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Railway time

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Railway time

Railway time was the standardised time arrangement first applied by the station clocks displayed was brought in line with the local time for London or "London Time", the time set at Greenwich by the Royal Observatory, which was already widely known as Greenwich Mean Time (GMT).

The development of railway networks in North America in the 1850s,[1] India in around 1860,[2] and in Europe prompted the introduction of standard time influenced by geography, industrial development and political governance.

The key purpose behind introducing railway time was twofold: to overcome the confusion caused by having non-uniform local times in each town and station stop along the expanding railway network and to reduce the incidence of accidents and near misses, which were becoming more frequent as the number of train journeys increased.

The railway companies sometimes faced concerted resistance from local people who refused to adjust their public clocks to bring them into line with London Time. As a consequence two different times would be displayed in the town and in use, with the station clocks and the times published in train timetables differing by several minutes from that on other clocks. Despite this early reluctance, railway time rapidly became adopted as the default time across the whole of Great Britain, although it took until 1880 for the government to legislate on the establishment of a single Standard Time and a single time zone for the country.[3]

Some contemporary commentators referred to the influence of railway time on encouraging greater precision in daily tasks and the demand for punctuality.[4]

Historical background

Until the latter part of the 18th century, time was normally determined in each town by a local sundial. Solar time is calculated with reference to the relative position of the sun. This provided only an approximation as to time due to variations in orbits and had become unsuitable for day-to-day purposes. It was replaced by local mean time, which eliminated the variation due to seasonal differences and anomalies. It also took account of the longitude of a location and enabled a precise time correction to be applied.

Such new-found precision did not overcome a different problem, the differences between the local time of neighbouring towns. In Britain, local time differed by up to 20 minutes from that of London. For example, Oxford Time was 5 minutes behind Greenwich Time, Leeds Time 6 minutes behind, Carnforth, 11 minutes behind, and Barrow almost 13 minutes behind.[5] In India and North America these differences could be 60 minutes or more. Almanacs containing tables were published and instructions attached to sundials to enable the differences between local times to be computed.[6]

Before the arrival of the railway, journeys between these centres and the larger towns en route would take many hours or days, and these differences could be dealt with by adjusting the hands of the watch periodically. In Britain, the coaching companies published schedules providing details of the corrections required. However, this variation in local times was large enough to present problems for the railway schedules. For instance, Leeds time was six minutes behind London, whilst Bristol was ten minutes behind; sunrise for towns to the east such as Norwich occurred several minutes ahead of London. It soon became apparent that even such small discrepancies in times caused confusion, disruption, or even accidents.

Influence of the electric telegraph

The electric telegraph, which had been developed in the early part of the 19th century, was refined by William Fothergill Cooke and Charles Wheatstone and was installed on a short section of the Great Western Railway in 1839. By 1852 a telegraph link had been constructed between a new electro-magnetic clock at Greenwich and initially Lewisham, and shortly after this London Bridge stations. It also connected via the Central Telegraph Station of the Electric Time Company in the City of London, which enabled the transmission of a time signal along the railway telegraphic network to other stations. By 1855 time signals from Greenwich could be sent through wires alongside the railway lines across the length and breadth of Britain.[7] This technology was also used in India to synchronise railway time.

Introduction of railway time

Great Britain

Exchange Clock at Bristol showing two minute hands

Before the advent of the telegraph, stationmasters adjusted their clocks using tables supplied by the railway company to convert local time to London Time.[8] In turn, train guards set their chronometers against those clocks.

The introduction of railway time was in the end swift despite not being straightforward. The Great Western Railway was the first to standardise its timetable on Greenwich Mean Time, in November 1840. One of the most vociferous proponents of standardising time on the railways was Henry Booth, Secretary of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway, who had by January 1846 ordered the adjustment of clocks to Greenwich Mean Time at both Liverpool and Manchester stations.

