Trains: Birth of the Modern Railways

Travel back in time to the birth of the Industrial Revolution and its most exciting child: the train.

This story was created for the Google Expeditions project by Twig World, now available on Google Arts & Culture

Trains: Birth of the Railways by Twig, GA&C

Step aboard a 200-year-old train, travel down a mine and walk beside one of the most important engineers in history: George Stephenson, father of the railways.

Starting the Shift

Coal was the fuel that shaped the modern world. The North East of England was a major exporter of coal from the 13th century right up until the 1990s. Coal was first used to heat homes, but eventually it replaced charcoal in the manufacture of iron and steel. 

As a result, coal production increased. Wagonways were used to transport the coal from the collieries to the major rivers. However, the horses could not move the coal quickly enough to keep up with demand.

 The genius invention of the steam locomotive in the 1800s meant that railways could haul far more coal than horses ever could. This 19th-century scene shows the coal miner collecting his safety lamp before making his way to the coal seam underground.

Starting the Shift

Miners worked 8 hours each day but were often on piecework – meaning they were paid based on the amount of coal they brought to the surface rather than hours worked. A mine typically operated 24 hours a day, so minors would work in shifts.

Leather Cap

A leather cap might protect the miner from a bump on the head but very little else. Miners wore very little protective clothing. This was partly because it was so hot in the mines. Miners also had to buy all of their own equipment.

Safety Lamp

Before the invention of the safety lamp, naked flames were the only sources of light in mines, but gases (mainly methane) could explode if set alight by a candle. Coal dust in the air was also explosive in certain conditions. 

Safety lamps had gauze around their flames, making explosions less likely.

Walking to Work

Miners usually lived in a house owned by the colliery company, but it took as long as an hour to get to the coalface, during which time miners would earn no money.

The Coal Face

This scene shows some of the tasks carried out by the miners and offers a glimpse of the conditions in a mine.

Pit Props

Pit props were wooden supports that held the roof up, helping to stop the roof and walls collapsing. The wood buckled and groaned as pressure built up, warning miners of potential collapse. 

But they did not always find out in time: miners knew they were risking their lives every time they went to work.

Digging Out Coal

Miners used picks to dig out coal and shovels to put it into low buckets called tubs.


Mining was dangerous and cramped work. Miners breathed in dust that caused lung problems. Mines were hot (around 38°C), wet and dark. Some miners used humour to combat the harsh conditions of their work. They also knew that without the work, their families would starve.


Coal ran in seams that could be less than a metre high. In this mine, it is possible to stand up, but in other mines, miners worked lying on their sides or crouching for hours at a time.

Pit Mouth

A drift mine would be dug straight into a hillside and follow a seam of coal into the hill. This is the mouth of a drift mine called Mahogany. 

Rail Tracks

The tubs of coal were pulled on rail tracks out of the mine by the miners, their families or pit ponies. It was backbreaking work. The tracks were wooden in early mines and iron later on.

The Life of a Miner

Look at the miner standing outside the mine. It is likely that he has just done a 10-hour shift at the coalface. He is filthy with coal dust (there are no washing facilities). He rarely sees the Sun and suffers from a lack of vitamin D (obtained from sunlight). 

This lack of vitamin D led to many miners developing rickets, and their legs became bowed.

The Problem with Coal

Mines near water sent their coal by boat to cities and iron works. When coal seams close to rivers got used up, it became necessary to mine seams further and further away. How could coal be transported from these distant mines? 

Coal was heavy, dirty, fragile and produced in huge quantities. Anyone who solved this problem was likely to make a lot of money.

The Winding Engine

Not all coal could be dug out from a drift mine: sometimes the more productive seams were deeper underground. As demand from iron, steel, pottery and brick manufacture increased, it became economically viable to mine this deeper coal.

The introduction of steam engines used to pump water out of these mines made them more practical. Mineshafts were dug straight down and horizontal tunnels followed the seam. A cage would lift the coal tubs up from the tunnels to the surface.

Steam Engine

Steam engines that operated using atmospheric pressure were originally used to pump water out of mines. Eventually, high-pressure steam engines were developed. These were much more powerful and could raise and lower a cage in a vertical shaft using a flywheel.

No Breaks

The cage took 30 seconds to go down the shaft. The coal would be loaded in one minute and then it would take 30 seconds for the cage to ascend the shaft again. Spare a thought for the operator – he worked 6.5 days a week with almost no breaks.

Depth Gauge

The depth gauge enabled the operator to stop the cage when it was level with the tunnel leading to the coal seam.

