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Friday, 3 February 2012

Tolling Freight Through History

Much of this post is of a general nature and such broad brush strokes in a short piece necessarily lead to oversimplification.  For example, I have deliberately steered clear of a discussion of Common Carrier legislation and the Regulation of Rates though these also apply to this topic. By focussing on relatively few factors, I have tried to avoid the excesses of simplification, but still sow the seed of an idea.

The early days of freight haulage in Great Britain were fraught with difficulties. Prior to the railways, freight traffic was confined to coastal shipping, navigable rivers, canals and the road system.
The road system of Great Britain, despite the earlier influence of the Romans developed very slowly. Its maintenance was from 1555 devolved to parishes, but not much enforcement seems to have taken place. In the 1600s “road rates” which allowed for the payment of those repairing the roads were established and legislation introduced to limit the use of wheeled vehicles and regulate the way they were made. The latter may be thought to strike at the heart of the purpose of roads, but was in fact an attempt to address the problem of narrow wheels cutting into the mainly mud and stone road surfaces.

The earliest “Turnpike” roads, managed by trusts established by Parliament and able to levy a toll for the use of the road, came into being from 1663. but fast, secure, bulk haulage by road did not venture over the horizon until the 1920s. The idea of paying a toll to move goods along a “highway”, using one's own cart or other contrivance was however to shape the regulated rates allowed on other forms of transport for a very long time.

Coastal shipping and the rivers provided a way to move bulk loads. Between 20 and 30 improvements to river navigation were authorised in the 16th and 17th centuries. (Burton 1995) [1] and by 1800, England being a relatively small country, most places were within 15 miles of a waterway. (Rolt 1969) [2].

The Oxford Canal

However, the Midlands of England were not so well served and it was precisely in places such as Birmingham and the so called “Black Country” that the Industrial Revolution was to gather pace. Pioneer proprietors and engineers developed narrow canals, both for reasons of economy and the limitations of the engineering knowledge of the time, as an answer. 

Each canal again had to be authorised by an Act of Parliament. The canal “Navigation” companies were also regulated by their Act as to what and how they could charge. The basis of their charging was however once more based on the toll system.

It is fair to say that government regulation of transport was put in place to avoid the development of a monopoly which could hold the country to ransom. However, what such a method of transport development led to were investment “manias” first for canals and then for railways. There appears to have been no central, controlling thought put into what was actually in the national interest for transport developments.
Interestingly, completely the reverse took place in Belgium, a country which only became independent in 1830, where “policy makers and engineers considered the railway network as a vital instrument for defining, constructing and regulating the modern nation state".

Railways in the United Kingdom complicated as well as revolutionised the freight haulage mix.  As Lister noted in 1927 [4]
The earliest conception of the railway was a public highway open to all on payment of tolls for the conveyance of goods in wagons hauled by horses…
The toll system rears its head again.

Surrey Iron Railway - The bridge at Chipstead Road

Lister instances The Surrey Iron Railway, the Act of Parliament (1801) for which laid down tolls for use by the public. Goods were classified in 4 categories each with a maximum toll per ton mile as follows:

   Old pence (d)
Limestone, chalk, lime, and all other manures (except dung, clay, breeze, ashes, sand and bricks

Tin, copper, lead, iron, stone, flints, coal, coke, charcoal, culm, fuller's earth, corn, seeds, flour, malt, potatoes

All other goods, wares, merchandise, and things whatsoever


The commodities listed above are somewhat specific to the area through which the tramway ran. Indeed the catch all nature of No. 4 and the fact that by its high cost it militates against the cheap trade of anything other than those things common in the area, could be thought to be a device to continue the pre-railway commercial practices of Surrey. However, it is more likely to be the influence of what Schivelbusch states as “...the traditional space-time continuum which characterised the old transport technology.” [5] What was known and understood was the horse and cart and they couldn't efficiently travel very far.
The Rocket preserved in the Science Museum, London

The growth of railways in the 19th century eclipsed the roads and bit into the transport share of the canals to the point that even in their regulated state they were approaching a monopoly of general merchandise traffic before the First World War.

