The Evolution of Railway Civil Engineering, by Hugh Fenwick

November 9th, 2021.

Hugh is Vice-chair of The Robert Stephenson Trust. His presentation took us on a 200 year journey, to look at how building railways has changed during that time. En-route we visited projects that were milestones in the evolution of railway building. Starting in the 1750’s when horse-drawn wagonways were being expanded, we went on to visit the Stockton & Darlington, Liverpool & Manchester and London & Birmingham Railways to see how the early railways were built.

Tring Cutting by John Cooke Bourne, 1839

We saw how bridge design and construction advanced through the design of the historic Menai and Conwy tubular bridges, heard the lessons learned from the Tay Bridge disaster. Following this the Forth Bridge built from a new material, steel, had to not only be safe but also had to look safe. It took bridge construction into the 20th century.

The magnificent Forth Bridge, opened in March 1890

After viewing photographs from building the Great Central Railway, where the use of steam navvies had taken much of the hard labour out of excavating cuttings, we moved on to the mid-1900’s. Now the internal combustion engine provided high capacity cranes for heavy lifting, lorries, dozers and other high output construction equipment. Brief visits were made to see how these had transformed railway building for the Selby Diversion, the Channel Tunnel, HS1 and for today’s railway construction, renewal and maintenance.

High capacity cranes lifting arches into position for Network Rail’s River Irwell Bridge

The finale looked at the impressive expansion of the Chinese High Speed Railway network over the past decade, provided a glimpse at what is proposed for HS2 and ended at the longest suspension bridge in the world that carries a railway, the Tsing Ma Bridge, Hong Kong, designed by British consultants, fabricated and erected by Cleveland Bridge, Darlington.

Hugh Fenwick

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