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The World’s Most Famous Railway

The story of the London and North Western Line



THE TUBULAR BRIDGE, designed by Stephenson, over the Menai Straits.

PROBABLY no other steel highway is so famous throughout the world as that known today as the London and North Western Railway. While, as an entity, it represents a combination of some fifty systems, it is interesting historically because its nucleus was the celebrated Liverpool and Manchester Railway, which was opened for traffic on September 15th, 1830, and on which the historic “Rocket” carried off the first prize of £500 in the Rainhill locomotive trials. It was this competition and its startling results that opened the eyes of the various countries to the possibilities of the railway and steam loco-motive, and which precipitated the railway building fever that ran like wildfire through the five continents.

While the operation of this pioneer line demonstrated the revolution that was destined to be wrought by this means of communication, the construction of the thirty miles between the two great commercial centres of Lancashire also brought home the fact that the railway builder, in his efforts to cleave a narrow passage for the ribbon of steel, would have to be prepared to be thrown against baffling obstacles which would tax his ingenuity, resourcefulness and determination to a supreme degree. Seven miles west of Manchester, and extending over twelve square miles, is the morass known as Chat Moss. The railway was plotted to run across it. At first, owing to the fact that extensive drainage schemes had been carried out, it was thought that the bog would not offer any serious difficulties, but when the builders came to grips with it, they soon ascertained that the statements concerning its character and the obstruction it would offer to their advance were by no means over-estimated. Robert Stephenson, who, owing to failing health, had gone to South America to examine and report upon some gold and silver mines, received an urgent message from his father to come home and participate in the building of this railway. He reached home in December, 1827, and at once grappled with the problems which had arisen.

This brought him into touch with railway engineering in the field, and he established his name as a constructional engineer by the ingenuity and fertility he displayed in subjugating the treacherous Chat Moss. As it was impossible to build up an embankment merely by the discharge of spoil, since the latter immediately sank into the bog’s slimy, unstable mass, he conceived the idea of laying the earthworks upon a brushwood foundation. He fashioned a substantial mattress of hurdles, interlaced with heather and tree boughs, which was laid upon the surface of the bog, and upon which the spoil was dumped. Under the superimposed weight the mattress sank deeper and deeper into the morass, until it gained a point beyond which it would not move. The embankment was as firm and as solid as if it were resting upon a rock, and inasmuch as the submerged mattress was certain to become stronger as time passed, owing to its becoming water-logged and assuming the character of bog-oak, it offered a complete solution of the teasing problem. Robert Stephenson’s method of conquering the bog has never been superseded, for the simple reason that no other more efficient and inexpensive method has been discovered. The tundra of Asia, the muskeg of North America, and the swamps of South America - all are “corduroyed,” as this recourse to mattresses is termed, in order to carry the weight of a railway permanent way.

As the promoters of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway were engaged upon a pioneer undertaking, and were quite ignorant of the revenue-earning capabilities of the railway, they were extremely modest in their prophecies concerning traffic earnings. They estimated that the passenger business would bring in £10,000 and the movement of goods about £50,000 respectively, per annum, making a total of £60,000. They were startled by the results of the first year’s operations, which amounted to £101,829, of which £80,000 accrued from the goods traffic. Is it surprising that such a result of the first year’s working of the first commercial railway should have fired the imaginations of other promoters, and created innumerable “castles in the air” - dreams which were not shattered until the pricking of the railway bubble a quarter of a century later.

When the Liverpool and Manchester Railway had settled down, and had become an assured success, other small systems grew up around it. Among these was a short line, four and a half miles in length, which, branching from the main line, linked up with Warrington. Owing to Robert Stephenson’s success with the parent line, he was entrusted with this work. Another company, the Grand Junction Railway, secured the requisite Parliamentary sanction to continue this Warrington branch to the south through Crewe to Birmingham. In the same year was granted permission also to build a railway 112¼ miles in length from London to Birmingham. At the latter point it was to connect up with the Grand Junction Railway, so that through and direct communication would be offered between the Metropolis, Manchester and Liverpool. Robert Stephenson was entrusted with the survey of the London to Birmingham section, and afterwards became the chief engineer to the undertaking. Under his direction the first turf was cut at Chalk Farm on June 1st, 1834, and work was prosecuted so vigorously that the north was in railway touch with the Metropolis on September 20th, 1838.

