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British Culture, British Customs and British Traditions

British Transport


With dictionary look up - Double click on any word for its definition.
This section is in advanced English and is only intended to be a guide, not to be taken too seriously!

A History of Transport in the UK


The first bicycles were introduced into Britain from France. There was a great craze for the hobby-horse or dandy-horse, though it was little more than a scooter. In 1839 a Scottish blacksmith, Kirkpatrick Macmillan, added pedals that drove the back wheel. But an invention in France in 1865 produced the more popular 'bone-shaker' bicycle, driven by pedals attached to the front wheel. To increase speed, the front wheel was made bigger and bigger until it measured five feet across with a back wheel of only 14-18 inches in diameter. This was known as the penny-farthing.

On a penny-farthing a rider perched five feet up on his saddle could have a nasty fall so it was the chain driven safety bicycle with wheels of equal size that became popular. Today's bicycle is very similar, with the addition of Dunlop's air-filled tyres, better brakes, a free wheel, three-speed gears and various types of handlebars.

Nowadays you can take your life in your hands and cycle around Britain. There are many cycle lanes set aside for this use, but don't be surprised if they run out in the middle of three lanes of traffic.


With the Industrial Revolution in the UK there was a need to transport coal more quickly and efficiently, efforts were made to improve water transport. The Duke of Bridgewater commissioned The Bridgewater canal, the first of its kind, so that large quantities of coal could be transported from his mines in Worsley, Lancashire, to Manchester, seven miles away (11km). His engineer, James Brindley, designed a waterway that went to the very coalface of the mines and included an aqueduct across the River Irwell. The canal was so successful that on its opening, the price of coal in Manchester halved.

As factory and mine owners realised the value of water transport, the great canal age began. Between 1760 and 1840 nearly 4,000 miles (6,400km) of canal were built. These canals were vital to the new industries because they carried materials for building factories, for making cotton, iron or pottery goods, and then took these goods away to be sold once they were made.

The success of the railway saw the demise of Britain's canals, however interest in their maintenance has been revived recently as they now attract holiday makers.


It is usually agreed that a German, Carl Benz, built the first motor car in 1885. It was really a tricycle with a petrol motor at the rear. Members of the Royal family and other wealthy people took up motoring as a sport; they were pleased when the Red Flag Act was removed in 1896.

Many of the early cars were two seaters, steered by a tiller, not a wheel. They had no hoods, so motorists wore goggles, hat-veils and short leather coats. There were no petrol pumps and few garages, so every driver had to be his own engineer for the frequent breakdowns which occurred.

By 1905, cars began to look like cars today, with headlamps, bonnet, windscreen, rubber tyres and number plates. Roads were sprayed with hot tar to ensure a smoother ride and fewer punctures. Henry Ford's 'Model T', introduced in America in 1909, was cheaper because it was made on assembly line. It brought cars closer towards the reach of 'ordinary people'.

The popularity of the car meant that registration was introduced in 1903 with the Motor Car Act . Competency tests were introduced in 1935. Today the legal driving age for a car or van in the UK is seventeen. You are not allowed to drive a car unsupervised until you have passed a driving test, which involves three sections: a theory test , a hazard perception test and a supervised driving examination).

Forty years ago, Britain celebrated the opening of its first motorway, the Preston bypass, just one month before the M1. Until then, no one really understood what a motorway was, not even the labourers who were building it. The bypass hailed a new era in motor travel and was greeted with excitement and optimism.

Nowadays we have the M25 - affectionately known as the largest car park in the world.

Service stations came with the motorway and the legend of the transport café was born. Of course, the service station has diversified greatly since the days of chip butties and grey tea, but - whether it's an English cooked breakfast or a cappuccino and croissant - one thing has remained the same: the prices.


In 1852, Henri Giffard made the first powered airship flight in France. But it was Count von Zeppelin's rigid airship of 1900 that proved air travel was possible.

Powered aeroplane flight began in 1903 when the Wright Brothers flew their first machine in America. In 1919, a passenger service began between London and Paris and the first regular Atlantic crossings were made in 1937. The jet engine was successfully tried out during the Second World War.

The most famous British aeroplanes of all time have to be the Comet and Concorde. Even now, Concorde excites much admirartion for its beautiful design. It took its first ever commercial flight in 1976, with two planes taking off simultaneously from Paris and London. But the plane was just too costly and Concorde was doomed almost from the start.


The first man to combine the steam engines and wagon-ways was Richard Trevithick. An engineer, he designed a steam engine that could run on wheels in 1803. In 1804, his engine pulled wagons carrying 18 tonnes of iron ore and 70 men for five miles (14km) in South Wales, but it was so heavy that the track broke when it reached five miles per hour (8kph).

The rail transport system in Great Britain developed during the 19th century. Britain's railways were initially owned by four companies, then during WWII they were taken into state control and they were nationalised in 1947. It wasn't until 1996 that they were privatised again!

Today there are 25 train operators who run the services. One infrastructure company - Network Rail. Three rolling stock companies. And all sorts of companies who do maintenance work on the 13,000 miles of track. There are also a number of government organisations like the Strategic Rail Authority and the Health and Safety Executive which are involved in running the railways, making the whole structure extremely complicated.

Broken tracks, leaves or the wrong type of snow on the line and trains past their sell by date are a feature of rail travel in the UK nowadays where, according to statistics, only two out of ten British trains are late, the main problem is they always seem to be my trains! If you have a problem when travelling by train in Britain there is a very good network called the Rail Passenger Council which deals with complaints and will also give a lot of advice on any problems you might have had.


A taxicab (sometimes called taxi, cab, or hack) is a vehicle for hire which carries passengers. The word hack comes from the horse-drawn for-hire hackney carriages that began operating in London in the early 17th century. It wasn't until 1903 that gas-powered, metered taxis began to operate in London.

The most famous taxis have to be the black cabs taxi service in London. Black cabs--also known as hackney carriages, or hackney cabs--are particularly famous on account of the specially constructed vehicles. London taxi drivers have to pass a difficult test called the knowledge, which can take up to three years (the taxi driver here says " free years of me life"). The taxi drivers have to know every street in London.

British Culture