History of rail transport

Horse-drawn railway coach, late 18th century
Density of the railway net in Europe 1896

Including systems with man or horse power, and tracks or guides made of stone or wood, the history of rail transport dates back as far as the ancient Greeks.

Wagonways were relatively common in Europe (typically in mining) from about 1500 through 1800. Mechanised rail transport systems first appeared in England in the 1820s. These systems, which made use of the steam locomotive, were critical to the Industrial Revolution and to the development of export economies across the world. They have remained the primary form of long distance land transportation for many bulk materials such as coal, ore, grains, stone and sand and gravel.

Wagonways and tramways

Reducing friction

Reduction in friction was one of the major reasons for the success of railroads compared to wagons. This was demonstrated on an iron plate-covered wooden tramway in 1805 at Croydon in England.

“A good horse on an ordinary turnpike road can draw two thousand pounds, or one ton. A party of gentlemen were invited to look upon the experiment, that the superiority of the new road might be established by ocular demonstration. Twelve wagons were loaded with stones, till each wagon weighed three tons, and the wagons were fastened together. A horse was then attached, which drew the wagons with ease, six miles in two hours, having stopped four times, in order to show he had the power of starting, as well as drawing his great load.”[1]

Ancient wagonways

The earliest evidence found so far of a wagonway, a predecessor of the railway, is of the 6 to 8.5 km long Diolkos wagonway, which transported boats across the Isthmus of Corinth in Greece from around 600 BC.[2][3][4][5][6] 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.[6] The first horse-drawn wagonways also appeared in ancient Greece, with others to be found on Malta and various parts of the Roman Empire, using cut-stone tracks. They fell into disuse as the Roman Empire collapsed.

Early modern wagonways

Main article: Wagonways

In 1515, Cardinal Matthäus Lang wrote a description of the Reisszug, a funicular railway at the Hohensalzburg Castle in Austria. 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 possibly the oldest wagonway still to operate.[7][8]

Minecart shown in De Re Metallica (1556). The guide pin fits in a groove between two wooden planks.

Wagonways (or tramways) are thought to have developed in Germany in the 1550s to facilitate the transport of ore tubs to and from mines, using primitive wooden rails. Such an operation was illustrated in 1556 by Georgius Agricola (Image right).[9] This used "Hund" carts with unflanged wheels running on wooden planks and a vertical pin on the truck fitting into the gap between the planks, to keep it going the right way.[10] Such a transport system was used by German miners at Caldbeck, Cumbria, England, perhaps from the 1560s.[11] An alternative explanation derives it from the Magyar hintó - a carriage. There are possible references to their use in central Europe in the 15th century.[12]

The first true railway is now suggested to have been a funicular railway made at Broseley in Shropshire, England at some time before 1605. This carried coal for James Clifford from his mines down to the river Severn to be loaded onto barges and carried to riverside towns.[13] Though the first documentary record of this is later, its construction probably preceded the Wollaton Wagonway, completed in 1604, hitherto regarded as the earliest British installation. This ran from Strelley to Wollaton near Nottingham. Another early wagonway is noted onwards. Huntingdon Beaumont, who was concerned with mining at Strelley, also laid down broad wooden rails near Newcastle upon Tyne, on which a single horse could haul fifty to sixty bushels (130–150 kg) of coal.[14]

By the 18th 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 Bath. The Battle of Prestonpans, in the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745, was fought astride a wagonway.[15] This type of transport spread rapidly through the whole Tyneside coalfield, and the greatest number of lines were to be found in the coalfield near Newcastle upon Tyne. They were mostly used to transport 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 staithe 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 far 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 dense, bulk goods such as coal and other minerals. This was an incentive to experiment with many configurations and shapes of wheels and rails. In the late 1760s, the Coalbrookdale 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 Canal at Nanpantan, Loughborough, Leicestershire 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 an all-metal rail, with its vastly superior stiffness, durability, and safety.

