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George Francis Train
(24 Mar 1829 - 19 Jan 1904)

American businessman who was a pioneer in street horse tramways in England, was involved in the formation of the Union-Pacific Railroad, and known as an eccentric reformer.


Observations on Horse Railways

by George Francis Train (1860)


To the Right Honourable Milner Gibson, M.P., President of the Board of Trade, London.

American horse-drawn tramcar.
American Passenger Car

[p.3] The age of Omnibuses in crowded cities has passed. The age of Horse Railways has commenced.

America has introduced the new invention of relieving crowded streets, by giving additional facilities for travel; and, as Europe must sooner or later, adopt a similar system, I make bold to address you, as President of the Board of Trade, a few comments connected therewith.

While on a recent visit to the United States, I was surprised to find the progress made in what the Americans term Horse Railways, the English tramways, and the French chemin de fer Americain. In the cities of Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, St. Louis, and Cincinnati, the railway cars were displacing omnibuses in all the large streets. Like all practical labour-saving inventions, the people first oppose then advocate them. They have already become a public utility; and Americans would miss their railway-car as much as the English would their penny-postage system. The horse railway is a fixed fact. It has had a fair trial, and has met with striking success.

[p.4] The Horse Railway is creating, and will continue to create, the same revolution in large cities that the telegraph on the land, and the electric cable under the ocean has done in commerce.

As the locomotive supersedes the stage-coach on the shore, and the steam-boat displaces the sailing vessel on the sea, so will Horse Railways make omnibuses give way to the force of progress.

The railway from Liverpool to Manchester, in your recollection, astonished the world. Now there are seventy thousand miles! Brunel's genius progressed from the Great Western of 2,000 tons to the Great Eastern of 20,000 tons in twenty years! Now a thousand steam-boats connect the mother land with her colonial children, as the arteries carry life from the heart.

England, first in iron railing the country with steam, is last in iron railing the city with horse-power. But the enterprise that stimulated the Thames Tunnel, the Tubular Bridge, the Crystal Palace, and Great Eastern, will not long submit to the miserable steampackets from England to France, ferry-boats from Liverpool to Birkenhead, or to omnibuses blockading the leading city thoroughfares. The latter enterprises, I am confident, on the improved system, would prove as great financial successes as the former have financial failures.

This paragraph, from the Times, shows that Ireland is wide awake on the subject, while England sleeps :—

Irish Tramways.—As there is now no doubt but that the bill of Sir Robert Ferguson will become law in the course of the ensuing session of Parliament, a prospectus has been issued of the City of Dublin and Suburbs Tramway Company, under the Limited liabilities Act. A very flourishing account is embodied in the preliminary notice of the success of tramways in New York, chiefly founded on the statistics supplied by the correspondent of the Times, in New York. It is proposed that the capital of the Dublin Company should be £100,000, in £10 shares, to be paid as wanted; to run five lines of four miles each through the suburbs, centering in the business part of the city, and connecting the railways and quays.

[p.5] The Irish journals are fully alive to the importance of Sir Robert Ferguson's bill. Will England and Scotland allow Ireland to take the lead, or rather will not Parliament pass a general bill for the kingdom?

The advantages of Horse Railways over Omnibuses are so well set forth, by Alexander Easton, C.E., of Philadelphia, in “A Practical Treatise on Street or Horse-power Railways” that the following Extract will be of interest:—

Popular prejudice is the great enemy with which the advocates of innovation have had to combat, and strange as it may appear, it is nevertheless practically true, that the more useful the measure advocated, the greater, has been the amount of opposition brought to bear against it, even by parties who have subsequently been benefited by the very measures they sought to defeat

A glance at the early history of turnpike roads will clearly show the difficulties encountered by their projectors; but which, when overcome, became the favored improvement of the age, and legislative halls sounded with angry debate for their protection, so soon as railroads were proposed, denouncing them as a nuisance, and their corporators as visionary speculators. So it was with the introduction of canals, steam-boats, and even gas, the arguments against which, brought forward by the opposition having, in each instance exhibited the grossest ignorance of science, and of the practical effect of the proposed improvements, all of which is applicable at the present day, and has been experienced by those who proposed the introduction of street railways.

