When was the world\’s first railway laid? No one is quite confident on a precise date but simple rails have been used to guide vehicles for centuries, definitely as far back as the middle ages and possibly even in Ancient Greece.
What is certain is that in the early 1600s a Nottinghamshire businessman called Huntingdon Beaumont came to Northumberland and laid rails from collieries near Blyth to a shipping point on the coast.
His waggonway used horses hauling wooden waggons on wooden wheels on wooden rails, however this was not a financial success. It did though provide the spark of progression from primitive wooden rails over short distances, to a railway network which would change Britain and the world forever.
From the mid 1600 onwards waggonways and the Tyneside coal industry became linked so closely that they were known throughout the rest of Britain as ‘Tyneside Roads’. A network of lines linked collieries on both sides of the Tyne to the river.
It is no coincidence that the North East was the area where waggonways took greatest hold, because canal building was impossible due to deep valleys and steep hills. What set the rail systems of Tyneside apart from all others was its use of the flanged wheel – a key element of the modern railway as we know it.
When the Tanfield Railway – or waggonway as it was known at the time – was built in 1725, it was a revelation. Its massive engineering was unlike anything else in its era, or even since the Roman Empire. It was a triumph of engineering over nature, a clear signal that a new industrial age was upon the world, and that railways would play a massive part.
First laid down more than a quarter of a century before the first railway officially sanctioned by government, over 75 years before the first steam locomotive and a whole 100 years earlier than the Stockton and Darlington Railway, the Tanfield Railway is the world\’s oldest railway. We will be the first railway to celebrate our tricentenary in 2025.