Cast iron proved unsatisfactory because it was brittle and broke under heavy loads. Wrought iron (usually simply referred to as "iron") was a ductile material that could undergo considerable deformation before breaking; but iron was expensive to produce until Henry Cort patented the puddling process in 1784. In 1783 Cort also patented the rolling process, which was 15 times faster at consolidating and shaping iron than hammering.[16] These processes greatly lowered the cost of producing iron and rails. The next important development in iron production was hot blast developed by James Beaumont Neilson (patented 1828), which considerably reduced the amount of coke (fuel) or charcoal needed to produce pig iron.[17]

Wrought iron was a soft material that contained included slag or dross. The softness and dross tended to make iron rails distort and delaminate, and they lasted less than 10 years. Sometimes they lasted as little as one year under high traffic.

The introduction of the Bessemer process, enabling steel to be made inexpensively, led to the era of great expansion of railways that began in the late 1860s. Steel rails lasted several times longer than iron.[18][19][20] Steel rails made heavier locomotives possible, allowing for longer trains and improving the productivity of railroads.[21] The Bessemer process introduced nitrogen into the steel, which caused the steel to become brittle with age. The open hearth furnace began to replace the Bessemer process near the end of 19th century, improving the quality of steel and further reducing costs.

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; this required a separate condenser and an air pump. Nevertheless, as the construction of boilers improved, Watt 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 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.[22]

A replica of Trevithick's engine at the National Waterfront Museum, Swansea

The first full-scale working railway steam locomotive was built in the United Kingdom in 1804 by Richard Trevithick, an English engineer born in Cornwall. (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 flywheel to even out the action of the piston rod. On 21 February 1804 the world's first railway journey took place when Trevithick's unnamed steam locomotive hauled a train along the tramway of the Penydarren ironworks, near Merthyr Tydfil in South Wales.[23][24] 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 largely unrecognized.[25]

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 Railway in Leeds 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 using 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 between a number of wheels. Puffing Billy is now on display in the Science Museum in London, the oldest locomotive in existence.[26]

In 1814 George Stephenson, inspired by the early locomotives of Trevithick, Murray and Hedley, persuaded the manager of the Killingworth 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 Locomotion for the Stockton and Darlington Railway in the north east of England, 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.[27]


Rail Passengers in Great Britain from 1829-2015, showing the rapid rise in passenger numbers in the 19th century

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, south of London – 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 American 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 speeding up personal travel and goods transport. Evans specified that there should be separate sets of parallel tracks for trains going in different directions. However, 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 [28] that 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 proposed a number of projects that later came to fruition, and 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".[28] 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 Ironworks in Northumberland.[29] Such rails were stronger. This railway linked the town of Darlington with the port of Stockton-on-Tees, 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, on which private horse-drawn wagons could be carried. 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 in the rapidly industrialising North West of England to embark upon a project to link the rich cotton manufacturing town of Manchester with the thriving port of Liverpool. The Liverpool and Manchester Railway was the first modern railway, in that both the goods and passenger traffic were operated by scheduled or timetabled locomotive hauled trains. When it was built, there was 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 steamed better because of its multi-tubular boiler (suggested by Henry Booth, a director of the railway company).

A replica of the Planet, which ran on the Liverpool and Manchester Railway from 1830

The promoters were mainly interested in goods traffic, but after the line opened on 15 September 1830, they were surprised to find 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.

The Liverpool and Manchester line was, however, only 35 miles (56 km) long. The world's first trunk line can be said to be the Grand Junction Railway, opening in 1837, and linking a midpoint on the Liverpool and Manchester Railway with Birmingham, via Crewe, Stafford, and Wolverhampton.

Further development

The earliest locomotives in revenue service were small four-wheeled ones 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 locomotive 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: the firebox was restricted in size, or had to be mounted behind the wheels; and 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 70 mph (110 km/h) but were very prone to wheelslip. With their long wheelbase, they were unsuccessful on Britain's winding tracks, but became popular in the USA and France, where the popular expression became 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 locomotives 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 archetypal goods engine.

Growth of British railways[30]
Year Total miles
1830 98
1835 338
1840 1,498
1845 2,441
1850 6,621
1855 8,280
1860 10,433

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 railways, but the railways quickly gained ground as steam and rail technology improved, and railways 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 companies were not permitted to demolish enough property to penetrate the City or the West End, so passengers had to disembark at Paddington, Euston, Kings Cross, Fenchurch Street, Charing Cross, Waterloo or Victoria and then make their own way by hackney carriage or on foot into the centre, thereby massively increasing congestion in the city. A Metropolitan Railway was built underground to connect several of these separate railway terminals, and was the world's first "Metro".

