THE Stockton & Darlington Railway has many great claims to fame. It is, of course, the railway that got the world on track, and without it no damsel could ever have been tied in great distress to railway tracks by an appalling film villain...

This is because George Stephenson placed the two rows of sleepers so that the rails on the Stockton & Darlington Railway were exactly 4ft 8ins apart – this was the usual gauge of wagons in North East mines probably because it was an appropriate size for a horse to pull.

READ MORE: All you need to know about the sleepers of the S&DR


The Northern Echo:

This image of a damsel in distress tied to a standard gauge railway track in front of a steam engine has been posed by a model. No one was hurt in the making of this article

But why then, asks a correspondent in Cockerton, is the standard railway gauge 4ft 8½ins?

As the engines got bigger than Locomotion No 1 with six wheels, the curves on the S&DR proved very tight and an extra half-an-inch was found to give them a bit of rattle room.

Stephenson’s second major railway after the S&DR was the Liverpool and Manchester Railway which, on his recommendation, adopted the same gauge as “the Darlington Road”, but when construction began Stephenson learned from his S&DR experience and placed the rails 4ft 8½ins – that is 1,435mm and not 1,422mm.

On August 18, 1846, the Railway Regulation (Gauge) Act was passed so that this Stephenson gauge became “standard gauge” for railways in mainland Britain (not Ireland).

Because the S&DR rails were initially laid on stone blocks and not on transverse sleepers, the blocks were able to move a little to accommodate the wriggle room, although as the tracks were relaid so the wider gauge was used.

So not only did the S&DR’s gauge set the way for the rest of the railway world to follow, it had a profound effect on the film industry: if the Great Western Railway’s gauge of 7ft 1¼ins had been adopted it would never have been possible for an evil villain to tie a damsel in distress by her ankles to a track in front of an approaching steam engine.

The picture was posed by models - no one was hurt in the making of this article. But the classic horror film scenario would not have been possible without George Stephenson and the S&DR.

READ MORE: The making of Saltburn and its seawall from old S&DR sleepers