July 1857: The portable railway

When it’s not overcrowded and/or broken and doesn’t cost the same price as a flight on Richard Branson’s spaceship, UK rail travel is, occasionally, an enjoyable, relaxing, and romantic experience.

portable railway

But it is still hamstrung by one glaring restriction that has dogged our railways since the golden age of steam — trains will only stop at stations, and most passengers have to find some other way of completing their journey. Readers will agree that in these sedentary days to ask anyone to walk anywhere is clearly unacceptable.
Fortunately, a quick scan of the Engineer archives provides a ready-made solution to rail’s limitations: simply attach a rotating piece of railway track to each of your vehicle’s wheels, and the romance of rail will follow you all the way to your front door.


In its description of Cambridge’s portable railway, the magazine outlines a design for ‘portable or endless railways’ that can be ‘applied to the wheels of engines and carriages, for the purpose of facilitating their movement over loose ground and irregular surfaces.’

The drawing shows a wooden wheel with an iron ‘tyre’ surrounded by the portable railway. This is divided into sections ‘consisting of an iron rail, which has a projecting rib made along its centre from end to end, and is bolted or secured to a thick wooden plate… side pieces made of iron are secured in any convenient manner on each side of the central projecting rib of the rail.’

The article explained that it is possible to remove the ‘portable railway’ and return the wheel to its original state simply by withdrawing the centre pin or bolt from one of the connecting rods. ‘It may then travel in the usual manner on common road, but the portable endless railway may be adapted thereto again with facility when required.’

The invention is, essentially, one of a number of early forerunners of the caterpillar track. Earlier in the century, aeronauticist George Cayley patented a similar device he called the ‘universal railway’, while steam-powered tractors using a form of caterpillar track were reportedly used during the Crimean War.