decorative initial 'B' etween 1820 and 1850 some six thousand miles of railways were opened in Britain, mostly as the result of two extraordinary bursts of concentrated investment followed by construction, the little railway "railway mania" of 1837-7 and he gigantic one of 1845-7. In effect, by 1850 the basic English railway network was already more or less in existence. In every respect this was a revolutionary transformation -- more revolutionary, in its way, than the rise of the cotton industry because it represented a far more advanced phase of industrialization and one bearing on the life of the ordinary citizen outside the rather small areas of actual industry. It reached into some of the remotest areas of the countryside and the centres of the greatest cities. It transformed the speed of movement -- indeed of human life -- from one measured in single miles an hour to one measured in scores of miles per hour, and introduced the notion of a gigantic, nation-wide, complex and exact interlocking routine symbolized by the railway timetable (from which all subseqeunt "time-tables" took their name and inspiration). It revealed the possibilities of technical progress as nothing else had done. [88]

With the railways Britain therefore entered the period of full industrialization. Its economy was no longer generously poised on the narrow platform of two or three pioneer sectors -- notably textiles -- but broadly based on a foundation of capital goods production, which in turn facilitated the advance of modern technology and organization -- or what passed for modern in the mid nineteenth century -- into a wide variety of industries. [98]

World Railway Mileage (in thousands)

Year UK Europe + UK America Rest of world
1840-50 6,000 13,000 7,000 ------
1850-60 4,000 17,000 24,000 1,000
1860-70 5,000 31,000 24,000 7,000
1870-80 2,000 39,000 51,000 12,000

[based on Hobsbawm, p. 93]

Related Material


Hobsbawm, Eric. Industry and Empire: The Birth of the Industrial Revolution. rev. ed. New York: New Press, 1999.

Last modified 2001; links added 26 February 2014