How Railways Reshaped Rural Britain

The formation and expansion of railways across Britain radically transformed the rural way of life.

It opened up markets that were previously inaccessible and gave people a mobility that was unimaginable in prior centuries.

The railways had impacts on industry, leisure and rural populations. They altered the landscape of rural Britain in a way in which it would never be the same. However, alongside the undoubted advantages that the introduction of the rail system brought to rural communities, it also introduced new challenges and threats to the rural way of life. 


farmhouse in rural Britain
Rural Britain was just about to change

Railways became an integral part of British society and transportation. Between 1845 and 1900, £3 billion was spent on constructing railways. By the end of the reign of Queen Victoria, over 1100 million passengers were using Britain’s trains.

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Train travel allowed increased mobility, prompted leisure travel and both positively and negatively impacted other sectors. While coal mining, ironworking and seafood sectors all enjoyed the advantages the introduction of the steam train engine created, canal boats and stagecoach companies began to fall into disuse. 


For those that opposed the construction of the railway, there was little they could do to stop the advancement of the rail network, with rail organisations having immense power to construct rail infrastructure across the country. 

Britain has a strong link to the history of rail transport. It is the home to the world’s first inter-city passenger railway with the opening of the Liverpool to Manchester line in 1830.

The introduction of this rail line also marked the first timetabled service for passengers in the history of rail transport. The popularity and success of the Manchester to Liverpool service helped to inspire the expansion of passenger rail services across the UK.

steam engine
The invention of the steam engine was changing every thing.

Trains became the transportation of choice for many of the people of Britain. They significantly reduced the travel time associated with a journey, particularly when compared to options such as horse drawn carriages and canal boats. Upwards of a thousand passengers used the Manchester to Liverpool line every day.

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The popularity of the railway led to rapid expansion. The first line from Birmingham to London opened in 1838, and by 1841 a rail link between London and Bristol was completed.

By the mid-1840s, the people of Britain could travel by train from Manchester to London in eight hours, a journey that would have taken eighty hours by stagecoach. As urban centres became well connected, the countryside also saw the implementation of the rail network.

Smaller rural rail services began to emerge, often run by independent companies. By the 1870s, Britain had 24,000 km of rail lines.

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The railways impacted other industries in a dramatic way. They allowed producers to access markets at a speed that was previously unimaginable. One goods train running between Manchester and Liverpool was able to transport twenty times the cargo that a canal boat could carry.

These trains would also reach their destinations eight times faster than a canal boat. Switching to transporting their goods by rail provided a clear advantage to producers. 

The End of Stagecoaches and Canal Boats 

The introduction of the railways was bad news for transportation industries on the canals and stagecoaches. Simply unable to compete with the speed and haulage capacity of the railways, these sectors became obsolete. Canal systems began to fall into neglect. Some canal sections were even filled in and repurposed as railways. 

How an Expanding Rail Network Reshaped Rural Britain
The flight of 16 consecutive locks at Caen Hill on the Kennet and Avon Canal, Wiltshire

Those working in the once thriving stagecoach industry, such as in coaching inns on stagecoach routes, horse handlers, carriage drivers and the owners and operators of turnpike roads, began to face job losses and economic hardship.

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Of the twenty-one daily stagecoaches travelling between Manchester and Liverpool every day before the implementation of the rail service, only two remained in operation once it was in use.

Good for Miners but Bad for the Air 

The expansion of the railway created knock-on impacts across other industries, one of the most significant being coal mining. Early trains, relying on steam power, required large amounts of coal to function. Coal mining increased to support this new influx of demand. Materials needed to build tracks, carriages, bridges and tunnels also led to booms in metalworking sectors, particularly the production of iron and steel.

How an Expanding Rail Network Reshaped Rural Britain
The 2.5 million tonnes of coal that Britain produced in 1700 had swelled to a massive 224 million tonnes by 1900. 

For mining and metalworking companies, the expansion of the railways presented a distinct economic advantage. More jobs were created, and rural mining communities experienced better work and economic opportunities.

The 2.5 million tonnes of coal that Britain produced in 1700 had swelled to a massive 224 million tonnes by 1900. However, alongside these industry booms was a more sinister element. As steam powered trains burnt coal and mining companies ramped up production, the clean air and clear skies of rural Britain began to disappear.