But although the 112 miles to Birmingham were completed within such a short time, it must not be inferred that the work was straightforward, easy, and free from harassing difficulty. Far from it. The building of the Liverpool and Manchester line, despite Chat Moss and the heavy excavation in Olive Cutting, was child’s play in comparison with the London and Birmingham Railway. The cost of construction was based upon that of the former line; contractors regarded the under-taking in a similar light. It was impossible to do otherwise, seeing that there was no other work upon which to base prices. The contractors entered upon their various tasks light-heartedly, but many, before they had proceeded far, became disillusioned, and had good occasion to regret their temerity. Some went down into financial disaster; others cut their losses and retired discomfited from the scene; only the more determined pushed forward with a grim pertinacity so as to win out. Estimates were exceeded on every side, because the unexpected cropped up at every turn.


THE MAIN SHAFT IN THE KILSBY TUNNEL. This work, owing to water trouble, proved the most difficult and expensive on the whole system.

In order to reach Rugby the location of the line cut under the Kilsby Ridge. A tunnel 2,423 yards in length was inevitable. It seemed a straightforward job, because the borings which were driven in the customary manner, to determine the geological formation through which the bore was to extend, did not present any abnormalities. So the contractor estimated that he could complete the task for £99,000. Considering that up to this time a tunnel exceeding half-a-mile in length never had been attempted, the contractor certainly was daring and plucky to assume such a responsibility. It was decided to drive the tunnel from each end, and also north and south of two shafts, which were to be sunk from the ridge to the requisite level, and which were to be completed as ventilating shafts.

The contractor started operations in June, 1835, but ere many weeks had passed he learned to his dismay that the borings were completely unreliable. When he came to sink his shafts through what he had been led to expect to be sound earth and rock, he stumbled against slippery shale, quicksand and water, of which, strange to say, no inkling had been given in the borings, as they had missed these treacherous spots. The contractor persevered, hoping against hope that he would get through this treacherous stratae as he sank his second shaft deeper, but after nine months’ heartbreaking disappointments and fighting against overwhelming odds, he threw up the job.

The Kilsby Tunnel became a nightmare. The water trouble scared every other contractor; not one could be induced to quote a revised price for its completion. Accordingly, the railway company was forced to take it over. Robert Stephenson came upon the scene, surveyed the prospect, and finally came to the conclusion that the water trouble was probably quite local; was not fed by subterranean springs, and that, provided adequate pumping plant was erected, the shaft could be

pumped dry. He set up powerful steam-pumps and sank wells near the located line for the tunnel for the purpose of drawing the water away from the main shaft. In all, eighteen of these subsidiary shafts, or wells, were sunk, and with pumps capable of coping with 1,800 gallons per minute, the water difficulty was overcome, after a tedious battle lasting nine months. Bearing in mind the imperfect appliances available in those days, and that this was the first large railway tunnel-boring task which had been attempted, one cannot but admire the perseverance, dogged determination, and resourcefulness of Robert Stephenson and his assistants.

By the aid of a small army of 1,300 navvies, who toiled day and night incessantly, the tunnel was completed by October, 1838 - a remarkable performance all things considered, especially when on one or two occasions the working forces received startling frights. Thus, in November, 1836, while the men were at work in the tunnel, there was a sudden and violent inrush of water. A stampede ensued, and the work appeared to be doomed. But examination proved that the incursion was limited. Although the workings were flooded, the men were able to continue their work. Large rafts were fashioned, on which the navvies and the requisite material were floated in and out of the tunnel, often at extreme risk, owing to the ungainly nature of the argosies and the difficulty of manipulating them in the darkness.

Owing to the treacherous character of the earth through which the bore was driven, the tunnel had to be lined throughout, and for this purpose 30,000,000 bricks were used. The two shafts which are used for ventilating purposes are each 60 feet in diameter, by 130 and 60 feet in depth respectively. By the time the rails were laid, the Kilsby Tunnel had run away with over £300,000 - over three times as much as the original contract.


THE OLD AND THE NEW. Full size working model of Stephenson’s “Rocket”, which won the £500 prize at Rainhill in 1830, beside the 5,000th engine of the London and North Western Railway, built at Crewe works in 1911.

