The Railways

by Chris Jones on December 30, 2014

Coming from a family with service on the railways dating back to the London, Midland & Scottish Railway (LMS) and possibly even to the London & North Western Railway (LNWR), I could not resist including a chapter on railway history, with particular reference to Scotland and the Glasgow area.

Railways, in the form of waggonways, existed long before the advent of steam locomotion and were built primarily to transport stone from quarries, and coal from mines. Barrows set on wheels were moved around on wooden rails mounted on logs or on blocks of stone. In due course, the rails were topped with a strip of iron and eventually fully cast iron rails were introduced, providing even greater strength. The early iron rails were flanged but later the flanging was incorporated into the wheel design and this is still the case today. Motive power for the early waggonways was provided by man, mule or the force of gravity, whichever was appropriate. One of the earliest waggonways in Scotland was built in 1722 at Tranent in East Lothian and used to transport coal from the pits there to the small port of Cockenzie on the Firth of Forth. In between Tranent and Cockenzie were the salt pans of Prestonpans, a name familiar to many Scots as it was the site of a famous victory by the army of the Young Pretender over the Government forces led by Sir John Cope in 1745.

A quantum leap in the evolution of the railways was the harnessing of steam power for the purpose of locomotion. The earliest application of this new power source was in pumping water from mines and Thomas Newcomen developed the Atmospheric Engine for this purpose in 1712, so named because it operated at or very close to atmospheric pressure. The engine worked by using a movable piston to raise and lower a rocking beam, which in turn operated a lift pump. The efficiency of Newcomen’s steam engine was greatly improved by James Watt who was working on the maintenance of scientific instruments at Glasgow University. In the course of repairing a model of Newcomen’s engine, he realized that a significant amount of energy was being wasted by repeatedly heating and cooling the cylinder. Watt’s incorporation of a second condenser into the design in 1765 not only significantly improved the efficiency of the steam engine, it was the breakthrough that spurred the Industrial Revolution.

James Watt

The portrait of James Watt (1736–1819) painted by Carl Frederik von Breda

The next step in the development of the railways was the application of steam power to self-propulsion and it was Richard Trevithick, a mining engineer from Cornwall, who built the world’s first working railway steam locomotive. Trevithick was very familiar with the pump engines used in Cornish mines and he was also greatly influenced by his neighbour William Murdoch who had developed a model steam carriage. Improvements in boiler technology enabled steam engines to operate at higher pressures, which were essential to provide the power needed to haul heavy loads. On 21 February, 1804, Richard Trevithick’s locomotive hauled the world’s first steam train on the tramway of the Pen-y-Darren ironworks in South Wales.

A recurrent problem in running these early trains was the continual breakage of the cast iron rails which proved to be very brittle under the weight of the heavy steam locomotives. One of the people working on this problem was George Stephenson, a Northumbrian, who not only improved rail strength and durability but also achieved fame as a locomotive designer and builder of railways. Together with his son Robert, he surveyed the land for the construction of the Stockton & Darlington Railway in 1821. The railway opened on 27 September 1825, when the steam locomotive “Locomotion”, built by Stevenson’s company and driven by him, hauled an 80-ton load of coal and flour nine miles in two hours. Also attached to the train was a passenger carriage called “Experiment” carrying dignitaries and so the Stockton & Darlington Railway became the first inter-city railway in the world to convey passengers in a train hauled by a steam locomotive.

The first railway in Scotland to be authorized by an Act of Parliament was the Kilmarnock & Troon Railway, which was built to facilitate the transport of coal from the Ayrshire pits to the coast. The railway opened from St. Marnock’s Depot, Kilmarnock to Troon Harbour on 6th July, 1812 and was a essentially an upgraded waggonway, having cast iron rails and being double-tracked throughout. The rails were flanged and sunk into the ground. For the first five years, haulage was provided by horses, and then a steam locomotive built for colliery work at Killingworth was brought in and this became the first steam locomotive to run in Scotland. Unfortunately, its heavy weight caused frequent breakages to the cast-iron rails so it only served for a trial period.

Before the railways really took hold, the prime means of transporting coal in bulk to growing cities and their industries was by canal. It was this increasing demand for coal that drove Scotland into the canal age. There were coalfields to the east of Glasgow in the Monklands, an area that included the Burghs of Airdrie and Coatbridge. Construction of the Monkland Canal began in 1770 and the final section leading into the Townhead Basin was completed in 1794. An even greater enterprise, the Forth & Clyde Canal, was begun in 1768 and completed in 1790, connecting the East and West Coasts. However, Edinburgh was still left out, so in order to provide a link, the Union Canal was built between 1818 and 1822, connecting Falkirk on the Forth & Clyde Canal with the capital city. Now, Glasgow and Edinburgh were linked by waterways and Monkland coal could be supplied to the capital in bulk. The problem was that the route was highly convoluted. Coal barges would initially have to travel west from the pits at Calderbank and then negotiate the basins at Townhead and Port Dundas in Glasgow before reaching the Forth & Clyde Canal whereupon they would begin their journey eastward. It would take about a week just to reach Kirkintilloch which was still to the west of the Monklands. To overcome this problem, a direct railway connection was proposed between the coalfield and Kirkintilloch, and on 17 May, 1824 an Act was passed authorizing the construction of the Monkland & Kirkintilloch Railway.

