An Essay on Railways and Other Things.

Some quotes on locomotion:

‘The wise man delights in water; the good man delights in mountains. The wise move; the good stay still.’ – Confucius,‘The Analects.’

‘This division of labour, from which so many advantages are derived, is not originally the effect of any human wisdom …It is the necessary, though very slow and gradual, consequence of a certain propensity in human nature which has in view no such extensive utility; the propensity to truck, barter and exchange one thing for another.’ – Adam Smith, ‘The Wealth of Nations.’

‘The heavens themselves run continually round, the sun riseth and sets, the moon increaseth, stars and planets keep their constant motions, … to teach us that we should ever be in motion.’ – Robert Burton,‘The Anatomy of Melancholy.’

Before the railway …

The wise move … Thomas Sowell writing about geographic isolation in ‘Wealth, Poverty and Politics,’ quotes an old Catalan saying, ‘Always go down, never go up,’ that relates to lagging groups in society. In physical nature no such thing as the level playing field. Mountainous regions, like the barrier of vast deserts, are remote from the great movements of productive exchange of ideas and trade that move along river valleys.

Once rivers and seas were a barrier to travel also, but when humans happened on making rafts and dug-out canoes in pre-historic times, navigable rivers and shallow seas became both a challenge and opportunity for human movement. As long ago as 60,000 years, humans travelled out of Africa across the neck of the Red Sea, island hopping as far south as Australia.

Sea travel became the first transport revolution. While hunters and gatherers in Neolithic times were still roaming the hinterlands of continents, on the maritime fringe of continents new ways to travel, boats plying the Nile, Indus, Euphrates Rivers and the Yangtse River in China. By 3,000 BC, the Egyptians and Phoenicians were using sails to harness the wind. Around 1,200 BC, the Phoenicians, cutting cedar and cypress timber in nearby forests, were building sea going ships, bireme galleys with two rows of oars for near shore navigation.

Propensity to barter and exchange … Soon these larger Phoenician ships, with benefit of wind power and just a few crew, were able to transport heavy cargo, faster, further and cheaper than the most efficient caravan driven by donkeys, horses or camels were able to do on land. The Phoenicians traded in spices, resins, purple dye, metals, and all around the Mediterranean, markets expanded into towns and ports into cities.


Stars and planets keep their constant motions … Knowledge of navigating by sun and stars, invention of the compass by the Chinese or perhaps by Arabs and Chinese independently, along with developments in sails and various forms of steering rudders, enabled boats to make longer journeys by sea.

As Matt Ridley observes in his book, ‘The Rational Optimist:’
‘Suddenly a large-scale sea-borne division of labour became a possibility: wheat from Egypt could feed the Hittites in Anatolia, wool from Anatolia could clothe the Egyptians on the Nile; olive oil from Crete could enrich the diets of Assyrians in Mesopotamia.’

Faster, longer, cheaper …

A half century before Columbus crossed the Atlantic to the Americas, Chinese admiral, Zheng He, between 1405 and 1433, with an armada of 300 ships, sailing further than Columbus, made several expeditions across the Indian Ocean, dispensing and receiving goods along the way, visiting Brunei, Java, Thailand, East Asia, Arabia and reaching the Horn of Africa.

The nine-masted ships of his armada, with compass, and advanced design elements that included water-tight compartments, were ready and able to trade Chinese porcelain, cotton, silk and tea with the world, but the Ming Bureaucracy, distrusting innovation as a threat to their control, said ‘no’, destroying the armada and imposing severe restrictions on boat building and contacts with the outside world.

The next naval innovations, faster, longer, cheaper, were to come from Western nations, culminating in the long voyages of Captain Cook to the Antipodes with their far-reaching consequences, and those fast three-masted clipper ships, peak average speed 30km/h, bringing tea from China to London and raw cotton from West Indies and America to Liverpool, in less than four months. Dark side of course, the less publicized slave trade, and given the clippers’ speed and maneuverability, their usefulness to pirates.

The rest you know, larger, faster, cheaper, from steam power to the latest nuclear shipping, on the surface and even under-water, going deeper than man has gone before.

