Monday, 26 April 2021

Locomotives of the Liverpool & Manchester Railway

Locomotives of the Liverpool & Manchester Railway by Anthony Dawson covers a fascinating time in railway, engineering, and indeed social history - the development of the steam engine from a primitive and unreliable industrial machine to a means of reliable and convenient transport. The Liverpool & Manchester Railway was of course the first public and passenger carrying steam railway - the railways that existed at that time carried only freight (usually coal or minerals), and very few (including the Stockton & Darlington) used steam locomotives. 

The story of the Rocket winning the Rainhill Trials is famous enough to have featured on a £5 note, and the father and son team behind it George and Robert Stephenson are well known for developing the steam locomotive into a practical reality. This book starts in the run up to the Rainhill trials which were actually about whether steam locomotives should be used at all, rather than to select a winning design. Strangely the book doesn't describe the trials, but continues with the development from Rocket to the engines used when the lined opened (incorporating several significant advances), and then through the early years of the railway as knowledge of steam engines increased with each new design. While the Stephensons had much influence initially, they were resisted by some and alternative designs were tried - generally it must be said with little success, although within a few years it was those running the locomotives in daily use who gained the experience to improve the designs. 

As an engineer I found the development story fascinating - the early locomotives had no effective means of controlling steam into the cylinders, no balance weights to counter the massive forces of moving motion, poor firebox designs and no smokebox, not even any brakes. The engineering ideas had run ahead of materials science, and fireboxes, boiler tubes, and cranked axles failed regularly - as did the track. The early locos had shockingly short lives - 2 to 3 years in some cases - before wearing out or becoming obsolete due to advances in technology. The familiar outline and key features of steam locomotives appeared in those first few years, rather like the development of horseless carriages into motor cars about 60 years later, in fact the advances in technology at that time can be compared to the development of the mobile phone, rise of the internet, or transition from G-Wizz to Tesla in more recent times - arguably with a greater impact on mankind. 

The book goes on to discuss the early enginemen and foremen responsible for operating the locos, their maintenance and repair, and the passenger and goods stock - this is interesting as like the locomotives there was no existing template, and early designs had their flaws. However, there were some strange omissions from the book as in many ways it fails to set the context. There is no background to the Liverpool & Manchester railway - why it came about, the key events in its history, even its geography (which has relevance to the locomotives) - nor the parallel developments in the railway world at that time. As noted above even the Rainhill trails are glossed over. I notice that the same author has written an operating history of the Liverpool and Manchester by the same publisher (which also looks interesting) and perhaps that fills some of these gaps, but properly setting the scene in brief here would help understand the subject of this book better, and could have been done in a short prologue, or even an appendix. 

Also, some of the technological developments were not well explained, such as the advantage of a blast pipe, or how a good firebox and boiler work so as to understand the primitive versions then being developed. One diagram shows Buddicom's valve gear with the comment "from which the Stephenson-Howe link valve gear was an obvious evolution" - except that without an explanation of Stephenson-Howe link valve gear it is not obvious at all. As an engineer and railway enthusiast I generally had little difficulty in understanding the technologies described, but if it wasn't always clear to me it then won't be to all readers. Given the object of the book is to "chart the development" of these locomotives a few extra words or diagrams to explain some of these ideas would help many readers. 

That said, there are some excellent illustrations from contemporary drawings (both technical and illustrative) and engravings - of course there were no photographs at that time, although a few of modern replicas are included. The text is well written and easy to read, and is clearly well researched. I found it a fascinating read, and anyone with an interest in steam engines, engineering, or history of the industrial revolution will enjoy it too. 

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