On 22 September 1847, the Bradshaws Railway Guide, the railways that had adopted London Time included the London and South Western, the Midland, the Chester and Birkenhead, the Lancaster and Carlisle, the East Lancashire and the York and North Midland.[3]

It was reported that by 1855 that 98 percent of towns and cities had transferred to GMT.[4] On the other hand, not all railway companies convinced the local dignitaries to bring their clocks on public buildings in line without stern resistance. Although by 1844 the Bristol and Exeter Railway was running to London Time, the public clocks at both Exeter and Bristol operated to local time but showed London Time by a second minute hand, 14 and 10 minutes ahead, respectively, of its companion. In Exeter this situation arose due to the reluctance of the Dean of Exeter Cathedral to concede to the demands of the railway company, the cathedral clock being the principal timekeeper for the city. Similarly, the clock at The Bristol Exchange installed in 1822 subsequently had a second minute hand added.[9] Bristol did not solely recognise railway time until September 1852.[10] It was not for a further eight years and the arrival of the electric telegraph that railway time was the sole time recognised in these towns and others in the West Country, including Bath, Devonport and Plymouth. Another town that stood its ground was Oxford where the great clock on Tom Tower at Christ Church, Oxford, had two minute hands.[11]

It was not until 2 August 1880, when the Statutes (Definition of Time) Act received the Royal Assent, that a unified standard time for the whole of Great Britain achieved legal status.[12]


The Indian railway companies had to contend with different local times as the rapidly expanding routes extended out from Bombay (today Mumbai), Calcutta (today Kolkata), Lahore and Madras (today Chennai). Towards the end of the 1860s the situation became even more confused as the networks linked up. In 1870, to overcome the problems occurring Madras time was adopted for all railways, for two reasons: the longitude of Madras is roughly midway between those of Calcutta and Bombay, and the Observatory there ran the telegraphic service which could be utilised to synchronise station times via the same time-signal system first used in Britain in 1852 to regulate railway time. Madras Time was popularised by its use in Newman's Indian Bradshaw Timetables.[13]

However, unlike in Britain, where railway time was rapidly adopted countrywide and evolved not long after into standard time, in India the much larger size of the country and the autonomy enjoyed by Bombay and Calcutta resulted in both Presidencies' retaining local times well into the 20th century. For the remaining part of the 19th century Madras time continued to be used by all railways[14]

Proposals had been put forward for at least one meridian–based time zone for India as early as 1884. However, no consensus could be reached until 1906, when a single time zone based on Allahabad was established, and a standard time was introduced, which the railways came in line with. Despite this, Calcutta kept its own time until 1948 and to a lesser extent Bombay continued to unofficially until 1955.[15]

North America

One of the first reported incidents which brought about a change in how time was organised on railways in the United States occurred in New England in August 1853. Two trains heading towards each other on the same track collided as the train guards had different times set on their watches, resulting in the death of 14 passengers. Railway schedules were co-ordinated in New England shortly after this incident[16] Numerous other collisions led to the setting up of the General Time Convention, a committee of railway companies to agree on scheduling.[17]

In 1870 Charles F. Dowd, who was unconnected with the railway movement or civil authorities, proposed A System of National Times for Railroads, which involved a single time for railways but the keeping of local times for towns. Although this did not find favour with railway managers, in 1881 they agreed for the idea to be investigated by William Frederick Allen, Secretary of the General Time Convention and Managing Editor of the Travellers' Official Guide to the Railways. He proposed replacing the 50 different railway times with five time zones. He eventually persuaded the railway managers and the politicians running the cities that had several railway stations that it was in their interests to speedily adopt his simpler proposals, which aligned the zones with cities' railroad stations. In doing so they would pre-empt the imposition of more costly and cumbersome arrangements by different state legislators and the naval authorities, both of whom favoured retention of local times.[17]

Right to the end there was opposition expressed by many smaller towns and cities to the imposition of railway time. For example, in Indianapolis the report in the daily Sentinel for 17 November 1883 protested that people would have to "eat sleep work ... and marry by railroad time".[18] However, with the support of nearly all railway companies, most cities and influential observatories such as Yale and Harvard, this collaborative approach led to standard railway time being introduced at noon on 18 November 1883. This consensus held and was incorporated into federal law only in 1918.[17][19][20]


