Chapter 1                                                      Conversion of roads into railways


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From 1555, road maintenance was, by law, carried out by local men who had to devote four days pa to the task, ‘roads’; such as they were, being mainly for local traffic. A local ‘surveyor’ was responsible for seeing each man performed the required number of days, which was later increased to six days. Surveyors were not qualified as we understand them today. Many roads were usable only by packhorse. Inadequate transport limited potential markets and increased prices. Rising industrial output taxed the existing means of water transport and seriously worsened the condition of ‘roads’, especially those leading to ports or rivers.

As traffic increased, parishes were unable to cope with increased maintenance. This led to the concept of Turnpike roads, whereby the users of roads could be charged for their use of roads and the funds devoted to maintaining and improving them. Turnpike Trusts were established by Act of Parliament which specified the tolls which could be charged. The earliest Turnpike was in 1663. (The Turnpike System in England, by Wm Albert, page 17).

As more turnpikes were developed, there was opposition by road users and from owners of other turnpikes who may lose their own traffic. The top surface of the better turnpike roads consisted of small stones, which were progressively crushed by coach and waggon wheels, thereby compressing the surface.  

By 1706 the Turnpike system embraced all main roads - 22,000 miles; 100,000 miles of secondary and minor roads remained the responsibility of parishes. There was little overall improvement - if some roads were better, others were noticeably worse. Many users were critical of turnpikes - due to the frequency of having to stop to pay tolls at gatehouses, & to the condition of surfaces, some of which were not as good as users considered they had a right to expect for their tolls. (Turnpike to Iron Road, by HCB Rogers, page 26).

Trusts were profitable, with returns which usually exceeded those from other available investments. By the end of the 18th century, new development had passed its peak, although measures to improve existing turnpikes continued. (The Turnpike System in England, by Wm Albert, page 114 & Appendix C).  

The original idea of turnpikes was that a Trust would borrow money, needed to repair a road, against security of future tolls, and when the income had paid off the debt, the road would revert to the parish, so Trusts were set up for a limited period, usually 21 years. In practice they seldom, if ever, succeeded in paying off debts, and were renewed by Parliament as a matter of course. After the 1870’s, Parliament ceased to renew Turnpike Acts, and Trusts were gradually extinguished. (The Archaeology of the Transport Revolution by PJG Ransom pages 22 & 195). 

A Commission of Inquiry in 1843 was told that in Swansea they cannot go 100 yards from their doors without paying a toll.  Even a short journey could involve passing from the ambit of one trust to another. Users referred to exorbitant tolls demanded, whilst many glaring defects persisted. In 1835, before railways came to Wales, visitors found roads in a bad and insecure state. (Stage Coaches in Wales, by H Williams, page 72).  

In its 3rd Report [Cmd 3751] in 1930, the Royal Commission on Transport noted: Between 1760 and 1774, over 450 Turnpike Acts were passed.  Between 1785 and 1809, 1062 Acts were passed. Turnpikes were never popular, and were a source of resentment. In the mid-19th century, Parliament embarked on a policy of disturnpiking, reverting the liability to parishes. [Paras 24, 25, 33].  The turnpikes were set up for routes between towns. Roads that served industrial premises continued to be of a very poor standard. Industrial and population expansion also placed an excessive load on turnpikes.

As a direct consequence of the poor condition of what were loosely described as roads, the concept of ‘railways’ came into existence nearly 200 years ago - initially by laying timber or iron plates on those roads.  On these, horses could haul much greater loads. Initially, this technique was confined to short distances from collieries or industries to the nearest waterway - river or later canal - over which minerals and goods could be conveyed at lower cost, and greater speed, than what passed for roads. This, in turn, led to the construction of purpose designed railways on land that had not hitherto been in use as roads, and horse-power was replaced by steam locomotives. The loads hauled progressively increased.  

This new development led to vast profits being made by landowners for the sale of their land to railway promoters, which far exceeded the return they had been able to get from any other use of land. After the principal towns and cities had been connected by railways, the contractors had to promote lines elsewhere to maintain their business, and these tended to be rural with little prospect of viability.  Landowners were keen to foster such lines, because of the assured profits from land sales. Unfortunately, many investors, sucked in by reports of huge dividends on lines sitting on coal, lost their capital. (The Railway Closure Controversy, Chapter 1).

As a direct consequence of this greed, posterity became lumbered with railway lines in rural areas which always struggled to compete profitably with horse-drawn loads on roads which were gradually improving. Many minor railways were taken over at a fraction of their construction costs by bigger, profitable railways. Often, take-overs were motivated to block a possible route for competitors into intensively trafficked industrial areas. A classic example was the Wensleydale line from Northallerton to Hawes which was taken over, at an early stage by the NER, which enjoyed a virtual railway monopoly in the North East of England, and thereby sought to block other companies such as the Midland Railway and the LNWR from developing a route into the mineral rich North East.


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