However the type, density and frequency of railway freight traffic was different in the UK to that of other countries. Cunningham stated; “The freight traffic of England is said to be decidedly retail in character, while that of America is wholesale. The British merchant, because of his nearness to the source of supply, and the expeditious service of the railways is not accustomed to carry large stocks of goods. The service of the railways is such that goods ordered one day from the wholesale dealer are delivered at the merchant's door early the next day... (this) has the effect of forcing the railways to handle a large volume of small packages and a relatively small number of car-load shipments.”[6]
The geography of the island of Britain affected the nature of the traffic and drove the expectations of merchants and the public. Trains had become fast and more reliable. Retail merchants were thus able to remove their need to keep stocks of goods. Any ordinary person could also send parcels from any station. All this traffic caused the railway to build goods depots, employ large numbers of labourers to load trains and handle thousands of small packets, many of which could not be assembled in whole truckloads going to one destination. Whilst the traffic revenue seemed welcome, the inefficiencies that carrying it introduced meant that it was a constant source of economic strain for the railways.
Even after grouping in 1923 the London, Midland and Scottish Railway were still struggling with the problem. Vice President – Operating and Commercial, E. J. H. Lemon, said in a memo dated March 23rd, 1933: “In the early part of 1930, a small committee was set up to examine terminal facilities generally at Goods Depots with a view to framing of proposals for mechanisation and modernisation with the consequent economy and improvement in efficiency. … A number of schemes have been carried out, some of which have been successful and others not. We spent last year in wages for the handling of goods traffic just over £1,500,000...” [7]. This huge cost was not all attributable to inefficiencies, a large amount of it was caused by what Cunningham called the “retail nature” of the traffic.

Interior of Crewe Goods Transhipment Shed circa 1904
Image - HMRS Collection

Vast tonnages passed through the sheds. In November 1933 a Statement of Comparative Speed of Handling was made by Louis G Orde [8], whom Lemon had engaged to consult on the problem. A few example figures and costs will give a flavour of the size of the tide of goods.

District & Goods Depot
Total Tons
Hrs. per Ton
Cost per ton
LONDON, Camden
LEEDS, Halifax
LEICESTER, Leicester
STOKE, Crewe
DERBY, Burton
CHESTER, Chester

These figures are a relatively random sample of many on four pages, but the pattern is much the same across them all. The railway was in effect bearing the cost of the way our nation's retailers conducted their business and ordinary people sent goods to others; this was not sustainable for ever. What is perhaps amazing is that it actually lasted until the 1960s.
In 1963 the Beeching Report stated:
none of the main classes of traffic covered their full costs with the exception of coal which yielded a small margin of net revenue... In the freight field...Wagon load general merchandise, which loads badly and gives rise to very little through train movement is a bad loss maker. Sundries traffic is bad for the same reason.” [9]
It was thus left to Beeching to begin the end of a railway freight system that had developed over the previous 162 years. To his credit, Dr Beeching, in Appendix 4 suggested the development of the Liner Train, a train of permanently coupled low flat wagons to carry containers. These were to be the forerunner of the modern intermodal and block freight trains. [10]
Innovators rarely get things right first time and as technologies change, the early adopter can be left with a transport system that has problems coping with future developments. A fact which is with still with us in the 21st century.

Freightliner Unit Waste Train captured at 70mph passing Heyford Station, Oxfordshire, 07/04/2011

[1] Burton, Anthony. The Great Days of the Canals. London: Tiger Books International. 1995
[2] Rolt, L.T.C. Navigable Waterways. Longmans, London. 1969
[3] De Block, G “Designing the Nation – The B.elgian Railway Project, 1830-1837”Technology and Culture,Vol. 52. No. 4 The Society for the History of Technology. John Hopkins University Press 2011 (P703)

[4]  Lister, H.L. “The Elements of Goods Rates” in Modern Railway Administration London. Gresham Publishing Company 1927 (P150)
[5]Schilvelbusch, W. The Railway Journey – The Industrialisation of Time and Space in the 19th Century. Berg. Leamington Spa UK. 1977 (p36)
[6] Cunningham, W.J. “British Freight Service” published in Droege, J.A. Freight Terminals and Trains. McGraw Hill Book Co. New York USA 1912 (p299)
[7] Smith, H, G. "Mr Lemon's Achievements” The Lemon Papers, held in the Archive of the Institution fo Mechanical Engineers. 1 Birdcage Walk, London SW1H 9JJ United Kingdom
[8] Smith, H, G. op. cit.
[9] Beeching, R. “The Reshaping of British Railways” (p7) accessed on 02/02/2012
[10] Beeching, R. op.cit (p142) accessed on 03/02/2012

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