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This increased level of air pollution made life uncomfortable and presented a major health risk for people living near or involved in the mining industry. Those that didn’t like the idea of a rail line in their backyard also faced an uphill battle.

Private Acts of Parliament that were passed for each new line meant that railway companies could buy land for building rail infrastructure and evict those who opposed construction or attempted to block building works. This posed a particular issue for farmers, with a rising concern that passing trains frightened livestock. 

Factories, Fish and Farms 

The introduction of the railways impacted the ways in which companies operated, particularly with regard to the markets in which they traded. Prior to the railways, businesses were restricted to local markets to sell their goods.

Rail Network Reshaped Rural Britain
Railway churns were wider at the bottom to make them less susceptible to tipping over and spilling 17 gallons of hard earned milk

This also restricted where factories were built, with larger organisations having a clear advantage if based in urban centres. The railways changed this. Goods could now be quickly and efficiently transported across the country.

Goods produced at factories in one part of the country could be sold in a completely different area. This opened up new potential markets for companies and allowed businesses to rapidly grow and expand. 

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This increased speed of transportation also changed the way people in Britain ate, especially when it came to seafood.


Prior to the introduction of the steam train, inland communities could not access fresh seafood as it would spoil on the long journey from the coast. Steam trains dramatically reduced the travel time, and seafood suddenly became an available option for communities across Britain.

Products could be transported, sold and consumed before spoiling. This not only provided another source of food for inland villages, towns and cities, but also expanded the economic opportunities for fishermen and other people involved in the seafood industry. 

The farming sector also saw advantages with the expansion of the railways, particularly in industries such as the dairy industry.

Produce that once would have spoiled before reaching major urban markets could now reach new buyers in a matter of hours, opening up new sales opportunities. Farmers taking advantage of these rail links could enjoy a rising standard of living. 

The Beginnings of the Seaside Escape 

The introduction of the railways gave people the opportunity to visit locations that previously were too expensive to visit or that it would have taken too long to reach. Seaside towns and villages particularly flourished with this new boom in leisure travel.

Birnbeck Pier is an abandoned Victorian Pier in Weston-super-Mare, England. This Victorian-era pier was a major tourist attraction, drawing visitors who arrived via steamer boats to revel in its amusements and picturesque vistas of the Bristol Channel.

Seaside resort towns such as Brighton and Scarborough began to benefit from leisure travel. Influenced by a number of factors, the population of Brighton swelled from 3,620 people in 1786 to over 40,000 inhabitants in 1831.  Since it was first made possible and popular by the expansion of the railways, the seaside holiday has remained a prominent part of British leisure culture. 

Changing Populations and New Information 

Towns that constructed railway stations and had good rail links saw a period of growth as use of the rail system expanded across the UK. However for the smaller towns that were not linked by the rail system, the population began to dwindle.

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By 1851, towns with a railway station had, on average, noticeably higher populations than those that were isolated from the rail network. The introduction of a train station even altered the occupational makeup of an area.

Wickham railway station, April 1968, 12 years after closure.
Not all lines were successful. Wickham railway station, April 1968, 12 years after closure.

Alongside the considerable population growth that railway towns experienced from the mid- to late-nineteenth century, there was also a notable shift of men transitioning out of agricultural professions. 

The rail network allowed information to better circulate around the country – news literally travelled faster. People around the nation could keep up to date with current affairs like never before. As the postal service also began to use the railway, mail could reach its destination far more efficiently. 

A New World of Travel 

There is no doubt that the introduction of the railways ushered in drastic changes to both rural and urban Britain. Everything from industry to leisure to available food was impacted as travel times shortened.

News spread at a more rapid rate, and the country seemed to shrink overnight. While the expansion of the railway ushered in distinct advantages for many, it also caused some disadvantages to rural communities. Towns not included in the rail network began to struggle with depopulation while connected towns grew exponentially. 

Industries such as mining, fishing and metalworking boomed, facilitated by the expansion of the train system. Meanwhile, the age of stagecoaches and canal travel seemingly came to an end. Companies across Britain enjoyed increased opportunities as markets that were previously out of reach became accessible.

Business owners had greater freedom to use factories outside of urban hubs. The expansion of the rail system reshaped Britain and laid the foundations for commerce, leisure and travel that Britain is built on today. 

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