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Density of the railway net in Europe 1896

The history of rail transport dates back nearly 500 years and includes systems with man or horse power and rails of wood or stone. Modern rail transport systems first appeared in Englandmarker in the 1820s. These systems, which made use of the steam locomotive, were the first practical forms of mechanized land transport, and they remained the primary form of mechanized land transport for the next 100 years.

Wagonways and tramways

Earliest traces

The earliest evidence of a wagonway, a predecessor of the railway, found so far was the 6 to 8.5 km long Diolkosmarker wagonway, which transported boats across the Isthmus of Corinthmarker in Greecemarker since around 600 BC. Wheeled vehicles pulled by men and animals ran in grooves in limestone, which provided the track element, preventing the wagons from leaving the intended route. The Diolkos was in use for over 650 years, until at least the 1st century AD. The first horse-drawn wagonways also appeared in ancient Greecemarker, with others to be found on Maltamarker and various parts of the Roman Empire, using cut-stone tracks.

Railways began reappearing in Europe after the Dark Ages. The earliest known record of a railway in Europe from this period is a stained-glass window in the Minster of Freiburg im Breisgaumarker dating from around 1350.

In 1515, Cardinal Matthäus Lang wrote a description of the Reisszugmarker, a funicular railway at the Hohensalzburg Castlemarker in Austriamarker. The line originally used wooden rails and a hemp haulage rope, and was operated by human or animal power, through a treadwheel. The line still exists, albeit in updated form, and is probably the oldest railway still to operate.

Early wagonways

Wagonways (or tramways) are thought to have developed in Germanymarker in the 1550s to facilitate the transport of ore tubs to and from mines, utilising primitive wooden rails. Such an operation was illustrated in 1556 by Georgius Agricola.

The technology spread across Europe and had certainly arrived in Britain by the early 1600s. The Wollaton Wagonway was probably the earliest British installation, completed in 1604, and recorded as running from Strelleymarker to Wollatonmarker near Nottinghammarker. Another early wagonway is noted at Broseleymarker in Shropshiremarker from 1605 onwards. Huntingdon Beaumont (who was concerned with mining at Strelleymarker) also laid down broad wooden rails near Newcastle upon Tynemarker, on which a single horse could haul fifty or sixty bushels (130-150 kg) of coal.

By the eighteenth century, such wagonways and tramways existed in a number of areas. Ralph Allen, for example, constructed a tramway to transport stone from a local quarry to supply the needs of the builders of the Georgian terraces of Bathmarker. The Battle of Prestonpansmarker, in the Jacobite Rebellion, was fought astride a wagonway. This type of transport spread rapidly through the whole Tynesidemarker coal-field, and the greatest number of lines were to be found in the coalfield near Newcastle upon Tynemarker, where they were known locally as wagonways. Their function in most cases was to facilitate the transport of coal in chaldron wagons from the coalpits to a staithe (a wooden pier) on the river bank, whence coal could be shipped to London by collier brigs. The wagonways were engineered so that trains of coal wagons could descend to the staith by gravity, being braked by a brakesman who would "sprag" the wheels by jamming them. Wagonways on less steep gradients could be retarded by allowing the wheels to bind on curves. As the work became more wearing on the horses, a vehicle known as a dandy wagon was introduced, in which the horse could rest on downhill stretches.


Because a stiff wheel rolling on a rigid rail requires less energy per ton-mile moved than road transport (with a highly compliant wheel on an uneven surface), railroads are highly suitable for the movement of bulk goods such as coal and other minerals. This was incentive to focus a great deal of inventiveness upon the possible configurations and shapes of wheels and rails. In the late 1760s, the Coalbrookdalemarker Company began to fix plates of cast iron to the upper surface of the wooden rails. These (and earlier railways) had flanged wheels as on modern railways, but another system was introduced, in which unflanged wheels ran on L-shaped metal plates - these became known as plateways. John Curr, a Sheffield colliery manager, invented this flanged rail, though the exact date of this is disputed. The plate rail was taken up by Benjamin Outram for wagonways serving his canals, manufacturing them at his Butterley ironworks. Meanwhile William Jessop, a civil engineer, had used a form of edge rail successfully for an extension to the Charnwood Forest Canalmarker at Nanpantanmarker, Loughboroughmarker, Leicestershiremarker in 1789. Jessop became a partner in the Butterley Company in 1790. The flanged wheel eventually proved its superiority due to its performance on curves, and the composite iron/wood rail was replaced by all metal rail, with its vastly superior stiffness, durability, and safety.

