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Commuting by Electricity


The Industrial Revolution brought about a mass migration of the population from outlying rural communities into the newly expanding cities, such as London, Newcastle, Manchester and Liverpool where the explosion in the growth of mechanised industry created a huge demand for workers.


Such was this speed and size of this expansion that cities became overcrowded and unsanitary as the Industrial Revolution created a new set of problems, but was also going to provide the solution.


The advent of Britain’s railway network over the middle third of the 19th Century provided those with sufficient means the opportunity to move out of the cramped city and take up residence in outlying boroughs, from where they could travel on the railway network to their places of work.

At first this was limited to the middle classes but as railways developed further and fares became cheaper so the working classes took up the opportunity, and thus the commuter was born.


At the end of the 19th Century the rail networks around the major cities were handling a mixture of long distance express and local commuter services. The increasing demand had created further problems in that terminal stations could not cope with the level of demand and the number of trains that could be run into and out of a station was insufficient for the level of passenger numbers.

New forms of transport began to steal passengers from the railways, notably the electrically propelled trams. The railway companies relied upon their commuter traffic to provide the cash flow they needed to keep operating and when it came under threat a radical new approach was needed to regain or simply retain their market share of this valuable income. The answer was electricity.


The advent of the electric train was as much a re-invention of commuting as those initial steam trains had been sixty years earlier. The advantages they brought were many:

Faster journeys as the electric train could accelerate and brake more efficiently.


Carriages lit and heated by electricity rather than steam and gas, thus offering a more comfortable and safe travelling environment. There was no soot or smoke from the electric trains.


Reduced times dwelling at terminal stations as the trains were formed of multiple units that did not need a separate locomotive because the traction equipment was built into the carriages.

The trains did not have to wait for the train to have a loco detached from one end and then attached to the other to take it back out of the station.


Regular clock face timetables where the train could depart from each station at the same minutes past each hour as electric trains did not need to keep stopping during the day to replenish coal and water.


The plan worked and the investment of capital by the railway companies to convert to electricity paid off.

So successful was the advent of electrically powered commuter trains that further new schemes for converting lines from steam to electricity were undertaken as the 20th Century unfolded and continue to be undertaken today.


Now in Britain more passenger journeys are undertaken by trains powered by electricity than any other. This will never change and the railways have proven that they are an essential element in the economy with their ability to move millions of people everyday from their homes to their place of work.

Recent decades have seen the railway industry market their electric services at other types of traffic, the leisure market has become increasingly important and provide revenue. All of this was possible because of those pioneering steps taken over a hundred years ago to take what was essentially a gamble on the change from steam to electricity.

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