In Romance literature, stagecoaches exist largely in order to be robbed.* Like much Romance this has some roots in history: we had a couple of stage robberies in this neck of the woods, or California coastal scrub brush, back around the 1880s. Stagecoach service on the Central Coast ended as late as 1904, when the Southern Pacific Coast Line was completed.
Stagecoach robberies go back farther in England; at least I have an image of highwaymen that seems vaguely rooted in the 18th century. They cannot be much older than that, because stagecoaches aren't much older. The word coach comes from the town of Kocs, now in Hungary, whose wainwrights were turning out recognizable coaches from the 15th century, though it is a bit hazy when and where the body was first set on springs. Whenever it was done, for the first time it allowed 'civilian' vehicles, offering some trace of comfort, to travel at the speed war chariots reached 3000 years earlier.
But my concern here is with the 'stage' part, not the 'coach' part. Coaches were a (substantial) refinement of wagon technology. Staging them - operating them along a fixed route, on a regular schedule - was something new, and it revolutionized travel.
In England, so we are told, soon after 1660 a 'diligence' provided service between London and Oxford, about 90 km, a two day trip with a stopover in Beaconsfield. The name for the vehicle aptly conveys how impressed people were by the novelty of scheduled travel. By 1669 a 'Flying Coach' demonstrated a 13 hour trip, and soon the regular diligence was making the trip in a day.
But speed was nearly a side benefit; the really important thing was transportation that was reliable and above all available. Only the very rich could afford to own a coach, but people of relatively modest means could rent a seat in one for a couple of days to get where they were going. And 'travel planning' became more or less what it is now, not organizing an expedition. Within a few decades coach routes had spread across England, and improved roads, turnpikes, were being built for them to run on.
At roughly the same time there was a comparable developments in inland freight transportation, the spread of a navigational canal system - at first simply straightening bends in rivers or smoothing out rapids, but by the mid 18th century striking out on its own, sometimes through tunnels and over aqueduct bridges. Here the key innovation wasn't scheduling but the sheer magnitude and sophistication of the work, 'transportation infrastructure' on a scale not seen before. (Roman roads were strategic infrastructure.)
Like the stagecoach network, the canal network spread rapidly, transforming land freight transportation as stagecoaches transformed passenger travel.
And the point of all this is ...?
Long ago in its salad days, National Lampoon magazine called archery 'a crude attempt by Stone Age people to make a gun.' In much the same way, you could call those 18th century stagecoaches and canals a crude attempt by preindustrial people to build a railroad. The Canal du Midi was a crude attempt by 17th century French people to build a TGV.
The hardware of stagecoaches and canals is quaintly pre-industrial to us, in fact nearly the epitome of quaintly pre-industrial. But the 'software' was a precursor of the industrial age. The economy needed more transportation than the customary means of getting around could provide. In response, traditional materials - horses, wood, stone, and water - were combined with a new way of thinking about transportation.
And without that new transportation software, the waggonways and plateways that also appeared here and there in England at this time would have remained local oddities. The 'natural' way to harness steam for land transportation is a self propelled road wagon. Which also happens to be such a marginal technology that it never caught on, in spite of obvious utility, its culminating achievement being the Stanley Steamer.
Only in a culture where coach turnpikes and canals had already spread across the countryside would people have much chance of stumbling on the combination of technologies needed for railroads. And more to the point, if they had it they wouldn't have much use for it. A railroad in Alfred the Great's England would go broke, and so would a stagecoach line or canal company, because the economy wouldn't begin to support it. You'd have as much luck selling them iPads.
Tech revolutions arise, at least in part, because of this sort of pressure from below. When people want something so badly that they start pushing their established technology in surprising ways, some surprising things can bubble out.
I remember amateur zines put out by SF fans, wargamers, libertarians, and similar riffraff in the 1970s era, using copiers or even archaic memeo machines, that in retrospect feels like a similar precursor technology, a crude attempt by pre-computer people to create the Internet. These same people later turned up on bulletin boards and ARPAnet, doing much the same things they were already doing, and so gave rise to the Internet culture.
It may not always work out this way. Other societies, notably China of the Song Dynasty, had a similar proto-industrial sophistication, but no industrial revolution ensued.
The 'stage' in stagecoach is also, no surprise, the stage of multistage rockets. The orbital diligence has to carry its fresh horses on the stagecoach roof, which broadly is why it costs so much more to reach orbit than Oxford, even though you get there sooner.
This does not mean that some transformative new space techology is about to jump out of the woodwork. In fact, it gives good reason to think it won't. (Though it would be cool to be wrong.)
Our current launch tech, in fact, fits our current space needs pretty well. Worldwide we send up roughly a hundred orbital or deep space payloads every year, ranging from 100 kg or so to a few tons, sent into a wide variety of orbits. This has been fairly consistent for decades.
If we had a fleet of classic shuttles we couldn't use them economically; it would be like building a railroad in order to operate a monthly doodlebug. The most efficient way to support the traffic demand is more or less what we have, a stable of expendable types suited to varied launch profiles.
But if our space traffic expands to the point where we need proper stagecoaches and canals we will build them, and then perhaps something unexpected might come chugging out of the mines.
* For once TV Tropes is unhelpful here, because in the famed movie Stagecoach the problem was irate Native Americans.
A precursor of scheduled transport service was the Venetian merchant galleys, though the schedule was something like 'Departing Bruges every March or so.' Later, these ships were weaponized.
Stagecoach schedule image via Rajiv Patel, and I swear the latest image on his Flickr site is sheerest synchronicity.