GLOOMY PROPHECIES

Stephenson was convinced that the railway had a great future, and declared that one day every other mode of conveyance would be superseded by railways. However, this was far from the general view. Even when Stephenson’s Darlington Railway proved so successful, capable experts were saying that this kind of technical game with steam engines on rails would soon disappear. Resistance to this new method of travel arose from very different grounds and sometimes took very curious forms.

The panel of experts from the Royal Society decided that it was dangerous for trains to exceed thirty miles an hour because the air would enter the compartments and the passengers would be suffocated. For years such sinister prophecies disturbed the population. The farming community feared that cows grazing peacefully near the railway lines would be so frightened that they would give less milk or even none at all.

The introduction of the railway shows clearly how difficult it is for everyone to accept a new development and to realise its utility. There exists a kind of mental inertia, an incomprehensible conservatism, which leads men to cling to what is traditional, sometimes even with fanaticism.

Almost a century passed before the public at large realised that the railway brought with it a rise in the standard of living, since many more people were able to enjoy the riches of the earth.

The fact that the railway eventually triumphed in spite of all opposition is principally due to economic causes. The old system of conveying goods by river or canal was no longer able to keep pace with the increasing production. The canal companies were in bitter competition, while the locks were of varying sizes, making it difficult to pass from one canal system to another. The fees were too high and particularly in winter, barge traffic was too slow, and often halted by ice. New ways of carrying goods were therefore needed.

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