Middleton, The World’s Oldest Operating Railway

Aug 19, 2020 0 comments

The Middleton Railway in Leeds has been chugging along for the past 260 years, longer than any other railways in the world. It was established by an Act of Parliament in 1758 to transport coal from the collieries of Middleton to the factories of Leeds. At that time, rails were made of wood and although steam engines were being used in industries to drive blast furnaces and pump water from mines, nobody had incorporated one on wheels yet.

The Brandlings, who operated the Middleton collieries, were at a disadvantage to their competitors because they couldn’t access the river to transport coal like the Fentons in Rothwell did. So Richard Humble, agent to Charles Brandling, the owner, proposed to build a wagonway, where horses could pull coal-laden wagons over wooden rails. The first wagonway was built in 1755 across Brandling land and that of friendly neighbors to the riverside wharf at Thwaite Gate. This was extended to Leeds in 1757. In order to ensure permanence, Brandling sought ratification in an Act of Parliament, becoming the first railway in the world to be authorized by the Parliament.

 Middleton Railway

Photo: David Spencer/Flickr

The ability to transport coal cheaply kept prices low, enabling many developing industries in Leeds to use cheap coal as source of heat and power. This in turn helped the development of many industries in Leeds such as pottery, brick and glass making, metal working, and brewing.

By the turn of the 19th century, much progress had been made in steam technology. The pioneering engineer Richard Trevithick built the first high-pressure steam engine paving the way for the development of the first steam locomotive, which Trevithick built for the Coalbrookdale ironworks. Two years later, Trevithick built another steam locomotive for the Pen-y-darren ironworks.

The Middleton Colliery got their first steam locomotive, called Salamanca, in 1812. It was built by English steam engine and machine tool manufacturer Matthew Murray, who borrowed Richard Trevithick’s design and improved upon it by using two cylinders instead of one to give a smoother drive.

The Salamanca.

The Salamanca.

the collier

"The Collier", a painting by George Walker (1814), showing the Salamanca on the Middleton Railway.

Salamanca was the first rack and pinion locomotive. A single rack ran outside the narrow gauge tracks and was engaged by a large cog wheel on the left side of the locomotive. The cog wheel was driven by twin cylinders embedded into the top of the center-flue boiler. Salamanca was so successful that the colliery ordered three more locomotives of the same design, which the colliery ran for more than twenty years. The original Salamanca survived only six years—it was destroyed when its boiler exploded killing its driver. After another boiler explosion, which killed the world's first regular locomotive driver James Hewitt, Middleton Colliery abandoned steam power and returned to horse haulage, except for a 1-mile section near the main pit.

Steam was reintroduced in 1866 and in 1881, the railway was converted to 1,435 mm standard gauge allowing it to connect with the Midland Railway. The railway continued to operate until the 1960s when the colliery closed, prompting volunteers to take over the operation of the railway.

Today, the Middleton Railway operates as a heritage railway with a couple of old steam engines and a few diesel locomotives among its rolling stock.

 Middleton Railway

Photo: David Spencer/Flickr

 Middleton Railway

Photo: David Spencer/Flickr


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