UK: TIME TABLES - PLANES, TRAINS AND AUTOMOBILES. - Ancient chariots, Roman roads, the industrial revolution's railways, jet-age sophistication - and now the car backlash ... Rhymer Rigby takes a whistle-stop tour of transport's history.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Ancient chariots, Roman roads, the industrial revolution's railways, jet-age sophistication - and now the car backlash ... Rhymer Rigby takes a whistle-stop tour of transport's history.

Impolitic though he may have been when citing the automobile's principal virtue as the absence of those 'dreadful human beings sitting alongside you', transport minister Steven Norris certainly had a point: we do love our cars and the privacy they offer. Unfortunately, such shameless honesty does not go down too well at Westminster and Norris's fellow MPs exacted a grovelling apology and an admission that, yes, he had been a 'pompous prat'.

Ministerial gaffes notwithstanding, it is with road-going vehicles that the history of British transport begins. Though most would assume that Britain's roads were little more than rutted tracks prior to the Roman invasion, anecdotal evidence suggests otherwise. Pytheas of Marseilles, a Greek who visited these shores in 330 BC, was quick to praise the native chariot industry. And, the off-road sector aside, we may assume that Pytheas's chariots required reasonable highways and by-ways. This said, however, the first centrally planned road system was the work of the Romans - the idea being to aid the opening up and exploiting of Britain.

When Rome fell, our imperial rulers left, taking with them the first 'department of transport'. As with many of the nation's affairs, the church more or less took over stewardship of the roads during the Dark Ages.

The thinking behind this ecclesiastical maintenance was that travellers were unfortunates and, as such, it was a Christian duty to help them.

To this end, indulgences were granted to those who contributed to the roads' upkeep. But sinners with an interest in transport were obviously in short supply and, as a whole, the road network crumbled for the next millennium. There were, however, a few noteworthy events during this period.

In 1285 Edward I passed the first Road Act, a decree prohibiting roadside shrubbery, which, reasoned the king, provided cover for roadside robbers. And the mid-14th century saw the first tolls levied for the upkeep of what is now London's Gray's Inn Road.

By 1600 Britain's transport network was little better than it had been 1,200 years earlier. But all this changed with the industrial revolution. First came the canals, which at their mid-18th century zenith covered around 2,500 miles. Next up were the railways: 1750's 133 miles of horse-drawn track had expanded to over 6,000 miles of steam railways 100 years later. During the 19th century, rail consolidated its position. Passenger numbers rose year on year as travellers used a mode of transport that was comfortable, convenient and, by the standards of the day, unbelievably fast. In 1863, London could even boast the world's first underground railway, a six-mile stretch from Farringdon to Bishop's Road (Paddington), which survives to this day as part of the Metropolitan Line.

But just as rail had sounded the death-knell for the canals, the trains' nemesis lay just round the corner. Few railwaymen paid Carl Benz's noisy, slow, smoky 'horseless carriage' much attention when he unveiled it in 1884, but by 1920 the railways' long, slow decline had already begun.

The effect of the car is easy to see, even down to the fall in vehicle ownership during the second world war and the corresponding upswing in rail travel.

Shortly before the war, another form of transport was, literally, getting off the ground. Starting from very low levels, flying has comfortably outstripped both rail and roads in terms of growth, due to falling prices and its speed. At around 13 million passenger journeys per year, domestic air travel still represents a tiny proportion of the total market. Meanwhile, the number of UK international passenger journeys by air has grown from 82,000 in 1937 to over 100 million in 1995.

Back on the ground, though, things are unlikely to continue as they've done indefinitely. For, while everybody wants a car, the more people get them, the less fun they are. Over recent years, roads have become increasingly crowded with journey times lengthening. Motorists spend an average of five days per year immobilised and this could increase to two weeks by 2005, according to the Royal Automobile Club and Traffic-master, the car map computer company.

Technological miracles aside, there are two solutions to this problem.

Both are politically unpalatable. One is to build more roads - a remedy strangely unpopular with the very people whose cars clog them up, and those whose tree-houses block proposed by-passes. The other is to use alternative transport which generally entails physical exercise or - worse still - sitting next to 'dreadful' people. It's not crunch time yet, but unless we want our major cities to resemble Los Angeles, some form of action will be necessary. On yer bike.

Find this article useful?

Get more great articles like this in your inbox every lunchtime

Read like a CEO: James Reed

The recruitment boss discusses the books that give him business ideas and management inspiration.

What British business can learn from the French

Forget the cliches - our old rival is hotbed of management innovation and is leading...

Want to encourage more female leaders? Openly highlight their achievements

A study shows that publicly praising women not only increases their willingness to lead, their...

Message to Davos: Don't blame lack of trust on 'society'

The reason people don't trust you is probably much closer to home, says public relations...

Dame Cilla Snowball: Life after being CEO

One year on from stepping back as boss of Britain's largest advertising agency, Dame Cilla...

How to change people's minds when they refuse to listen

Research into climate change deniers shows how behavioural science can break down intransigence.