A brief History of Railways

by Olav Naess

The Beginning

The railways developed gradually from road transport when paved roads were first replaced by wooden rails, then wooden rail protected by iron on the top, and finally steel rails. This evolution occurred mainly in mines, for transporting the heavy ores and coal.

When this technology was adapted for railway use outside mines, steam engines were used for pulling trains, and these were rolling on steel rails placed on levelled ground. The locomotives were so heavy that the trains were naturally adopted for transporting heavy goods, and passenger wagons, made of heavy steel and wood, were regarded as a natural part of this heavy transport system.

The split-wagon monorail patented by Henry Robinson Palmer in 1821. This historical rail system was built for transporting bricks in Cheshunt, England, in 1825. (Another)

The first useful railways (between cities) came in England around 1830, and soon followed in other countries. When electric motors came about 1900, the engines became so light that real passenger trains could be built. That is: Trains with a weight adapted to the weight of the passengers could be built. This happened in Wuppertal, Germany, where a railway line was built above the river and city streets in 1901.

The Mental Blocks

It had now been demonstrated that multi-level ground transport could be achieved if the light-weight transport – with passengers, mail and other light goods – were elevated above the ground traffic. Transport of these light parts is more urgent, so the need for this traffic separation should be obvious.

But the habit of mixing passenger and heavy freight was now so ingrained that its consequences were not rationally analyzed. Trains running along steel beams (called monorails, sometimes beamway trains) were regarded as curiosities, and this emotional attitude blocks rational thinking.

Shaping of the Habit

Railways first developed in quite flat countries having large population densities. The flatness meant that heavy trains on the ground were acceptable. The trains were rather slow, so it could be assumed that humans and animals could get out of the way when those noisy trains were approaching. At that time – almost two centuries ago – there was little concern for wild animals.

As train speeds (and concerns for safety) increased, it was often found necessary to fence in the tracks. Railway lines would then become barriers for extended lengths. These barriers – and the placements of crossings – fit quite well into a pattern of property fencing which may be regarded as indicating a rather feudal society.

Those working with railway technology have now become so locked into single-level passenger+freight thinking that they are unable to consider multi-level ground transport.

When high-speed train lines are planned, the need for heavy freight there is not questioned. The experts used as consultants are committed to combined freight and passenger railways.

Arrested Development

When the Wuppertal monorail was built over a river and streets in 1901, a parallel budding progress occurred in car technology. Electric cars were then quite common, but the need for fast cars with a long range was stronger than a battery performance progress that could have amended the situation, so electric cars nearly vanished for almost a century. The oil industry was also much stronger than governmental and other environmental initiatives for improving the environment.

Pseudo-future trains

When development of future technology is uncritically based on outdated thinking, our society goes backwards into a messy future.

Those developing high-speed maglev trains should be aware that this is for transporting people, and it is very unwise to base this new technology on the old ground-based freight trains for 10-15 times heavier loads. High speed operation on the ground level is imperiled by many disturbing factors.

Copyleft   Olav Næss 2014