The origins

A network of railway lines covering the continents made it possible for everyone, who could afford to buy a ticket, to quickly and comfortably reach destinations that had been previously accessible to adept wayfarers only. Trains not only enabled people to travel long distance on land but they also provided a means for quick and smooth freight transport. No carriage was capable of hauling a load of cargo comparable to that conveyed by railway vehicles. The options offered by mass passenger and freight transport accelerated the development of cities, regions and factories. Thus, the history of rail transport is simultaneously the history of progress.



The developing transcontinental railroads contributed to the unification of the people of the United States into one nation, and later in Russia it facilitated the revolution. The railway was an important element of the trading and industrial infrastructure in the extensive territories of colonies in Africa and Australia.


The competing European nations recognised the strategic significance of trains upon their invention. The potential of the new machine enabled the engineers and technicians of that time to put brave and ingenious plans into effect. All of this provides evidence of the revolutionary nature of changes occurring in the everyday life of people thanks to the railway. The ease of communication forced the introduction of time zones into the lives of communities that had previously set their clocks according to their own needs or in accordance with the local movement of the sun. The development of railways also entailed transformations in metallurgy, statistics, physics and management, which at first glance were less obvious. The progress of railway technology contributed to the broadening of knowledge in many fields, often by various experiments. For more than one hundred years the railway industry made use of steam, and coal was the main fuel to produce it. Also, other sources of energy were used: timber, peat dust, sugar cane stalks, cotton production waste and straw, and from 1890 oil was a common resource. The golden age of railways is the period between 1850 and 1920 when it was the main means of land transport.


Initially, internal combustion engines were not a real threat for railroad transport. From the early 20th century countries in which technology was highly developed were concerned about the development of electric traction. With regard to specific urban traffic conditions, at the end of the 19th century city electric railways (tramways) were developing intensely. However, World War I brought rapid technological progress in the area of automotive design and production. This was connected with the introduction of the assembly line and an inexpensive engine by Henry Ford in the 1920s. As a consequence, the car, the bus and the lorry became dangerous competitors of the train, in particular in developed countries. However, the concept of rail transport was not to be relinquished. New technologies were adapted and larger, faster and more efficient steam locomotives were built. The process was the most noticeable in the United States of North America, where the largest steam locomotives were built regardless of the coming age of diesel and electric locomotives.


Electric and diesel drives enhanced the efficiency of locomotives. They also improved the performance to operating costs ratio, thus enabling trains to develop higher speed. Their use also resulted in reduced air pollution and minimized the risk of setting fire by accident while travelling. All these advantages contributed to the phasing out of steam locomotives from regular use. But nowadays steam locomotives are still used on special occasions. More and more people are fascinated by their charm and power…

Stone rutways

The railway is not a one-man invention. Many constructors have made their contribution in its development. The ancestral origins of the idea of rail transport date back to ancient times, which is proved by the traces of stone rutways which have survived to date. Craftsmen would carve grooves in stone paved roads in which wheeled vehicles ran. They were particularly useful in the mountains and on winding routes, because they maintained carriages in place, preventing them from tipping to the sides and sliding down steep roads, so they could be safely guided on road bends. The spacing between the wheel-ruts matched the ordinary wheelspan used in the specific area and – depending on the region – it ranged from approx. 1,350 mm to 1,500 mm. Probably the normal gauge of 1,435 mm, now the most common railway gauge over the world, derives from rut spacing popular as early as 1630.

Stone ruts in the ancient road, "City of Midas' in Turkey

Might is right on the passing loop

The definite majority of roads were single lane, so passing loops were designed at certain intervals to enable vehicles travelling in the opposite direction to pass through. If the vehicles met between the passing loops, the less stately or simply the weaker traveller had to retreat with his carriage to the nearest passing loop or temporarily pull over to the side of the road. Often, the passing right was a reason for disputes or even duels since not everyone was willing to give way. In the Greek myth about Oedipus, the hero – refusing to give way – killed an old stranger (who in fact was his father, Laius) approaching from the opposite direction. The above-mentioned episode indirectly proves that rutways did exist in ancient Greece. With time road surface was lined across with stone slabs and wheel-ruts gradually disappeared. The travelling method used in the past was revived only after many centuries.

