The First Public Railway Opens
Though the use of tracks can be found previously – for example in what was arguably the first railway, the Wollaton Wagonway, which operated briefly in the early 17th century – and various projects had worked in conjunction with canals, they had been private affairs, for particular tasks or sites. On July 26 1803 the SurreyIron Railway opened, changing that vision of how to employ the technology.
The new railway ran the nine miles from Wandsworth via Mitcham to Croydon , through the heavily industrialised Wandle Valley which was poorly served by roads, with a one-and-a-half mile branch from Mitcham to Hackbridge. In effect the two tracks were little more than a modified toll-road, as users had to provide their own trucks to fit the 4’ 2” gauge, and the horses or mules to pull them. A charge was levied according to the weight of freight (no passengers were carried) and the value of it, according to simple categories: thus manufactured goods cost more to freight than say coal.
Equipped with cast iron rails, the line cost the modest sum of £7,000; it was a success, another line was added just two years later, linking Croydon and Merstham. But this transport revolution fell foul to another; when George Stephenson et al developed the steam locomotive, the Surrey Iron Railway’s cast iron rails were not capable of bearing the heavy machinery, though it struggled on until 1846.