In Germany the standardisation of time had started to be discussed in the 1870s. North German railways were already regulated to Berlin Time in 1874. However, it was not until 1 April 1893 that the a law was established by the German Reich "concerning the introduction of uniform time reckoning" by which all railways would operate and also all aspects of social, industrial and civil activity would henceforth be strictly regulated.[21]


Italy was newly unified as a country when on 12 December 1866 at the start of the winter season the railway timetables centred on Turin, Verona, Florence, Rome, Naples and Palermo were synchronised on the time in Rome, which although it would remain notionally at least under French military control until 1870, was seen as the heart of the nation. In addition to the adoption of a single railway time there was a progressive standardisation of time for civil and commercial purposes. Milan came in line straight away, Turin and Bologna on 1 January 1867, Venice on 1 May 1880 and Cagliari in 1886.[22]


France adopted Paris Mean Time as its standard national time in 1891. It also required clocks inside railway stations and train schedules to be set five minutes late to allow travelers to arrive late without missing their trains, even while clocks on the external walls of railway stations displayed Paris Mean Time. In 1911, France adopted Paris Mean Time delayed 9 minutes 21 seconds, Greenwich Mean Time without mentioning Greenwich. At the same time, slow railway station clocks were eliminated.[22][23]


Ireland and France were the only countries that decided not to officially adopt Greenwich Time, reflecting the political sensitivities of the time. Dublin mean time was set 25 minutes behind London time, although it came into line with international standard time in October 1916 when summer time ended, and most railway clocks were adjusted by 35 minutes rather than one hour. A slight variation was in railway stations in Ulster such as Belfast and Bangor where clocks displayed on the same dial both Dublin mean time (railway time for the island of Ireland) and Belfast Time (local time), 23 minutes and 39 seconds behind Greenwich.[24]


Netherlands Railway time was based on GMT until 1909 when the country adopted 'Amsterdam time' as the standard time, 19 minutes ahead of GMT. This persisted until 1940, when the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands required a shift to German time, which has continued to be the standard.[25]


Russia still in 2015 has a separate railway time, and timetables on Russian railways follow Moscow Time.[26]


Though several private railways had been built construction of public railways in Sweden came later than most other European countries, delayed by concerns over construction costs and resistance from powerful shipping owners. Railway time was introduced on the main railway line between Stockholm and Gothenburg which opened in 1862. Timetables were based on solar time at Gothenburg, the westernmost end of the line. As a consequence passengers and businesses following local time would arrive at the station ahead of the train. There were many private railways that followed local time or their own railway time. On 1 January 1879, a national standard time was introduced across the whole of Sweden, one hour advanced of Greenwich mean time.[27]


In 1904, during the Russo-Japanese War the Chosen Keifu Railway, a privately-run company, introduced Japan Central Standard Time as its railway time instead of Korean traditional time (UTC+08:28).[28] In 1908, Chosen Keifu Railway adopted new Korean standard time (UTC+08:30).

Railway time and society

The introduction of railway time was not without controversy expressed in other ways by the artists of the day and more recently.

  • William Wordsworth in his protest against the building of the Kendal and Windermere Railway in 1844 wrote "Is then no nook of English ground secure from rash assault?" He was concerned about the loss of timeless isolation and individuality through the impact on his quiet rural idyll of the hordes from the industrial towns.[29]
  • Charles Dickens expressed concerns several times, such as in Dombey and Son where he wrote "There was even railway time observed in clocks, as if the sun itself had given in".[30]
  • Alan Plater, an English playwright, wrote the play Only A Matter Of Time, in 2002. A Welsh farmer and an envoy for Brunel meet. A discourse takes place on the imminent arrival of the railway connecting the farmer's village to London, why this will require the standardisation of time, and how this will affect the villagers' lives.[32]