At first the three companies which offered railway communication between London, Manchester and Liverpool promised to work harmoniously together, but in reality differences of opinion arose, and they were at daggers drawn. In order to provide a more direct route between Birmingham and Manchester than that offered by the Grand Junction Railway another company - the Manchester and Birmingham Railway - was born. This line never got any farther than Crewe in its construction out of Manchester. As the railway boom was setting in very strongly, and projects for meshing the whole of the British islands were being outlined every hour, the London and Birmingham Railway concluded that it would be able to make a more beneficial bargain with one or more of the newer schemes, and so flouted the Grand Junction Railway. The latter, fearing competition, at once devoted its energies to entrenching its position. It amalgamated itself with Liverpool and Manchester, as well as numerous other lines, and this consolidation of interests rendered it a very formidable force to attack. Then it determined to carry the war into the enemy’s camp. It prepared the plans for a railway running from Birmingham, via Warwick and Leamington, to a point near Oxford, where it would be able to effect a junction with the Great Western Railway. The latter, in return for giving the Grand Junction Railway entrance to London, was to secure the the right to penetrate to Liverpool and Manchester.

The London and Birmingham Railway viewed this move with the greatest anxiety, as the greater part of its traffic would be filched away, and it would be surrounded by hostile interests. Thereupon the directors, after a solemn discussion of the outlook, decided to recede from their untenable hostile position, made overtures to the Grand Junction Railway, and suggested that the two opposing forces should settle their differences and combine. The negotiations proved successful, and in 1846 the union was completed, the different concerns being bound into a homogeneous whole under the title of the London and North Western Railway.

When the first railways forming this system were taken in hand, the engineers, owing to lack of experience, generally clung to the theory that a locomotive would not be able to work by adhesion purely and simply over gradients exceeding about 1 in 330. Accordingly, the lines between London and Manchester were plotted so as to conform with this prevailing opinion. This lack of knowledge proved a fortunate circumstance in the long run, inasmuch as the company has been spared that costly realignment and reconstruction which has harassed other railways so sorely, owing to the adverse influence exerted by the heavy grades in their original lines.

Taken on the whole, the Birmingham section of the London and North Western Railway is one of the most level lines in the world, and is conducive to high speeds and economical operation. There is no bank exceeding 16 feet per mile - a rise which is so slight as to be almost negligible - while, owing to the care displayed by Stephenson in the original survey, the maximum difference in level between the highest and lowest parts of the line is only 308 feet. To-day, owing to the care which has been bestowed upon its up-keep, its permanent way cannot be rivalled; indeed, it has been taken as a pattern in other large undertakings throughout the world, notably by President Cassatt when he undertook the remodelling of the Pennsylvania Railway, and by President Hays when he embarked upon the construction of the Grand Trunk Pacific across Canada.

The general belief that a rise of 1 in 330 represented the maximum permissible for working by steam provoked a curious situation upon the section of the line between Euston terminus and Camden Town. Although the surveyors struggled hard, they found it absolutely impossible, owing to physical configuration, to secure a rise of less than 1 in 70 between the two points. They made no attempt to work it by adhesion. Instead, all trains proceeding out of Euston were assisted as far as Camden Town by a cable, which was hitched on to the train and wound in by a stationary winding plant, comprising two engines placed underground at Camden Town. They were of 60 nominal horsepower, and the main pulleys had a diameter of 20 feet. The rope was about 13,000 feet in length, and cost over £450.


THE FAMOUS OLIVE CUTTING ON PART OF THE THE LIVERPOOL AND MANCHESTER RAILWAY, now forming part of the London and North Western system.

The system of operating this cable incline was quite in keeping with the times. As they were pre-electric days, another method of signalling the engineman in the winding-house, to notify him when to start his plant, had to be devised. The train was connected to the winding rope  by means of a messenger, and when all was ready, a lever, connected to a bell having its edge submerged in water, and suspended over an inverted bell-mouth forming the end of a tube, was depressed sharply. This action caused the air within the bell to be driven downwards through the tube, which extended from the terminus to the engine-house. At the latter point the air-tube was connected to a large whistle - virtually an organ-pipe - and the puff of air sent through the pipe produced a blast on the whistle. Owing to the distance which the air had to travel about four seconds elapsed in transmitting the signal. The winding engine was set in motion, and the train attached thereto was hauled up the incline slowly. When the top of the bank was reached, the official on the train dexterously cast off the messenger without stopping the winding-engines. At times there was a miscalculation, and then the hauling machinery had to be stopped. The haulage of the train by this system occupied from three to four minutes. Needless to say, when the locomotive engineers were able to evolve more powerful engines, and experience proved that the incline could be worked by adhesion, the winding system was abandoned.

When the line was first built, the metals were laid on stone blocks, of which 152,000 tons were used upon the 112 miles out of London, at a cost of £180,000. A similar practice had been adopted on the Liverpool and Manchester Railway, where the permanent way rested upon a solid foundation, although on those parts where somewhat soft land was encountered wooden sleepers were used. However, the stone blocks were found to make the road hard and uncomfortable, and inflicted severe wear and tear both upon the track and rolling stock. On the other hand, the stretch of line laid with wooden sleepers was found to be more comfortable, easier, and reduced maintenance expenses. Accordingly, after lying for a short while, the stone blocks between London and Birmingham were removed in favour of wooden sleepers.