Steam power introduced

James Watt, a Scottish inventor and mechanical engineer, was responsible for improvements to the steam engine of Thomas Newcomen, hitherto used to pump water out of mines. Watt developed a reciprocating engine, capable of powering a wheel. Although the Watt engine powered cotton mills and a variety of machinery, it was a large stationary engine. It could not be otherwise; the state of boiler technology necessitated the use of low pressure steam acting upon a vacuum in the cylinder, and this mode of operation needed a separate condenser and an air pump. Nevertheless, as the construction of boilers improved, he investigated the use of high pressure steam acting directly upon a piston. This raised the possibility of a smaller engine, that might be used to power a vehicle, and he actually patented a design for a steam locomotive in 1784. His employee William Murdoch produced a working model of a self propelled steam carriage in that year.

The first working model of a steam rail locomotive was designed and constructed by John Fitch in the United Statesmarker in 1794. The first full scale working railway steam locomotive was built in the United Kingdommarker in 1804 by Richard Trevithick, an English engineer born in Cornwallmarker. (The story goes that it was constructed to satisfy a bet by Samuel Homfray, the local iron master.) This used high pressure steam to drive the engine by one power stroke. (The transmission system employed a large fly-wheel to even out the action of the piston rod.) On 21 February 1804 the world's first railway journey took place as Trevithick's unnamed steam locomotive hauled a train along the tramway of the Penydarrenmarker ironworks, near Merthyr Tydfilmarker in South Walesmarker. Trevithick later demonstrated a locomotive operating upon a piece of circular rail track in Bloomsbury, London, the "Catch-Me-Who-Can", but never got beyond the experimental stage with railway locomotives, not least because his engines were too heavy for the cast-iron plateway track then in use. Despite his inventive talents, Richard Trevithick died in poverty, with his achievement being largely unrecognized.

The impact of the Napoleonic Wars resulted in (amongst other things) a dramatic rise in the price of fodder. This was the imperative that made the locomotive an economic proposition, if it could be perfected.

The first commercially successful steam locomotive was Matthew Murray's rack locomotive Salamanca built for the narrow gauge Middleton Railwaymarker in 1812. This twin cylinder locomotive was not heavy enough to break the edge-rails track, and solved the problem of adhesion by a cog-wheel utilising teeth cast on the side of one of the rails. It was the first rack railway.

This was followed in 1813 by the Puffing Billy built by Christopher Blackett and William Hedley for the Wylam Colliery Railway, the first successful locomotive running by adhesion only. This was accomplished by the distribution of weight by a number of wheels. Puffing Billy is now on display in the Science Museummarker in Londonmarker, the oldest locomotive in existence.

In 1814 George Stephenson, inspired by the early locomotives of Trevithick, Murray and Hedley, persuaded the manager of the Killingworthmarker colliery where he worked to allow him to build a steam-powered machine. He built the Blücher, one of the first successful flanged-wheel adhesion locomotives. Stephenson played a pivotal role in the development and widespread adoption of the steam locomotive. His designs considerably improved on the work of the earlier pioneers. In 1825 he built the Locomotionmarker for the Stockton and Darlington Railway, north east Englandmarker, which was the first public steam railway in the world. Such success led to Stephenson establishing his company as the pre-eminent builder of steam locomotives used on railways in the United Kingdom, United States and much of Europe.

The Birth of the Railway

As the colliery and quarry tramways and wagonways grew longer, the possibility of using the technology for the public conveyance of goods suggested itself. On 26 July 1803, Jessop opened the Surrey Iron Railway in south Londonmarker - arguably, the world's first public railway, albeit a horse-drawn one. It was not a railway in the modern sense of the word, as it functioned like a turnpike road. There were no official services, as anyone could bring a vehicle on the railway by paying a toll.

In 1812 Oliver Evans, an Americanmarker engineer and inventor, published his vision of what steam railways could become, with cities and towns linked by a network of long distance railways plied by speedy locomotives, greatly reducing the time required for personal travel and for transport of goods. Evans specified that there should be separate sets of parallel tracks for trains going in different directions. Unfortunately, conditions in the infant United States did not enable his vision to take hold.

This vision had its counterpart in Britain, where it proved to be far more influential. William James, a rich and influential surveyor and land agent, was inspired by the development of the steam locomotive to suggest a national network of railways. It seems likely in 1808 James attended the demonstration running of Richard Trevithick’s steam locomotive Catch me who can in London; certainly at this time he began to consider the long-term development of this means of transport. He was responsible for proposing a number of projects that later came to fruition, and he is credited with carrying out a survey of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway. Unfortunately, he became bankrupt and his schemes were taken over by George Stephenson and others. However, he is credited by many historians with the title of "Father of the Railway".

