Knowledge Hub / Rail's Revolution in Britain: From Steam to Sparks to Software

Rail's Revolution in Britain: From Steam to Sparks to Software

The author: Frederic Kalinke


Written by Frederic Kalinke

In 1804, the world's first steam-powered railway journey took place when Richard Trevithick's unnamed steam locomotive made its way along the unassuming tramway of Penydarren ironworks in South Wales. While this short trip seems relatively uneventful in today’s terms, those first few plumes of steam mark the beginning of a 200-year transport revolution that continues to shape our modern lives.

When we reflect on the history of rail, it’s hard to ignore the influence of British pioneers and British institutions on the development of train technologies. From the earliest steam locomotives to twentieth-century diesel engines, today’s electric city trains, and even futuristic solar trains that harvest the sun’s energy, Britain has enjoyed front-row seats to the development of cutting-edge rail innovations and continues to drive exciting possibilities for the future of travel.

With this in mind, we thought we’d take a trip down memory lane to uncover a timeline of Britain’s railways and piece together the major technical leaps that took us from steam to sparks to breakthrough digital systems.

The Birth of Steam

Following Trevithick’s successful test run of the first full-scale steam locomotive in 1804, the first commercial steam engine hit the tracks in 1812 after Matthew Murray developed a rack and pinion system to overcome the undulating terrain of West Yorkshire. Named the ‘Salamanca’, Murray’s invention triggered a chain reaction across the engineering world as a handful of rail pioneers focused their attention on building commercially viable steam solutions that could replace painstakingly slow horse-drawn trams.

Following the successful launch of Christopher Blackett and William Hedley’s ‘Puffing Billy’ in 1813 which now sits proudly in the London Science Museum, the world played witness to one of history’s greatest engineering marvels in 1825: Stephenson's Rocket. After refining the work of early pioneers, George Stephenson turned a somewhat fanciful concept into a workable reality that influenced the design of steam engines across Europe and even parts of the US. By 1830, steam was the sole driver of all trains on the Liverpool and Manchester Railway and steam power remained dominant for the next 100 years as the train gained popularity around the globe.

Photo: 'Puffing Billy'

Fast-forward to 1938 and we start to get an idea of what a century worth of intense innovation looks like. The launch of the LNER Class A4 4468 Mallard (on show in York’s National Railway Museum) gave way to a new era of high-speed rail as Nigel Gresley’s design took the blue bullet to an astonishing 126mph — smashing the steam locomotive world speed record.

Photo: LNER Class A4 4468 Mallard

The Internal Combustion Era

The start of the 20th century saw the popularisation of an entirely different form of power. While steam engines used external coal-powered boilers to drive high-pressure steam into pistons, the invention of the internal combustion engine flipped the process on its head by burning fuel inside the pistons themselves.

This approach presented an entirely new set of engineering challenges and breakthrough opportunities for the rail industry. Specifically, isolating the combustion process inside the pistons provided unprecedented levels of efficiency compared to the thermal losses of steam power. While most external combustion steam engines typically operate at 15-20% efficiency, internal combustion can hit upwards of 35%.

At the time, this efficiency differential was critical. In 1913, the UK’s coal production reached an all-time high at a whopping 292 million tonnes and was responsible for some of the worst air pollution the country has ever seen. ​​Of all the energy sources, coal has the largest negative health and environmental impacts — responsible for the greatest number of deaths from local air pollution and emitting the most CO2 per tonne. The uptake of the internal combustion engine, however, played a pivotal role in the decline of Britain’s coal emissions which is now 150 times lower than the 1913 peak.

The first internal combustion locomotives from the likes of Richard Hornsby in Lincolnshire and the Priestman Brothers of Hull were powered by kerosene and gasoline. Despite a number of efforts to develop direct transmissions where mechanical power connects the engine’s output directly to the wheels, the relatively modest power of early combustion engines limited speed and payload capabilities. As a result, diesel-electric transmissions where diesel engines power electric motors were popularised- a tried and tested system that continues to dominate the rail industry across much of the world.

The Electrification of Britain’s Railways

Although early examples of electric trains date back to the nineteenth century with the electrification of a tramline outside of Berlin in 1881 and Brighton’s Volk's Electric Railway in 1883 (a service that continues to operate to this day), Britain’s uptake of electric rail didn’t gain momentum until the 1930s.

Photo: Volk's Electric Railway

Instead of drawing electricity from an onboard diesel engine, fully-electric trains use either overhead cables or a live ‘third rail’ to power their motors. Negating the need for an engine means electric trains are typically quieter, smoother, more efficient, cleaner, faster and more reliable than their predecessors — hence Britain’s decision to embrace electrification over the last century and retrofit almost 50% of its rail network.

As you can imagine, the infrastructural challenges of delivering a consistent supply of electricity across over five thousand miles of track are monumental. From the installation of ‘third rails’ to building voltage-boosting substations at one-mile intervals along the route, electrification has revolutionised Britain’s rail infrastructure and paved the way for a greener future where passengers can get from A to B faster and more efficiently than ever.

