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History of Railroad Travel

Updated on May 24, 2014
"Puffing Billy" is the world's oldest surviving steam locomotive.
"Puffing Billy" is the world's oldest surviving steam locomotive. | Source

If you have had the pleasure of traveling on a train pulled by an early 1900s steam locomotive, then you have an idea of what it must have been like in the glory days of railroad travel. As a young boy I can remember the first time I saw a steam-powered locomotive. I was standing on a siding in a switching yard when I began to sense the ground rumbling around me. I turned to see a monstrous locomotive pushing toward me through an enormous cloud of steam. I knew right then I wanted to know everything about railroads.

That first encounter with a steam locomotive along with other early railroad experiences sent me on a life-long path to find out more about the history of railroad travel.


Earliest Beginnings: Wagonways and Tramways

The history of railroad travel, as we understand it today, has its beginnings in the early 14th century. As early as 1550, horses pulled carriages, wagons and carts along wooden rails placed on dirt roads in Germany. These "wagonways" were the precursor to the modern day railroad.

By the late 1770's, those sometimes flimsy and easily worn out wooden rails were replaced with more durable iron rails. These "tramways," which were still essentially carriages or carts on rails pulled by horses, began to spread throughout 18th century Europe.


First Railroad Innovations Have Origins in England

Along with iron rails, a new wheel was developed by William Jessup in England. This new wheel was a revolutionary design for it's time. Jessup's wheel had a groove in the middle that created an edge which provided a surer grip on the iron rails. This "flanged" wheel would be an early innovation that would continue throughout the history of railroads - right up to today's modern railroads.

The original width between rails was about seven feet. The standard width (or gauge) would eventually become four feet, eight inches between rails - the same standard gauge used by modern railroads.


In 1803, Samuel Homfray provided funds to Richard Trevithick for development of the first steam-powered vehicle. This vehicle was designed to take the place of horses on the many tramways throughout Europe. In 1804, Trevithick's tramway steam engine took two hours to haul 70 men, 10 tons of ore and five extra wagons over nine miles from an ironworks foundry to a town in Wales. Later in 1821, Julius Griffiths patented a passenger locomotive in England.

By 1825, the Stockton & Darlington Railroad Company became the first railroad in England to run regularly scheduled rail service using a true railroad steam locomotive designed by George Stephenson. The first steam locomotive he built for the S&DRC was aptly named the Locomotion. Railroads spread throughout Europe, Africa, the Middle East and Asia over the next century.



Notable Railroads from Around the World are Part of Railroad History

Notable railroads or trains outside the US were the Orient Express which ran from Paris to Constantinople (modern day Instanbul) and operated from 1883 until 2009.The Venice-Simplon Orient Express, which is different than the original, is till in operation today.

The Trans-Siberian Express is perhaps one of the longest railroad lines in the world with 91 stops over 5,778 miles. Established in 1862, the Flying Scotsman still runs between London and Edinburgh, Scotland. The Indian Pacific railroad runs from Sydney to Perth, Australia - a distance of over 2,460 miles.

High speed trains are the standard in Europe and Asia today. Some of these new high-speed railways handle trains which travel at speeds approaching 200 miles per hour. The French TGV is an electric train system that makes runs from Paris to several other cities around Europe. The TGV reached 320 mph in trial runs back in 1990.


American Railroad History Begins in Hoboken

About three years before Stephenson built and perfected the first railroad locomotive in England, Colonel John Stevens had built his own steam locomotive and tested it on a circular track he built on his vast estate in Hoboken, New Jersey.

He demonstrated the locomotive in 1826 and railroads were officially born in America.

What it was like to "Lay Down Tracks"

The first American locomotive to actually pull a train was the Best Friend of Charleston steam locomotive in Charleston, South Carolina on Christmas Day in 18230.

Tom Thumb was the first American-made steam locomotive to begin service on a common-carrier railroad. Innovations and improvements came quickly and the new technology developed.