Moving the Coal

These trucks are called chauldrons. They are designed to carry the coal away from the mine, but they are heavy and difficult to handle. Some mines used static engines and wire ropes to pull the chauldrons, but they were dangerous and could not pull very much at a time.

Iron Rails

The rails were originally made of wood, but they often split because of the weight they carried. When John Birkinshaw produced rolled wrought-iron rails in 1820, they became more reliable.

Pithead Building

Behind the chauldrons is the pithead building. Coal from the mine was emptied onto a coal-picking belt and for the stones and rubbish to be removed. The coal was then loaded into chaludrons from above.

Money, Money, Money

Look at the amount of coal in these chauldrons. Anyone finding a way to transport coal cheaply to the rivers for distribution could make a lot of money. Horses were tried but could make only a limited number of trips.

By 1810, mines had chauldrons and rails but nothing reliable to pull large, heavy loads. Perhaps a moving steam engine would be the answer.

Puffing Billy

Puffing Billy was one of the earliest examples of a railway engine designed to take coal from pithead to river. Coal boiled the water to produce steam, which was forced into a cylinder that drove a piston and then the wheels. 

As engines became more and more sophisticated, they became lighter and capable of much higher pressure, resulting in more power.

Puffing Billy

This is a replica of Puffing Billy, which was an early steam engine. It was a marvel of its age, engineered in about 1813 by William Hedley for Christopher Blackett. 

Blackett owned the Wylam Colliery, 6 miles away from Lemington, where coal was loaded onto keelboats and taken down the River Tyne to Newcastle.


Early engineers thought that wheels would just spin if smooth rails were used. William Hedley, Timothy Hackworth and Jonathan Forster experimented with a chassis onto which they could add weights. 

New Technology

The cylinder you can see outside Puffing Billy had to run at much higher pressures (344kPa) than static engines (20–34kPa). The cylinder and all moving parts had to be very well constructed. These machines were experimental and sometimes blew up if they had flaws.

They found that an engine weighing 8 tonnes could pull 8 loaded chauldrons on a smooth rail before the wheels started spinning, as long as the rails remained fairly level.

Broken Rails

Puffing Billy was very heavy. Before strong rolled rails appeared in 1820, it often broke rails. The engine was redesigned with more wheels to spread the load.

Driving Puffing Billy

Driving Puffing Billy was a slow process. It could reach speeds of only 5 miles an hour – a fast walking pace. This was enough for some: there was a theory that if you went too fast you might pass out. 

The blacksmith Timothy Hackworth took what he had learned designing this engine and helped in the design and development of faster, more reliable engines by George Stephenson.

The Driver

The driver would drive Puffing Billy and its load of coal from the pithead at Wylam to Lemington on the river Tyne. This would take about an hour and a half. The coal was used to help make iron, steel, glass, pottery, cotton and cement. 

The cheap availability of energy in the form of coal helped to make the Industrial Revolution in the UK possible.

The Firebox

The fireman had to keep the fire hot enough to produce steam. The engine would also need constant maintenance to keep it working. Driving the engine was difficult, as it had no brakes.

The Load

This engine could pull about 8 chauldrons holding about 35 tonnes of coal per trip. It replaced about 16 horses and 14 men to drive the horses. Horses and men were expensive, so replacing them with an engine meant that coal could be sold at lower prices.

The End of a Hard Day

Mine locomotive drivers and their families had a hard life. Because of this, the communities around mines were close-knit and proud. Locomotive workers knew that few people could do their job.

Slowly, as transport improved, UK industry relied more and more on the coal that miners produced and trains delivered. By 1830, the UK was producing 30 million tonnes of coal for industry.

Union Official

This man is the local union official. Conditions in mines were dangerous, with lots of deaths each year. Miners and locomotive drivers had few rights, although pay was good. 

Slowly, a solidarity developed between workers in different collieries and they organised themselves to fight for better working conditions. During the 19th century, miners and drivers started unions. Conditions began to improve, particularly after public outcry about children working in mines. 


Alcohol was often consumed by the workers to numb the pain of their difficult lives.

The Future Calls

As he sat with his cup of tea, this man could not have known the impact that the mines in the North East of England would have on industry and society. 

Entrepreneurs who developed engines to move coal from the pits to the river would very quickly have the idea of charging people to travel on their trains. Soon, tracks were laid between towns, and faster engines developed by George Stephenson and others began to carry passengers and goods. A revolution had begun.

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