When Steam Power Killed The Workhorse: The Hetton Colliery Railway

When we think of railroads, we typically imagine a long train of freight cars being pulled by multiple diesel engines, or steam engines in historical times. But before the early 1800's, rail transport existed in a much different way than we think of it today. Most railroads used animal power, and had little to no engineering standards, as "railroad companies" that owned dozens of lines didn't exist, as all railroads were used for usually a small purpose and nothing more.

While steam locomotive prototypes existed as early as 1784, and the Coalbrookdale Locomotive was the first operating steam power on a track, most railways used animal power, and those lucky enough to incorporate steam into their operations still mostly used animals. That all changed in 1822.

The Hetton Colliery Railway was the first railway in the United Kingdom to operate wholly on steam power, as opposed to horsepower, first beginning operation in 1822. (Right of way)

Located near the small village of Hetton, and running to near the city of Sunderland, the railway's genesis was an 1816 geologic survey of land owned by the Lyon family, which showed coal deposits were likely profitable. 

View of the Hetton Railway

Construction began three years later in 1819, with completion in 1822 by George Stephenson and his son Robert. Throughout its life it was a privately-owned operation that was never consolidated into a larger railway system.

Stephenson would also use his steam engine three years later on the Stockton and Darlington Railway, which was the first public railway to use steam power, making the railroad industry as we know it today possible.

The colliery continued to use the right of way as late as 1967, with the first locomotives operating until the early 20th century. Parts of the right of way survive today as part of the Stephenson Trail.

Thanks as always for reading!


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