Delving through historical accounts of railroad construction presents a fascinating insight into engineering technology, construction practices, and the progress of civilization through the centuries. Transport history buffs will know that rail manufacturing & construction has not only given us the means to travel faster across land but also changed the way we live. Let’s take a closer look at the remarkable history of railways.
The 16th-18th Century: making way for wagons
The earliest noted use of tracks was in mine work. Tubs and wagons were placed on tracks for easier manoeuvring through tunnels. The first recorded above-ground wagonway was built in England in around 1604 and was approximately two miles long. More than a century later, in 1758, the Middleton Railway carried coal from the town of Middleton to Leeds and was intended for horse-drawn wagons. It was in 1799 when the wooden tracks were replaced with iron-edge rails. Soon, this railway became the first commercial track to use steam locomotives.
19th Century: here come the trains
In 1803, the Surrey Iron Railway in London connected the towns of Croydon and Wandsworth, and it featured a double-track plateway. Even though the line was closed in 1846, a part of it is still being used by London Tramlink today. The steam locomotive made its way to the tracks in 1804. Built by Richard Trevithick, it was named Penydarren and had the ability to carry ten tonnes of iron.
Railroad construction continued to meet the increasing demand for transportation, not only of goods but also people. The first railway service that required passengers to pay for fairs was established in Wales. The Mumbles Railway was laid out in the form of a plateway and made use of horse-drawn vehicles. The first service that didn’t require animal power at all ran between the industrial powerhouses of Liverpool and Manchester, opening in 1830.
Railway technology also flourished in the United States. In 1815, Colonel John Stevens obtained the first railroad charter in North America. He founded the New Jersey Railroad Company. Stevens showcased a steam-powered horse carriage, which he called a Steam Waggon, in 1826. In 1830, the first railway was opened, and it had 23 miles of track featuring hardwood topped with iron. Construction continued in earnest; in New York alone, there had been more than a hundred railroads taking goods and people to different places.
Railroad engineering and construction was also done in earnest in Cuba, Italy, Poland, Ireland, Scotland, Switzerland, Spain, Chile, India, Russia, Egypt, Norway, Portugal, and Finland, among other developing countries.
From coal, locomotives began to use other materials for power. Many railroad tracks had to be reworked or rebuilt to accommodate new train transport technologies. Electrification of railways became common by the end of the 19th century and the network was a vital part of the development of infrastructure and the economy within nations.
20th Century: exploring power sources
Diesel and magnets joined coal, steam, and electricity on the track as time wore on. Scientists and engineers continued to research and develop technologies that would make rail transport faster, more efficient and more convenient. The goal was to provide a means of mass transport that can compete with both air and road. Speed, space, and safety are top concerns. The 200mph Japanese bullet trains in particular have set the pace both in terms of the speeds they can achieve and the latest in design and technological advancements.
Railroad development, manufacturing, and construction continues into the 21st century as technology progresses and the need for a faster and more convenient transport system increases. Each step forward builds on the pioneering work of more than 500 years, using the best advancements of the day as well as pushing the boundaries of innovation to help drive forward other sectors.