Social and economic consequences

The railways changed British society in numerous and complex ways. Although recent attempts to measure the economic significance of the railways have suggested that their overall contribution to the growth of GDP was more modest than an earlier generation of historians sometimes assumed, it is nonetheless clear that the railways had a sizeable impact in many spheres of economic activity. The building of railways and locomotives, for example, called for large quantities of heavy materials, and thus provided a significant stimulus, or ‘backward linkage’, to the coal-mining, iron-production, engineering and construction industries.

They also helped to reduce transaction costs, which in turn lowered the costs of goods: the distribution and sale of perishable goods such as meat, milk, fish and vegetables were transformed by the emergence of the railways, giving rise not only to cheaper produce in the shops but also to far greater variety in people's diets.

Finally, by improving personal mobility the railways were a significant force for social change. Rail transport had originally been conceived as a way of moving coal and industrial goods but the railway operators quickly realised the potential for market for railway travel, leading to an extremely rapid expansion in passenger services. The number of railway passengers trebled in just eight years between 1842 and 1850: traffic volumes roughly doubled in the 1850s and then doubled again in the 1860s.[31]

As the historian Derek Aldcroft has noted, ‘in terms of mobility and choice they added a new dimension to everyday life’.[32]

British Empire


In Canada, the national government strongly supported railway construction for political goals. First it wanted to knit the far-flung provinces together, and second, it wanted to maximize trade inside Canada and minimize trade with the United States, to avoid becoming an economic satellite. The Grand Trunk Railway of Canada linked Toronto and Montreal in 1853, then opened a line to Portland, Maine (which was ice-free), and lines to Michigan and Chicago. By 1870 it was the longest railway in the world. The Intercolonial line, finished in 1876, linked the Maritimes to Quebec and Ontario, tying them to the new Confederation.

Grand Trunk's Bonaventure Station, Montreal, 1900s
Main article: Intercolonial Railway

Anglo entrepreneurs in Montreal sought direct lines into the U.S. and shunned connections with the Maritimes, with a goal of competing with American railroad lines heading west to the Pacific. Joseph Howe, Charles Tupper, and other Nova Scotia leaders used the rhetoric of a "civilizing mission" centered on their British heritage, because Atlantic-centered railway projects promised to make Halifax the eastern terminus of an intercolonial railway system tied to London. Leonard Tilley, New Brunswick's most ardent railway promoter, championed the cause of "economic progress," stressing that Atlantic Canadians needed to pursue the most cost-effective transportation connections possible if they wanted to expand their influence beyond local markets. Advocating an intercolonial connection to Canada, and a western extension into larger American markets in Maine and beyond, New Brunswick entrepreneurs promoted ties to the United States first, connections with Halifax second, and routes into central Canada last. Thus metropolitan rivalries between Montreal, Halifax, and Saint John led Canada to build more railway lines per capita than any other industrializing nation, even though it lacked capital resources, and had too little freight and passenger traffic to allow the systems to turn a profit.[33]

Den Otter (1997) challenges popular assumptions that Canada built transcontinental railways because it feared the annexationist schemes of aggressive Americans. Instead Canada overbuilt railroads because it hoped to compete with, even overtake Americans in the race for continental riches. It downplayed the more realistic Maritimes-based London-oriented connections and turned to utopian prospects for the farmlands and minerals of the west. The result was closer ties between north and south, symbolized by the Grand Trunk's expansion into the American Midwest. These economic links promoted trade, commerce, and the flow of ideas between the two countries, integrating Canada into a North American economy and culture by 1880. About 700,000 Canadians migrated to the U.S. in the late 19th century.[34] The Canadian Pacific, paralleling the American border, opened a vital link to British Canada, and stimulated settlement of the Prairies. The CP was affiliated with James J. Hill's American railways, and opened even more connections to the South. The connections were two-way, as thousands of American moved to the Prairies after their own frontier had closed.

