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The Wooden Wagonways of Britain

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Two hundred years before the first steam locomotive carrying passengers chugged out of the Heighington railway station in the English town of Newton Aycliffe in 1825, British engineers were laying wooden tracks across the island connecting coal mines to canal wharfs. These wooden trackways, called wagonways, were the world’s first true railroads, and the predecessor to steam-powered railways.

The history of rail transport goes back further than you think. According to the Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums, “in basic terms, a railway is simply a prepared track that guides vehicles so that they can’t leave the track”. By that argument we can say that railways date back to the rutways of ancient Greece and Rome where two parallel channels were cut into the surface rock to guide wheels along a specific route. One of the most important rutways are located in the Isthmus of Corinth. They were built in 600 BC and were in use until the 1st century AD.

A coal waggonway, circa 1870.

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