Minutes to be observed in the Construction of Railways

by Benjamin Outram,

published in February 1801

Benjamin Outram's paper was first published in the periodical, Recreations in Agriculture. This periodical was almost entirely written by Dr James Anderson, a Scottish economist (also described as a lawyer, scientist, agriculturalist and writer) whose daughter, Margaret, married Benjamin Outram on the 4 June 1800.

Although Outram used the word 'railway’ to describe this form of transport, the word ‘tramway’ was already in widespread use and it came to describe rail systems that operated as feeders from quarries and coal mines, etc, to canals. There is no connection between the prefix ‘tram’ and Outram’s surname. The word ‘railway’ (or ‘railroad’) came into more widespread use following the opening of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway on Monday, 13 September 1830, which used steam haulage running on I-section (edge) rails. Afterwards, the words ‘tramway’ and ‘railway’ remained in use to describe two distinct methods of rail transport. That is, tramways acted as feeders from quarries and coal mines to canals and later to mainline railways as well whereas railways carried goods and passengers over long distances. Synonyms of the word ‘tramway’ include: ‘tramroad’, ‘stoneroad’, ‘dramroad’, ‘gangway’ and ‘gangroad’.

Outram’s tramways used L-section cast-iron rails (also known as plates), one yard in length, which were secured to stone sleeper blocks with wrought-iron spikes driven into oak plugs inserted into holes in the sleeper blocks. Workmen who laid rails were known as ‘platelayers’ and this word is still in use. This meant that L-section rails were flanged and waggon wheels were flangless whereas I-section (edge) rails were flangless and waggon wheels were flanged. With experience, it came to be recognised that I-section rails and flanged wheels made a better arrangement.

Benjamin Outram's Paper

First. The best line which the country affords must be traced out, having regard to the direction of the carriage (transport) of articles or trade to be expected; and if such trade be both ways in nearly equal quantities, a line as nearly horizontally level as possible should be chosen. If the trade is all in one direction, as is generally the case between mines and navigations (canals), then the most desirable line is one with a gentle gradual descent, such as shall make it not greater labor (labour) for the horses employed to draw the loaded waggons down, than the empty ones back; and this will be found to be the case on a railway descending about one foot verticle (vertical) in one hundred feet horizontal. Or, if the rail-way and carriages (waggons) are of the very best construction, the descent verticle (vertical) may be to the length horizontal as 1 to 150, where there is little or no upgate loading. In cases between mines and navigations (canals) the descent will often be found greater than could be wished. On the rail-way of the improved plan, where the descent is more than as 1 to 50; 6 or 8 waggons, loaded with 30 or 40 hundred weight each (1½ or 2 tons), will have such a tendency to run downwards, as would require great labor (labour) of one horse to check and regulate, unless that tendency was checked by sledging (braking) some of the wheels. On such, and steeper roads, iron slippers (brakes) are applied, one or more to a gang of waggons, as occasion may require. Each slipper being chained to the side of one of the waggons, and, being put under the wheels, forms a sledge. When the descent is very great, steep inclined planes, with machinery, may be adopted, so as to render the other parts of the rail-way easy. On such inclined planes, the descended (descending) loaded waggons being applied to raise the ascending empty, or partly loaded ones, the necessity of sledging the wheels is avoided, and the labor (labour) of the horse greatly reduced.

To obtain the desired levels, gentle descents, or steep inclined planes; and to avoid sharp turns and circuitous tracts (tracks), it will often be found prudent to cross valleys by bridges and embankments; to cut thro (through) ridges of land; and in very rugged countries short tunnels may sometimes be necessary. The line of rail-way being fixed, and the planes and sections by which the same is to be executed settled, the ground for the whole must be formed and effectually drained. The breadth of bed for a single rail-way should be, in general, 4 yards; and for a double one six yards, exclusive of the fences, side drains, and ramparts.

The bed of road (track) so formed to the proper inclination, and the embankments and works thereof made firm, the surface must be covered with a bed of stones broken small; or good gravel, six inches in thickness or depth. On this bed must be laid the sleepers or blocks to fasten the rails upon. These should be of stone in all places where it can be obtained in sufficient size. They should be not less than 8, not more than 12 inches in thickness; and of such breadths, circular, square, or triangular, as shall make them 150lbs. or 200lbs. weight each. Their shape not material (that is, not particularly important), so that they have a flat bottom to rest upon, and a small portion of their upper surface level, to form a firm bed for the end of the rails. In the centre of each block must be drilled a hole, one inch and a half in diameter, and six inches in depth, to receive an octagonal plug of dry oak five inches in length; for it should not reach the bottom of the hole; nor should it be larger than so as to be put in easily, and without much driving: for if too tight fitted it might, when wet, burst the stone. These plugs are each to receive an iron spike or large nail, with a flat point and long head, adapted to fit the counter-sunk notches in the end of the two rails, and thereby to fasten them down in the proper position.

The rails should be of the stoutest cast iron, one yard in length each, formed with a flanch (flange) on the inner edge two inches and a half high at the ends, and three and a half in the centre; and shaped in the best manner to give strength to the rails, and keep the wheels in the (their) track. The soles of the rails for general purposes should not be less than 4 inches broad; and the thickness proportioned for the work they are intended for. On rail-ways for heavy burthen (burdens), great use and long duration, the rails should be very stout, weighing 40lbs. or, in some cases, nearly half a hundred weight, each (that is, nearly 56lbs). For rail- ways of less consequence less weight of metal will do; but it will not be prudent to use them of less than 30lbs. weight each, in any situation exposed to breakage above ground (that is, not underground in a mine).

In mines, and other works under ground, where very small carriages (waggons) only can be used, very light rails are used, forming what are called train roads, on a system introduced by Mr Carr (Curr); and these kinds of light rail-ways have been much used above ground in Shropshire and other counties where coals and other minerals are gotten (obtained).

In fixing the blocks and rails, great attention is required to make them firm and no earth or soft materials are to be used between the blocks and the bed of small stones or gravel, on which they rest. The rails must all be fixed (positioned) by an iron gauge to keep the sides at a regular distance, or parallel to each other. The best width of road (track) for general purposes is 4 feet 2 inches between the flanches (flanges) of the rails; the wheels of the carriages (waggons) running in tracks about 4 ft (feet) 6 inches asunder. Rails of particular forms are necessary where roads (tracks) branch out from (that is, at turnouts or points), or intersect each other (that is, at crossovers); and where carriage roads (that is, ordinary roads) cross the rail-ways; and at turnings of the roads (bends in the tracks) great care is required to make them perfectly easy. The rails of that side forming the inner of the curve should be fixed a little lower than the other; and the rails should be set a little under the gauge, so as to bring the sides nearer together than in the straight parts: these deviations in level and width to be in proportion to the sharpness of the curve.

The blocks and rails being fixed and spiked fast, nothing more remains to be done but (than) to fill the horse path, or space between the blocks, with good gravel, or other proper materials; a little more of which must also be put on the outsides of the blocks to keep them in their proper places. This gravelling (gravel) should always be kept below the surface of the rails on which the wheels are to run, to keep the tracts (tracks) for the wheels free from dirt and obstructions. The form of the rails must be such as will free themselves from dirt if the gravelling (gravel) is kept below their level.

In (the) constructing of the carriage (waggon) great attention to avoid friction is necessary, particularly in the formation of the wheels and axles, which must be adapted to the sort of rail-ways and the kind of loading; and for which directions cannot be given in the limits of this paper.