A History of Railways and Railroads

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Podcast Transcript

Over the last 200 years, railroads have been one of the most important methods of transportation. Railroads helped make the modern world. They are capable of transporting people and goods quickly over long distances at a low cost. 

However, most people would be shocked to learn that railways predate the development of locomotives. In fact, the earliest evidence of using some sort of premade track dates back thousands of years before the first locomotive. 

…and despite the development of new and faster forms of transportation, rails look to continue to have a bright future. 

Learn more about railways, their history, and their future on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

When most people think of railways, it usually begins and ends with locomotives….and this is perfectly understandable. This is the overwhelmingly most popular form of rail system today.

However, if you think about it just a little, there are certain other types of rail transportation. Trolleys and monorails come to mind, which are similar to but different from trains.

This episode is not going to be about locomotives. It isn’t going to be about train engines, but they certainly do have a major role to play in rail transportation.  Locomotives came about with the advent of the steam engine, on which I’ve done a previous episode. 

This episode is going to be about the rails or, more generically, the track. Unbeknownst to most people, tracks and rails predated locomotives by centuries, although they were in limited use until the development of the steam engine. 

The earliest predecessors to rails are more generically called tracks. A track is distinct from a road or a trail in that it is specifically built for a particular type of transportation over a particular distance. If that seems a bit vague, it is, but the idea is it is something that is built, not just something in the ground which was created via constant use. 

The earliest track discovered is the Post Track. It was found in the Somerset Levels in England and dates back to the year 3838 BC, almost 6000 years ago. It was a series of wooden planks built through a wetlands area that allowed people to walk easily through the marsh. 

If this sounds like a far cry from a railroad, you aren’t wrong, but it checks many of the boxes of a rail system. It was a purposely built track to ease transportation, in this case, walking. 

Something more akin to a railway that would be more familiar appeared in the 6th century BC in Greece, the Diolkos. The Diolkos was an overland shortcut for ships to get over the Isthmus of Corinth. The Isthmus of Corinth is a 6.3-kilometer or 3.9-mile wide strip of land that connects the Peloponnese peninsula to the rest of Greece.  

In ancient times, a canal was proposed but never built. Instead, ships were taken overland to avoid the long and dangerous sea journey around the peninsula.

The Diolkos was a rudimentary track used to take boats over the isthmus. Instead of rails, grooves were used on the road to achieve the same effect. 

The introduction of rails was an innovation that appeared in the early 16th century. 

The first mention of rails was in reference to the Reisszug, which is a funicular that went up to the Hohensalzburg Castle at Salzburg in Austria. The rails were made of wood, and a cart was attacked by a rope pulled by horses to bring goods up to the castle. 

For those who haven’t heard the term, a funicular is a railway that goes up an inclined surface, such as a hillside. 

…and, fun fact, the Reisszug is still in operation today, albeit not with wooden rails. 

This is a good opportunity to explain what is so special about rails and what purpose they serve. Instead of rails, why not just make a road? Wouldn’t it be easier to just flatten the ground than it would be creating rails?

There are several advantages to running a vehicle over rails instead of the ground. The biggest of which is reduced friction. A smooth wheel on a smooth rail has less friction than a wheel running over the ground. Less friction makes it easier to pull a cart or allows you to pull a heavier load with the same amount of energy. 

Second, a rail provides a set path for a vehicle. You know exactly where the vehicle will go because it’s on the rail. Finally, replacing a single segment of rail can be much easier than having to repave or resurface an entire road. 

These early railways were known as wagonways, as they were wagons that horses usually pulled. 

Wagonways were very popular in mines. Draft animals pulled carts filled with extremely heavy ore out of the mine. They began appearing in the late 16th century and spread rapidly throughout Europe. 

Some wagonways used in coal mines in England were able to increase the amount pulled per horse over fourfold, pulling 10 and 13 long tons of coal per run, dramatically increasing the efficiency of the entire mining operation. 

However, these wooden wheels running on wooden rails were far from optimal. 

The next big development came with the development of metal rails. 

The first use of metal in rails was in 1760 by the Coalbrookdale Iron Works, which attacked iron plates to the top of their wooden rails. It improved the strength and reduced the friction of simple wooden rails. 

By 1767, fully cast-iron rails were being produced that were much more sturdy than wood. 

In 1787, John Curr, the manager of a coal mine in Sheffield, England, developed an iron rail with a flange, a small ridge on the outside of the rail that gave it an L shape. This was designed to keep the wheel on the track and prevent a wagon from detrailing. This was known as plate rail or plateways. 

In 1789, William Jessop came up with another innovation. Instead of a plate rail with a flange to keep the wheel in position, he created what he called an edge rail. The edge rail was a flat rail without a flange. In this system, the flange was actually on the wheel. 

L-shaped plate rails with a flange and edge rails with no flange existed side by side into the 19th century, but eventually, the edge rail and the flanged wheel proved themselves to be superior and that is similar to the type of rails which exist today. 