Two additional transcontinental lines were built to the west coast—three in all—but that was far more than the traffic would bear, making the system simply too expensive. One after another, the federal government was forced to take over the lines and cover their deficits. In 1923 the government merged the Grand Trunk, Grand Trunk Pacific, Canadian Northern and National Transcontinental lines into the new the Canadian National Railways system. Since most of the equipment was imported from Britain or the U.S., and most of the products carried were from farms, mines or forests, there was little stimulation to domestic manufacturing. On the other hand, the railways were essential to the growth of the wheat regions in the Prairies, and to the expansion of coal mining, lumbering, and paper making. Improvements to the St. Lawrence waterway system continued apace, and many short lines were built to river ports.[35]


India provides an example of the British Empire pouring its money and expertise into a very well built system designed for military reasons (after the Mutiny of 1857), and with the hope that it would stimulate industry. The system was overbuilt and much too elaborate and expensive for the small amount of freight traffic it carried. However, it did capture the imagination of the Indians, who saw their railways as the symbol of an industrial modernity—but one that was not realized until a century or so later.

The British built a superb system in India. However, Christensen (1996) looks at of colonial purpose, local needs, capital, service, and private-versus-public interests. He concludes that making the railways a creature of the state hindered success because railway expenses had to go through the same slow and political budgeting process as all other state expenses. Railway costs could therefore not be tailored to the timely needs of the railways.[36]

By the 1940s, India had the fourth longest railway network in the world. Yet the country's industrialization was delayed until after independence in 1947 by British colonial policy. Until the 1930s, both the Indian government and the private railway companies hired only European supervisors, civil engineers, and even operating personnel, such as engine (locomotive) drivers. The government's "Stores Policy" required that bids on railway matériel be presented to the India Office in London, making it almost impossible for enterprises based in India to compete for orders. Likewise, the railway companies purchased most of their material in Britain, rather than in India. Although the railway maintenance workshops in India could have manufactured and repaired locomotives, the railways imported a majority of them from Britain, and the others from Germany, Belgium, and the United States. The Tata company built a steel mill in India before World War I but could not obtain orders for rails until the 1920s and 1930s.[37]


Iranian railway history goes back to 1887 when a railway between Tehran and Ray was established around 20 km long.

After this time many short railways were constructed but the main railway was started in 1925 and operated in 1938 by connecting the Persian Gulf to the Caspian sea.


Pakistan has a rich railway heritage spanning almost 200 years which it owes the British. It was in 1847 when the first railway was imagined but it was not until 1861 when it came into existence in the form of the railway built from Karachi to Kotri. Pakistan has stayed true to this rich heritage because since then rail transport is possibly the most popular mode of non-independent transport in Pakistan.[38]

Western Europe

First railway line by country


Belgium took the lead in the Industrial Revolution on the Continent starting in the 1820s. It provided an ideal model for showing the value of the railways for speeding the industrial revolution. After splitting from the Netherlands in 1830, the new country decided to stimulate industry. It planned and funded a simple cross-shaped system that connected the major cities, ports and mining areas, and linked to neighboring countries. Unusually, the Belgian state became a major contributor to early rail development and championed the creation of a national network with no duplication of lines. Belgium thus became the railway center of the region. The system was built along British lines, often with British engineers doing the planning. Profits were low but the infrastructure necessary for rapid industrial growth was put in place.[39] The first railway in Belgium, running from northern Brussels to Mechelen, was completed in May 1835..


Catholic priests bless a railway engine in Calais, 1848

In France, railways were first operated by private coal companies : the first legal agreement to build a railway was given in 1823 and the line (from Saint-Étienne to Andrézieux) was operated in 1827. Much of the equipment was imported from Britain and stimulate machinery makers, which soon created a national heavy industrie. Trains became a national medium for the modernization of backward regions, and a leading advocate of this approach was the poet-politician Alphonse de Lamartine. One writer hoped that railways might improve the lot of "populations two or three centuries behind their fellows" and eliminate "the savage instincts born of isolation and misery." Consequently, France built a centralized system that radiated from Paris (plus lines that cut east to west in the south). This design was intended to achieve political and cultural goals rather than maximize efficiency. After some consolidation, six companies controlled monopolies of their regions, subject to close control by the government in terms of fares, finances, and even minute technical details. The central government department of Ponts et Chaussées [bridges and roads] brought in British engineers and workers, handled much of the construction work, provided engineering expertise and planning, land acquisition, and construction of permanent infrastructure such as the track bed, bridges and tunnels. It also subsidized militarily necessary lines along the German border, which was considered necessary for the national defense. Private operating companies provided management, hired labor, laid the tracks, and built and operated stations. They purchased and maintained the rolling stock—6,000 locomotives were in operation in 1880, which averaged 51,600 passengers a year or 21,200 tons of freight. .