  1. ^ Smithsonian's NMAH - Anniversary Exhibition Press Release 1999 "Standard Time in America" - Retrieved March 4, 2008.
  2. ^ Kosambi, Meera “Bombay Time in Intersections: Socio-cultural Trends in Maharashtra p161 ISBN 978-81-250-1878-0 Orient Longman (2000)”- Retrieved March 4, 2008.
  3. ^ a b Davies, Peter E "History of Railway Time" - Reproduced from original article on - Retrieved March 4, 2008.
  4. ^ a b
  5. ^ Greenwich mean time - Railway time, Accessed 14-10-2011
  6. ^ Walker, Phil - Sundial Website "Inscription attached to Sundial - Lilleshall Shropshire, England" - Retrieved March 4, 2008.
  7. ^ Science Museum - Making of the Modern World "Railway Time co-ordinated by the Electronic Telegraph" - Retrieved March 4, 2008.
  8. ^ ICONS of England -DCMS 2007 "Stationmasters instructions issued by railway companies" - Retrieved March 4, 2008.
  9. ^ Brunel 200 Creative BristolBrunel 200 Victorian Bristol: a guide to Victorian buildings in the city, Retrieved February 28, 2010
  10. ^ Brunel 200 LegacyEleven Minutes - Lost Time Pieces, Retrieved 28 February 2010
  11. ^ Prerau, David - Institute for Dynamic Educational Advancement "Standard Time Begins in Britain - Toms Tower Christ Church College, Oxford" - Retrieved March 4, 2008.
  12. ^ Ilbert 2008, p. 337
  13. ^ Greenwich2000 Limited "Indian Railway Time" - Retrieved March 4, 2008.
  14. ^ IRFC - Indian Railways Fan Club "Timekeeping and Indian Standard Time" - Retrieved March 4, 2008.
  15. ^ Kosambi, Meera: Bombay Time in Intersections: Socio-cultural Trends in Maharashtra p161 (ISBN 978-81-250-1878-0: Orient Longman, 2000)]. Retrieved March 4, 2008.
  16. ^ Smithsonian's NMAH - Anniversary Exhibition Press Release 1999 "Railway Accident and Standard Time in America" - Retrieved March 4
  17. ^ a b c White Matthew, W - Wharton Business School, Univ of Pennsylvania - March 2005 "The Economics of Time Zones" - Retrieved March 7
  18. ^ Ralph R. Hamerla, 2006.An American Scientist on the Research Frontier pp 96-7 - Retrieved March 4
  19. ^ NY Times Archive - October 10, 1883 "Railway Time Belt William (Frederick) Allen" - Retrieved March 4
  20. ^ Smithsonian's NMAH - Anniversary Exhibition Press Release 1999 "North American Standard Time introduced 1883" - Retrieved March 4
  21. ^
  22. ^ a b Parmeggiani, Gianluigi - Osservatorio Astronomico di Bologna "The origin of time zones" - Retrieved March 17, 2008.
  23. ^ French time set back - New York Times archive
  24. ^ BBC Northern Ireland An Idea Whose Time Had Come..Ellen Hanna Elder Retrieved April 29, 2009
  25. ^ van Kampenl, Henk - "Timezones" - Retrieved March 17, 2008.
  26. ^ Russian Railways - Time tables
  27. ^ Fröken Ur (Speaking Clock) SP Sveriges Tekniska Forskningsinstitut, Accessed 19 June 2015
  28. ^
  29. ^ Tate online "William Wordsworth Protest on Railway expansion in the lake District - Retrieved March 4
  30. ^ Dickens, Charles "Dombey and Son" p217 - Retrieved March 4
  31. ^ Gilmartin, Sophie "Ancestry and Narrative in Nineteenth-Century British Literature: Blood Relations from Edgeworth to Hardy p224 - Retrieved March 4
  32. ^ The Stage Review of Only a Matter of Time 10-02-2006, Accessed 13-10-2011


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