This section is from "Scientific American Supplement Volumes 275, 286, 288, 299, 303, 312, 315, 324, 344 and 358". Also available from Amazon: Scientific American Reference Book.
I come now to the engines used for railways. At the British Association meeting of 1831, the Manchester and Liverpool Railway had been opened only about a year. The Stockton and Darlington coal line, it is true, had carried passengers by steam power as early as 1825, but I think we may look upon the Manchester and Liverpool as being the beginning of the passenger and mercantile railway system of the present day. At that time the locomotives weighed from eight to ten tons, and the speed was about 20 miles per hour, with a pressure of from 40 to 50 lb. The rails were light; they were jointed in the chairs, which were generally carried on stone blocks, thus affording most excellent anvils for the battering to pieces of the ends of the rails - that is to say, for the destruction of the very parts where they were most vulnerable. The engines were not competent to draw heavy trains, and it was a common practice to have at the foot of an incline a shed containing a "bank engine," which ran out after the trains as they passed, and pushed them up to the top of the hill. Injectors were then unknown, and donkey-pumps were unknown, and therefore, when it was necessary to fill up the boiler, if it had not been properly pumped up before the locomotive came to rest, it had to run about the line in order to work its feed-pumps. To get over this difficulty, it was occasionally the practice to insert into a line of rails, in a siding, a pair of wheels, with their tops level with that of the rails so that the engine wheels could run upon the rims. Then, the locomotive being fixed to prevent it from moving off the pair of wheels thus endways, it was put into revolution, its driving wheels bearing, as already stated, upon the rims of the pair of wheels in the rails, and thus the engine worked its feed-pumps without interfering (by its needless running up and down the line) with the traffic. It should have been stated, that at this time there was no link motion, no practical expansion of the steam, and that even the reversal of the engine had to be effected by working the sides by hand gear, in the manner in use in marine engines. When the British Association originated, although the Manchester and Liverpool Railway had been opened for a year, there is no doubt that the 300 members who then came to this city found their way here by the slow process of the stage-coach, the loss of which we so much deplore in the summer and in fine weather, but the obligatory use of which we should so much regret in the miserable weather now prevailing in these islands.
In 1881, we know that railways are everywhere inserted. Steel rails, double the weight of the original iron ones, are used. Wooden sleepers have replaced the stone blocks, and they, in their turn, will probably give way to sleepers of steel. The joints are now made by means of fish-plates, and the most vulnerable part of the rail, the end, is no longer laid on an anvil for a purpose of being smashed to pieces, but the ends of the rails are now almost always over a void, and thereby are not more affected by wear than is any other part of the rail. The speed is now from 50 to 60 miles an hour for passenger trains, while slow speed goods engines, weighing 45 tons, draw behind them coal trains of 800 tons. The injector is now commonly employed, and, by its aid, a careful driver of the engine of a stopping train can fill up his boiler while at rest at the stations. The link motion is in common use, to which, no doubt, is owing the very considerable economy with which the locomotive engine now works.
As regards the question of safety, it is a fact that, notwithstanding the increased speed, railway accidents are fewer than they were at the slow speed. It is also a fact, that if the whole population of London were to take a railway journey, there would be but one death arising out of it. Four millions of journeys for one death of a passenger from causes beyond his own control is, I believe, a state of security which rarely prevails elsewhere. As an instance, the street accidents in London alone cause between 200 and 300 deaths per annum. This safety in railway traveling is no doubt largely due to the block system, rendered possible by the electric telegraph; and also to the efficient interlocking of points and signals, which render it impossible now for a signal man to give an unsafe signal. He may give a wrong one, in the sense of inviting the wrong train to come in; but, although wrong in this sense, it would still be safe for that train to do so. If he can give a signal, that signal never invites to danger; before he can give it, every one of the signals, which ought to be "at danger," must be "at danger," and every "point" must have been previously set, so as to make the road right; then, again, we have the facing point-lock, which is a great source of safety.