The History of Rail Travel

Trains played a huge role in the Industrial Revolution in the US and Europe and enjoyed a 100-year reign as the preferred mode of transportation for urbanites, the military and even the postal service.

Then the aviation industry soared into the spotlight and rail travel, much like ship travel, receded into the background. Is there a light at the end of the tunnel for rail travel? Or is it too late?

1) Ancient Trains

Long before the Japanese bullet train or the Swedish eco-friendly ‘green’ train or even Thomas the Tank Engine, there was the ‘wagonway’; a wooden cart that was pulled along tracks carved in limestone.

Invented by the Greeks, wagonways were powered by horses, making them slow-moving but nonetheless, the preferred alternative to the horse and buggy.

It required far less exertion to cart boulders along a rigid, smooth track than an uneven winding road, which is perhaps why this early ‘train’ remained in use for over 600 years.

A horse-drawn railway coach from the late 18th century. Wikimedia.

2) The Power of Steam

It wasn’t until 1804 that the train as we know it began to take shape.  Made in England and powered using coal and water, the steam locomotive was faster than its horse-powered predecessor (reaching speeds of 70 miles per hour) but not very convenient.

Train routes in the 19th century were limited, which meant that a train ride from Boston to New York in the 1850’s (which today would take only a few hours) took several days.

Longer trips (a train ride from Boston to North Carolina, for instance), would involve multiple train transfers and even a few ferry rides.

Nevertheless, the steam locomotive remained the choice mode of transportation (of both cargo and people) until the 1940s, when, due to rising labor costs, the steam locomotive was replaced by easier-to-operate diesel and electric trains.

Steam locomotives could reach speeds of 70mph. Photo by Nova Scotia Archives

Steam trains were replaced by newer models like this Russian diesel locomotive. Wikimedia.

3) The British Contribution

Though the American rail system was impressive (by 1850, every state on the continent was accessible by train), it was the British who took this new form of transportation and powered full-steam ahead with it.

Not only were the British the first to create an inter-city railway and the world’s first subway system (in 1863), they also built the world’s longest railway in Canada and helped spur India toward modernization with the creation of a massive tangle of train tracks that crisscrossed the sub-continent.

Now, with 2,500 train stations, India’s rail system remains one of the largest in the world.

Constructing the world’s first underground railway near Kings Cross Station, 1861. Wikimedia.

London tube map from 1908. Wikimedia.

4) Train Travel Derailed in the US

Today, though rail travel continues to chug forward in densely-populated countries in Europe and Asia, it has all but sputtered to a stop in the US.

For better or for worse, America is a country of car-lovers; and has been since the 1930’s (when passenger train ticket sales first began to slip).

Some cite the US’s low cost of diesel fuel for American’s preference for the Toyota Tacoma over Thomas the Tank (if gas is cheap, why bother with public transportation?)

Others blame the interstate highway system, which after opening in the 1950s, made piling into the family station-wagon for a weekend road trip much more enticing.

Abandoned trains are a symbol of the US’ broken love affair with rail travel. Photo by wiki_hybrid

5) Airplane Appeal

Perhaps the biggest culprit in the crash of US rail travel, however, was the rise of the aviation industry.

Air travel was not only faster and cheaper than train travel, but thanks to skimpy flight attendants’ uniforms, it was sexier too.

6) Quick as a Bullet: the World’s Fastest Train

Airplane-fanatics, beware:  trains have been picking up speed.  A French bullet train broke world records in 2007 when it was clocked traveling at 357 mph.

Though a 747 jet’s cruising speed is faster (averaging around 500 miles per hour), when you factor in the time an airline passenger spends at security check points, baggage claims or departure gates, the difference in total door-to-door travel time is miniscule.

French TGV “bullet trains” can reach speeds of 357mph. Wikimedia.

7) Plane Aggression

In a New York Times article that pitted air and rail travel against one another, reporter Joe Sharkey wrote that the highlight of his 26-hour train ride from Florida to New York was that he wasn’t given a pat-down or called a terrorist and that “nobody hollered at me to sit down or turn off my electronic devices.”