The interest which operated against turnpike roads was that of the muleteer; the interest which operated against railroads was that of stage coach and wagon proprietors, and in the case of street railways the opposition is from omnibus companies and antiquated stage communities, whose palpable interest it is to defeat a measure, which invades their imagined rights, by the substitution of a means of communications so manifestly useful and necessary, as to completely destroy the system to which they are so faithfully wedded. They use the means employed in their interests to influence, and lead on opposition, until having obtained certain provisoes in the charter for their especial benefit; the time has arrived to fraternize with the enemy—when they at once become strong advocates for street railways; and unfortunately, without the influence to quench the flame of prejudice which they have ignited. …

[p.6] That increased facilities for commerce and transportation cause greater influx of traffic and travel to the principal streets of large cities, is indisputably recognized, and where the consequent inconvenience of narrow thoroughfares cannot be corrected, it must be modified by economizing time and space.

Time is economized by regularity of transit; the cars being quickly stopped by the application of the brake, the most refractory horses are immediately arrested; while the whole operation becomes so mechanical, that the horses, when accustomed to the signals of the bell, stop or start without any action on the part of the driver, by which means a time table can be effectively used, and business men are not subjected to delays incident to the old—and we trust soon to say obsolete—omnibus system.

Space is economized, because omnibuses, (the most numerous and dangerous portion of the travel,) surging from side to side of the streets, are abolished, while the work heretofore inadequately performed by three of those vehicles, is easily accomplished by one car, in half the time, notwithstanding it is concentrated and confined to one channel.

By the convenience afforded the public by the cars, the sidewalks are relieved from pedestrians, and the centre of the street from vehicles; a seat can be taken and vacated without trouble or danger to the occupants of the car, whether invalid or infirm, and the rails present such an even and smooth surface for the wheels of ordinary vehicles, that the drivers avail themselves of their continued use. It is a most difficult matter to dispel from the ignorant or prejudiced mind, the idea, that the railways will be constantly occupied by continuous trains of cars, which beyond a doubt would block up the street, obstruct the travel, and be a most confirmed nuisance, ruinous to the locality; whereas in reality the rails themselves form no obstruction, but rather invite vehicles on the track; the passage of the little car is momentary, as it moves quietly along the street; and the nuisance occasioned by the rattling of omnibuses over the rough stones is abolished, leaving the streets nearly as noiseless as when covered with snow; the advantages of the smooth rail, are thus neither few nor unimportant. Any one, familiar with the laws of momentum, can readily understand the effect of the constant jar to buildings, occasioned by the passage of omnibuses, and particularly in the thronged thoroughfares, where buildings are most elevated.

If, however, the solidity of construction should prevent injurious results, there are many minor disturbances—if not so dangerous, almost as annoying —which cannot be prevented, such as the constant vibration of pier-glasses, [p.7] gas pipes, &c, (as occasional showers of white flakes, and plaster fragments attest,) without enumerating the very serious annoyance to the invalid.

The great reduction of friction on the car, and the smoothness of the rail, ohviate all these evil effects by removing the cause.

Here is a picture. A wet day—every corner of the side walk crowded with impatient pedestrians, each one anxiously peeling up or down the street in search of the particular omnibus among the fifteen or twenty approaching, to carry him home, which with as many more coming in the opposite direction, so effectually choke up the street, that the drays and carts unable to cross at the intersections, render the highway impassable to private vehicles, and are therefore driven to other streets, avoiding danger and delay; the omnibuses crowded to excess, cannot accommodate the vexed crowd on the side-walk, and the sudden halt with imminent risk of collision, with the drivers’ “plenty of room, sir,” with twenty inside—by no means softens the temper either of those in waiting, or those, who seated—not comfortably—look upon each moment of unnecessary delay, as an infringement on their rights.