Development of the network up to 1860

Although starting the whole system at once was politically expedient, it delayed completion, and forced even more reliance on temporary experts brought in from Britain. Financing was also a problem. The solution was a narrow base of funding through the Rothschilds and the closed circles of the Bourse in Paris, so France did not develop the same kind of national stock exchange that flourished in London and New York. The system did help modernize the parts of rural France it reached, and help to develop many local industrial centers, mostly in the North (coal and iron mines) and in the East (textiles and heavy industrie). Critics such as Émile Zola complained that it never overcame the corruption of the political system, but rather contributed to it. The railways probably helped the industrial revolution in France by facilitating a national market for raw materials, wines, cheeses, and imported and exported manufactured products. Yet the goals set by the French for their railway system were moralistic, political, and military rather than economic. As a result, the freight trains were shorter and less heavily loaded than those in such rapidly industrializing nations such as Britain, Belgium or Germany. Other infrastructure needs in rural France, such as better roads and canals, were neglected because of the expense of the railways, so it seems likely that there were net negative effects in areas not served by the trains.[40]


Friedrich List's concept for a German railway net from 1833

The takeoff stage of economic development came with the railroad revolution in the 1840s, which opened up new markets for local products, created a pool of middle managers, increased the demand for engineers, architects and skilled machinists and stimulated investments in coal and iron.[41] Political disunity of three dozen states and a pervasive conservatism made it difficult to build railways in the 1830s. However, by the 1840s, trunk lines did link the major cities; each German state was responsible for the lines within its own borders. Economist Friedrich List summed up the advantages to be derived from the development of the railway system in 1841:

  1. As a means of national defence, it facilitates the concentration, distribution and direction of the army.
  2. It is a means to the improvement of the culture of the nation. It brings talent, knowledge and skill of every kind readily to market.
  3. It secures the community against dearth and famine, and against excessive fluctuation in the prices of the necessaries of life.
  4. It promotes the spirit of the nation, as it has a tendency to destroy the Philistine spirit arising from isolation and provincial prejudice and vanity. It binds nations by ligaments, and promotes an interchange of food and of commodities, thus making it feel to be a unit. The iron rails become a nerve system, which, on the one hand, strengthens public opinion, and, on the other hand, strengthens the power of the state for police and governmental purposes.[42]

Lacking a technological base at first, the Germans imported their engineering and hardware from Britain, but quickly learned the skills needed to operate and expand the railways. In many cities, the new railway shops were the centres of technological awareness and training, so that by 1850, Germany was self-sufficient in meeting the demands of railroad construction, and the railways were a major impetus for the growth of the new steel industry. Observers found that even as late as 1890, their engineering was inferior to Britain’s. However, German unification in 1870 stimulated consolidation, nationalisation into state-owned companies, and further rapid growth. Unlike the situation in France, the goal was support of industrialisation, and so heavy lines crisscrossed the Ruhr and other industrial districts, and provided good connections to the major ports of Hamburg and Bremen. By 1880, Germany had 9,400 locomotives pulling 43,000 passengers and 30,000 tons of freight a day, and forged ahead of France.[43]


Rail transport in the Netherlands is generally considered to have begun on 20 September 1839 when the first train, drawn by locomotive De Arend successfully made the 16 km trip from Amsterdam to Haarlem. However, the first plan for a railroad in the Netherlands was launched only shortly after the first railroad opened in Britain.

The history of rail transport in the Netherlands can be described in 6 eras:

Map of railways of the Iberian peninsula (1921)


Cuba, then a Spanish colony, built its first rail line in 1837. The history of rail transport in peninsular Spain begins in 1848 with the construction of a railway line between Barcelona and Mataró, in 1852 the first narrow gauge line was built, in 1863 a line reached the Portuguese border. By 1864 the Madrid-Irun line had been opened, and the French border reached.


