Trains are magical machines that stimulate the imagination. From The Little Engine That Could to the Hogwarts Express, stories and films are filled with trains and the amazing places they go. Trains can run over bridges high in the mountains. They can travel underground. Now, they can even levitate on high-tech electromagnetic tracks. The invention of trains in the 19th century and the vast network of tracks that were built changed the world forever. Today, new trains and railway technology are carrying us into the future. All aboard!
The earliest trains were on wooden tracks built for hauling “freight”—coal and other goods that needed to be transported to market. They were just a series of carts strung together and pulled by horses or even people. The smooth tracks helped the wheels of the train glide along. But for trains to really move, they needed another source of power.
The invention of the steam engine was just the thing. For a long time, people had noticed that if you heated water in a container with a lid, the steam would pop the lid off. In 1775, the Scottish inventor James Watt used this idea to create a steam-powered mechanical engine that could turn a wheel. Following up on this, other inventors in Great Britain began making steam engines to power trains in the early 1800s—and their inventions ushered in the Industrial Revolution.
Trains carried people, raw materials, and products more cheaply and quickly than ever before. In the early 1800s, new railroad companies in Great Britain began laying tracks like mad. In a way, the railway system was like the first Internet, connecting people to places and things they had never dreamed of.
Trains quickly caught on outside of Great Britain. By 1860 in the United States, train tracks linked the major cities of the Northeast and their factories to the grain-growing centers of the Midwest. Business and trade expanded wildly. The owners of railroad companies became millionaires. And soon they wanted to take the rail system all the way to the Pacific Ocean.
Two railroad companies were given the right to build the first transcontinental railroad. The Union Pacific company started laying track in Omaha, Nebraska, and went west. The Central Pacific started in northern California and went east. They were supposed to meet in the middle—and the perilous project took over six years to complete.
Thousands of workers—mostly immigrants from China and Ireland—stretched out over miles of landscape, laying ribbons of iron track, laying down wooden ties, and hammering in railway spikes. Conditions for the workers were tough—construction went on through freezing storms and blazing desert heat. The work was slow and dangerous. The route went over the craggy Sierra Nevada Mountains, where tunnels had to be blasted through the rock. Some workers died in explosions and avalanches.
Finally, the two companies began to get closer and closer together, and a huge “joining of the rails” ceremony was planned. The vice-president of the Union Pacific, Thomas Durant, took a private train west down the newly laid track. Meanwhile, the head of the Central Pacific, Leland Stanford, took a private train east.
Both men almost didn’t make it.
Durant’s train was stopped in Wyoming by a group of 400 angry railway workers who had not received their pay for three months. They chained Durant’s train to the tracks, and only released it two day later when they got their money.
Stanford’s locomotive got wrecked when workers didn’t see his train coming and rolled a log down onto the tracks. Both Stanford’s and Durant’s trains had to steam into the meeting place at Promontory Summit, Utah, with different locomotives than the ones they started with.
When the two trains ultimately met, facing each other on the tracks on May 10, 1869, Stanford took a sledgehammer and drove in the final railway spike—the “Golden Spike”—that connected the east and west coasts of the United States for the first time. Suddenly, a cross-country journey that had once taken months could now be completed in a week. The Golden Age of railways had truly begun.
Between 1870 and 1916, the length of railway track in the United States grew from 53,000 to 245,000 miles. By 1916, there were 85,000 train stations in the United States, and 98 percent of all passenger traffic between cities was carried on rails. That meant almost everyone traveled by train.
Around the world, train stations were viewed as the gateways to cities, and many were built to be grand and beautiful. They were called “castles and cathedrals of travel” and “temples for trains.” Trains themselves could be luxurious, too. Some were like rolling hotels, with fancy dining cars and private sleeping cars.
Trains reigned supreme for over a hundred years. But the invention and popularity of airplanes, cars, trucks, and buses meant competition for trains—especially in the United States. Now, most travelers make trips between cities by car, bus, or plane. While freight trains are still important—they carry some of the heaviest loads over the longest distances—trucks now transport the majority of commercial goods.
Trains, however, are more important than ever in the world’s most crowded cities. “Urban rail” has a lot of different names. It’s called the subway in New York City. The metro in Paris and Washington D.C. The underground in London. The skytrain in Bangkok. What all urban rail systems have in common is that they run under, through, or over cities on dedicated rails with frequent station stops. About 160 cities around the world have urban rail systems, and that number is growing all the time. Dubai in the United Arab Emirates opened its first metro system in 2009, using completely driverless, automated trains. And in China, where there are already more metro systems than in any other country, 25 more cities have metros under construction or planned.
Train technology is always changing. While some historic steam trains survive, most freight trains are pulled by locomotives powered by diesel engines. Most commuter and metro trains operate on electricity from the power grid. High-speed trains are also catching on around the world. These electricity-powered trains usually operate between major destinations and have their own tracks so they can speed along without stopping at speeds over 150 mph. Riding in a high-speed train produces much less air pollution than going the same distance by plane. Japan, China, Taiwan, South Korea, France, Germany, Italy, Turkey, and Spain all use high-speed train networks to connect big cities. Want to go even faster? A few trains use powerful electromagnets and actually levitate above their tracks—so there’s no friction—shooting by at speeds over 300 mph.
People seem to have a need for speed. The only high-speed train in the United States is the Acela Express operated by Amtrak, which travels between Boston, New York City, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington, D.C. It actually has to share the track with other trains, so it can’t always operate at its top speed of 150 mph. But it’s become so popular that Amtrak is ordering longer trains to accommodate more passengers.
Written by Margaret Mittelbach.[wp-simple-survey-25]