Transport in the Industrial Revolution

How Did Roads, Canals and Rail Develop During This Time Period?

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During the period of major industrial change known as the ‘Industrial Revolution’, the methods of transport also changed greatly. Historians and economists agree that any industrializing society needs to have an effective transport network, to enable the movement of heavy products and materials around in order to open up access to raw materials, reduce the price of these materials and the resulting goods, break down local monopolies caused by poor transport networks and allow for an integrated economy where regions of the country could specialize. While historians sometimes disagree over whether the developments in transport experienced by first Britain, then the world, were a pre-condition allowing for industrialization, or a result of the process, the network definitely changed. 

Britain Pre-Revolution

In 1750, the most commonly used start date for the revolution, Britain relied on transport via a wide-ranging but poor and expensive road network, a network of rivers which could move heavier items but which was restricted by the routes nature had given, and the sea, taking goods from port to port. Each system of transport was operating at full capacity, and chaffing greatly against the limits. Over the next two centuries industrializing Britain would experience advances in their road network, and develop two new systems: first the canals, essentially man-made rivers, and then the railways.

Development in Roads

The British road network was generally poor prior to industrialization, and as pressure from changing industry grew, so the road network began to innovate in the form of Turnpike Trusts. These charged tolls to travel on especially improved roads, and helped meet demand at the start of the revolution. However, many deficiencies remained and new modes of transport were invented as a result.

Invention of Canals

Rivers had been used for transport for centuries, but they had problems. In the early modern period attempts were made to improve rivers, such as cutting past long meanders, and out of this grew the canal network, essentially man-made waterways which could move heavy goods more easily and cheaply. A boom began in the Midlands and Northwest, opening up new markets for a growing industry, but they remained slow.

The Railway Industry

Railways developed in the first half of the nineteenth century and, after a slow start, boomed in two periods of railway mania. The industrial revolution was able to grow even more, but many of the key changes had already begun without rail. Suddenly the lower classes in society could travel much further, more easily, and the regional differences in Britain began to break down.

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Wilde, Robert. "Transport in the Industrial Revolution." ThoughtCo, Aug. 28, 2020, Wilde, Robert. (2020, August 28). Transport in the Industrial Revolution. Retrieved from Wilde, Robert. "Transport in the Industrial Revolution." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 21, 2023).