This was the first railway in the Kingdom to obtain an Act authorizing the use of steam locomotives from the very beginning. ( The Act establishing the Stockton & Darlington Railway had specified horse-haulage and it was subsequently amended to permit steam-haulage. ) The Monkland & Kirkintilloch Railway would provide a more direct route for the transport of Monkland coal to Edinburgh and an alternative means for its transport to Glasgow, in both cases overcoming the monopoly of the Monkland Canal.

The railway was also perfectly situated for the transport of minerals. Blackband ironstone containing 35% iron and rich in coal had been discovered in the Monklands in 1801. James Beaumont Neilson subsequently showed that the process of iron smelting could be greatly improved if you preheated the air supplied to the blast furnace, a process he patented in 1828. Now the Monklands would become an international centre for iron smelting and the resourcefulness of the ironmasters led to a proliferation of railways in the region.

To be continued.

Climbing Cowlairs Bank

Cowlairs Incline

This famous photograph by Dr. Tice F. Budden shows a “double-headed” North British Railway (NBR) express climbing Cowlairs Bank around 1900. There is a rope attached to the leading locomotive and, until banking engines were introduced, the ascent out of Queen Street Station was cable-assisted, using power generated by a stationary steam engine at the top of the incline. ( Postcard published by the Locomotive Publishing Society Ltd., London. )

Departing Queen Street Station

Queen of Scots Express leaving Queen Street Station, Glasgow

Fast forward 60 years. It’s 11am and the “Queen of Scots” Pullman train is departing Glasgow Queen Street Station for London King’s Cross, calling at Edinburgh Waverley, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Darlington, Harrogate, and Leeds Central before arriving in London at 7.45pm. In this scene, the train is being hauled by the Gresley A4 Pacific locomotive 60031 Golden Plover. This was a sister locomotive to the Mallard, which had set a new record of 126 mph for steam locomotion on 3rd July, 1938, a record which still stands to this day. I actually witnessed the “Queen of Scots” departing Queen Street Station on three occasions and on one of them Golden Plover was the locomotive. Pullman coaches got their name from American George Pullman who, after spending an uncomfortable night sitting in a train traveling from Buffalo to Westfield in New York State, conceived of a railway carriage with luxurious appointments that could convert into a sleeping car for overnight travel. Pullman coaches of the type shown in this photograph did not convert into sleeping cars but were certainly luxuriously appointed.

Eastfield Engine Shed, Springburn

Eastfield Engine Shed, Glasgow

Glasgow Central Station Concourse

Glasgow Central Station

Glasgow Central Station Platform 2

Royal Scot

It’s approaching 10am at Glasgow Central Station in the late 1950’s and the Royal Scot express passenger train is preparing to depart from Platform 2 for London Euston. For the first part of the journey, the train will be hauled by 46240 City of Coventry, a member of the Princess Coronation class and one of the most powerful passenger steam locomotives in service with British Railways. This class had been designed primarily to haul premier trains on the West Coast mainline between Glasgow and London, over Beattock Summit and Shap Fell. The express will make a brief stop at Carlisle to change engines and crews, before continuing on to London where it should arrive around 6pm.

Corkerhill Engine Shed, Mosspark

Corkerhill Engine Shed

This shows a view of the former Glasgow & South-Western Railway engine shed at Corkerhill, near Mosspark, in 1954. Most of the locomotives in the picture would have worked goods or light passenger services except for the small tank engine in the middle, which would have fulfilled primarily shunting or station pilot duties. The mainline station serviced by Corkerhill passenger and express parcel locomotives was Glasgow St. Enoch Station.

Be Sociable, Share!

{ 1 trackback }

April 16, 2017 at 2:04 pm

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Milly Wonford April 18, 2016 at 3:38 am

Hello Chris,

Pen and Sword Books has a new title in the Regional Tramway series that I thought you might be interested in featuring on your website as a possible article: Regional Tramways – Scotland.

If you would like to receive a copy to review on your website, please don’t hesitate to let me know and I will have one sent out to you as soon as possible. Alternatively, have a look at our Transport category page on the website, I’m sure something there would be interesting to you!

I look forward to hearing from you,


Chris Jones April 30, 2016 at 9:33 pm

Hello Milly,

Thank you very much for your very kind offer and I will be in touch via email. I wish you the best of success with your new publication.


Charles Scott November 20, 2016 at 8:02 am

I served my time as a boiler maker at Cowlairs locomotive works in 1943 then moved to Canada in 1951. I would like to hear from someone who remembers the old Cowlairs works.

Leave a Comment


Previous post:

Next post: