Steam Road Vehicles

Horse drawn coach transport in the UK had become quite efficient by the beginning of the nineteenth century  Most cities could be reached within a day from London. This had been greatly aided by toll road development. Average speeds could be as high as 15 kph. However, they had reached the limit of their development, both in terms of speed and economies of scale. Since the four horses had to be changed at each stage of fifteen to twenty km, many were required on each journey. To increase speed would have required increasing the number of horses or shortening stage lengths. The investment would have been considerable: horses fast and strong enough were expensive and their mortality rate was high, provoking much criticism, since they often died publicly between the shafts.

By the late eighteen-twenties, the potential of the railway was rapidly becoming apparent. However, expansion was costly due the enormous investment in infrastructure required, exacerbated by the high cost of land acquisition: the ruling classes, torn between their cupidity and their dislike of innovation, particularily when it threatened their interests in canal transport, solved their moral dilemma by selling their land at absurdly high prices.  So high in fact, that railway investments, like those in the dotcom companies of one hundred and seventy years later, often failed spectacularly. Nevertheless, investors continued to clamour for shares and a dense network  was in place by mid-century

Improved road transport seemed the obvious solution and much ingenuity was applied to designing steam road vehicles, particularily into development  of  lightweight high pressure engines. By the early eighteen-thirties, as many as twenty vehicles were operating road services in the UK and Scotland. Their efficient engines were streets ahead of those used by locomotives, where saving weight was of no importance. In fact it helped to improve traction. They used light tubular flash boilers, capable of raising steam rapidly to high pressures, thus permitting small efficent power units.


This Hancock 14 seat steam coach operated between the city and the rural suburbs of London in 1833

Their reliability, given their cutting edge technology, was not great at the outset. Nevertheless, they gave excellent service on some routes: in 1831, between Cheltenham and Gloucester 3500 passengers were transported over a period of four months at average speeds around 16 kph by the Gurney steam coach heading this page.  Suburban services operated reliably in London over a number of months, transporting thousands of passengers. The vehicles worked over five hours per day, which implies reasonable reliability. Speeds as high as 50 kph were reached on the open road (despite the rudimentary brakes and approximate steering!). Once the technology had been mastered, they were also potentially cheaper to operate per passenger carried, given their low fixed costs compared to coaches, with their many horses and attendant personnel needed at each stage to provide continous fast service over long distances.

However, vested interests, in the form of a loose coalition of coach and toll road operators, and again the landed gentry (who had their own coaches anyway), had their own agenda. The public coaches disliked competition. One reaction was to sabotage the steam vehicles. In one case, on the Paisley-Glascow route, they caused a serious accident by placing stones in the road. The axle collapsed and the boiler was squashed between the road and the vehicle. It exploded, causing five deaths (the culprits were never brought to court). They also lobbied furiously, buying members of parliament (routine in those days but prices and loyalty could vary) to support legislation hampering steam vehicle operation. Toll road operators, equally obtuse, imposed absurd tolls (up to ten times more than a coach) on the pretext that their roads were being destroyed. They were spending nothing on maintenance anyway so what did they expect?

Both  toll roads and coaches were swept into the dustbin of history a few years later by the railways. They would have been better advised to adapt to progress. Had steam road transport development taken place in tandem with rail, the UK would have ended the century with an efficient integrated road and rail  transport network, without the numerous and uneconomic narrow gauge branch lines ( since largely closed) and with good feeder road systems to bring people to their final destinations.

By the end of the eighteen-thirties, the steam vehicle was dead while stagecoaches and toll roads were moribund.  The ruling classes, obtuse to the last, passed the Red Flag Act, obliging all self-propelled vehicles to be preceded by a man on foot, carrying a red flag limit their speed to walking pace.

This was lifted in 1895 when the development of the motorcar in continental Europe made it imperative that the UK join in. Steam trucks underwent rapid development, remaining in use up to the 1930’s. Buses and cars, however, were quickly won over by the simplicity of the internal combustion engine while electric tramways replaced horses on urban routes in the early ’90’s.

In France, despite excellent roads and a far more benevolent attitude, the steam road vehicle attracted little interest during the 19th century. Services were developed but proved not to be sustainable. However, throughout the period, steam vehicles, usually in private hands, trundled here and there. For example in 1872, a relatively heavy vehicle of over four tons, belonging to M. Bollée, (now in the Conservatoire des arts et métiers, in Paris), carrying twelve passengers, made a highly publicised one-day trip from Paris to Rouen (125km).

He accumulated a large number of tickets during the trip. However, his friend, the Prefect of Paris, cancelled them all with a stroke of the pen. Plus ça change