THE RUNCORN BRIDGE OVER THE RIVER MERSEY. It is a lattice girder structure comprising three main spans each of 305 feet, with the rails 75 feet above the waterway.

From the day when the Liverpool and Manchester, the Grand Junction, and the London and Birmingham Railways were fused into one organisation, the principle of acquiring other individual roads was pursued. Thus, not only was competition eliminated, but the field of operations was widened very considerably. The London and North Western system to-day is in reality a combination of about sixty different railways throughout the Midlands, Wales, and the North of England to the Border. A prudent policy of constructional extension also was followed, so that to-day the ramifications of the undertaking represent a network of some 2,000 miles.

Taken on the whole, the system does not possess many important works which under present conditions would rank as startling pieces of engineering, although in the early days many achievements created intense interest, and were regarded as marvels of human activity. The Kilsby Tunnel represents, perhaps, the most interesting illustration of tunnel-boring, owing to the abnormal difficulties which were encountered, while the tubular bridge across the Menai Straits, although subsequently eclipsed in point of length and importance by other similar structures, never has lost its fascinating interest, inasmuch as it was the first work of its class.

This bridge, 1,510 feet in length, comprises two immense rectangular tubes - one for each set of metals - through which the trains pass. It was designed by Robert Stephenson, and was commenced in 1845. There are four spans, two each of 460 feet and two each of 230 feet, supported on masonry piers, giving a clearance of 103 feet 9 inches between the under side of the tubes and the water at high spring tides. At the ends the tubes are 23 feet in depth by 30 feet deep at the centre. The most interesting feature was in connection with their construction and setting in position in the days when facilities were slender and equipment of an indifferent character. A special plant of an elaborate, ingenious and expensive nature was set up for the work. While the erection of the piers was in progress, the construction of the box-tube spans was carried out on the banks of the Straits. When completed, the tubes were transferred to pontoons, and were floated to the site when the water was at high tide. By means of capstans and ropes the pontoons were warped into position between the piers until the ends of the tubes were brought dead into position in grooves in the masonry, where they were made fast. As the tide fell, the pontoons dropped clear of their loads, leaving the tubes resting on their seats.

The tubes were then raised by the aid of a huge overhead hydraulic press, which by means of chains lifted them 6 feet at a time, the masonry How the being completed beneath as rapidly as possible after each lift. As the links of the chain could be withdrawn as required, having been made specially for this purpose, after each lift the chain was shortened, and the plunger of the hydraulic press permitted to descend. The shortened chain was then re-attached to the metallic work, and the ram of the plunger forced out again, lifting the mass a further 6 feet, to permit the masonry to be continued upwards a similar height. This cycle of operations was continued until the tubes were brought to the required level, the chains and plunger being called upon to handle, in this way, a maximum weight of 1,144 tons. The total weight of iron worked into the tubes is about 10,375 tons, and the walls present a superficies of 1,219,680 square feet for painting. As the tubes are continuous from end to end, they stretch about 6 inches in summer, under the influences of higher temperature.


THE “LADY OF THE LAKE”. Built in 1858. The driving wheel is 90 inches diameter.

The bridge was completed within the short space of five years, the first train passing through in 1850. Robert Stephenson adopted a similar bridge to span the River St. Lawrence at Montreal, for the Grand Trunk Railway of Canada. This, however, was a far larger undertaking. Two bridges of this type were built by him in Egypt, but in this latter instance the trains did not run through the bridge, but along the top deck of the rectangular tube.

Although the original stretches of the London and North Western Railway are very flat, and conducive to the fast and economical movement of traffic, the extensions of the system into Wales and north of Manchester to Carlisle proved far more difficult and expensive to build, bearing in mind the considerations of easy grade. On the main line to Scotland the ascent of Shap Fell to the summit level of 914 feet above the sea is heavy, averaging 1 in 75 for 6 miles. Similarly, in traversing many of the wilder parts of the Principality, the beauties of which have been opened up by this line, heavy expensive work was encountered. At Festiniog a tunnel had to be driven for the whole distance of 3,726 yards through solid rock. In the vicinity of Penmaenmawr the engineers have been pitted against a still more implacable enemy - theIrish Sea. On one or two occasions the waves have got the upper hand and have made breaches in the line which skirts the shore. To reduce the destructiveness of the sea to the minimum, heavy defence works have had to be completed.


