When the first locomotives made their lumbering appearance at the start of the nineteenth century, few people could have guessed at the differences they and their successors would make to our lives. First, our whole notions of time and distance were transformed. Until then, our boundaries had been limited to the speed at which a horse could gallop and the duration of that gallop. Suddenly we had machines that were four or more times faster than any horse and with ten times the stamina. New, wider choices about where we lived, worked and took our leisure suddenly presented themselves with what the railways did.

Railways did
St Pancras Station

This in turn changed how we perceived time. The old system, based on the rising and setting of the sun – God’s time – no longer worked, since the sun rose twenty minutes sooner in London than it did in Plymouth. Someone relying on a watch set to Plymouth time to travel from a London station would miss their train. Uniformity was needed, and (after some battles) the railways gave us Greenwich Mean Time.

The railways helped to give us the Victorian equivalent of e-mail. The newly-invented telegraph needed unbroken corridors of land, along which to erect their telegraph lines, and the railways were ideal for the purpose. The railways housed most of the telegraph network and suddenly one end of the land could talk to the other almost instantly. Provincial newspapers found themselves on a level playing field with their London counterparts, and the railways ensured that a national press could develop, and be distributed to the furthest corners of the nation while the news was still fresh.

As fresh as the food that was now available in our cities. The railways could quickly and cheaply deliver perishable foods like fish, fruit and milk to distant cities, vastly improving the diets of most urban dwellers.

The railways changed how the authorities maintained the peace and waged war. The Government could now summon help and move troops to the seat of any civil unrest within hours, rather than days or weeks. In the event of war, vast numbers of troops could be moved swiftly to wherever they were required and, equally important, could be supplied with all they needed to remain there. This also made it easier for defending troops to hold their positions than it was for the opposing armies to advance, generally across a no-man’s-land without working railways to support them. This helps to explain the years of stalemate in the trench warfare of the First World War’s western front.

There is also the geography of our towns and cities. Before the railways, the elite lived much more cheek by jowl with the ordinary working people. The railways helped them to move out to suburbs and countryside, for better or worse denuding the inner cities of those who had traditionally been the communities’ leaders. Sometimes the railways themselves were the active agents in developing these new suburbs – London’s Metroland being a prime example.

There are many other ways in which the railways made the world a very different – and for the most part better - place. These are just a few of the things the railways did for us.

Stuart Hylton's book What the Railways Did for Us: The Making of Modern Britain is out now!