In the early 1830s Russian inventors father and son Cherepanovs built the first Russian steam locomotive. The first railway line was built in Russia in 1837 between Saint-Petersburg and Tsarskoye Selo. It was 27 km long and linked the Imperial Palaces at Tsarskoye Selo and Pavlovsk. Track gauge was 6 feet (1830 mm). Russia was in need of big transportation systems 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. Foreign initiative and capital were required. it was the Americans who brought the technology of railway construction to Russia. In 1842 planning began for the building of Russia's first important railway; it linked Moscow and St Petersburg.[44]

Latin America

In Latin America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries railways were critical elements in the early stage of modernization especially in linking agricultural regions to export-oriented seaports.[45]

Map of first Mexican rail line between Veracruz and Mexico City

After 1870 the government encouraged further rail development through generous concessions that included government subsidies for construction. By 1910, Mexico boasted 15,360 miles (24,719.5 km) of in-service track, mostly built by American, British and French investors.[46] Growing nationalistic fervor led the government to bring the bulk of the nation's railroads under national control in 1909, with a new government corporation, Ferrocarriles Nacionales de México (FNM), that exercised control of the main trunk rail lines through a majority of share ownership.[47]

United States 1830–1890

The First Transcontinental Railroad was completed in 1869.
This article is part of the history of rail transport by country series.


Railroads played a large role in the development of the United States from the industrial revolution in the North-east 1810–50 to the settlement of the West 1850–1890. The American railroad mania began with the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad in 1828 and flourished until the Panic of 1873 bankrupted many companies and temporarily ended growth.

Although the South started early to build railways, it concentrated on short lines linking cotton regions to oceanic or river ports, and the absence of an interconnected network was a major handicap during the Civil War. The North and Midwest constructed networks that linked every city by 1860. In the heavily settled the Midwestern Corn Belt, over 80 percent of farms were within 10 miles of a railway, facilitating the shipment of grain, hogs and cattle to national and international markets. A large number of short lines were built, but thanks to a fast developing financial system based on Wall Street and oriented to railway bonds, the majority were consolidated into 20 trunk lines by 1890. State and local governments often subsidized lines, but rarely owned them.

The system was largely built by 1910, but then trucks arrived to eat away the freight traffic, and automobiles (and later airplanes) to devour the passenger traffic. The use of diesel electric locomotives (after 1940) made for much more efficient operations that needed fewer workers on the road and in repair shops.


Route mileage peaked at 254,000 in 1916 and fell to 140,000 in 2009.[48]

In 1830, there were about 75 miles (121 km) of railroad track, in short lines linked to coal and granite mines.[49]). After this, railroad lines grew rapidly. Ten years later, in 1840, the railways had grown to 2,800 miles (4,500 km). By 1860 on the eve of civil war, the length had reached 29,000 miles (47,000 km), mostly in the North. The South had much less trackage and it was geared to moving cotton short distances to river or ocean ports. The Southern railroads were destroyed during the war but were soon rebuilt. By 1890 the national system was virtually complete with 164,000 miles (264,000 km).[50]

Railroad Accumulated Mileage by Region
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


In 1869, the symbolically important transcontinental railroad was completed in the United States with the driving of a golden spike (near the city of Ogden).

Diesel and electric engines

Electric railways revolutionise 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 car on rails had enabled a horse to move twice as many people, and so street railways were born. The world's first electric tram line opened in Lichterfelde near Berlin, Germany, in 1881. It was built by Werner von Siemens (see Gross-Lichterfelde Tramway). Seven years later, in January 1888, Richmond, Virginia served as American proving grounds for electric railways as Frank Sprague built an 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 subway systems. 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 Empire. 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-electric locomotives 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-mechanical types 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 United States (one of the earliest countries to adopt diesel power on a wide scale). After working through technical difficulties in the early 1900s, diesel locomotives became mainstream after World War II. By the 1970s, diesel and electric power had replaced steam power on most of the world's railroads.[19]

In the 20th century, road transport and 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 Tokyo and Osaka in Japan 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 (Republic of China), 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 London–Paris–Brussels corridor, Madrid-Barcelona, as well as many other major lines.

See also


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Further reading

External links

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