Railroads have a long history, including systems with man or horse power and rails of wood or stone. The first practical form of mechanized transport, railways had their start in England in the 1820s. They remained the only practical overland transport for well over 100 years.
Wagonways were developed in Germany in the 1550s and the use of these tracks, consisting of wooden rails for horse-drawn wagons, spread across Europe. By the early 1700s, the wooden tracks and wheels were beginning to be replaced by iron, and these systems became known as tramways. Typically, the wheels ran in depressed grooves lined with metal plate.
The first steam locomotive was built by Richard Trevithick, an English engineer, in 1804. His locomotive had no name, and was used at the pennydarren ironworks in Wales. It was not fianancially successful, because it was too heavy for the track and kept breaking down. Despite his inventive talents, Richard Trevithick died in poverty, with his achievement being largely unrecognized.
In 1812 Oliver Evans, a United States engineer and inventor, published his vision of what steam railways could become, with cities and towns linked by a network of long distance railways plied by speedy locomotives, greatly reducing the time required for personal travel and for transport of goods. Evans specified that there should be separate sets of parallel tracks for trains going in different directions.
In 1813, George Stephenson persuaded the manager of the colliery where he worked to allow him to build a steam-powered machine. He built the Blucher, the first successful flanged-wheel adhesion locomotive. The flanges enabled the trains to run on top of the rails instead of in sunken tracks. This greatly simplified construction of switches and rails, and opened the way to the modern railroad.
The steam locomotive was invented in the early stages of the industrial revolution, and railroads became essential to the swift movement of goods and labour that was needed for industrialization. In the beginning, canals were in competition with the railroads, but the railroads quickly gained ground as steam and rail technology improved, and railroads were built in places where canals were not practical.
In the 1850's, many steam-powered railways had reached London, increasing congestion in that city. A Metropolitan Railway was built to connect several of these separate railway terminals, and thus became the first "Metro."
By the 1890's, electric power became practical, allowing extensive underground railways. Large cities such as London, New York, and Paris built subway systems.
In the meantime, overland transport not on the railways consisted primarily of horse powered vehicles. Placing a horse car on rails enabled a horse to move twice as many people, and so street railways were born. When electric propulsion became practical, most street railways were electrified. These then became known as "streetcars," "trolleys," "trams" and "Strassenbahn."
In many countries, these electric street railways grew beyond the metropolitan areas to connect with other urban centers. In the USA, "Electric Interurban" railroad networks connected most urban areas in the states of Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York. In Southern California, the Pacific Electric Railway connected most cities in Los Angeles and Orange Counties, and the Inland Empire. There were similar systems in Europe. One of the more notable rail systems connected every town and city in Belgium.
The remnants of these systems still exist, and in many places they have been modernized to become part of the urban "rapid transit" system in their respective areas.
Diesel locomotives are electric locomotives with an on-board generator powered by a Diesel engine. The first Diesel locomotives were low-powered machines used in switching yards. Diesel and electric locomotives are cleaner, more efficient, and require less maintenance than steam locomotives. By the 1950's, Diesel and electric power had replaced steam power on most of the world's railroads.
In the 20th century, highways and air travel replaced railroads for most long-distance passenger travel in the United States, but railroads remain important for hauling freight in the United States, and for passenger transport in many other countries.
In York is The National Railway Museum (NRM) of the UK.
Timeline of Rail Transport History