It was not until 1825 that the success of the Stockton and Darlington Railway proved that the railways could be made as useful to the general shipping public as to the colliery owner. This railway broke new ground by using rails made of rolled wrought iron, produced at Bedlington Ironworksmarker in Northumberlandmarker. Such rails were stronger. This railway linked the town of Darlingtonmarker with the port of Stockton-on-Teesmarker, and was intended to enable local collieries (which were connected to the line by short branches) to transport their coal to the docks. As this would constitute the bulk of the traffic, the company took the important step of offering to haul the colliery wagons or chaldrons by locomotive power, something that required a scheduled or timetabled service of trains. However, the line also functioned as a toll railway, where private horse drawn wagons could be operated upon it. This curious hybrid of a system (which also included, at one stage, a horse drawn passenger wagon) could not last, and within a few years, traffic was restricted to timetabled trains. (However, the tradition of private owned wagons continued on railways in Britain until the 1960s.)

The success of the Stockton and Darlington encouraged the rich investors of the rapidly industrialising North West of England to embark upon a project to link the rich cotton manufacturing town of Manchestermarker with the thriving port of Liverpoolmarker. The Liverpool and Manchester Railway was the first modern railway, in that both the goods and passenger traffic was operated by scheduled or timetabled locomotive hauled trains. At the time of its construction, there was still a serious doubt that locomotives could maintain a regular service over the distance involved. A widely reported competition was held in 1829 called the Rainhill Trials, to find the most suitable steam engine to haul the trains. A number of locomotives were entered, including Novelty, Perseverance, and Sans Pareil. The winner was Stephenson's Rocket, which had superior steaming qualities as a consequence of the installation of a multi-tubular boiler (suggested by Henry Booth, a director of the railway company).

The promoters were mainly interested in goods traffic, but after the line opened on 15 September 1830, they found to their amazement that passenger traffic was just as remunerative. The success of the Liverpool and Manchester railway influenced the development of railways elsewhere in Britain and abroad. The company hosted many visiting deputations from other railway projects, and many railwaymen received their early training and experience upon this line.

It must be remembered that the Liverpool and Manchester line was still a short one ( ), linking two towns within an English shire county. The world's first trunk line can be said to be the Grand Junction Railway, opening in 1837, and linking a mid point on the Liverpool and Manchester Railway with Birminghammarker, by way of Crewemarker, Staffordmarker, and Wolverhamptonmarker.

Further Development

The earliest locomotives in revenue service were small four-wheeled locos similar to the Rocket. However, the inclined cylinders caused the engine to rock, so they first became horizontal and then, in his "Planet" design, were mounted inside the frames. While this improved stability, the "crank axles" were extremely prone to breakage. Greater speed was achieved by larger driving wheels at expense of a tendency for wheel slip when starting. Greater tractive effort was obtained by smaller wheels coupled together, but speed was limited by the fragility of the cast iron connecting rods. Hence, from the beginning, there was a distinction between the light fast passenger loco and the slower more powerful goods engine. Edward Bury, in particular, refined this design and the so-called "Bury Pattern" was popular for a number of years, particularly on the London and Birmingham.

Meanwhile by 1840 Stephenson had produced larger, more stable, engines in the form of the 2-2-2 "patentee" and six-coupled goods engines. Locomotives were travelling longer distances and being worked more extensively. The North Midland Railway expressed their concern to Robert Stephenson who was, at that time, their general manager, about the effect of heat on their fireboxes. After some experiments, he patented his so-called Long Boiler design. These became a new standard and similar designs were produced by other manufacturers, particularly Sharp Brothers whose engines became known affectionately as "Sharpies".

The longer wheelbase for the longer boiler produced problems in cornering. For his six-coupled engines, Stephenson removed the flanges from the centre pair of wheels. For his express engines, he shifted the trailing wheel to the front in the 4-2-0 formation, as in his "Great A." There were other problems. One was that the firebox was restricted in size, or had to be mounted behind the wheels. The other problem was that for improved stability most engineers believed that the centre of gravity should be kept low.

The most extreme outcome of this was the Crampton locomotive which mounted the driving wheels behind the firebox and could be made very large in diameter. These achieved the hitherto unheard of speed of but were very prone to wheelslip. With their long wheelbase, they were unsuccessful on Britainmarker's winding tracks, but became popular in the USAmarker and Francemarker, where the popular expression became to "prendre le Crampton".

John Gray of the London and Brighton Railway disbelieved the necessity for a low centre of gravity and produced a series of locos that were much admired by David Joy who developed the design at the firm of E. B. Wilson and Company to produce the 2-2-2 Jenny Lind locomotive, one of the most successful passenger locomotives of its day. Meanwhile the Stephenson 0-6-0 Long Boiler locomotive with inside cylinders became the archetypical goods engine.

