The world’s first publicly subscribed passenger railway, The Stockton and Darlington Railway (S&DR) in north-eastern England was Opened September 27 1825, it was built between Witton Park and Stockton-on-Tees via Darlington and connected to several collieries near Shildon. 26 miles (40 km) long, it was also the world’s longest railway line at the time. Planned to carry both goods and passengers, the line was initially built to connect inland coal mines to Stockton, where coal was to be loaded onto seagoing boats. Over the next 38 years the S&DR steadily expanded into a substantial network serving south and west Durham, Cleveland and Westmorland and running trains across Cumberland to within a few miles of the west coast. It was taken over by the North Eastern Railway in 1863, but by agreement continued to operate independently for a further 10 years. Much of the original 1825 route is now served by the Tees Valley Line, operated by Northern Rail.
At the time steam locomotives were a new and unproven technology and were slow, expensive and unreliable. The initial impetus for steam power had come during the Napoleonic Wars, when horse fodder had become very expensive and had still not settled down, while improving transport and mining methods was making coal more plentiful. However, many people weren’t convinced that steam engines were a viable alternative to the horse. So at first, horse traction predominated on the S&DR, until steam could prove its worth. The first locomotive to run on the S&DR was Locomotion No 1, built at the Stephenson works though, in the absence of Robert, Timothy Hackworth had been brought in from Wylam. (On Robert’s return he took charge of maintenance at the S&DR’s Shildon’s Soho works.)Locomotion No 1 used coupling rods rather than gears between the wheels, the first to do so. The official opening of the line was on 27 September 1825. The first passenger train took two hours to complete the first 12 miles (19 km) of the journey and most of 600 passengers sat in open coal wagons while one experimental passenger coach, resembling a wooden shed on wheels and called “The Experiment”, carried various dignitaries.
An experimental regular passenger service was soon established, initially a horse-drawn coach with horse provided by the driver. While passenger carrying was contracted out, locomotive coal trains were either paid by the ton, contractors providing their own fuel, which meant they tended to use the cargo, or by fixed wages, which meant they did not bother to economise.Three more engines were built similar to Locomotion then, in 1826, Stephenson introduced the “Experiment” with inclined cylinders, which meant that it could be mounted on springs. Originally four wheeled, it was modified for six. Not all engines came from Stephenson. In 1826 also, Wilson, Robert and Company, of Newcastle, produced one for the line which, rather than use coupling rods, had four cylinders, two to each pair of wheels. Possibly because of its unusual exhaust beat, it became known as Chittaprat. After suffering a collision it was not rebuilt. These early locomotives were slow and unreliable and Hackworth set out to produce an improved design and in 1827 introduced the Royal George, salvaging the boiler from the Wilson engine. He also invented a spring-loaded safety valve, because drivers had been tying them down to prevent them opening when the loco went over a bump. Steam traction was expensive in comparison to horse drawn traffic, but it soon proved that it was viable and economic. Steam locomotives could haul more wagons and haul them faster, so in a typical working day the expensive steam engine could haul more coal than the cheaper horse. It soon became apparent that mixing faster steam-hauled and slower horse-drawn traffic was slowing the operation down and so as steam technology became more reliable, horse-drawn traffic was gradually abandoned.
At first, the organisation of the S&DR bore little relation to that of most modern railways and was run in the traditional manner of the wagonways of the time. The S&DR merely owned the tracks and did not operate trains; anyone who paid the S&DR money could freely operate steam trains or horse-drawn wagonloads on the line. This separation of track from trains resembled the canals, where canal companies were often forbidden from operating any boats. There was no timetable or other form of central organisation. Trains ran whenever they wanted and fights often broke out when rival operators came into conflict over right-of-way on the tracks. This chaotic situation was tolerable on completely horse-drawn traffic wagonways, but with faster steam trains it soon became unworkable, as the faster speeds meant a collision could have serious consequences. With the advent of steam, new operating methods had to be developed.The S&DR proved a huge financial success and paved the way for modern rail transport.The expertise that Stephenson and his apprentice Joseph Locke gained in railway construction and locomotive building on the S&DR enabled them to construct the Liverpool and Manchester Railway, the first purpose-built steam railway and the Stephensons’ Rocket locomotive. The company also proved a successful training ground for other engineers: in 1833 Daniel Adamson was apprenticed to Timothy Hackworth and later established his own successful boiler-making business in Manchester. The S&DR was absorbed into the North Eastern Railway in 1863, which merged into the London and North Eastern Railway in 1923.Much but not all of the original S&DR line is still operating today, together with the later lines to Saltburn and Bishop Auckland, but the rest of the substantial network the S&DR built up has been closed and dismantled.