History of Trains
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Early Years Of The Train

Most people conceive of a train as a series of cars that roll along a pair of steel rails, but a close look at the history of trains shows that the earliest trains were "wagonways" that were used in ancient Greece.

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The Diolkos wagonway was in use in Greece circa 600 B.C.E. In practice, wagonways were transport tracks where “[w]heeled vehicles pulled by men and animals ran in grooves in limestone, which provided the track element, preventing the wagons from leaving the intended route.” Railways disappeared during the Dark Ages, but returned in the 1300s and evolved into what we know today. As people became more skilled in working with iron ores and steel, railroads took advantage of the smoother ride provided by steel tracks and wheels designed to absorb shock and minimize jostling.

In the 1500s, trains along with railroads eventually evolved into a major form of transport. Wagonways were again being used in the mid-1500s in Germany.  This type of Wagonway had rails made of wood: wagons were ridden over the wooden rails which made travel easier; hence the name wagonways.  These early railed roads were the precursor to the railroads for trains.

It was not until the late 1770s that the railed roads were created with iron instead of wood.  Horses continued to pull wheeled wagons on the rails, and these rails eventually spread throughout areas in Europe.  In the late 1780s, the very first flanged wheeled wagon was created by William Jessup. These wheels hosted special groves that allowed the wheels to be positioned on the iron rails more perfectly.  The new wheels improved the actual grip that the wheels offered and this design later evolved into the modern train wheel.

In the early 1800s, Samuel Homfray funded the creation of a steam powered locomotive to serve as a replacement for the horse powered wooden cart.  This machine was created by Richard Trevithick and in 1804, the steam powered vehicle hauled five wagons, seventy men, and ten tons of iron from Merthyr Tydifil, Wales to Abercynnon.  The two hour trip involved a distance of nine miles in all. 

After years of seeing trains used to move goods and raw materials, George Stephenson, an English railway engineer, designed a steam locomotive to pull passenger cars. On September 27, 1825, English railroad Stockton and Darlington Railway began regular services for passenger transport using Stephenson’s steam locomotive. This date marks the inaugural of the first steam-hauled public railroad. Stateside, the Tom Thumb, Peter Cooper’s steam engine, was built in 1829, and first ran on the Baltimore and Ohio (B&O) Railroad in 1830. The B&O was the first public railroad in the United States.

History Of Trains: Evolution

In the early 1820s, a passenger train design was created and patented by Julius Griffiths.  Five years later, the Stockton & Darlington company began to transport passengers as well as products using locomotives that were created by George Stephenson.  The vehicles that he created could carry 450 people in 21 passenger vehicles and could cover the distance of nine miles in half the time that the first steam powered locomotive could in one hour.  Historians consider the first tramway locomotive the creation of Richard Trevithick and the first steam powered locomotive the creation of George Stephenson.

John Stephens is considered by some to be the father of the railroads in America.  In the late 1820s. Stephens illustrated the power of a steam locomotive on an experimental circular track that he erected at his Hoboken estate in the state of New Jersey.  He was also the recipient of the very first railroad charter in the year 1815.  Fifteen years later, the Tom Thumb was created by Peter Cooper. Tom Thumb  was the very first steam locomotive that was built in America and that operated a railroad that was a common carrier.  In the late 1850s, a sleeping train car was created by George Pullman. 

In the year 1930, the Pioneer Zephyr was created by General Motors; this train could not necessarily compete with the speed of a steam operated locomotive at the time, but it could get up to 78 miles per hour.  In the late 1930s, a train called the Mallard was created in England that could achieve upwards of 120 miles per hour. This train is still one of the fastest steam operated trains to date.  In the early 1940s, the Big Boy trains could achieve 70 miles an hour, and there were 25 in existence.  These vehicles were used up until 1960 when they were finally taken out of service.  By the mid 1940s diesel operated trains were becoming the norm as steam operated vehicles started to lose domination in the transport industry. 

Faster, Better Trains

By the 1960s and the 1970s, the creation of comfortable, speedier trains became a big interest.  In 1964, the first high speed train was created by the Japanese; the train was called the Shinkansen and it could achieve up to 125 miles per hour.  In the 1970s, a train that operated through magnetic levitation was created and was identified as the Maglev.  The latter train operates via an electromagnetic reaction between a guide way and an onboard device, and it rides on a special air cushion.  By the 1970s, the majority of trains were operated with diesel fuel since the fuel was far cleaner to burn than coal.

There are a number of high speed trains in the world today.  In France, the Train a Grande Vitesse can travel at just over 186 to 199 miles per hour.  In Germany and in China, there are also high speed trains that can travel between 186 and 199 miles per hour; the Inter City Express in Germany, the Wuhan Guangzhou HSR, and the Intercity Rail in Beijing. The Shanghai Maglev Train, which began operation in 2003,  can achieve about 270 miles per hour: this is a commercial train that is not in use for intercity transit.

Currently many people are focused on creating even greener or economically friendly trains and investment in such a locomotive remains substantial. Some are looking for economical methods for making locomotives that operate off of the energy collected from fuel cells.