Railroads Continue to Grow in 19th Century America

Between 1860 and 1870, America had built more than 53,000 miles of railroad track. The Transcontinental Railroad had been completed in 1869. By 1900, over 207,000 miles of railroad track were in operation throughout the United States. Total track mileage would continue to increase to around 430,000 total track miles in 1930. The US railroad system was massive. Everything from food and passenger to heavy equipment and military troops were transported quickly and easily from coast to coast over this huge railroad network.


The Decline of Railroads in America

In the 1930s - the heyday of American railroad history - there were more than 1.5 million Americans working for the railroads - that's about 1 in 10 people in the US at that time. American railroads provided employment and were a huge contributor to the economic growth in America during these years.

By the 1940s US railroads were in decline due to the improvement of national roads, automobiles and the introduction of air travel. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, steam locomotives were being replaced by more efficient diesel locomotives. By the 1970s, the glory days of railroads in the US had come to an end.


Railroads in America Today

Today, there are about 233,000 miles of railroad track in the US. Amtrak is the only remaining national railroad to serve passengers in the U.S. Most railroads primarily handle freight service throughout the country's national rail network. One of the most notable is the produce train which hauls perishable produce and other food items non-stop across the US in 64-foot long refrigerated railcars.

Also known as the "Ice Cold Express" or "Fresh Express," these long loaded trains head east five days a week throughout the year to deliver fresh produce and other items to cities on the East Coast. The amount of produce carried by just one of these trains is equivalent to about 200 semi-truck loads.




Have you traveled on a train in your lifetime?

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    • MKayo profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from Texas

      That's very interesting rjsadowski. How long did he work for the railroad? Thanks for the read and taking time to comment. Best, M

    • rjsadowski profile image


      8 years ago

      Very interesting Hub. My father was a fireman on the railroad in North Central Wisconsin in the mid to late 1920s but he quit. He told me that he already saw rail traffic declining and he knew that he would never get to be an engineer.

    • Sally's Trove profile image


      8 years ago from Southeastern Pennsylvania

      Excellent concise overview of the history of railroad travel. Your hub makes a good resource addition to mine on haunting American train sounds, and so I have linked to here from there. Congrats on the Hub of the Day award! Voted up, interesting, and shared.

    • tahliarules profile image

      tahlia rule 

      8 years ago from 110 Old Maryborough Road, Hervey Bay, Qld 4655

      I never experienced on traveling with a train...grrr...but since you share this hub to us,,it's like I'm traveling with the old train too...wish I could go to Europe someday and hop in a train everyday,,haha...Congratulations!

    • DzyMsLizzy profile image

      Liz Elias 

      8 years ago from Oakley, CA

      Congratulations on Hub of the Day! Very well deserved. This was an awesomely written and researched article, with well-chosen videos in accompaniment.

      I'm something of a "train nut" myself, although I have the disadvantage of having been born about 30 to 50 years too late to have been able to enjoy travel by train. I had to vote, "no, never" in your poll, for I've never been on a "real" train ride to any destination.

      I've had only the opportunity to ride round-trip loop runs on museum lines, such as the Roaring Camp and Big Trees in Felton, CA, or the famous "Skunk" train between Willits and Fort Bragg, CA.

      To compensate, I play with toy trains, although my budget for completing my N-Scale layout has run out.

      I thoroughly enjoyed your article. Voted up across and shared!

    • ib radmasters profile image

      Brad Masters 

      8 years ago from Southern California


      Congratulations on the Hub of the Day!

    • eugbug profile image

      Eugene Brennan 

      8 years ago from Ireland

      Congratulations on the Hub of the Day! Steam trains have great character with all those moving parts, steam, smoke and sound effects! Any time I have had the pleasure of traveling on a carriage pulled by a steam train everybody, young and old have smiles on their faces. I don't think diesels could ever have the same effect!