Expanding network

Railways quickly became essential to the swift movement of goods and labour that was needed for industrialization. In the beginning, canals were in competition with the railroads, but the railroads quickly gained ground as steam and rail technology improved, and railroads were built in places where canals were not practical.

By the 1850s, many steam-powered railways had reached the fringes of built-up London. But the new lines were not permitted to demolish enough property to penetrate the City or the West End, so passengers had to disembark at Paddingtonmarker, Eustonmarker, Kings Crossmarker, Fenchurch Streetmarker, Charing Crossmarker, Waterloomarker or Victoriamarker and then make their own way via hackney carriage or on foot into the centre, thereby massively increasing congestion in the city. A Metropolitan Railway was built under the ground to connect several of these separate railway terminals, and thus became the world's first "Metro."

The first Russian railway

Russia was in need of improved transportation and geographically suited to railroads, with long flat stretches of land and comparatively simple land acquisition. It was hampered, however, by its outmoded political situation and a shortage of capital. Yefim and Miron Cherepanovs, Russian factory engineers, actually invented and built successful working locomotives for a mine tramway between 1832 and 1835, but their inventiveness was not pursued. Foreign initiative and capital were required. The first major public railroad was the Saint Petersburgmarker-Tsarskoye Selomarker Railway, proposed and built by a Bohemian engineer, František Antonín Gerstner the son of František Josef Gerstner, in 1836.

Railroad growth in the United States 1830-1890

In 1830, there were only of documented railroad track laid in the United States (there is ample historical evidence that a more correct figure would be a little over due to a failure to count special purpose railroads hauling only coal and granite.). After this, railroad lines grew rapidly. Ten years later, in 1840, the railways had grown to . Two decades after that, the number had reached , and 20 years after that, the number had tripled once more to .


In 1869, the symbolically important trans-continental railroad was completed in the United States with the driving of a golden spike (near the city of Ogdenmarker).

Importance of Railways vs. Canals

One historical economist has challenged the idea that railways were critical to the economic development of the United States. He suggests that a similar investment in the canal system would have resulted in very little loss in U.S. GDP, and that the focus on railroads may have delayed the more important development of the automobile.

Diesel and electric engines

Electric railways revolutionize urban transport

Prior to the development of electric railways, most overland transport aside from the railways had consisted primarily of horse powered vehicles. Placing a horse caron rails had enabled a horse to move twice as many people, and so street railways were born. In January 1888, Richmond, Virginiamarker served as a proving grounds for electric railways as Frank Sprague built the first working electric streetcar system there.By the 1890s, electric power became practical and more widespread, allowing extensive underground railways. Large cities such as London, New York, and Paris built subwaysystems. When electric propulsion became practical, most street railways were electrified. These then became known as "streetcars," "trolleys," "trams" and "Strassenbahn." They can be found around the world.

In many countries, these electric street railways grew beyond the metropolitan areas to connect with other urban centers. In the USA, "electric interurban" railroad networks connected most urban areas in the states of Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York. In Southern California, the Pacific Electric Railway connected most cities in Los Angeles and Orange Counties, and the Inland Empiremarker.There were similar systems in Europe. One of the more notable rail systems connected every town and city in Belgium. One of the more notable tramway systems in Asia is the Hong Kong Tramways, which started operation in 1904 and run exclusively on double-decker trams.

The remnants of these systems still exist, and in many places they have been modernized to become part of the urban "rapid transit" system in their respective areas. In the past thirty years increasing numbers of cities have restored electric rail service by building "light rail" systems to replace the tram system they removed during the mid-20th century.

Diesel power

Diesel-electriclocomotives could be described as electric locomotives with an on-board generator powered by a diesel engine. The first diesel locomotives were low-powered machines, diesel-mechanicaltypes used in switching yards. Diesel and electric locomotives are cleaner, more efficient, and require less maintenance than steam locomotives. They also required less specialized skills in operation and their introduction diminished the power of railway unions in the USA (one of the earliest countries to adopt diesel power on a wide scale). By the 1970s, diesel and electric power had replaced steam power on most of the world's railroads.

In the 20th century, road transportand air travel replaced railroads for most long-distance passenger travel in the United States, but railroads remain important for hauling freight in the United States, and for passenger transport in many other countries.

