Trains played a huge role in the Industrial Revolution in the US and Europe and enjoyed a 100-year reign as the preferred mode of transportation for urbanites, the military and even the postal service.
Then the aviation industry soared into the spotlight and rail travel, much like ship travel, receded into the background. Is there a light at the end of the tunnel for rail travel? Or is it too late?
1) Ancient Trains
Long before the Japanese bullet train or the Swedish eco-friendly ‘green’ train or even Thomas the Tank Engine, there was the ‘wagonway’; a wooden cart that was pulled along tracks carved in limestone.
Invented by the Greeks, wagonways were powered by horses, making them slow-moving but nonetheless, the preferred alternative to the horse and buggy.
It required far less exertion to cart boulders along a rigid, smooth track than an uneven winding road, which is perhaps why this early ‘train’ remained in use for over 600 years.
A horse-drawn railway coach from the late 18th century. Wikimedia.
2) The Power of Steam
It wasn’t until 1804 that the train as we know it began to take shape. Made in England and powered using coal and water, the steam locomotive was faster than its horse-powered predecessor (reaching speeds of 70 miles per hour) but not very convenient.
Longer trips (a train ride from Boston to North Carolina, for instance), would involve multiple train transfers and even a few ferry rides.
Nevertheless, the steam locomotive remained the choice mode of transportation (of both cargo and people) until the 1940s, when, due to rising labor costs, the steam locomotive was replaced by easier-to-operate diesel and electric trains.
Steam locomotives could reach speeds of 70mph. Photo by Nova Scotia Archives
Steam trains were replaced by newer models like this Russian diesel locomotive. Wikimedia.
3) The British Contribution
Though the American rail system was impressive (by 1850, every state on the continent was accessible by train), it was the British who took this new form of transportation and powered full-steam ahead with it.
Not only were the British the first to create an inter-city railway and the world’s first subway system (in 1863), they also built the world’s longest railway in Canada and helped spur India toward modernization with the creation of a massive tangle of train tracks that crisscrossed the sub-continent.
Now, with 2,500 train stations, India’s rail system remains one of the largest in the world.
Constructing the world’s first underground railway near Kings Cross Station, 1861. Wikimedia.
London tube map from 1908. Wikimedia.
4) Train Travel Derailed in the US
Today, though rail travel continues to chug forward in densely-populated countries in Europe and Asia, it has all but sputtered to a stop in the US.
For better or for worse, America is a country of car-lovers; and has been since the 1930’s (when passenger train ticket sales first began to slip).
Some cite the US’s low cost of diesel fuel for American’s preference for the Toyota Tacoma over Thomas the Tank (if gas is cheap, why bother with public transportation?)
Others blame the interstate highway system, which after opening in the 1950s, made piling into the family station-wagon for a weekend road trip much more enticing.
Abandoned trains are a symbol of the US’ broken love affair with rail travel. Photo by wiki_hybrid
5) Airplane Appeal
Perhaps the biggest culprit in the crash of US rail travel, however, was the rise of the aviation industry.
Air travel was not only faster and cheaper than train travel, but thanks to skimpy flight attendants’ uniforms, it was sexier too.
6) Quick as a Bullet: the World’s Fastest Train
Airplane-fanatics, beware: trains have been picking up speed. A French bullet train broke world records in 2007 when it was clocked traveling at 357 mph.
Though a 747 jet’s cruising speed is faster (averaging around 500 miles per hour), when you factor in the time an airline passenger spends at security check points, baggage claims or departure gates, the difference in total door-to-door travel time is miniscule.
French TGV “bullet trains” can reach speeds of 357mph. Wikimedia.
7) Plane Aggression
In a New York Times article that pitted air and rail travel against one another, reporter Joe Sharkey wrote that the highlight of his 26-hour train ride from Florida to New York was that he wasn’t given a pat-down or called a terrorist and that “nobody hollered at me to sit down or turn off my electronic devices.”
His point was a good one. These days, air travel seems synonymous with evasive body scanners and baggage fees. Train travel, with its relative ease of boarding and hassle-free seating is, by comparison, relatively stress-free.
8) Railway Nostalgia
Train rides hanker back to a day when there was a simple innocence to travel; a day which the aviation industry hasn’t seen in decades.
This nostalgia for the railroad is evident by the number of tour companies marketing tours on restored vintage trains rand by the popularity of the UK’s posh, 26-passenger ‘Flying Scotsman’ or Russia’s Trans-Siberian Railway.
Taking eight days to complete, a ride on-board a historic Trans-Siberian train is a travel adventure in itself and on many a travelers’ bucket-list.
The Flying Scotsman re-creates a bygone era of rail travel. Photo by Train Chartering.
9) The Future’s Green
Advances in Europe are being made towards replacing diesel and electric trains with eco-friendly “green” trains.
In 2008, the Swedes created a magnet-powered ‘green train’ which uses 20-30 percent less fuel than diesel or electric trains, and without losing any speed (it can travel over 180 miles per hour).
With the US angling to jump on-board the train revolution and create a high-speed train of its own, it would seem the world is poised to fall in love with rail travel all over again.
The Swedish Regina uses 20% less fuel than diesel or electric trains. Wikimedia.
Has the railroad featured in your travels? Do planes or trains get your vote? Let me know in the comments.
If you liked this, you might also like: Photo Essay: The History of Air Travel.
Main image: a steam locomotive c. 1852 by Patoc.