Friday, May 9, 2014

Horse drawn tramways (1) : Introduction

My dissertation was on the economic impact of a horse drawn tramway in Stratford-upon-Avon, now i present parts of it here, slightly rewritten and augmented...

Tramways have a long history in Britain though often they have been neglected in studies of railway systems. Often historians such as Bogart for example in a study of transport networks in the Industrial Revolution have not considered rail systems before 1830 (when steam traction began to be used widely) at all, another study by Bagwell and Lyth on transport in Britain also fails to include much at all on horse-drawn railways. However horse-drawn rail in Britain dates from the early seventeenth century at least with systems still operating as late as the Second World War.

The heyday of these systems was in the eighteenth century and at their greatest extent the distance of horse-drawn rail in Britain exceeded 1500 miles. Tramways were often closely linked to canals with the two systems supplementing each other. Many lines were feeder systems for a canal navigation, for example bringing coal down from mines to the waterway. Often tramways were a way to extend the reach of a canal without going to the extra expense of building a new canal arm up to a mine or quarry, one example being a line connecting the Stratford canal to the Temple Grafton Quarries in Wilmcote (a line contemporary to and very close to the Stratford tramway). This cost-saving became increasingly important as greater demand for coal saw new pits opened further and further away from available waterways and hence the costs of extending water navigation became too prohibitive. During the eighteenth century coal and other mined or quarried materials like limestone were the main loads carried by tramways. The final period of tramway operation beginning in the nineteenth century did see a diversification of loads to an extent and even the carriage of passengers!

Horse-drawn tramways were operated in a similar manner to the canals they so often supplemented. The tramway was generally open to all carriers who owned their own waggons and could also own their own sidings on some routes. The owners of the tramway used a system of toll gates and weight bridges to charge carriers for the loads being carried, tolls often on the basis of a ton of freight per mile. Weighing waggons was also important to reduce the strain on the rails from overweight vehicles, the poor quality of rails and maintenance being a problem which often plagued tramways.

Horse drawn waggon
Although the technology used did improve during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (the original tramways used wooden rails for example later replaced by iron) tramways had a number of disadvantages, mostly due to the method of propulsion used: the horse. The tramways were slow, the speed of trains limited to how fast the horse could pull them and this was typically no more than walking pace as was the case also with most inland water transport. Some systems which used pulleys or gravity could be quicker but this was heavily dependent on favourable geography. The limitations of the horse and it’s ability to pull loads largely dictated the design features of a tramway route such as having to make cuttings as even quite minor gradients were best avoided. This could have major cost implications on building the line. An example tramway the Brecon Forest Tramroad was badly affected by this, steep gradients greatly increasing building costs though in the case of the Stratford and Moreton Railway geography was not too much of an issue with a fairly even landscape to be traversed. Uneven terrain could be an advantage for tramways over canals however, expensive as cuttings and bridges may be they could be cheaper than the equivalent lock systems or lengthy diversions which might be required by a waterway. Horses on tramways were more restricted on the amount of freight they could haul, a horse could pull about three times the amount of cargo in a canal barge than it could in tramway waggons. Shortages of horses could also be problematical, the demand for horses during the Napoleonic Wars for example greatly increased the costs in procuring horse power (though this also affected the canals and roads). Despite their disadvantages tramways could compete well with waterways and were a cheaper and quicker to build alternative on routes where the available traffic could not justify the cost of a canal.

(c) All text and images Kris Davies

Selected bibliography

Philip Bagwell and Peter Lyth, Transport in Britain 1750-2000 (London: Hambledon & London, 2002)
Bertram Baxter, Stone Blocks and Iron Rails (Tramroads) (Newton Abbot: David & Charles, 1966)
Mark Jones, Discovering Britain's First Railways - a Guide to Horse-Drawn Tramroads and Waggonways (Stroud: History Press, 2012)
Stephen Hughes, The Brecon Forest Tramroads (Aberystwyth Royal Commission on Ancient and Historic Monuments in Wales, 1990)

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