High-speed rail

Starting with the opening of the first Shinkansen line between Tokyomarker and Osaka in 1964, high-speed rail transport, functioning at speeds up and above 300 km/h, has been built in Spain, France, Germany, Italy, the People's Republic of China, Taiwan, the United States, the United Kingdom, South Korea, Scandinavia, Belgium and the Netherlands.The construction of many of these lines has resulted in the dramatic decline of short haul flights and automotive traffic between connected cities, such as the Boston-New York City-Washington, D.C. corridor, London-Paris-Brussels, Madrid-Barcelona, as well as many other major lines. Additionally, with the ongoing threat of global warmingand energy shortages, high-speed rail is supposed to hold the key to the future of transportation in many of the world's developed countries.


  1. Verdelis, Nikolaos: "Le diolkos de L'Isthme", Bulletin de Correspondance Hellénique, Vol. 81 (1957), pp. 526-529 (526)
  2. Cook, R. M.: "Archaic Greek Trade: Three Conjectures 1. The Diolkos", The Journal of Hellenic Studies, Vol. 99 (1979), pp. 152-155 (152)
  3. Drijvers, J.W.: "Strabo VIII 2,1 (C335): Porthmeia and the Diolkos", Mnemosyne, Vol. 45 (1992), pp. 75-76 (75)
  4. Raepsaet, G. & Tolley, M.: "Le Diolkos de l’Isthme à Corinthe: son tracé, son fonctionnement", Bulletin de Correspondance Hellénique, Vol. 117 (1993), pp. 233–261 (256)
  5. Lewis, M. J. T., "Railways in the Greek and Roman world", in Guy, A. / Rees, J. (eds), Early Railways. A Selection of Papers from the First International Early Railways Conference (2001), pp. 8-19 (11)
  6. Georgius Agricola (trans Hoover), De re metallica (1913)
  7. M. J. T. Lewis, Early Wooden railways.
  8. [1]
  10. A. Pacey, Technology in World Civilisation (MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass. 1990), 135.
  11. Robert Fogel. "Railroads and American Economic Growth". 1964. Johns Hopkins

See also


  • Leland H. Jenks, "Railroads as an Economic Force in American Development," The Journal of Economic History, Vol. 4, No. 1 (May, 1944), 1-20.
  • .
  • .
  • .
  • Rainer Fremdling, "Railways and German Economic Growth: A Leading Sector Analysis with a Comparison to the United States and Great Britain," The Journal of Economic History, Vol. 37, No. 3. (Sep., 1977), pp. 583-604.
  • O . S. Nock, ed. Encyclopedia of Railways (London, 1977), worldwide coverage, heavily illustrated
  • Hadfield, C. and Skempton, A. W. William Jessop, Engineer (Newton Abbot 1979)
  • Misa, Thomas J. A Nation of Steel: The Making of Modern America, 1865-1925 (1995) chapter 1 'Dominance of Rails' online
  • Patrick O’Brien. Railways and the Economic Development of Western Europe, 1830-1914 (1983)
  • .
  • John Stover, American Railways (2nd ed 1997)
  • Jack Simmons and Gordon Biddle, (editors). The Oxford Companion to British Railway History: From 1603 to the 1990s (2nd ed 1999)
  • John Stover, The Routledge Historical Atlas of the American Railroads (2001)
  • Lewis, M. J. T., "Railways in the Greek and Roman world", in Guy, A. / Rees, J. (eds), Early Railways. A Selection of Papers from the First International Early Railways Conference (2001), pp. 8-19 (10-15)
  • Riley, C. J. The Encyclopedia of Trains & Locomotives (2002).
  • .
  • .
  • Includes maps of major rail lines on all continents c. 1914

Further reading

  • How the Railroad is Modernising Asia, The Advertiser, Adelaide, S. Australia, 22 March 1913. N.B.: The article is of approx. 1,500 words, covering approx. a dozen Asian countries.
  • Includes numerous c. 1880 diagrams and illustrations.

External links

  1830 1840 1850 1860 1870 1880 1890
ME,NH,VT,MA,RI,CT 29.80 513.34 2,595.57 3,644.24 4,326.73 5,888.09 6,718.19
NY,PA,OH,MI,IN,MD,DE,NJ,DC   1,483.76 3,740.36 11,927.21 18,291.93 28,154.73 40,825.60
VA,WV,KY,TN,MS,AL,GA,FL,NC,SC 10.00 737.33 2,082.07 7,907.79 10,609.60 14,458.33 27,833.15


46.48 4,951.47 11,030.85 22,212.98 35,579.80
LA,AR & OK(Indian) Territory


107.00 250.23 331.23 1,621.11 5,153.91


      238.85 4,577.99 15,466.18 47,451.47
TOTAL USA 39.80 2,755.18 8,571.48 28,919.79 49,168.33 87,801.42 163,562.12

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