced in 1838, and from then on, other lines were constructed throughout the country.
            Russia caught up with France in total line length by 1876, Great Britain by 1886, and Germany by 1900. In the late 19th and the early 20th century, Russia experienced a substantial increase in total railway length of about 30,000km (24). This in part was due to the construction of the 9,300 km long Trans-Siberian Railway that brought about Siberia's economic renaissance and was built from 1891 to 1904. An average of 710 km of track was laid and an average of 80,000 workers was employed each year (25).

VI. Conclusion
            In the Railroad Era of the 19th century, railways played an important role in shaping much of Europe's economy and society during the period. In Great Britain, railways and steam locomotives effectively provided the much needed transportation of natural resources like coal and iron to fuel the Industrial Revolution, which later quickly spread to other parts of Europe. In France, early difficulties in initiating construction and inefficient government intervention in designing and building railway lines proved detrimental in the Franco-German war; however, France was quick to catch up with other countries by the 1880s. In Germany, economical and cultural ties were made possible by the rapid growth of extensive grid-like interstate railways, and this paved the road to German unification in the 1870s. In Russia, railways connecting major mining areas to large cities that operated year-round quickly replaced the troublesome roads and canals, and with the building of the Trans-Siberian Railway, Russia's industrial progress quickened pace. Though nationwide openings of railways varied in period for other countries of Europe, they were greatly influenced by the trials and errors and successes of the first four railway countries.

VII. Notes
(1)      table created by the author of this paper; based on data from IHS pp.655-659
(2)      table created by the author of this paper; based on data from IHS pp.655-659
(3)      table created by the author of this paper; based on data from IHS pp.655-659
(4)      International Historical Statistics (IHS) : Europe 1750-1988 p.656
(5)      Article : Railway Mania (1836-1847), 2004. Starting from the late 1830s, speculation on railway companies increased, shares soared, and in 1847, the bubble burst causing many join-stock companies to go bankrupt.
(6)      IHS p.656
(7)      ibid. p.667
(8)      ibid. p.682
(9)      Article : History of coal mining, from Wikipedia. Chart : "Coal Production of the World, around 1905"
(10)      Article : History of Rail Transport in France, from Wikipedia. Liberals, conservatives, royalists all had differing views on railway construction, and railway projects failed to pass through parliament until 1842.
(11)      Article : History of Rail Transport in France, from Wikipedia. While in Britain numerous private companies had the ability to endeavor in railway projects, France¡¯s railways were largely dependent on government initiatives. .
(12)      IHS p.657
(13)      Statistical data for Germany pertain to the 1913 boundaries; the maps include Luxemburg (until 1919 member of the Zollverein)
(14)      Article : Growing German Interest in Railways, from "The Leipzig-Dresden Railway Line through Time"
(15)      i.e. the Nürnberg-Fürth railroad
(16)      IHS p.655
(17)      ibid. p.677
(18)      Article : The line in the 1860s, from "Leipzig-Dresden Railway Line".
von Moltke, the commander in the Seven Weeks War, had advocated the military advantages of railways as early as 1843, writing: "Every new development of railways is a military advantage; and for the national defence a few million on the completion of our railways is far more profitably employed on our new fortresses."
(19)      IHS p.655
(20)      IEG-Maps
(21)      same as (2)
(22)      Article : "The Beginnings of Railways in Russia"
(23)      ibid.
(24)      IHS p.659
(25)      Article : "History of the Trans-Siberian Route"


Note : websites quoted below were visited in April 2008.
1.      Article : "Rail Transport," from Wikipedia, 2008
2.      Article : "History of Rail Transport," from Wikipedia, 2008
3.      Article : "Timeline of Railway History," from Wikipedia, 2008
4.      Article : "History of Rail Transport by Country," from Wikipedia, 2008
5.      Article : "George Stephenson," from Wikipedia, 2008
6.      Article : "Liverpool and Manchester Railway," from Wikipedia, 2008
7.      Article : "Stockton and Darlington Railway," from Wikipedia, 2008
8.      Article : "Industrial Revolution," from Wikipedia, 2008
9.      Article : "Railway Mania," from Wikipedia, 2008
10.      Article : "History of Coal Mining," from Wikipedia, 2008
11.      Fink, Kelvin, "The Beginnings of Railways in Russia," 1991,
12.      Russian Rail Service, "Russian Railways History and Maps," 2008,
13.      Russian Rail Service, "History of the Trans-Siberian Route," 2008,
14.      Lace, John, "The Leipzig-Dresden Railway Line through Time" : "Development of the railway in Germany." "Growing German interest in railways." "The Saxon railway begins." "The Leipzig-Dresden Railway Company." "The line's influence on the rest of Germany." "The line in the 1840s." "The line in the 1850s." "The line in the 1860s." "The line during the war of unification - 1870-71." "The line after the 1871 unification.", 1998
15.      Article : "Railway," from The New Encyclopaedia Britannica, Micropedia Volume 9, 1998
16.      Mitchell, B.R., International Historical Statistics : Europe 1750-1988
17.      Andreas Kunz, "Eisenbahnen in Deutschland 1835-1885" (Railways in Germany 1835-1885) from IEG-Maps 2002
18.      Paul Halsall, "Modern History Sourcebook : Spread of Railways in the 19th Century", 1997
19.      Article : History of Coal Mining, from Wikipedia, 2008,

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