His point was a good one.  These days, air travel seems synonymous with evasive body scanners and baggage fees.  Train travel, with its relative ease of boarding and hassle-free seating is, by comparison, relatively stress-free.

8) Railway Nostalgia

Train rides hanker back to a day when there was a simple innocence to travel; a day which the aviation industry hasn’t seen in decades.

This nostalgia for the railroad is evident by the number of tour companies marketing tours on restored vintage trains rand by the popularity of the UK’s posh, 26-passenger ‘Flying Scotsman’ or Russia’s Trans-Siberian Railway.

Taking eight days to complete, a ride on-board a historic Trans-Siberian train is a travel adventure in itself and on many a travelers’ bucket-list.

The Flying Scotsman re-creates a bygone era of rail travel. Photo by Train Chartering.

9) The Future’s Green

Advances in Europe are being made towards replacing diesel and electric trains with eco-friendly “green” trains.

In 2008, the Swedes created a magnet-powered ‘green train’ which uses 20-30 percent less fuel than diesel or electric trains, and without losing any speed (it can travel over 180 miles per hour).

With the US angling to jump on-board the train revolution and create a high-speed train of its own, it would seem the world is poised to fall in love with rail travel all over again.

The Swedish Regina uses 20% less fuel than diesel or electric trains. Wikimedia.

Has the railroad featured in your travels? Do planes or trains get your vote? Let me know in the comments.

If you liked this, you might also like: Photo Essay: The History of Air Travel.

Main image: a steam locomotive c. 1852 by Patoc.

14 thoughts on “The History of Rail Travel”

  1. This was fascinating. I always knew I should have been born in a different era – when train travel was glamorous and interesting.

    My very first international travel experience at age 15 was by train and ferry from England to Germany, and I fell deeply in love with trains on that trip. I’m pretty sure it must have been a steam train, because just three years later in 1966 I used to take a train to college and it was invariably still a steam train, although not every day. The highlight of my train travel has to be the Orient Express from London to Venice, a journey which was one of the few things in life which truly lived up to expectations – and my expectations were sky high! If I win the lottery tomorrow my first action will be to book some luxury train travel around the world!

  2. @ Linda – I’ve always been obsessed with trains as well. I think they definitely embody the whole “it’s about the journey and not the destination” philosophy, which (to me anyway) is what travel is all about.

    I wish train culture would hurry up and (re)catch on in the US! And bus culture too, for that matter.

  3. Trains have been around for over 150 years now. It’s the transportation that keeps the world moving. Warren Buffet bought a huge stake in railways not more that 6 months ago. To that end my grandfather was a tool and die maker at the turn of the century on the railroad as a 22 year old bachelor. If we can fit trains in our country (United States) somehow it was help us connect everywhere some much more efficiently.

  4. Loved traveling on the Swedish train system, and PLEASE book me on that Flying Scotsman! This is a very interesting article. And don’t you wish we could have really good passenger service in the U.S.? By the way, to the commenter who loves not having to go through a scanner–I’d feel safer if rail travel was a little more security conscious.

  5. Thank you for this very informative and beautiful piece! Although planes may have taken over as the speediest way of travel I can say that I still enjoy the comfort of traveling in trains. It may be longer but that never really bothered me as long as I’m not in a hurry.

  6. Nice post. I love all the facts and interesting commentary on the US train infrastructure. An interesting fact is that in the US urban trolley system was dismantled piecemeal because corporations such as Goodyear bought the city infrastructure and did away with it, in favor for the car and interstate highway system.
    If it wasn’t for this than I think the States might have a first world train system.

  7. Train travel is a far more adventurous way to travel, plus I like that it takes a little longer than a plane ride…you get a chance to meet people that way! And enjoy the scenery.

    I spent four months in India and by far the most interesting and memorable experiences all happened while riding the train (the train system in India totally rocks, by the way!).

  8. Thanks for telling the story of rail travel. I have taken several short excursions on steam powered trains and visited a number of train museums where this type of history is being preserved. Looking forward to my first overnight train trip this summer.

  9. Sexier because of skimpy stewardess outfits? Really? Very narrow view of the dissolution of rail service. Private land access and time are much more to blame than the clothing!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *