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In this column, we explore the wonders of Europe - artistic masterpieces and jewels of cultural heritage. These are the treasures which fill us with a sense of Europe's complex past - how beliefs and identities have intertwined to create the continent and the nations whose borders are often so hard to define. In the eighth instalment, Ziemowit Jóźwik hops on a train...

"What can be more palpably absurd than the prospect held out of locomotives travelling twice as fast as stagecoaches?" the Quarterly Review, a conservative London magazine, demanded in March, 1825. A few months after that haughty question, punctually on the 27th of September, a locomotive named "Active", pulling 12 cars of coal and 22 cars filled with 600 passengers, covered the 19 km distance from Darlington to Stockton-on-Tees in 65 minutes.

I'm not sure whether any "fine old English Tory" was trying to race "Active" that day in a stagecoach. If there was, he must have lost, with the locomotive hurtling about 20 km ("12 miles!" – the British stagecoach rally driver reminds us) per hour. However, from that time onwards, trains were only to speed up…

But before we depart at full speed from the storm-whipped harbour town of Stockton, we ought to give some credit to the ancients.

wagonway
Photo: Roby (CC-SA)
"Trains reached the first stations in ancient Greece": a Diolkos wagonway near Corinth.

Although it might sound a bit strange, trains reached the first stations near Corinth in ancient Greece, about 2300 years before George Stephenson's locomotives were to astonish the venerable readers of the Quarterly Review. Of course, although the Greeks have always been creative not only in accounting, the first trains were not too sophisticated. The wheeled wagons, pulled by the sweat of slaves' brows and the inhumane fatigue of animals along a track of limestone grooves, probably did not even approach the speed of an average Tory stagecoach. Nonetheless, the Diolkos wagonways (as they were called) transported boats from the Saronic to the Corinth Gulf for almost 700 years, until Romans revolutionised the railway with horse-drawn vehicles and cut-stone tracks.

As the years and ages passed, epochs changed their names and empires faded away, the trains were not too eager to advance to the next station until 1770. After all those centuries of exploiting the poor animals or more refinedly - the power of gravity, the French officer and inventor Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot created a strange three-wheel steam dray. This vehicle looked like something out of a science fiction story, was embellished with a huge cauldron weighing about 3 tonnes and was used to transport heavy objects such as cannons. Not only its appearance was bizarre. Cugnot’s fardier à vapeur (the vehicle's original name) was operated by four people and had to stop every 15 minutes. At each stop, the service team had to light a fire under the cauldron and wait until the water transformed into the "driving" vapour, before continuing their whirlwind journey. All in all, the effect was sensational - 4 km per hour.

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