Published: 9th September 2014
The railway industry in the UK helped to transform British society. Created by nineteenth century Victorian entrepreneurs, the railways changed everything. Towns and local industries grew at an astonishing rate due to this new mode of rapid, mass transportation.
The impact of the railways on the British economy took a new twist twenty years ago with the opening of the Channel Tunnel. This project, which has been referred to as one of the greatest engineering feats of the twentieth century, meant that Britain was now directly linked to Europe via an underwater rail tunnel to France.
To understand the full impact that British railways have had on our economy, we need to start by looking at life in the UK before their inception.
Until the dawn of the railways, the fastest anybody had travelled in the country was the speed of a horse’s gallop. People were terrified at the thought of the railway. They imagined their eyes would be damaged by the motion, that it would be impossible to breathe while travelling at such speed, and that livestock would be traumatised by the machines speeding through the landscape.
The first major line, between Liverpool and Manchester, was conceived purely for freight. The narrow roads linking these major cities were crowded with horse-drawn carts and the canals were unreliable, freezing in winter and running dry during the hot summer months. But the demands of the time meant it was necessary – cotton and raw materials from Liverpool were needed in the mills at Manchester and Salford, while the produce returned in the opposite direction.
The unexpected outcome was that people also adopted the railways, attracted by the speed of the journey. Within a few months, thousands of passengers were using the route regularly and shares in the company grew. The railway age was born, and with it came a furious rush to build more lines.
The development of the railways had an immense impact on the economy. In much the same way that the internet speeded up communication, the railways brought people together and boosted the development of trade and businesses. Goods could now be transported easily, cheaply, and on a mass scale, while the industry itself demanded huge supply industries to manufacture the trains, railway lines and other necessary equipment.
One of the main beneficiaries in the nineteenth century was the coal industry, which drove the industrial landscape. The rising demand for coal was highlighted in London, where the amount transported into the capital increased five times between the 1830s and 1880s, while the population merely doubled.
But it didn’t only affect London. Around the country, towns grew rapidly as the railways allowed the movement of raw materials required for building and industry, while the urban demand for milk, flour, meat, fish, sugar and vegetables could be satisfied.
Jump forward to the modern day and it’s impossible to imagine life without the railways. But what would the Victorians think of an underwater rail tunnel joining Britain with the rest of Europe?
This project, though much debated and discussed since the first mention of a tunnel in the early 1880s, was mere science fiction for many years. The project was given the green light in 1964, but it wasn’t until 1987 that work finally began, with the tunnel eventually opening in 1994.
The Eurotunnel has boosted UK trade even further, offering freight customers unrivalled speed, flexibility and reliability for crossing the channel. The dedicated HGV shuttles can transport up to 32 HGVs, with the drivers seated comfortably in a club car. It’s also an environmentally friendly option, with up to 20 times less CO2 emitted than the slower ferry crossing.
In addition to the 260 million tonnes of goods that have been transported into the country since the Chunnel opened, it’s also boosted tourism, which has in turn created more jobs for the UK. Recent reports by Deloitte suggest that in 2013, the British tourism industry was worth £127 billion, and could rise to £257 billion by 2025. This increase would mean that 3.7 million UK jobs are supported by tourism. Tourism must be encouraged through convenient and efficient methods of travelling to Britain, as well as travelling around it.
On the subject of the Channel Tunnel, it is estimated that the Kings Cross area alone received around £6 billion of private investment as a direct result of the HS1 line; according to Secretary of State for Transport, Patrick McLoughlin. Despite the controversy surrounding HS2, this trend looks set to continue as more high-speed lines are built throughout the country - boosting trade and tourism throughout the nation.
There can be little doubt that for the first century of their existence, the railways were a key lubricant for the entire economy. While we are now less reliant on the railways, rail freight remains an indispensable part of the British economy and is a greener, safer alternative to road haulage.
This article is by Maccaferri UK, a world leader in gabion retaining structures for over 130 years. Maccaferri’s products help keep Britain’s railways safe, secure, and working efficiently.