Private Trains in the Late 1800s

It’s 1870, I’m a rich businessman and I want to tour the country. I suppose I could hook up my private train car to some commercial passenger train and ‘tag-a-long’, but I want to explore the country at my own pace, stopping where I want to stop and taking my time.

I have purchased a steam locomotive to pull my private car, but what happens now? Can I just jump on any railroad company’s tracks and start my trip? How do I avoid running into other trains, passenger or otherwise, that I would be sharing the track with?

I know there are sidings that can be used to pull off a main line, but wouldn’t I need permission from either the railroad company or some local business to use them? Do I have to file my trip plan with the railroad company so they know where I am and where I’m going? Do I pay them a per mile fee to use their tracks?

So what were the rules for those rich guys with private trains in the late 1800s?

The railroad’s tracks are private property belonging to the railroad; you use the tracks with the railroad’s permission, and their scheduling people will keep track of when and where your train can go.

Even in 2016, it’s possible to own and use a private railcar, although in the US today that usually means hooking onto an Amtrak train for most or all of the journey.

Your best bet would be a Handcar, which you propel by pumping a beam up and down.

You go just the speed you want, when you want, with no annoying people around to harsh your mellow, listening to the birds and smelling the crops just as if you were in one of those old Gipsy Caravans ambling along the King’s Highways when there were a lot less vehicles about.

I get how it works today, but what about in 1870? Were railroad companies able to keep track of every train on their track system? Would I let someone know where I was going and they would tell me when I could leave? Without modern technology it’s hard to imagine that they could keep track of all that activity in real time. Everything had to done via telegraph I assume…

As I recall, railroads had signalmen stationed along the way, who would communicate with each other by telegraph, and when a train passed, they would wire ahead and have the next signalman stop any oncoming traffic and shunt it off onto a siding until the way was clear.

In many parts of the world, railroads still employ human signalmen to help control the movement of rail traffic. I saw them this year in Thailand.

Before about 1900, train wrecks were extremely common, many of them head-on collisions, with death tolls in the thousands in some years. (I read that once in print, but I have since failed to find any online source of year-by-year train wreck casualties. It’s doubtful there was an agency that collected such data.)

Think of any length railroad as being a series of toll roads - each segment controlled by people on each end.
As you near the next signalman, you will be either given permission to continue or switched aside (if you are lucky, and all station agents and signalmen are in constant contact, remember each train, and are sober).

Railroad tracks have a defined set of entry and exit points, so it’s not as hard to keep track of as I think you are imagining. For example, if a train left Station A on this track over here, it’s either going to arrive at Station B or it crashed somewhere; it can’t have switched over to that other track without somebody knowledgeable operating the switch, and there would not have been very many interchanges. (In fact, in the 1870s, different railroads didn’t necessarily even use the same track gauge; switching from one railroad to another might well mean switching locomotives and all cars.)

The railroads also had published timetables (here is an example from 1873 for the Santa Fe). That timetable, for example, shows that the No. 1 Mail left Atchison at 11:20 am, expected into Grasshopper at 12:42. Company rules said it was not to leave Grasshopper until 12:42, and if it was going to be significantly later than that, the agent at Grasshopper would telegraph the next station and on up the line to the next major station. Meanwhile, Grasshopper was a meeting point; at 12:42 the westbound No. 1 met the eastbound No. 2, and both trains had to come to a complete stop and then proceed slowly (speed limit 6 mph) over the joint track to pass.

If there was an extra train, special orders would be issued by the division superintendent specifying which train could go where and when, which train had priority, etc. For example, when the Scott Special ran in 1905, regularly-scheduled trains were ordered to clear the main line an hour before the special was due to pass. Even in 1905, most of the Santa Fe’s transcontinental route was single-track only, so knowing which train was supposed to be where was the way to prevent head-on crashes.

Trains did occasionally go missing. Permanently.

Apart from the obvious tales of the London Underground with closed lines and trains stuck there — and in some legends trained filled with the skeleton passengers in their Victorian clothing — there are tunnels everywhere rumoured to contain missing trains. Sans passengers.

And they just found a train in Lake Superior that went down 106 years ago.

Sorry, my post was somehow duplicated while I was editing it; see the complete post below.

In Victorian England a person of means could order a private “special” train, as in the Sherlock Holmes story “The Lost Special”. According to the story it was not an uncommon request and could be arranged within an hour:

"Monsieur Caratal’s business was quickly dispatched. He had arrived [in Liverpool] that afternoon from Central America. Affairs of the utmost importance demanded that he should be in Paris without the loss of an unnecessary hour. He had missed the London express. A special must be provided. Money was of no importance. Time was everything. If the company would speed him on his way, they might make their own terms.

