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  • Leopold Huber

The History of Rail Transport

Trains and coaches are some of the fastest, environmentally cleanest, most efficient, and oldest modes of transport still used today. They connect many population centres and link industries worldwide. In this article I will explore the history of rail transport. 


Origins and early evolution 

One of the first predecessors of rail transport was discovered in the ancient city of Babylon and dates to around 2,200 BCE. It was a stone wagon-way, that supported travellers on the muddy, uneven ground. It functioned by placing a wagon wheel inside grooves carved in stone, which directed the cart along the path and made transportation easier. Even though it supported horse drawn wagons, not steel trains, its design concept would eventually inspire today's railways. 

Another example of ancient causeways was the Diolkos in ancient Greece near the Corinth Dam, which is located in the Gulf of Corinth. The 6-8km long limestone track was used to transport ships from the Ionian to the Aegean Sea. The boats would be carried by wheeled platforms, whose wheels would be placed inside parallel grooves in the track. This would keep the wheels robust and stable and reduce the amount of effort needed to pull the boats. Similar tracks would also be constructed in Roman Egypt, though sometimes instead of using grooves they had latches or other mechanism. 


Later developments and industrial period 

Tracks would be built in the same manner and for largely the same purposes until the 1500s, when wooden tracks started being used to transport mine-carts (small, wheeled crates) in and out of mines and quarries. The tracks and carts made bringing the ore to the surface easier and saved time and manual labour. Therefore, mines could improve efficiency while reducing their workforce, which resulted in lower iron and coal costs. Then, in the 1760s, people started to cover the wooden tracks in cast iron. This increased the durability of the tracks, the speed and angle the carts could travel and added more possibilities when designing rail lines, such as merging tracks. Therefore, mines could be dug deeper and more complex, increasing the total output of resources. 

The first functional rail system powered not by muscle, but steam power, was built by Richard Trevithick, a Cornish engineer in 1804. It transported materials and people in tracked carts moved by a single cylinder steam boiler and engine. Eight years later, in 1812, the first commercially successful railway was built in Leeds. From there on rail transport increased exponentially. At first only major cities, industries and logistic centres were connected but eventually even some smaller frontier towns had rail access. Railways were especially common near iron and coal settlements, as there was high demand for transportation and coal and iron was cheap. The new rail industry also created more demand for iron, coal and steel and created many jobs in different sectors. The increased demand, interconnectivity and productivity are cited as one of the major causes of the industrial revolution. 

Rail technology continued to advance with new designs and techniques being developed. Trains began running on electricity or diesel and tracks started to be made from hard steel. These developments made travel on the rails faster, more comfortable, and quicker. Trains were also widely used in both world wars to transport troops and resources. Some were heavily armoured to withstand attacks while others carried massive guns and became mobile artillery pieces. 


Contemporary era and decline 

In 1964, the first high speed rail system reaching 220km per hour was built between Tokyo and Osaka during Japan's post war economic boom. They used bullet trains, which run on specialized tracks and require powerful electric engines to go much faster than conventional ones. Several months later, high speed railways were being built worldwide and would eventually exceed 300km/h. Bullet trains primarily transport passengers, but some also act as freight trains and carry goods.  

These days scientists and engineers are experimenting with hydrogen trains, which emit less emissions than regular electric and diesel trains. But the technology’s application is still quite far away as there are safety concerns about the use of hydrogen, which is explosive, and the current cost of hydrogen trains, which are up to 80% more expensive than their contemporaries. But there is hope yet, as the cost of hydrogen is predicted to fall in the future. 

Since the 1950s, train companies have had to deal with the growing airplane and motor vehicle market. Due to this new competition, rail transport of goods and especially passengers continued to fall until the late 20th century. Since then, train usage has started to increase, but it still has not regained its past prominence. This is due to modern technology, increased urban congestion, and more environmental awareness. 












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