Wooden tracks preserved in the medieval silver mine in Suggental, Germany

The rattle of wheels on wooden tracks

Tracks – in the form known to us – assuredly derive from wooden planks preventing wheels of load carrying barrows or carts from getting stuck in sandy or muddy ground. Such provisional “tracks” made of planks are also built in our times, e.g. in construction sites. Assumedly, already our medieval ancestors erecting monumental castles and cathedrals built them.


But the real track was not built in the construction site but it came to life underground. The first primitive trackways were built in coal and iron ore mines for the needs of horse-drawn tubs and human-powered carts. At that time natural wheel-ruts reinforced with timber were used as rails. However, the most frequently used solution involved chutes built from planks in which the additional fifth wheel at the front of the vehicle would run. Later, the planks were replaced by wooden beams. The beam rails were nailed to wooden cross-ties. Such trackway was used to transport hard coal and ores from the drift in small trolleys. This was a significant convenience for miners who previously had to carry all the coal from the mine to the surface on their backs. In the narrow headings rails not only eliminated the problem of mining trolley wheels sinking but also outline their track for safety reasons. In the darkness under the ground it was possible to overrun people or other trolleys. The first records come from the 16th century mines in Germany.


The first tracks outside the mine were built in England around 1600. Trolleys filled with coal or ore were pulled by horses to the local river or canal or to the seaside where the cargo was loaded onto vessels. One draft horse was capable of transporting the amount of coal corresponding to the amount carried by as many as 30 pack horses. With time wooden tracks were also put into use to transport other materials, e.g. products from factories or stone blocks from quarries. Many trolleys were equipped with wheels with a special bulge on the inside thanks to which they did not slip off the rails and stayed on the right track all the time. This invention can be observed in contemporary trains.


The material from which the rails were produced at that time, that is timber, had two serious drawbacks: firstly, it was quickly worn out and secondly, wooden tracks could not carry excessive loads. Soon, an improvement was introduced – it consisted in reinforcing the tracks with metal strips; later they were covered with iron or cast iron plates. To the order of Richard Reynolds, the owner of ironworks, in 1767 long narrow plates were cast from iron and nailed to rails. Such reinforced tracks could be used to carry much heavier loads and the carriages rolled much more smoothly. Reynolds' decision was influenced by economic crisis and the related rapid drop in prices of metallurgical products. At that time the director of large metal works in Coalbrookdale decided to stop the sale of cast iron produced there until the prices rose again. To prevent the overstuffing of warehouses, he ordered the temporary use of cast iron plates to reinforce tracks owned by a wooden transport track company. Cast iron reinforcement proved to be stronger than timber and it quickly gained popularity.


Then there came cast iron

The structure of the rail track materially changed in the second half of the 18th century with the invention of an L-shaped cast iron rail. In 1789, an Englishman, William Jessop, used a rail resembling the shape of a contemporary rail. He put carriages equipped with flanged wheels on tracks made completely from cast iron. Soon, his invention was brought to the largest European economic centre at that time in Upper Silesia. Thus, horse-drawn narrow-gauge industrial railway was put into operation as the first railway in the present-day territory of Poland and at the same time on the European continent.


Cast iron tracks increased transport capacity 10 to 15 fold. Thus, at the turn of the 18th century numerous societies were formed to take up the construction of new horse-drawn railways for the needs of industry and trade. Iron rails were in use from 1820 and steel ones – from 1862.


Fragment of tracks with steel L-shaped rails on which Richard Trevithick's steam locomotive ran in 1804 at the Penydarren Ironworks in Wales
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© Całość praw autorskich - Antoni Bochen, Filip Wiśniewski