Cardiff did not have everything its own way, however, and as early as 1859, the Penarth Dock and Railway Company, with the support of some of the coal exporters, promoted the Penarth Dock, which aimed to rival the Cardiff Docks by the use of movable coal tips and the availability of a greater depth of water. Indeed the availability of Penarth Dock did put a temporary brake on developments at Cardiff when it came into use in 1865. The Penarth Dock and Railway Co. was operated by the Taff Vale Railway, but was not allowed to undercut Cardiff dock charges, so that, although relatively successful, it did not cause undue competition for Cardiff in the longer term, even when it was extended in 1884. Another factor affecting Penarth was the constant need to dredge the estuary of the River Ely in order to keep the channel to the dock open and the navigation of the approaches to the dock required skilled handling.

In 1888-89 a further competitor arose in the shape of Barry Dock. In the mid-1870s, shortly after the opening of the Roath Basin, a number of coal exporters had attempted to get the Bute Estate to provide yet another expansion. In view of the Estate's recent financial outlay on the Roath Basin, concerns that the market for coal had reached its peak, and the possibility that the railway companies might start to use Newport or Bristol, the Estate decided not to proceed with further expansion at that time. The disaffected coal owners (Davies of Ocean Coal being one of the prime-movers) sought alternative facilities and eventually alighted on Barry. Despite the fact that in 1882 the Bute Estate had commenced work on the Roath Dock, the movement for a dock at Barry was unstoppable and in 1884 the Barry Dock & Railway Bill was passed by Parliament for the provision of a railway line direct from the Rhondda Valley to Barry and the opening of a dock there. In 1888 the railway opened, followed in 1889 by the Barry Dock. The dock was extended in 1898 and by the start of the First World War Barry was exporting more coal than Cardiff. However, there was plenty of business to go around, and Barry, Cardiff and Penarth were all kept fully active. In fact in 1895 proposals were made for the construction of another, larger dock at Cardiff, and in 1907 the Queen Alexandra Dock was opened by King Edward VII. Again the equipment at the docks was modernised with the introduction of hydraulic power and movable loading appliances.

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