In 1803, Jessop opened the Surrey Iron Railway in south london which carried passengers. The Surry Iron Railway used a plate rail system and when there were complaints about the flange sticking up, they raised the road until it was to the level of the flange. This is similar to what is done today when a rail crosses a regular road. 

While rails were improving, cast iron was not an ideal material for making rails. It was brittle, could only be made in short lengths, and easily rusted and had to be frequently replaced. 

In 1820, John Birkinshaw, of the Bedlington Ironworks created the first wrought iron rails, which were far superior, but still not optimal. 

With the creation of the Bessimer process for making steel, it wasn’t until the 1860 that stronger, more durable steel rails became available.

The big change to rails and railways was the introduction of the steam driven locomotive engine. The first steam engines were introduced in the early 19th century and they quickly spread. 

This changed everything about rail. Prior to the steam engine, the speed and distance that something could travel over rail were quite short. Rail was used in mines and factories to move heavy loads, but that was about it. Each system was independent of the other. 

But with locomotives, people and goods could now travel faster and further. Entire cities could be lined together, and that meant different railways could be hooked together. 

The problem was every railroad had a different type of track. It wasn’t just a difference between plate and edge rail. There was also the issue of the track’s gauge. 

The gauge is nothing more than the distance between the two tracks, and everyone had their own track gauge, which meant that trains from one railway couldn’t run on another. 

In 1825, British engineer George Stephenson proposed a standard for railways. The gauge of his track would be 4 feet 8 and 1?2 inches or 1,435 millimeters. 

However, it wasn’t universally adopted. 

Isamard Kingdom Brunel, Arguably the greatest engineer of the 19th century and on whom I’ve done a previous episode, built his Great Western Railway using what he called broad gauge, which was 7 ft 1?4 inches or 2,140 millimeters.

This lack of a standard was a problem. Britain needed to have some sort of standard for all its tracks just for the sake of interoperability and consistency. In 1845, the Royal Commission on Railway Gauges convened to set a standard for British railways. 

After leaning towards Brunell’s broad gauge, they eventually settled on Stephenson’s narrow gauge. Today, the 1,435-millimeter standard gauge is used by 70% of all the railways in the world today. There are different gauges of track around the world, but most countries only have one or maybe two. The other gauges are categorized as either broad or narrow, depending on their width relative to the standard gauge.

As railroads began to expand, new problems developed. One of the biggest problems was how to handle multiple trains on a limited number of tracks. This resulted in the development of railway switches. 

A switch is just a movable section of a track that can divert a train from one track to another. 

The first switches were used on the early wooden rails in mines. However, the first iron rail switch was developed in 1797 by John Curr, the same man who developed the plate rail.

His system was in widespread use by 1808.  Spring-loaded switches were patented by British engineer Charles Fox in 1838, which allowed for a smoother transition when moving tracks. 

Eventually, switches were electrified in the late 19th century, allowing for automated and remote switching. 

The average train track didn’t change much for most of the early 20th century. However, as high-speed rail became popular, the track on which the trains ran required changes. 

One of the changes was continuously welded rails. If you’ve ever ridden in a train, or seen a movie with passengers on a train, you might have heard the clickity clack sound of the train on the rails. That sound is due to the short spaces between the individual rails on the track. 

Continuously welded rails removed that sound and made for a much smoother ride. 

Wooden ties which supported the rails were replaced with concrete ties. These provided more support, reduced the sound, and kept the rails aligned better than wood, which is important for continuously welded rails.

Perhaps the biggest change was the creation of banked curves. 

In a traditional railroad, curves were flat, which was fine given the speed at which most trains traveled. However, these flat curves become dangerous the faster a train travels. At extremely high speeds, the force of a train going around a curve could cause it to derail. 

By banking the curves, just like at a motor speedway, helps keep the train on the track when traveling at high speeds.

High-speed rail tracks are not even the state-of-the-art in rail technology. Magnetic levitation railways propose to put electromagnets in rails to levitate above the track, resulting in zero friction. With zero friction, you could theoretically achieve speeds much higher than even the fastest trains today. 

However, I’m going to leave magnetic levitation for a future episode.

Most people assume that rail transportation began with the locomotive, but in reality, it is much older. While the technology goes back centuries, it was the locomotives that made rails and rail travel ubiquitous. Rail travel is still popular around the world today, and given some of the technology available, it will probably be around for centuries to come. 

The Executive Producer of Everything Everywhere Daily is Charles Daniel. 

The associate producers are Benji Long and Cameron Kieffer. 

Today’s review comes from listener CraigCode1010 on Apple Podcasts in the United States. He writes.

Mostly good episodes ruined

A good podcast, ruined by too many commercials at the beginning, and the stroke my ego section at the end (reading of your so great reviews)

Thanks, Craig! Clearly, not all the reviews I read stroke my ego. 

Remember that if you leave a review or send me a boostagram, you too can have it read on the show.