History of rail transport

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Rail transport has a long history, including systems with man or horse power and rails of wood or stone. For discussion of particular countries see History of rail transport by country.



The first practical form of mechanized transport, railways had their start in England in the 1820s. They remained the only practical overland mechanized transport for well over 100 years.

Early Railways

Wagonways were developed in Germany in the 1550s and the use of these tracks, consisting of wooden (usually edged) rails for horse-drawn wagons, spread across Europe. At first confined to mines, they were in use in Britain for surface transport by the early 1600s. By the early 1700s, the wooden tracks and wheels were beginning to be replaced by iron. In the mid century systems developed in which unflanged wheels ran on L- shaped metal plates - these became known as plateways. In the late 18th century, English civil engineer William Jessop designed edged rails to be used with flanged wheels for use on a scheme in Loughborough, Leicestershire (in 1789). In 1802, Jessop opened the Surrey Iron Railway in south London - arguably, the world's first public railway, albeit a horse-drawn one.

James Watt, a Scottish inventor and mechanical engineer, was responsible for improvements to the steam engine that caused this device to see wider use and encouraged wider experimentation, though it was not used for locomotive power until Richard Trevithick developed the high pressure steam engine in the 1800s.

Steam power introduced

The first steam locomotive was built by Richard Trevithick, an English engineer, in 1804. His locomotive had no name, and was used at the Pennydarren ironworks in Wales. It was not financially successful, because it was too heavy for the track and kept breaking down. Despite his inventive talents, Richard Trevithick died in poverty, with his achievement being largely unrecognized.

In 1812 Oliver Evans, a United States 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.

In 1813, George Stephenson persuaded the manager of the colliery where he worked to allow him to build a steam-powered machine. He built the Blucher, the first successful flanged-wheel adhesion locomotive. The flanges enabled the trains to run on top of the rails instead of in sunken tracks. This greatly simplified construction of switches and rails, and opened the way to the modern railroad.

The Stockton and Darlington Railway Company's first line was opened on September 27 1825. Stephenson himself drove The Locomotion, which drew large crowds of spectators.

The steam locomotive was invented in the early stages of the industrial revolution, and railroads 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.

In the 1850s, many steam-powered railways had reached London, increasing congestion in that city. A Metropolitan Railway was built to connect several of these separate railway terminals, and thus became the first "Metro."

Electric Railways revolutionalize 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. In January of 1888, Richmond, Virginia 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 subway systems. When electric propulsion became practical, most street railways were electrified. These then became known as "streetcars," "trolleys," "trams" and "Strassenbahn."

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.

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.

Diesel Power

Diesel locomotives are electric locomotives with an on-board generator powered by a Diesel engine. The first Diesel locomotives were low-powered machines 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 maintenance and their introduction diminished the power of railway unions in the USA (one of the earliest countries to adopt Diesel power). By the 1950s, Diesel and electric power had replaced steam power on most of the world's railroads.

In the 20th century, highways 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.

See also


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