Britain has historically been an innovator and world leader in many forms of transportation, from shipping to rail systems to aviation. At the end of the 20lh century, private transportation by automobile was the most prevalent method of transportation, while travel by trains had declined greatly since its heyday in the 19th century.
Shipping-Because Britain is an island, shipping has been important for centuries. The irregular coastlines of the British Isles provide many natural harbours, and Britain's gentle, navigable rivers have always been conducive to shipping- Seafaring skills were directly connected to Britain's growth as a naval power. As early as the 16lh century Britain defeated Spain, its greatest rival at sea. In the 17th and 18* centuries France was defeated, then Germany in the early 20lh century. Prior to World War II, Britain had the largest merchant fleet in the world, a fleet that sailed throughout the vast British Empire and was protected by the Royal Navy. Britain continued to be the world leader in shipping until World War II, when submarine attacks by Germany sank many British vessels and the tremendous output of the American shipbuilding industry made the United States the world leader.
Today many British shipping firms operate under foreign flags to avoid the more stringent British shipping regulations, including higher wages for crews. Most British passenger shipping involves ferry trips to the continent of Europe or to Ireland. Tankers carrying oil and dry bulk cargo make up the majority of oceanic shipping. The most important port in the United Kingdom is London; other important commercial ports are at Forth in Scotland and at Grimsby and Immingham in eastern England.
Railways.The Victorian era was also known as the Railway Age. The railroad can be considered the child of the British coal mines because carts on tracks were used to haul coal. These precursors of the railroad were then combined with steam engines, which led to further technological innovations. The world's first public railway was the Stockton and Darlington, which opened in 1825. A period of hectic railway building followed for the next quarter century as different companies competed to lay track. It was a massive undertaking that employed vast armies of labourers and altered the British landscape by digging through hills and constructing bridges and tunnels. In a short time the basic grid of Britain's railways was in place.
The London Underground.The London Underground operated 391 km of railway in 1997, of which some 171 km are under the ground. Known as the tube, the system has 267 stations, with more than 470 trains running during peak periods. Much of the system is old, and breakdowns are a recurring problem. Vandalism in the form of pulling emergency switches also causes many delays. but with all its problems, the Underground provides reliable public transportation for an impressive number of commuters across a large metropolitan area.
The Channel Tunnel.The Channel Tunnel links England with France and runs underground beneath the relatively shallow English Channel. The current tunnel, finished in 1994, was built by British and French private investors and cost more than $16 billion to complete, twice its estimated budget. Cost overruns caused financial difficulties and threatened the completion of the project. The main tunnel through which shuttle trains travel is 50 km long and runs from Folkestone, England, to Calais, France, at an average depth of 40 m below the seabed. The trip takes about 35 minutes and a drive-on, drive-off service operates for motorists. Since ferries continue to compete with the tunnel, some believe the tunnel is of only marginal economic importance. Nevertheless, it has enormous symbolic importance as an unbroken link between Britain and the Continent.
Air Travel.British Airways is one of the world's leading airlines and operates the world's largest network of international scheduled services, travelling to almost 90 countries. Between 1996 and 1997 it carried more than 38 million passengers in a fleet of 309 aircraft, one of the largest fleets in Europe. The company's most spectacular service, supersonic flights across the Atlantic in the Concorde, is carried out in co-operation with Air France.
London's main airports, Heathrow and Gatwick, are among the world's busiest centres for international travel.
Roads.Just as Britain experienced a transport revolution with railroads in the 19th century, the 20lh century brought a transport revolution with roads. About 60 percent of freight is carried on roads, outstripping rail haulage largely because trucks can deliver door-to-door. About 90 percent of all passenger travel is by road, and primarily by private car rather than public transport. The spread of car ownership has been one of the more spectacular developments of the post-World War II era. Today almost 70 percent of British households have at least one car. There is widespread public concern about the negative effects of increased traffic, sprawling road building, costly injuries, and air pollution.