Introduction: Plateways appear to have had a short existence compared with their predecessors, the wagonways and most certainly their followers are still with us today while no plateways longer exist. With the plateways we find the first use of the words ‘Tram’ and ‘tramways’ the latter being a word that was to later have several different meanings but hopefully below I will try and give some idea towards where the uses of the word tramway are actually very connected to all its used meanings. Part of the reason for the development of the plateway or tramway was due to the improvement in the ability to form iron as a much stronger and versatile material. Iron had been used since pre Roman times though as with quite a few roman ideas the principles in its use were lost for quite some time. In the middle of the 18th century the leading producer of iron and at the forefront of iron development was the ironworks at Coalbrookdale in Shropshire. The works as with many of the same type had a wagonway to bring raw materials such as Iron ore and coal from the surrounding hills and with the others found that the rails rapidly deteriorated with use. In 1767 Coalbrookdale ironworks became the first users of cast iron plates laid on top of the wagon rails. Nine years later in Sheffield Iron rails were being produced, the era of the iron rail had started. Two forms of rail evolved, there was the ‘L’ shaped rail and the edge rail that was to become most used in the North East and which led to today’s rails. For this topic we are going to concentrate on the ‘L’ rail or plate rail.
The plateway: The essential design of the plateways was very close to that of the wagonway. The ‘way’ was not permanent but was more so than the wagonway. Earthworks were necessary to gain as level a surface as possible were made with spoil being used as ballast. Stone blocks set just under three feet apart acted as sleepers for the iron plates with brackets attached to the stone sleeper to keep the plates in place. The use of the iron layer on the wagonway rail with the experiment of iron rimmed wheels had led to the discovery that iron running on iron produced much less friction than wood on wood. The lack of resistance meant that heavier loads could be moved at anyone time by the horse thus several wagons could be coupled in a train.
The principle soon spread and the plateway soon took over from the traditional wooden wagonway with many systems converting over the next 40 years. People such as Benjamin Outram and John Curr were two very vociferous supporters of the new plateways and it was Outram who had developed the idea. The ‘L’ shaped rails allowed normal road vehicles to use the plateway which was a system very much used by the Surrey iron railway which was the first public railway in the world. Using the plateway system it was found that one horse could do the same amount of work that 8 would on the road.
Many plateways were laid next to roads where easy access and exit from the plateway was available for the wagons and also allowed a reasonably direct route thus reducing haulage and construction costs. The plateways gave the name to the people who built them and today’s railway maintenance workers as plate layers. The plateways proved to be even more successful than the wagonways with many miles of network springing up allowing canal owners and manufacturers to transport their goods to and from canals with ease. It was in fact canal owners who developed the plateways the popularity they came to. An example of this is the Cromford and High peak railway in Derbyshire.
Many tramways were constructed on gradients that were steep though horses could pull the wagons up and follow behind on the way down. This led to the problem of how could the rails support locomotives which were starting to become a very interesting possibility to system owners. The early plate rails could not withstand the shock caused by the heavy locomotive but at the same time the locomotives weight could not be reduced as it would not create enough friction to move a load. A solution had already been thought up by William Jessop the creator of the Edge rail. His system was to revolutionise the whole of the world and the future, his was the premier idea of the RAILWAY.
Tramway?: So where does the name tramway come from with regards to the plateway? There are many theories for this with no definite answer. In different parts of the country the plateways and wagonways were referred to in different ways as were the vehicles that traversed them. The phrase tramway seems to have not been greatly used until the late mid 18th century though the welsh have used the term ‘tram’ or ‘dram’ to refer to the underground wagons they used in mines. The word may have something to the Swedish word ‘tram’ or log/ beam how this would refer to a metal plateway or the vehicle running on it I cannot guess, though this is one of the more widely held opinions. The most predominant is from a German word for an underground cart though the Germans regularly use the word ‘Zug’ for trains and trams. My theory is that since the words tram and tramway only seem to have become common in the latter part of the 18th century, when George Outram’s rail system was becoming popular it is basically saying an Outram way. Or a system for carrying freight which is what the plateway’s were originally designed for. The word tram for the wagon is like saying a wagon that runs on Outrams plateways just the same as wagonways were named such due to the fact they were used to carry wagons. In fact whilst rummaging round for information on plateways I stumbled across a plateway that had once run from Little Eaton and Coxbench in Derbyshire. The web site talks about someone called Bulmer who refferedto the line at the time of its opening as ‘Outrams line’. In conventional plate and wagon way style it runs next to a road. Later uses of the words tramway and tram not only refer to street trams that are passenger vehicles but also referred to freight railways, such as those used in Wales which most certainly started out using the ‘L’ shaped rail before developing in to the edge rail used today. It was not only the narrow gauge railways that had tramways but also standard gauge lines such as the Silvertown tramway that ran beside the Royal Victoria dock in East London. Many of the freight tramways were horse worked even up to the 1970’s and hopefully I will be able to write about some of these if anyone can give me some information on them!! The use of the word tram for street vehicles will be looked at in the Tramway topic.