Here is another. Not an omnibus is seen in the whole length of the street—carriages, drays and carts move with comparative ease, little strips of iron are laid along the street, upon and across which, vehicles pass without inconvenience, and which, the drivers (particularly of private carriages) evidently seek; there is no crowd, for the little cars glide along rapidly and frequently, accommodating every body; at a slight signal the bell rings, the horses stop, the passenger is comfortably seated, no rain drops in from the roof, the conductor is always ready to take the fare when offered, and the echo, “great improvement, this,” is constantly repeated.

There is no accident on record, of injury to any passenger of street railways, whilst occupying a seat in the car; some few have happened to boys and incautious persons, from drunkenness, jumping from the cars whilst in motion, &c, but even these, are few in comparison with omnibus accidents.

Those remarks are as applicable to English as American cities— and no place are they more so than to London. The Times was first to advocate the change.1 Speaking of the London Omnibus Tramway Company, November 18th, 1857, it says:—

[p.8] The plan, as many of our readers will be aware, has been tried and adopted with very great success and considerable public benefit in Paris, Lyons, New York, and Boston; and the practicability of it has therefore been demonstrated beyond question. A tramway of this description has been for nearly three years in use between Paris, Boulogne, and St. Cloud, and is now extended to Sevres, and Versailles, and also in Lyons, New York, and Boston; and large omnibuses, carrying from sixty to eighty passengers each, are thereon propelled by two horses at a speed varying from eight to ten miles an hour, with great facility. The part of the Metropolis on which the experiment is about to be tried commences with the road from Nottinghillgate, via the Grand Junction-road, New-road, City-road, and Moorgatestreet to the Bank, with branches to the Great Western and London and North Western Railways, and to Fleet-street, viaBagnigge-wells-road. The length of this line with sidings will be about eight miles and a half, and the road, with the exception of the inclines at Pentonville, is broad and eminently qualified for the trial. In the event of its success, the company next contemplate the extension of the plan to the road from Edmonton to the city, by way of Kingsland and other parts of the Metropolis. The tramways when laid will be perfectly flush with the general surface of the roadway, and will not in any way interfere with the passage along and across it of any ordinary road, waggon, or carriage; and as the new omnibuses in passing along will be confined to the tramway, which will consist of a double line in the centre of the roadway, the sides of the road, and indeed the entire width, except during the instant of passage, will be free to the general traffic, which will thus be carried on without interruption. The great economy which will be effected by the adoption of the new tramway system, will enable the company to carry the public at reduced fares, and at a greater rate of speed. The omnibuses will be large and commodious, with flanged wheels and axles radiating to the curves, and, if found desirable, might be constructed with first and second class apartments. …

The facility for starting and stopping the tramway omnibus, with improved break, will be quite as great as the ordinary road omnibus, so that there will be no loss of time on this account. It is this power in horses of starting or stopping almost instantaneously which makes the tramway for short distances and frequent stoppages equal, if not superior, to the railway with steam power. If the system of fixed stations or stopping-places along the route were adopted in lieu of stopping at the wish of every passenger, much time might be saved; but in New York, we believe, the tramway omnibuses stop wherever they are required to take up and set down passengers, and no inconvenience is found to arise from this system of working them.

[p.9] This bill was defeated mainly through the opposition of Sir Benjamin Hall, Bart., Chief Commissioner of Public Works.

