By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer
British rail transportation is headed for a labor crisis. Train drivers from eight railroad companies will go on strike on July 30, demanding livable wages. Private companies financed and built England’s railroad system.
In June, tens of thousands of British railroad workers went on strike. Toward the end of July, two separate labor protests will follow suit. On July 27, two rail unions—the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers and the Transport Salaried Staffs’ Association—will stage a 24-hour walkout. Not to be outdone, eight railroad companies will strike on July 30 over a pay dispute regarding stagnant wages not keeping up with inflation.
The British rail system was a major step in the industrialization of the Western world. In his video series The Industrial Revolution, Dr. Patrick N. Allitt, Cahoon Family Professor of American History at Emory University, recalls how it came about.
Before the Tube
“The technical and commercial success of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway set off a boom of railway building through the 1830s and 1840s,” Dr. Allitt said. “Trunk lines were built between the major cities, linking previously remote parts of Britain and making the transport of bulk items and of people far quicker and cheaper than ever before.”
Railroads replaced long-distance stage coaching and loosened the monopoly that canals held on bulk transportation of inland goods. However, they also stimulated the economy, led to high demand for further development in the metal industries, and created tens of thousands of jobs.
Building the British railway system was truly a national effort, although sometimes a less honorable one. An Act of Parliament was needed to approve each railway line, and since Parliament members were often landowners whose estates the railroads would cross, an extraordinary amount of bribery followed.
London Railroads Building Up
George Stephenson and his son Robert became major figures in railway building throughout the 1830s and 1840s, with Robert gradually replacing his father. When Robert began work on the London and Birmingham Railway, he was just 29 years old.
“Before the work even started on the London and Birmingham Railway, the company spent £32,000 on legal expenses to maneuver their bill through Parliament, and then they spent another three-quarters of a million pounds on land purchases,” Dr. Allitt said. “That’s really the equivalent of several billion dollars in today’s terms, and it had the same kind of massive financial implications that the biggest contemporary projects also have.”
The line ran 112 miles long—the longest ever attempted at that point—and Stephenson divided it into segments of roughly six miles each, which he contracted out to subcontractors. Twenty thousand men worked simultaneously to build the entire rail at the same time.
“The London and Birmingham Railway was laid out to very high standards,” Dr. Allitt said. “It was extremely flat and with no sharp curves; so, it’s remained usable as a high-speed line without much re-engineering, right up to the present. It finally opened after five years’ hard work in 1838, having cost 5.5 million pounds, more than double the original, anticipated amount.”