THE “CHARLES DICKENS”. Which covered 2,000,000 miles - the world’s record for a locomotive.

Seeing that the London and North Western Railway, by its acquisition of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway, compasses practically the entire history of the steam locomotive, it has played a very important part in the development of the railway engine. It was on the Liverpool and Manchester Railway that the railway locomotive was born, where it assumed its type and commercial characteristics, and where the lines indicative of high speed were first worked out. From the “Rocket” to the “Sir Gilbert Claughton”, the latest type developed upon this system, or the ponderous “Mallet”, is a far cry, but despite the vast strides which have been made during the interval, fundamentally the latter do not differ from the former; the basic principles are the same.

Thus the story of the London and North Western Railway is virtually the story of the locomotive. Volumes could be written upon the latter, and the various developments that have been made, either in the interests of increased speed, augmented

haulage power, improved efficiency, or enhanced economy. Many names, inseparable from the evolution of the locomotive  - Trevithick, Allan, Bury, Ramsbottom, Webb, Whale, Cooke - are associated with the London and North Western Railway, and its engines of different epochs - milestones in the history of development. Since 1843, when the works were laid down at Crewe for the repair of engines and rolling stock, but which subsequently became the locomotive building-cradle of the system, over 5,000 engines have been built. As may be supposed, among these are several which stand out more prominently than their contemporaries, either because of some remarkable performance, or because they introduced some new feature which either succeeded or failed, or provoked a storm of profitable discussion.


THE “HARDWICKE”. Which crated a record in the “Race to the North” (1895) by running from Crewe to carlisle - 141 miles - at an average speed of 67.2 miles per hour.

In 1847 Trevithick designed the “Cornwall”, having drivers 102 inches in diameter, and with the boiler under the driving axle. She was a failure, but when rebuilt by Ramsbottom in 1858 she retrieved her reputation. Before she was withdrawn from service in 1904 she had covered 919,526 miles. These huge single drivers put up some fine speed records, especially when the conditions were favourable. The four-wheeled coupled locomotive with large drivers was a logical development in order to secure increased adhesion, and engines of this type acquitted themselves quite as famously. The “Hardwicke”, with cylinders of 17 inches diameter and 24-inch stroke and drivers of 81 inches diameter, which in the famous race to Scotland during 1895 hauled the West Coast express from Crewe to Carlisle, put up a marvellous record. Notwithstanding the heavy pull over Shap Fell, with its rise of 1 in 75, the engine surmounted the bank, 6 miles in length, at a speed of 45 miles per hour, and put up an average of 67.2 miles per hour for the whole 141 miles. The “Charles Dickens” was another famous engine of this class, achieving notoriety for putting to her credit the greatest number of miles in regular express running by making the double journey between London and Manchester every day until 2,000,000 miles were recorded. Another doughty engine was the compound “Ionic”, with two high-pressure cylinders of 15 inches diameter, and a low-pressure cylinder of 30 inches by a common stroke of 24 inches, and four coupled drivers of 85 inches diameter. On September 8th this engine hauled a train over the 299 miles between Euston and Carlisle without a stop, and thus created a world’s record in non-stop performances.


THE “IONIC”. Which hauled a train from London to Carlisle - 299 miles - without a stop.

The first engine which was built at Crewe for the express passenger traffic weighed about 20 tons, and hauled a load of some 40 tons at speeds ranging between 20 and 30 miles per hour. The latest express engines which have been turned out of the Crewe shops exceed 100 tons complete with tender, and are capable of hauling loads weighing 400 tons at 60 miles an hour. The latest achievement of the London and North Western Railway is the “Sir Gilbert Claughton”, which has been described in another chapter.

The railway has achieved a world-wide reputation for speed, comfort in travelling, luxury of its rolling stock, smoothness in running, and prompt service. These features are certain to attract traffic, and this fact is reflected by the annual trans-portation of over 80,000,000 passengers, the carriage of nearly 60,000,000 tons of merchandise, and the completion of approximately 50,000,000 train miles. This huge business serves to bring in a revenue of over £16,000,000 per annum, which is greater than that of any other British railway system, while its capital of £124,000,000 serves to justify the claim of the London and North Western Railway as being the “biggest joint stock corporation in the world.”


FRONT VIEWS OF THE “ ROCKET ” and the 5,000th engine built at Crewe.

You can read more about “The London & North Western Railway”  “On the Footplate of an Express” , “The Story of the LMS” and “The West Coast Postal” on this website.