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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 systems[edit]

The earliest[citation needed] evidence found so far is of the 6 to 8.5 km long Diolkos paved trackway, which transported boats across the Isthmus of Corinth in Greece from around 600 BC.[1][2][3][4][5] Wheeled vehicles pulled by men and animals ran in grooves in limestone, which provided the track element, preventing the wagons from leaving the intended route. The Diolkos was in use for over 650 years, until at least the 1st century AD.[5] The paved trackways were also later built in Roman Egypt.[6][7]

Wooden rails introduced[edit]

Minecart shown in De Re Metallica (1556). The guide pin fits in a groove between two wooden planks.

Such an operation was illustrated in Germany in 1556 by Georgius Agricola (image right) in his work De re metallica.[8] This line used "Hund" carts with unflanged wheels running on wooden planks and a vertical pin on the truck fitting into the gap between the planks to keep it going the right way. The miners called the wagons Hunde ("dogs") from the noise they made on the tracks.[9]

Cart from 16th century, found in Transylvania

Around 1568, German miners working in the Mines Royal near Keswick used above such system, 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.[10][11]

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.[11][12]

The Middleton Railway in Leeds, which was built in 1758 as wagonway, later became the world's oldest operational railway (other than funiculars), albeit now in an upgraded form. In 1764, the first railway in the America was built in Lewiston, New York as a wagonway.[13]

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.

Metal rails introduced[edit]

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. 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.

In 1760 the Coalbrookdale Iron Works began to reinforce their wooden railed tramway with iron bars,[14] 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.[15]

Plateways, Flangeways
A replica of a "Little Eaton Tramway" wagon, the tracks are plateways

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.

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, making it the oldest public railway in the world. 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 early 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),[14] the plateway was almost universal. But in the North of England and in Scotland the edge-rail was held in greater favor, and soon 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).

Steam power introduced[edit]

A replica of Trevithick's engine at the National Waterfront Museum, Swansea

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.

The Salamanca locomotive

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,[14] 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,[14] 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'.[16] 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] In 1825 he built the locomotive Locomotion for the Stockton and Darlington Railway in the north east of England, which became the first public steam railway in the world in 1825, although it used both horse power and steam power on different runs.

Also, 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 1830s that were steam-powered often made runs with horses when the steam locomotives were unavailable. 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. Railroads powered by stationary engines and cables (San Francisco cable cars) and horse-drawn trams (Douglas Bay Horse Tramway) are still in use today.


As steam power gradually replaced horse power, the term wagonways became obsolete and was replaced by the term railways. Freight railways today are essentially a form of wagonways.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Verdelis, Nikolaos: "Le diolkos de L'Isthme", Bulletin de Correspondance Hellénique, Vol. 81 (1957), pp. 526–529 (526)
  2. ^ Cook, R. M.: "Archaic Greek Trade: Three Conjectures 1. The Diolkos", The Journal of Hellenic Studies, Vol. 99 (1979), pp. 152–155 (152)
  3. ^ Drijvers, J.W.: "Strabo VIII 2,1 (C335): Porthmeia and the Diolkos", Mnemosyne, Vol. 45 (1992), pp. 75–76 (75)
  4. ^ Raepsaet, G. & Tolley, M.: "Le Diolkos de l’Isthme à Corinthe: son tracé, son fonctionnement", Bulletin de Correspondance Hellénique, Vol. 117 (1993), pp. 233–261 (256)
  5. ^ a b Lewis, M. J. T., "Railways in the Greek and Roman world" Archived 21 July 2011 at the Wayback Machine., in Guy, A. / Rees, J. (eds), Early Railways. A Selection of Papers from the First International Early Railways Conference (2001), pp. 8–19 (11)
  6. ^ Fraser 1961, pp. 134 & 137
  7. ^ Fraser 1961, pp. 134f.
  8. ^ Georgius Agricola (trans Hoover), De re metallica (1913), p. 156.
  9. ^ Lee, Charles E. (1943). The Evolution of Railways (2 ed.). London: Railway Gazette. p. 16. OCLC 1591369. 
  10. ^ 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.
  11. ^ 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. 
  12. ^ 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.
  13. ^ Porter, Peter (1914). Landmarks of the Niagara Frontier. The Author. ISBN 0-665-78347-7. 
  14. ^ a b c d "Historical Notes on Railways". The Practical Mechanic and Engineers Magazine, November 1844, pp. 57–60
  15. ^ Lewis, Michael Jonathan Taunton (1970). Early Wooden Railways. London: Routledge & K. Paul. pp. 160–65. ISBN 0-7100-6674-0. OCLC 138270. 
  16. ^ "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.