Rail Transport History
Modern transportation of passengers and goods could not be imagined without trains, transport devices that revolutionized our industry, human expansion, and the way we can move from one place to another. Such important presence in our history appeared little over 200 years ago, but even then it was apparent that this new transportation paradigm could become one of the mankind’s greatest fights if the technical hurdles of early industrial revolution could be overcomed.
It all began in over 2000 years ago in ancient civilizations of Egypt, Babylon and Greece. Transport of people and goods in those time was done with carts that were pulled by animals (horses or bulls), and their engineers quickly noticed that animals will spend much less energy if the cart was traveling on predetermined path, without possibility for steering or traveling over uneven terrain. To enable this new way of transport, they build roads with pre-built constraints for wheels. These were the world’s first railway tracks, and archeological remains of them can still be found in Italy and Greece. The most famous example of these ancient stone etched “wagonways” can be found in the Isthmus of Corinth, Greece.
These wagonways went out of use after the fall of Roman Empire, and managed to return only after increased trading and early industrial efforts of European Renaissance. By 18th century, every mine in Great Britain had its own simple railway network, with horses pulling carts from mines to factories. Changes to this kind of transport came in 1774 after the world found out about James Watt incredible discovery – stationary steam engine. As he protected his patents forcefully, the true widespread work on steam powered locomotives started only after his patent lapsed in 1800. Several inventors started working on improving Watt’s design, most notably designing non-condensing high pressure chambers that enabled engine to convert more steam’s power into mechanical energy.
First steam engines started running along primitive rail tracks in 1804. Matthew Murray managed to showcase his simple locomotive first, but Richard Trevithick received more attention with his “Penydarren” locomotive that pulled weight of 25 tons and 70 people during its first ride. This event proved to the engineer community, that pressurized steam engines indeed have enough power to become useful for transport of goods and people.
Commercial appearance of train networks came in late 1820s, and the pioneer in that field was English inventor George Stephenson who entered into competition that wanted to find out which steam locomotive design was easiest to use, most reliable and powerful. His “Rocket” won him that competition, showcasing to the entire world that steam trains are indeed destined for bright future. Designs of such locomotives soon traveled to United States, where they began their rapid expansion across newly acquired lands and American long push to “civilize” the west frontiers.
As train technology received massive updates over those first few decades of public work, urban engineers in London started formulating first plans for inter-city railway tracks and underground tunnels. First section of now famous “London Underground” begun its work in 1863, and even though it received much complaints because of the smoke in the tunnels, it continued growing until 1890 when entire London train fleet started using electrical engines. This marked the beginning of the new era of urban rapid transit systems, and underground Metros started appearing across entire world (the word “metro” came from the name of Paris underground train system “Chemin de Fer Métropolitain”, meaning “Metropolitan Railway”).
Another very important moment in the history of the trains was introduction of Diesel engines, which brought the end to the age of steam locomotives. After second world war almost absolute majority of the world left steam behind, and embraced much faster, easier to maintain and reliable diesel fuel engines. As time went on, diesel engines became combined with electrical ones, enabling trains to use best of both worlds.
Today, trains represent one of the most important ways people and goods travel. Big cities cannot live without fully working underground metro systems that carry millions of people every day, and more heavy and durable industrial trains carry over 40% of worldwide goods between towns, countries, and continents.
More efficient transport of goods and people was a riddle that many inventors tacked over the millennia’s ever since first modern civilizations started spreading from Middle East and North Africa. Even though this ways of transport did not advance much in the last 2000 years, introduction of industrial manufacturing, electricity, and influx of inventors gave birth to one of the most important industries in the modern human civilization – train industry.
Finding out who created first modern examples of trains is easy enough, but pinpointing their predecessors who formed the basic ideas of train transport is much harder. Even though lack of steam, gas or electrical power prevented earlier trains to fulfill their full potential, many examples of such simple trains could be found across the Europe much before any modern train took off and begun changing the landscape of industry and civilian transport. The first example of this simple “wagonway” train system dates all the way back to 2nd and 1st millennia BC, where Assyrians, Babyulonians, Persians build roads with specific wheel-ruts deliberately cut into rock. This road configuration enabled them to more easily transport wagons that were pulled by horses or bulls, without any need for steering or controlling the trajectory of the wagon. Because of this, many of those civilizations developed dedicated wagonways that connected their main cities with their nearby trading posts or sacred places (Sparta to Ayklia, Athens to Eleusis, Elis to Olympia). Greeks especially adopted this type of transport, even managing to build very impressive wagonway called Diolkos in ancient Corinth around 600BC, which many call today the first railway in the entire history.
With the fall of the Greece, wagonways disappeared from the Europe and they managed to resurface only in 16th century when increased trading of Renaissance brought them back to the public eye. Powered by horses, wagonways enabled much faster and safer travel than on dirt roads, but industrialists and inventors were not satisfied with that. They wanted more automated way of transferring goods, and several small advances of regular wagonways (flanged wheels, wooden rails) produced only more streamlined travel but nothing in the way of true revolution.
And that revolution came in late 17t century with the introduction of first stationary steam engine by Thomas Savery. This invention from 1698 was extremely simply and low powered, and because of that steam engines took over 60 years to come to the point where they could be useful for powering trains. This moment came in 1763 when James Watt took the simple designs of Thomas Savery and Thomas Newcomen and introduced crankshaft that could transform power of steam into circular motion. This invention finally enabled inventors all around the world to start adapting steam engine into machine that could power cars, trains and boats of all kinds of types and sizes.
Some of the most important early train inventors were Matthew Murray who created first steam powered locomotive, Richard Trevithick who popularized trains series of showcasing in London, George Stephenson who become famous with this coal transporting trains and Oliver Evans who produced world first on-condensing high pressure steam engine that became standard part of all steam trains in the future.
- 1st millennia BC: Ancient Greeks used rutway, prepared earth road that forced land cars to follow predetermined path, much like trains. Rutway on Isthmus of Corinth was used regular and frequently between 650 BC and 1stcentury AD but after that it remained forgotten.
- 1500s: Hand propelled cars, known as “hunds” started being used in Germany and later on in UK. It was most often used in mines for transporting coal.
- 1603: Huntingdon Beaumont created first recorded wagonway in England. Soon after that similar railways/wagonways started appearing across England.
- 1774: Scotsman James Watt managed to build first stationary steam engine. Over the next few years he and his associates improved their design, enabling machine to produce enough power slow 6-8 mph train movement.
- 1798: First above ground railway opened in Wakefield, West Yorkshire, England. It was named “Lake Lock Rail Road”. It primarily transported coal with horse powered wagons.
- 1800 to 1804: American Oliver Evans created first working non-condensing high pressure stationary steam-engine. This engine was first implemented on a boat.
- 1803: First public railway was created in London. It transported goods via horse power on the line that was 14 km long.
- 1804: Englishman Matthew Murray created first steam based locomotive in Leeds. Richard Trevithick showcased his locomotive in public.
- 1807: First passengers started traveling on trains between Swansea tom Mumbles.
- 1808: Englishman Richard Trevithick showcased his locomotive designs on a public showcasing of trains in London. For that purpose he created small circular railway in London’s Torrington Square.
- 1812: First commercial passenger railway opens in England on the Middleton Railway.
- 1813: William Hedley showcased his locomotive that had the capability of hauling 10 coal wagons at 5mph.
- 1825: George Stephenson builds his famous LOCOMOTION No. 1, capable of pulling 90 tons of coal at 15mph.
- 1826: Quincy, Mass became first place in North America with working railway. Materials were hauled by horses.
- 1827: Railway between Baltimore and Ohio River in Virginia became first of many westward railroads in the United States. In the beginning trains were powered by wind power, horses, and even horses that were stationed on trains themselves, who walked on the treadmills which powered carriage wheels!
- 1829: First steam locomotive started working in America, but its excessive weight forced it to become stationary boiler.
- 1829: Stephenson’s locomotive “Rocket” became fastest train ever built with its top speed of 30mph. It was capable of carrying 30 people.
- 1830: Americans built their first steam engine. It worked great until 1931 when it exploded.
- 1832: Charles Fox patented railway track switch.
- 1856: First railroad bridge over river Mississippi enabled expansion of trains to the west.
- 1863: First underground railway started working in London. Success of this track gave birth to the modern subways.
- 1869: The First Transcontinental Railroad completed in North America, successfully bridging Pacific and central United States.
- 1872: American inventor George Westinghouse patented his first automatic air brake, which soon became primary brake system in all future trains.
- 1881: First public electric tram line opened in Berlin.
- 1888: First electric tram system opened in Richmond, Virginia, United States.
- 1890: London underground trains switched to electrical engines, starting the era of modern rapid transit systems.
- 1913: Diesel powered locomotives started being used in Sweden.
- 1934: Diesel locomotive fist showcased in the U.S. but it was introduced into regular use in 1939.
- 1937: German inventor Hermann Kemper patented train system that used magnetic levitation (maglev).
- 1960s: U.S. finished their transition from steam models to diesel-electric power.
- 1953: Japan locomotive Odakyū 3000 series SE Romancecar reached world record speed of 90mph (145 km/h).
- 1964: First bullet train introduced in Japan. It traveled between Tokyo and Osaka with the average speed of 160km/h.
- 1979: France begun using their high speed train – TGV. It had average traveling speed of 213 km/h and top speed of 300km/h.
- 1987: British Rail’s High Speed Train (HST) broke the word record for diesel powered train with the speed of 238 km/h.
- 1990: French TGV broke the speed record for electric train, with staggering 515 km/h.
- 2007: Spain begun using their first high-speed trains with speed of up to 350km/h.
- 2010: Shanghai Metro becomes world’s largest urban transit system with 420m of lines and 278 stations.