The invention of the wheel is considered one of the biggest breakthroughs in history. It is not known when the wheel was invented or who invented it (some place it around the late Neolithic around 9000 to 6000 BC), but it revolutionized other breakthroughs such as agriculture and made labor significantly easier for ancient peoples. The railroad, on the other hand, revolutionized land transport like no other, and significantly cut travel times from one place to another.
The railroad is a lot older than one might think. The ancient Greeks invented the Diolkos wagonway, which served to transport boats across the isthmus of Corinth during the 6th century BC. Slaves pushed these trucks, which ran though limestone grooves. This was considered one of the earliest railways in existence, and this operated for 600 years. However, it would take almost 2,000 years for the railway to reappear in civilization. By the 16th century, a funicular railway called the Reisszug appeared. Cardinal Matthaus Lang, the future Archbishop of Salzburg, documented this railway, which runs to this day (but with more modern technology) and is supposedly the oldest railway still in operation in the world.
Mining was one of the first industries to benefit from the railroad. In 1550, narrow gauge railways were common in European mines, and were used to transport coal from mines to load onto boats. The world’s oldest working narrow gauge railway was built in 1758, called the Middleton Railway located in Leeds, England.
Many other improvements were made to the railway in the 18th century, such as the iconic iron plate railway (which is a typical railroad feature to this day), which featured iron plates on top of wooden rails, as well as horse-drawn railways, where horses would pull a cart that traveled on rails.
The Industrial Revolution would see the railway explode in use and popularity. Although the steam engine was developed as early as 1712, it was not until 1804 when Richard Trevithick developed the high-pressure steam engine that could help pull heavy loads. It would take until 1830 when the Liverpool and Manchester Railway was opened, which was the first intercity route for railways in the world. The standard gauge of 1,435 mm (four feet, 8.5 inches) became known as the standard gauge and is still used by about 60 percent of railways today. By 1850, Great Britain had over 11,000 kilometers (7,000 miles) of railway.
In the United States, railroads had a far greater purpose. The vast size of the country necessitated linking many of the country’s cities by train. The 1869 completion of the first transcontinental railroad shifted emigration to the West significantly, replacing the wagon trains with a safer, more pleasant journey. Between 1850 and 1890, it was estimated that the United States alone constituted a third of the world’s rail mileage. Another country that became famous for utilizing rail transport was India, then a colony of the British Empire, and by 1880, over 25,495 km (15,842 mi) of track was laid in the country, and by 1896, India had started building their own locomotives.
Electric railways were first experimented with as early as 1838, but the German Gross-Lichterfelde Tramway was the first route to feed electricity into the trains en route when it was opened in 1881. The first fully completely electrified railway mainline was the Valtellina line, which opened in Italy in 1902. Many large cities such as New York City, Paris and London began to use electrical railways to transport people around, a trend that also continues to the present day.
World War II once again revolutionized the development of the railroad. Advances in internal combustion engine technology made diesel trains cheaper and more effective than steam, but at the same time, air transport and automobiles had stolen the power of the railroad. By 1964, Japan developed the Shinkansen high-speed rail, more popularly known as the “bullet train” outside of the country. These electrified trains significantly reduced the wear and tear on railways as well as allowed fast acceleration and deceleration, significantly cutting the travel time between cities. For densely populated regions in Japan, this became a model for the rest of the world’s train systems, and high-speed rail is utilized extensively in Europe and Asia, where governments are encouraging the use of mass transit.
An innovation that is currently in development for the railroad is the magnetic levitation (maglev) train, already in use in China, Japan, and South Korea. These trains use magnetic levitation to reduce friction and allow for extremely high speeds. It has been reported that maglev trains are far more efficient than even air travel, which could be something to consider for the future. Another proposal to revolutionize the railroad is the Hyperloop, which has theoretical top speeds of 760 mph, and a study showed that it could cover the 560 km (350 mi) distance between the cities of San Francisco and Los Angeles, California in only 35 minutes.
The railroad made travel more efficient across the world. Using its efficient method of transporting passengers and goods, it allowed civilization to thrive and prosper. Despite the presence of automobiles and air transport, the railroad is still considered one of the safest and most enjoyable ways to travel.
Also published in February Issue 2017
Words by Jose Alvarez