The World's First Passenger Railway

Trains have been around for a long time, but when was the first time they actually ferried passengers around? Learn all about it right here.

The World's First Passenger Railway
Opening of the Stockton and Darlington Railway

Trains have been an important form of locomotion for centuries. In fact, long before anyone even thought to transport people with them, trains were used to move cargo from one place to another. But eventually, someone figured it was a waste of potential to not let people hitch a ride from one place to another, and so, the first passenger railway was born.

Or at least, the concept of it was born, thanks to a certain Benjamin French in 1806. Living in Wales, he was acutely aware of the mining situation in the Swansea region, where coal was loaded onto ships for transport. The coal, however, came from the Mumbles region. A railroad between the two regions was crucial to efficiency.

Who Invented the First Passenger Railway?

The Swansea-Mumbles line, the aforementioned railway between the two regions, did not initially carry passengers when it was first constructed in 1806. Its primary purpose was just to move mining materials around. However, Benjamin French believed it could be used for other purposes.

An entrepreneur from Morriston, French felt that people would like the idea of enjoying the scenery of Mumbles during a train ride, and so, he converted an iron carriage so it would be suitable for transporting people around.

Not only was he the one to come up with this concept, but he was also one of the first investors of the idea, as he agreed to pay the owners of the railway £20 in order to use it for his new service. Ultimately, the service became so popular that they upped the annual fee to £25 instead. A small price to pay for French's success!

What Was the First Passenger Train Like?

Needless to say, the first passenger train in the world was nothing like the ones we think of today. In fact, in the very beginning, it wasn't even what most of us think of when it comes to a "train". You see, the Swansea-Mumbles line, five miles in length, was horse-powered at first. Actual "locomotives" were still several decades away from invention.

Still, it was classified as a train, because it was a track with carriages that rode on them. It's just that those carriages were initially pulled by horses. In 1807, the line transported its first human passengers, who had to pay two shillings in order to hitch a ride on French's twelve-seater carriage.

This is why the Swansea-Mumbles line is considered the first passenger railway. However, if you are of the mind that a train isn't a train without a steam engine at least, then you would have to consider a much later railway as the first passenger rail.

The Advancement of the Swansea-Mumbles Line

Despite starting with horses, it's not like the Swansea-Mumbles line was content to stick with that. Steam-powered engines were only just starting to appear, and the Swansea-Mumbles line was one of the first to experiment with such engines on their tracks.

Unfortunately, the tracks hadn't been designed with the weight of a steam locomotive in mind, and they buckled under it when that weight was combined with the cargo. But while steam wasn't meant to be, the line would later be electrified in 1928. This means the Swansea-Mumbles line went used three separate forms of locomotion!

Thankfully, the electrified rail went much better than the experiment with steam engines. Double-decker cars were introduced to the line after it was electrified. These cars were largest ever built for actual service at the time, at least in Britain. Each could seat 106 people, but they operated in pairs, carrying a total of 212 people at once.

The Closing of the Swansea-Mumbles Line

Despite having the notable distinction of being the world's first passenger line, the Swansea-Mumbles line couldn't stay open forever: or rather, the required effort to keep it open was something that was not undertaken. Some people believe the line was intentionally shut down to remove competition with bus services in the area.

While there is no way to verify that as being true, either way, the Swansea-Mumbles line was shut down in 1960, on January 5th. Before closing, there was one last ceremonial journey allowed for the train., conducted by Frank Dunkin, who had been working on the railway since 1907.

Opposition to the closure of the rail was fierce, but unfortunately, there was nothing anyone could do to stop it, since it was all done legally. That said, the story of the Swansea-Mumbles line doesn't end here.

Naturally, many people were unwilling to just let such a historic railway fade into obscurity, so in 1975, the Mumbles Railway Society was formed. They sought to not only archive the various materials used by the line over the years, but they also campaigned to have the Swansea-Mumbles line reopened one day.

Unfortunately, that has yet to happen. However, the front end of one of the rail cars has been preserved after restoration, and you can see it at the National Waterfront Museum. The other car didn't get so lucky: car number 2 was saved and preserved by members of the Leeds University in Yorkshire.

For a time, they stored that car at Middleton Railway in Yorkshire. Unfortunately, it was heavily vandalized and ultimately destroyed by a fire. Fortunately, at least one other car lives on at the National Waterfront Museum.

The Potential For Reopening

In February of 2009, the City of Swansea began looking at the possibility of using trams in the Swansea bay area once again.

The Environment, Regeneration, and Culture (ERC) Overview Board, chaired by Councillor Rob Speht, considered various options for feasibility work and also scheduled a variety of tasks aimed to determine the financial, social, and technical, the feasibility of restoring the use of trams in Swansea again.

In 2016, the ERC was working on a formal constitution, as well as going through the required steps to register as a charity. However, since then there has been no notable progress on reopening the Swansea-Mumbles line. Still, the possibility of a reopening is not zero, and the line could one day exist again.