Mr. Bland struck the electric bell, summoned Mr. Potter Hood, the traffic manager, and had the matter arranged in five minutes. The train would start in three-quarters of an hour. It would take that time to insure that the line should be clear. The powerful engine called Rochdale (No. 247 on the company’s register) was attached to two carriages, with a guard’s van behind . . . .

Monsieur Caratal, upon leaving the superintendent’s office, rejoined his companion, and both of them manifested extreme impatience to be off. Having paid the money asked, which amounted to fifty pounds five shillings, at the usual special rate of five shillings a mile, they demanded to be shown the carriage, and at once took their seats in it, although they were assured that the better part of an hour must elapse before the line could be cleared. In the meantime a singular coincidence had occurred in the office which Monsieur Caratal had just quitted.

A request for a special is not a very uncommon circumstance in a rich commercial centre, but that two should be required upon the same afternoon was most unusual. It so happened, however, that Mr. Bland had hardly dismissed the first traveller before a second entered with a similar request. This was a Mr. Horace Moore, a gentlemanly man of military appearance, who alleged that the sudden serious illness of his wife in London made it absolutely imperative that he should not lose an instant in starting upon the journey. His distress and anxiety were so evident that Mr. Bland did all that was possible to meet his wishes. A second special was out of the question, as the ordinary local service was already somewhat deranged by the first. There was the alternative, however, that Mr. Moore should share the expense of Monsieur Caratal’s train, and should travel in the other empty first-class compartment, if Monsieur Caratal objected to having him in the one which he occupied. It was difficult to see any objection to such an arrangement, and yet Monsieur Caratal, upon the suggestion being made to him by Mr. Potter Hood, absolutely refused to consider it for an instant."

Later in the story the Liverpool stationmasters send telegrams to all the stations on the route informing them that a "special"is coming through.

Normally you would be using the drivers familiar with the stretch of track, and the engines that the drivers are familiar with, and you’d be paying a negotiated rate for a special over each track section But since you have purchased your own steam engine, you are also going to have to negotiate fuel, water, oil and maintenance. The water will probably be free with the track rate, the fuel will be by volume, oiling and running maintenance is going to be an unusual problem. Those things took a lot of maintenance, and since you aren’t in one location, you won’t even be able to depend on building your own engine shed.


Not a Holmes story, actually.

"FIVE YEARS AFTER the supposed death of Sherlock Holmes at the hands of his arch-enemy Professor Moriarty, The Strand Magazine published two apparently unrelated mystery stories, each quoting an un-named criminal investigator. Devotees have long debated the identity of this person: was he Sherlock Holmes or not?In this ingenious new play, M J ELLIOTT assumes that Holmes and Watson did investigate the baffling disappearance of a special train."

“‘The Lost Special’ is a short story by Arthur Conan Doyle first published as part of the Round the Fire series in The Strand Magazine of August 1898. ***It is implied to be a Sherlock Holmes story, though his name is not used. . . .
A letter to The Times by “an amateur reasoner of some celebrity at that date” is excerpted at one point, the style of which suggests that the author is probably Sherlock Holmes.” ***

In the present day UK, if you own a locomotive (usually a preserved steam locomotive) and want to run it on the mainline, you need to hire a Train Operating Company and have them operate the train for you. The TOC provides the crew and negotiates the schedule, etc.

But if the motivation is just to have a flexible schedule, I don’t think owning your own locomotive buys you anything. You still need to negotiate the schedule with the railroad. It’s cheaper to pay the railroad to provide the locomotive and crew. That’s what Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus do with their circus trains. That way they don’t have to pay for the upkeep and storage of the locomotives, and the locomotives don’t sit idle between moves.

Yup. I think back in the day running a private train very rarely involved owning your own locomotive. You owned, or leased from a railway company, your own car or cars, fitted out to your taste. When you actually wanted to go somewhere in them, you contracted with the railway company to provide a locomotive, driver, fireman and other necessary staff for the journey. The railway company scheduled your journey, so as to make sure that you didn’t run into another train. (Or, you could have your private car attached to a scheduled service, but that doesn’t really count as a “private train”; it’s just a private car on a regular train.)

If you wanted to do it on the cheap, you didn’t own or lease a dedicated private car, fitted out to your taste; you just chartered a locomotive and car for a journey, which the railway company would schedule and operate. That’s what’s described in the Conan Doyle story above.

Of course one could buy a two-bedroomed cottage for £190 or under.
What Did It Cost In The 1890s ? Hertfordshire Grid for Learning

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In the 1870s, a pair of Secret Service agents had use of a private train. :wink:

Since we’re here: