Why Was The S&DR Important?

And why is it important today?


The ‘greatest idea of modern times’


While there had been earlier wooden waggonways, metal plateways and the use of steam engines, it was the coming together of engineering excellence with the motivation, vision and financial backing, mainly from Darlington’s Quaker families, in particular Edward Pease, which made the S&DR a significant milestone in the creation of what we now think of as the modern railway system.  It required business people to recognise the potential role of the railway for communities and businesses beyond the mineral industries and to invest in a service that anyone (the public) could buy into and make use of. In return, unlike earlier mineral waggonways, the rail infrastructure would be a permanent fixture with a regular service linking populated areas and so attract additional businesses and industries resulting in population growth and movement.

By 1830 the S&DR was already a network of main and branch lines and had demonstrated to others building railways elsewhere in the UK and abroad, the model of a permanent, profitable steam powered public railway.

[i] Jeans 1974 (first published 1875), 74.

The Stockton & Darlington Railway marked a significant milestone in the development of the modern railway network.

S&DR Milestone at Brusselton

S&DR Milestone at Brusselton

Act of Parliament 1821

The type of financial backing was an important factor in the success of the railway because it meant that it was no longer reliant on a single industry such as coal. Instead a permanent public asset with multiple uses was designed from the outset in its Act of Parliament of 1821 to carry any ‘Goods, Wares and Merchandize’ and listed amongst many other things ‘coal, coke, limestone, cinders, Stone, Marl, Sand, Lime, Clay, Ironstone and other Minerals, Building Stone, Pitching and Paving Stone, Bricks, Tiles, Slates, and all gross and unmanufactured Articles, and Building Materials…Lead in Pigs or Sheets, Bar Iron, Waggon Tire, Timber, Staves and Deals…’.(para 62 of the 1821 Act). The Act of Parliament established the S&DR as a stand-alone commercial operation and public company, empowered to buy the land it needed, by compulsory purchase if necessary, and hence able to construct a permanent route. In return, it was obliged to offer a service at agreed rates and be available to carry that traffic for the public market (Guy 2015, 6). On the opening day, the waggons were loaded with coal, flour and passengers to show how the railway could be used to local businesses and residents. In the celebratory speeches at Stockton Town Hall, the coal, lead and farming industries were toasted; their success was now intertwined with that of the railway.

Here, however, was a public railway projected and carried out on a scale of magnitude and novelty not hitherto approached, and furnished with the then unfamiliar accessory of steam locomotion.’

(Jeans 1974 (1875), 65).

The Vision

The S&DR was not the first to use steam engines (travelling or stationary), nor the first to use malleable iron rails – these technologies already existed, but the S&DR’s vision to use the technology and adapt it for a bigger more ambitious purpose, set it apart from other early railways of the time such as the Kilmarnock and Troon, Canterbury and Whitstable or Swansea and Mumbles.  While each of these other early railways is important in the development of aspects of the modern railway, it was to be the role of the S&DR to bring several technical innovations together in one place and through hard work and perseverance prove that it could be made to work on a public line, permanently set out with a network of branch lines. In the process the modern railway was invented and the world was shown that not only could the steam locomotive powered railway be made to work, but that importantly it would return a healthy profit.

The success of the Darlington railway experiment, and the admirable manner in which the loco-motive engine does all, and more than all that was expected of it, seems to have spread far and wide the conviction of the immense benefits to be derived from the construction of new railways.’

(The Times 2nd December 1825)

Engine House Reservoir Etherley Incline

The engine house reservoir on the Etherley Incline.


The S&DR’s pioneering origins meant that at its start there was no model for it to follow on how to run an established, permanent public railway. Nothing had been invented in a form that could simply be borrowed and applied for the S&DR. The line was set out with cuttings, bridges and embankments and from the start it was built to accommodate twin tracks and sidings, although costs had to be carefully controlled so much of the line was furnished with a single line only with sidings by 1825 and a view to doubling the capacity in the future. Depots were also provided from the outset where coal and lime could be delivered and within a year, public houses, weigh houses, and a purpose built goods station would be added to the network. Signalling over long distances was tried and tested, warnings were sounded on the approach to level crossings, braking systems improved and sleepers made heavier. There was little past experience to learn from, no book to consult and the duties of railway officials had yet to be clearly defined (Young 1975, 121). Job descriptions were loosely defined and the Company also switched between employing people directly or as subcontractors.

Rapid Advances

Once the S&DR was up and running as a ‘rail-way’, it quickly became apparent what worked well and what needed improving. The gauge chosen for the line by Stephenson was 4 feet 81/2 inches, subsequently adopted as the standard gauge for railways, not only in Britain, but throughout the world (Davies, Hunter 1975). After 1825, advances followed rapidly and included the creation of more loading and unloading depots which would evolve into the now familiar railway architecture such as goods and passenger stations, the bylaws for running a regional railway, the growth of health and safety, the administration needed, the creation of passenger timetables and of course commercial success that would reassure other investors that it was safe to invest in their own railway that would soon form part of a national and then international railway network.

By the time the Liverpool and Manchester line opened in 1830 the S&DR had 12 locomotives[1] and by 1832 it had 19. It was a financially successful mainline with established branch lines at Darlington, Yarm, Croft and Black Boy– others would open in 1830 at Haggerleases and to Middlesbrough and the Surtees line in 1831. This was a fully-fledged modern railway network that we would recognise today and a model that would spread across the world.

[1] Based on tables published by Pearce, T 1996, 233-5

Tues., Mar. 30. [1841] A day of great bustle and unsettlement from the opening of the Great North of England Railway. Twenty years ago these projects, or rather that from this coal district, was of much interest to my mind and its completion in 1825 may be said to have given birth to all others in this world.’ 

(from Edward Pease’s Diary)

Technically & Financially Successful

Detractors of the S&DR suggest that the line was little more than a colliery railway (Marshall 1979, 199), but the Act of Parliament clearly set out a wide range of products the railway could carry and from the outset the line was established with coal and lime depots along it, which were rapidly used for a range of goods and in some cases, passengers too. It was no coincidence that on the opening day, the waggons were filled with coal, flour and passengers conveyed for all to see, the potential uses of the line to the surrounding area. At the celebratory banquet in Stockton Town Hall, toasts were also made to the Tees Navigation Company, the coal trade, the lead trade and other mining interests, coal owners, the plough, the loom and the sail – all key businesses that the railway could advance but which were also required as railway customers (Young 1975, 119). The S&DR was therefore much more than a waggonway. It was in purpose and intent a public railway for passengers and goods, and the proving ground for significant technological development in railway and locomotive power. It demonstrated to the wider world that such a railway could be a technical and financial success. The S&DR made possible the railways that were to follow such as the Liverpool & Manchester Railway (which was also toasted to at the opening banquet along with the projected Leeds and Hull Railway) (Guy 2015, 7). It was therefore the birthplace of the modern railways that we know today. Coincidentally, the model chosen by the S&DR of creating a railway trackbed with privately owned ‘trains’ running along it, is the same model that the UK rail network has today with Network Rail providing the line and private businesses operating it under licence. That arrangement started with the S&DR.

The S&DR was much more than a waggonway. It was in purpose and intent a public railway for goods and passengers and the proving ground for significant technological development in railway and locomotive power. It demonstrated to the wider world that such a railway could be a technical and financial success and made possible the railways that were to follow such as the Liverpool & Manchester. It was the birthplace of the modern railway that we know today.

What Survives of the S&DR?

Of the original 42km of mainline opened in 1825, just over 19km of the original trackbed remains as live railway line and so has been in continual use since 1825. The live line includes original cuttings, embankments and level line. Despite remaining in continual use, it is surprising the extent to which stone sleepers from 1825 can still be found in the adjacent verges. The live line also includes a large number of engineering features dated to 1825 including embankments, cuttings, stone culverts, accommodation bridges, and the scheduled Skerne Bridge in Darlington designed by Ignatius Bonomi and George Stephenson in 1824-5.

Even where the line has been developed, survival of the track bed features is surprisingly good; indeed, half of it is still functioning as a railway, and so must be the longest continually operating modern railway in the world!

Culverts, Crossings & Milestones

Stretches of disused line include the major inclines of Brusselton and Etherley as well as original culverts, level crossings, in-situ sleepers, steam engine reservoirs, accommodation bridges, occasional boundary or milestones and the crossing of the River Gaunless, where the stone abutments of Stephenson’s revolutionary iron railway bridge survive, while the iron parts are in the National Railway Museum at York.

Brusselton Engine House and reservoir

Brusselton Engine House and reservoir

Features of National Importance

Where the line has been re-developed, features of national importance still survive. For example, the busy Tornado Way in Darlington was built partially on the 1825 embankment. But the embankment still largely remains and running along the north side is the original drainage culvert and scattered stone sleepers and a boundary stone. The extended 1825 accommodation bridge near Haughton Road also survives and is now used as an under pass.


When the West Auckland bypass was constructed, it was designed to protect the 1825 line by going over it rather than cutting through it.

While there are several early S&DR buildings and structures protected by being designated as Listed Buildings, there are clusters of surviving buildings associated with the early railway predominantly in Stockton, Yarm, Darlington, Heighington, Brusselton and Shildon which have no protection. These include inns and depots, houses and coach houses.

The Coal & Lime Depot St John's Crossing Stockton

The S&DR coal and lime depot, weigh house and public house at St. John’s Crossing, Stockton

The first purpose built goods station on North Road in Darlington, commissioned in 1826 was destroyed in 1864, but has not been permanently developed since; its location is therefore of high archaeological potential. Other areas of trackbed which had previously thought to have been destroyed, have in fact, been found through aerial photography at Brusselton and at Witton Park and Phoenix Row.

Where structures have been lost, it is likely that we still have archaeological evidence below ground in the form of buried foundations.

Brusselton Incline

International Influence & Impact

Damage to the 1825 line and its structures still continues from a variety of causes, negligence, vandalism and lack of maintenance, but work has already started to conserve these internationally important remains of the Stockton & Darlington Railway.

Much of the line built and opened in 1825 is still intact, it has the highest degree of historic significance and it has demonstrable international influence and impact.

No other place in the world can showcase the place where the modern railway network was launched.