Back to resources

Black and white photograph of a train in a railway station

Railway Time

Every New Year, moments of intense celebration roll in around the globe, starting in New Zealand and Australia, and then time zone by time zone, as all the nations of the world spin across the moment of midnight. Scenes of celebrations are broadcast from major cities like Tokyo, Dubai, Paris, London, New York and San Francisco.

Have you ever stopped to wonder why all the time zones in the world are compared to GMT, Greenwich Mean Time? GMT (also known as Coordinated Universal Time, or UTC) is the zero point for standard time. All other time zones are described based on their geographical distance from Greenwich, London. For example, Pacific Coast Time is GMT-8 hours.

But why is Greenwich the home of standard time? Why the United Kingdom? Why not anywhere else in the world?

It turns out that the United Kingdom was the first place to have a universal time system, with all towns and villages across the length and breadth of the country operating the exact same time.

Originally, the time of day was measured by the sundial, which traced the sun across the daytime sky, rising in the east, setting in the west. The time of day, therefore, varied ever so slightly from town to city to village across the country, based on how far east-west (and north-south) they were. Towns west of London lagged slightly behind, those east of London were slightly ahead. Towns and cities proudly shared their local time with their communities through large clocks mounted in church steeples and town halls.

But this was all set to change in 1840, and it was all because of the railways.

The UK became the first nation to have a national railway system connecting its towns and cities. A universal time system became a necessity for two reasons. Firstly, to keep trains running safely and separated from each other, and secondly, to ensure passengers, railway staff and signalmen accurately knew the time of train arrivals and departures. It was known as “Railway Time” and it began in 1840, but for the first few years it was confined just to the railway. Railway staff carried small books of tables that translated the time between their local time and railway time. However, despite huge resistance, Railway Time slowly became the adopted time nationwide. (Special mention goes to Liverpool, for leading the way.) Greenwich, which already had a global presence monitoring maritime activity, became the new zero location of time.

Many of our modern services and processes require high levels of partnership working, and adherence to design standards and conventions for interoperability and consistency. Adopting these systems may be painful, and require a lot of compromise. But, next time you find yourself thinking that it’s too hard to do, just remember that there was a time when, in the spirit of progress, a whole nation literally changed time.

More articles

Desire Code Book

Love our articles? You'll love the book even more...