The Observer, (February 21st, 1858) in recording the proceedings of the deputation, consisting of Messrs. Coates, Stevens, James Samuel, the engineer of the company, and others, who forcibly brought the merits of the scheme before the Commissioner, says:—

Sir B. Hall said be had maturely considered this plan, and of all the monstrous propositions which had ever been made or presented to Parliament this was the worst. He felt bound frankly to tell the deputation that, feeling it his duty to protect the interests of the Metropolitan public, he should be bound to give this measure his most determined opposition. Here was a trading company, seeking to appropriate to their own exclusive use the property of the public, which the public roads were, and for their own trading purposes and private benefit. If they desired the exclusive use of a road for their own vehicles, they should have taken the same course that other persons did, and have come to Parliament to obtain powers to make a road for such purposes, but here the company actually proposed to take to themselves 16 feet out of the width of the thoroughfares of the Metropolis. It was utterly impossible that the iron rails or plates upon which the carriages were to run could be laid on macadamised roads, for instance, with a certainty of always being kept on precisely the same level as the road; and carriages running diagonally against the plates would be subjected to have their wheels torn off, and most serious accidents would result, whatever precautions might be taken even. The weather would at times effect this. The right hon. baronet ridiculed the idea of setting up the tramways in the Champs Elysees, or in New York or New Orleans, as an example, as they bore no analogy to the thoroughfares of the Metropolis; and, after stating a variety of other objections, he expressed a hope and a belief that Parliament would dismiss so monstrous a proposition at once; The city of London and the lines leading to the City were not even now sufficient for the carriage and heavy goods traffic; and if a private company, merely for the sake of their own omnibuses, were to take 16 feet of roadway out of, in some instances, 85 feet, the case would be rendered a thousand times worse. Every parish through which the line passed was petitioning against the bill, and his advice to its promoters was that they should withdraw it at once.

The Cardinals endeavoured with their antiquated omnibus system [p.10] of astronomy, to make the sun revolve around the earth, by imprisoning Galilio—learned professors saw no safety in Davy's lamp—distinguished physicians had no faith in Harvey's circulation—and Sir Benjamin Hall, if the short-hand notes taken at the interview are reliable, seems to have thrown cold water on the deputation, partly, to please his constituency, but mainly, because an accident happened to his carriage in passing some coal tramway in Wales.2

From Sir Benjamin's comments, he would have been among those clever men who ridiculed Watt's engine, sneered at Fulton's steamboat, and laughed at Stevenson's locomotive, but as these progressive minds triumphed over those who considered free trade in improvement criminal, so the practical working of Horse Railways must succeed in making advocates of the theorists who do not understand them.

That clumsy bungling affair which Sir Benjamin alludes to in Paris, has always been an eye-sore to the Emperor, and gives no better idea of the real Horse Railway, than does the chemin de fer Americain on the Neva's banks, at St. Petersburg,—the horsepower tramway from Carnarvon to Nantlle, or the Omnibus Railway along the docks in Liverpool.

Sir Benjamin Hall did not meet the arguments of Messrs. Coates and Samuel, except by prejudice. Arguing against facts is difficult, and overiding stubborn truths impossible.

… statistics which have just been sent me from New York, may show Sir Benjamin, that Horse Railways are as much a reality in America, as cotton factories and iron mines are in England.

1 Vide August 14th, 1856; November 18th, 1857; February 26th, 1858; March 17th, 1858, City Article.
2 Mr. Verey said, those tramways would wrench off the wheels of the carriages, and Sir Benjamin Hall had stated, that his own carriage wheels had been so wrenched off twice by tramways in Wales.—Vide Observer, March 14th, 1858. Deputation of Parishoners to Lord John Manners.

Text and image from opening pages of a 56-page booklet by George Francis Train, Observations on Horse Railways: Addressed to the Right Hon. Milner Gibson (1860), 3-10. (source)


See also:
  • 24 Mar - short biography, births, deaths and events on date of Train's birth.
  • 23 Mar - short biography, births, deaths and events on date of first operation of tramcars in London.
  • Around the World with Citizen Train: The Sensational Adventures of the Real Phileas Fogg, by Allen Foster. - book suggestion.
  • Booklist for George Francis Train.

Nature bears long with those who wrong her. She is patient under abuse. But when abuse has gone too far, when the time of reckoning finally comes, she is equally slow to be appeased and to turn away her wrath. (1882) -- Nathaniel Egleston, who was writing then about deforestation, but speaks equally well about the danger of climate change today.
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