The first steam engines weren't powerful enough to get a train up any substantial hill, or even round any great bend, so train tracks had to be virtually level and straight from end to end. The work to do this - filling valleys, bridging rivers, cutting banks, strengthening bogs, and boring tunnels - was all done by hand, by thousands of 'navvies' using picks and shovels. In 1845, there were 200,000 navvies in the UK, building 3,000 miles of railway. Horses were used to cart the spoil away and work winches, but otherwise it was all human muscle - no dynamite, no mechanical drills and no diggers.
The effort expended in levelling the London-Birmingham line over five years is reckoned as the equivalent of building the Great Pyramid 1.5 times. That's just levelling one line – and even that excludes the effort required to build bridges, viaducts, and lay the track itself. Modern trains to Birmingham and Bristol still run on the perfectly flat beds built by men whose capacity for work seems barely credible today. Each man could shovel nearly 20 tons of earth a day onto a wagon. Even the toughest agricultural workers were completely incapable of keeping up with them.
The navvies' had a bad reputation but this changed in 1854, when the railway contractor Samuel Peto (1809-89) volunteered to rescue the British and French army from the Crimean winter. He shipped out track-laying equipment and a private army of navvies, who set to work as soon as they landed at Balaclava. While 30,000 soldiers sat in trenches around Sevastopol, the navvies laid iron rails, night and day, through hail and snow, at a fantastic rate. At home, there was euphoria: the Illustrated London News suggested that the military solution might be to send the navvies into hand-to-hand fighting, while officers on the scene admitted that the navvies could do more work in a day than a regiment could do in a week.
The word 'navvy' is from 'navigator', originally applied to those who dug the Internal Navigation system, or canals.
Eton College forbade the Great Western Railway to build a station at nearby Slough. According to the biography of Isambard Kingdom Brunel by Adrian Vaughan, this was because the school was worried that an easy connection between Eton and London would encourage the boys to visit the capital's brothels.
The company got round the restriction by stopping the trains even though there was no station and selling tickets in the pub.
Victorian women put pins in their mouths to avoid being kissed in the dark when trains went through tunnels.
The train spotting impulse is the desire to exercise control over a small but defined area of life.
Disposing of the deceased was a problem in 19th-century London, as graveyard capacity struggled to keep up with high mortality rates (in the 1840s, 15 in every 100 babies died before their first birthday). Various schemes were proposed to address the issue, some more fanciful than others. An architect called Thomas Wilson suggested a pyramid-shaped mausoleum on Primrose Hill which would have been higher than St Paul’s with a volume greater than the Great Pyramid at Giza. It was intended to house 5,167,104 bodies. In the end, an Act of Parliament in 1832 led to the building of ‘The Magnificent Seven’ cemeteries around London: Kensal Green, Highgate, West Norwood, Abney Park, Nunhead, Brompton and Tower Hamlets. However, this was not enough.
Eventually, in 1854, the London Necropolis Company established and opened the 500 acre Brookwood Cemetery (also known as Necropolis or ‘City of the Dead’). It was, and still is, the largest burial site in the UK. The Necropolis Railway was created to take the dead out of the city using the London and South Western Railway. The funeral trains began to operate in November 1854 and ran once a day. The trains had classes; First Class mourners went in the nice carriages and paupers in Third Class. The coffins also had First, Second or Third Class tickets and their carriages reflected those of the living; the more you’d paid, the nicer they were.
The original London Necropolis station (1854-1902) was located between York Street (now Leake Street) and Westminster Bridge Road. This station was replaced by a more extensive building at 121 Westminster Bridge Road in 1902 and continued to operate until the station was bombed in 1941. It was never rebuilt but the entrance survives to this day.
When the railroads first appeared in North America, the continent was largely empty. Within 80 years of the railways' introduction it was basically full. The early lines were mostly small local tracks running from one town to another, built cheaply and locally. The Americans relied more on ingenuity than on the massive capital investment used in Europe: difficult curves in the track were tackled by the bogie, a swivelling wheel truck invented in 1832 - with the consequence that bogie-less British engines couldn't be used on many American tracks.
The last great project was the coast-to-coast link. Chinese labour recruited in California built out from the west, meeting Irish teams building from the east. The latter used a process whereby the track could be laid across the prairie as fast as a man could walk: supplies were shunted up the existing track and assembled on the move. When the car of supplies was empty it was lifted bodily off the track so that the next one could come up behind it.
The time will come when people will travel in stages moved by steam engines, from one city to another, almost as fast as birds fly, fifteen or twenty miles an hour.
Trainspotting was invented by a man who couldn't enlist for the First World War because he only had one leg.
Queen Victoria had 16 royal trains.
In 2011, British trains were delayed by 16,000 hours because of people stealing metal parts from the railways.
Trains in southern Australia can be delayed because of goo on the tracks, made up of millions of squashed millipedes.
The London Underground
has made more money from its famous map
than it ever has from running trains.