The Caledonian Railway company opened on the 15th of February, 1848.
Railways have been in existence for well over two thousand years, thanks to the Ancient Greeks, whom we can also no doubt thank for the pastime of train-spotting, the collective noun for which is 'anorak'. The Greek ‘Diolkos’ railway was built in 600 BC and was used to convey ships across the Isthmus of Corinth. It was nearly sixteen hundred years later, before the island of Great Britain saw its first railways; tracks along which
hand propelled tubs were used to carry ore from mines. The first public railway in the United Kingdom was the Surrey Iron Railway in south London, in 1803, and the first fare paying, passenger railway in the industrial world, let alone the UK, was the Oystermouth Railway in Wales, which opened in 1807 and later became known as the Swansea and Mumbles Railway.
Scotland took its time about railways, with its first being the Kilmarnock and Troon Railway, which came into service in 1808. The Dundee and Newtyle line opened in 1830 and by then, there were also several, local mineral railways like the Monkland and Kirkintilloch Railway, which opened October 1826, and the Ballochney Railway, which opened in 1828. The Edinburgh and Glasgow Railway opened quite some time later, in 1842, thanks to the efforts of Leadbetter, a successful linen merchant and railway enthusiast – maybe he was the world's first trainspotter.
Before the Caledonian Railway, the quickest journey between Glasgow and London would have been from Glasgow or Greenock to Liverpool, by sea, and then to London by train. So the Caledonian Railway Act, which received Royal assent on the 31st of July, 1845, was very welcome to passengers and to companies that wanted to freight goods between England and Scotland. The Caledonian was an integrated railway company; meaning it built and owned both the track and the trains. By the time of its amalgamation with the London, Midland and Scottish Railway, on the 1st of July, 1923, and as a result of the Railways Act, it controlled 2,827 miles (4,550km) of track, including sidings.
The Caledonian absorbed several local, Scottish lines, but its desire was to be the sole cross-border main line between Carlisle and Scotland. However, it didn't succeed as it had rivals in the Glasgow and South Western Railway, and the Waverley Line, which went to Edinburgh. It also had a fierce cross border rivalry with the Edinburgh based North British Railway, albeit that company had to wait until completion of the Royal Border Bridge in 1850 before it could participate.
In his book, 'Through Scotland with the Caledonian Railway', A. J. Mullay tells of that rivalry the story of a race from London to Aberdeen, which took place in 1895. The Forth Bridge, opened in 1890, gave the shorter east coast route a 17 mile advantage and so, it was “game on!” On the 23rd of August, the 'Caley' train, driven by John Souter, arrived in Aberdeen at 4.32am, just 8h 32m after leaving London, having achieved a record average speed of 63mph over the 500-mile route. Quite an achievement, considering that back in 1849, the original journey time from London to Glasgow was 12h 30m.
The Caledonian had absorbed the pre-existing Polloc and Govan; Clydesdale Junction; Glasgow, Garnkirk and Coatbridge; and Glasgow, Paisley and Greenock railways by the time the cross-border route was completed. That route to Glasgow was surveyed and engineered by Joseph Locke and by August of 1847, he had twenty thousand men, four locomotives and thousands of horses hard at work, stretching the railway northwards from Carlisle. Locke's job was by no means an easy one as he had Beattock Pass to contend with. There, the line had to climb 1,033ft through the Lowther Hills, in what must have seemed an impossibly steep gradient at the time. In fact, Locke wanted the route to go through Nithsdale to link up with the Glasgow, Paisley, Kilmarnock and Ayr Railway, but he was persuaded to take the Annandale route.
The Caledonian initially extended the London to Carlisle line to Glasgow and Edinburgh, and later, onwards and north to Dundee and Aberdeen. The first stretch, from Carlisle to Beattock, was opened on the 10th of September, 1847, and then, on the 15th of February, 1848, trains were able to reach both Glasgow and Edinburgh. On the 15th, the first train for the south left Townhead in Glasgow and the first north bound train headed for Edinburgh's Lothian Road terminus, via the junction at Carstairs. The original central Glasgow terminus was at Buchanan Street, reached via its acquisition, the Garnkirk and Glasgow Railway. That route was first opened on the 1st of January, 1849, for goods and on the 1st of November, 1849, for passengers. With Buchanan Street established in Glasgow, Edinburgh then gained its own major terminus on the 2nd of May, 1870, when Princess Street station was opened. Later, in 1897, Glasgow bound trains were routed to Glasgow Central, via the Clydesdale Junction Railway.
Back in the day, Caledonian trains were painted a distinctive blue, later called 'Caledonian blue, and its locomotives carried the Royal Coat of Arms of Scotland. Today, what is known as the West Coast Main Line, is still in use, with its southern section being the former London and North Western Railway. Glasgow's station remains Glasgow Central, although, to get further north, you now have to cross the city to Queen Street station. Edinburgh's Princess Street has long since closed and trains now go to Waverley Station. In its hey day, the Caledonian company was also the owner or part owner of steamers; hotels, including the Caledonian Hotel in Edinburgh; docks and harbours; and two canals, the Forth and Clyde Navigation and the Monkland Canal.
As a postcript, the Aberdeenshire Press & Journal published an article on the Caledonian in January, 2011, in which it printed a verse of a poem by W.H. Auden, called 'Night Mail'. You may be familiar with it. It was written for the classic 1936 General Post Office film about the London to Scotland mail train. Beattock gets a mention and here's the extract:
“This is the Night Mail crossing the Border;
Bringing the cheque and the postal order,
Letters for the rich, letters for the poor;
The shop at the corner, the girl next door.
Pulling up Beattock, a steady climb:
The gradient's against her, but she's on time.”