    • pstraubie48 profile image

      Patricia Scott 

      8 years ago from North Central Florida

      My baby grandson is just wild about trains...his Momma painted a Thomas the train scene in his room and he has to run see the train pass each time it comes by. My eldest grandson was the same way. We took him for a short train ride for the first time when he was four. It was so exciting for all of us. I can hardly wait to take the baby boy on one.

      This was very interesting to read for many reasons. Thank you so much for sharing it. Congrats too on HOTD.

    • DreamerMeg profile image


      8 years ago from Northern Ireland

      I love trains and travel on them maybe 3 times a week. I also live near a kind of museum for steam engines, so we can see the steam engines going most weeks. I travelled on steam engines when I was a child, because the diesel trains had not arrived then. My mother carried little tins of "quickies" with her, which were small circular pre-moistened wipes, for taking the train smuts off our faces, after poking our heads out of the window!

    • MKayo profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from Texas

      Thanks for all your kind comments MR7700, girishpuri, Nettlemere, coffeegginmyrice, RTalloni. Matthew Kirk and ercramer36.

      Matthew - "The Rocket" was certainly the most famous of Stephenson's locomotive designs, but not the actual first design. It did introduce many innovations that were used in designs that would come after.

      coffeegginmyrice - you sound a lot like me - I can tell you have the "steam" in your blood from your very romantic description.

      Best, M

    • ercramer36 profile image

      Eric Cramer 

      8 years ago from Chicagoland

      Great Hub! I love trains. Congradulations of the HOTD!

    • profile image

      Matthew Kirk 

      8 years ago

      I live about a mile away from "The Rocket" pub in Liverpool; site of the first tests of Stephensons first locomotive and we were told as kids the first ever locomotive?

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      Thanks for a neat read. I really enjoyed learning about the Railex food transport business. Congrats on your Hub of the Day award for an interesting read!

    • coffeegginmyrice profile image

      Marites Mabugat-Simbajon 

      8 years ago from Toronto, Ontario

      Very interesting hub and I have an admiration on vintage locomotives. This kind fascinates me. Afar from the most modern ones, locomotives still has the charisma. Their charming sounds, design and nostalgic portrayal of these loco trains on the tracks moving within the walls of great mountains and valleys can still be magical and mesmerizing these days. Useful, awesome and interesting hub!

    • Nettlemere profile image


      8 years ago from Burnley, Lancashire, UK

      Interesting to read because I've just been reading about when the railway first came to East Lancashire. It really transformed travel in the area.

    • girishpuri profile image

      Girish puri 

      8 years ago from NCR , INDIA

      congratulations, great hub and some very historical facts about old engine and rail, useful hub.

    • MR77100 profile image


      9 years ago from IL

      Very good Hub!

    • MKayo profile imageAUTHOR


      9 years ago from Texas

      tipstoretireeaely - you're right, the newer trains are not the same. If you get the chance, take a trip on the UP 844 - they still run it every year between Cheyenne and Denver around Frontier Days. One of the last remaining great steam locos. Thanks for the read and comment. M

    • tipstoretireearly profile image


      9 years ago from New York

      The old steam locomotives were impressive. The modern engines might be more powerful and efficient, but they aren't nearly as romantic.

    • ib radmasters profile image

      Brad Masters 

      9 years ago from Southern California


      The US had Steam Engines, but only one sort of HS Train.

      I can't speak for others, but I would enjoy reading a hub on HS trains knowing what a great job you did on this one.

    • MKayo profile imageAUTHOR


      9 years ago from Texas

      Thanks for the read, ib - perhaps I should do a Hub on HS rail. Best, M

    • ib radmasters profile image

      Brad Masters 

      9 years ago from Southern California

      Great hub and very interesting.

      It was a shame that RR gave up their right away in so many places. Now that cars and trucks gridlock the roads and security checks take hours in many airports, a European or Asian HS Rail would be great.

      The government procrastinates to the point that the price doubles or triples before they would even start a HS Rail.



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