What’s more, technological breakthroughs in things like solar and regenerative braking present a bright future for electrification as the climate crisis places growing pressure on transport authorities to decarbonise rail. With today’s examples of regenerative braking demonstrating up to 30% reductions in CO2 emissions for dense suburban network trains and pioneering solar initiatives from the likes of Riding Sunbeams who are building a community-owned solar farm to power routes between London and the South Coast, the electrification of Britain’s railways will continue to encourage low-carbon innovations for years to come.

Rail’s Digital Systems Revolution

As we look back on the last 200-years of Britain’s railways, it’s clear that breakthroughs in locomotive engineering and long-term investments into vast infrastructure projects are largely responsible for the technological leap that took us from simple horse-drawn carts to hyper efficient bullets.

So, what’s next for Britain’s railways?

Although engineering advances will continue to play an important role in the future of travel, some of the most exciting innovations revolve around the development of software-based solutions that operate behind the scenes and transform digital passenger experiences. From sophisticated passenger analytics dashboards that help travel operators distribute resources to customer-facing mobile apps that allow customers to control every step of a journey, the digital era is set to fundamentally change the face of modern rail travel.

Here are some key areas where digital can transform passenger experiences:

1. Self-service ticket management

People's lives are busy and complex, with plans frequently changing at the last minute and with little warning. This is a major cause of travel stress and a reason why driving is often viewed as a more convenient option. To combat this, customer-focused operators must simplify the processes of exchanges, cancellations, and refunds, making them hassle-free. SilverRail’s Ticket Issuing System, transforms the way ticket providers serve customers by providing a full suite of capabilities. Automatic delay repay makes getting compensation easier by automatically notifying the customer of how much they are entitled to if their journey is delayed by over 15 minutes.

2. E-tickets

E-tickets offer a modern and efficient way for passengers to purchase and manage their train travel. Passengers can buy tickets through a user-friendly online platform or mobile app and store their tickets on a device making them easy to access. E-tickets can enhance the user experience by providing a digital wallet integration and typically feature a QR code which can streamline the boarding process. Apps to buy tickets often integrate with other services such as journey planning and real-time updates which provide a better traveller experience. One key statistic highlighting this transformation is the increase in e-ticket usage. In 2022, over 50% of rail tickets sold in the UK were e-tickets, a significant rise from previous years.

3. Smart Kiosks

To improve rail ticket accessibility, it is important to cater to those who would prefer to buy their tickets in person or who are part of the unbanked community. Despite being considered a ‘digitally-savvy nation’, our research shows that nearly half (48%) of passengers interviewed in the UK favour purchasing train tickets at the station rather than via an online app. Official statistics point to this being one third of all rail tickets sold, which on current revenue would equate to around £2.8bn. Perhaps unsurprisingly this amplifies with age, climbing from 26% among 18-24-year-olds to 63% for those aged 65 and over. This demonstrates the need for Smart Kiosks to be introduced at more stations. Smart Kiosks offer the same flexibility in pricing that passengers get from buying online but also allow passengers to buy their tickets in a familiar format whilst eliminating the risk of traditional ticket booths being shut or unmanned at stations.

4. Real-time updates

By leveraging real-time updates, rail operators can significantly enhance the travel experience for passengers, ensuring they are well-informed and able to make timely decisions. Real time updates not only improve customer satisfaction but also boost operational efficiency and safety for rail operators. Customers can access live train schedules, delay notifications, service updates and customised alerts.

An example of this is Uber, who have revolutionised travellers expectations about real-time information by providing instant access to transportation services, transparency in pricing and availability, and seamless integration with mapping technology. As a result, travellers now expect similar levels of convenience, transparency, and accessibility from other service providers in various industries. According to Statista, in 2020, the Uber app had over 111 million users worldwide. This suggests a growing reliance on real-time information for booking rides.

5. Algorithms that find best value

Split ticketing allows passengers to save money on train journeys by finding and combining separate tickets for different legs of a trip. This innovative approach can significantly reduce the journey cost compared to purchasing a single ticket for the entire journey. This service helps make train travel more affordable and appealing to cost-conscious travellers.

Moreover, calendar price search is designed to help passengers find the most cost-effective train tickets by providing a visual representation of fares over a range of dates. This tool is particularly useful for travellers with flexible schedules who want to optimise their travel plans based on ticket prices.

Make Rail Easy

Over the last 13 years, SilverRail has been working behind the scenes to develop the tools that will power rail’s digital systems revolution. From smart journey planning to multichannel fulfilment systems, global distribution networks, powerful data insight dashboards and smooth ticket issuing services, we believe a truly modern transport offering means delivering tightly integrated, digitally-enabled services that make rail easy.

Every year, we handle over 4 billion rail searches, process over 37 million rail bookings, and help our clients save over 1.9 million tonnes of CO2 emissions — and we’re just getting started.

Discover our digital rail solutions to explore how SilverRail can help transport authorities, rail operators and travel agencies to transform the way they serve their customers and embrace the future of travel.