… And so to land transport …

That lo-o-ng, slow, transport revolution on land.

Trek…trek…trek. Much of that movement, humans legging it for millennia, out of Africa into Eurasia, as far south as Australia, even Tasmania, eventually migrating across Ice-Age land-bridges to the Americas.

Book of records’ longest trek by an individual likely Ibn Battista, age twenty-one, setting out from his native Morocco, AD 1325, on his first pilgrimage. By the time he arrived home thirty years later, he’d covered 130,000 kilometers. On foot, on horse back and camel, over water by boat, Ibn Battista visited every part of the Islamic world, India and Ceylon, then off to China. While many people through out history didn’t travel too far, for most of them, travelling was pied a terre to everywhere…Trek, trek, trek.

Until the 19th century, the revolution in transport meant developing animal power and the wheel. Oh you could have fun with this – ‘two legs good, four legs better,’ – ‘putting the horse before the cart,’ – or vice versa.’ Cart before horse? We’re not too sure about that. Horses had been domesticated for more than five millennia, but archeological evidence of what came first, riding or horse drawn transportation is unclear. There’s fossil evidence from Kazakhstan, around 3,500 BCE, from bit marks on horse teeth, that indicates that horses were being ridden there. Then there’s a prehistoric ceramic pot found in the excavation of a Neolithic site in Poland that presents the earliest evidence for the wheeled cart in Europe, carbon dated at around 3,400 BCE. There’s incision on the pot depicting a vehicle with a shaft for a draught animal, and four wheels with connecting lines probably representing axles.


Horses migrated too, out of Northern America. The horses depicted in cave paintings at Lascaux, 17,000 years BCE, were the descendents of early horses that migrated across Ice-Age land-bridges in the opposite direction to humans. For thousands of years horses were hunted for food, before they were domesticated and became, in so many ways, a necessary part of human life. As beasts of burden in Eurasia, horses, mules, donkeys became the pack animal of choice. In the Arab world camel caravans were the way to go, the acme of pack animals, source of wealth and power to Mohammad and his followers, camels could carry heavier loads than horses and find their own forage on route.

Traveling on horseback became a favorite pastime, especially with your aristocracy, knight errants, Sir Lancelot, Don Quixote on Rosinante, stuff of Romance Novels, the medieval pilgrimages on the little horses that Chaucer and a motley crew made to Canterbury. Developments in harness, bridles, saddles, stirrups and selective breeding for strength, knights in heavy armour had to be lowered onto their war horses, and breeding for speed. Horses had been used as mail couriers from way back. ‘There is nothing in the world that travels faster than the Persian Greek couriers.’ wrote the Greek historian Heroditus. In England in 15th century AD, horses were being used to carry the royal mail. In 1635, when a public postal service was introduced, post boys on horseback delivered the mail in relay.

Turn of the wheel.

In the land transport revolution, much depended on the wheel. No levity here, this invention is seriously significant, not just for transportation. Turns out the wheel was first used for non-travel purpose, for power on the spot, the potter’s wheel, 300 years before the chariot. And there’s follow-on, non-transport wheel technology as well, the water wheel, first on-land exploitation of inanimate power, taken to its technical zenith by Cistercian monks in the Middle Ages. Later, there’s the spinning wheel, dynamic trigger to the Industrial Revolution, arriving in Europe in the early Renaissance from the Middle East, possibly invented in India or China.

Used in land transport, first came the cart with solid wooden wheels. Your horse and wagon travel, your camel caravan, listen to Ravel’s ‘Bolero; and you get the pace.

For speed, the chariot, Hittite war machine. Around 2000 BCE, a critical invention, the spoked wheel, allowing construction of lighter, faster vehicles. From the solid wheels of carts to chariot wheels with eight spokes, then the four spoked wheels of Hittite chariots.

From thereon, down to the Railway Revolution, variation-on-a-theme-type-innovation, modifications in design of wagon wheels, axles and body designs. Faster, lighter or sturdier, smoother or more maneuverable, but the traditional pre-history wheel and undercarriage design survived up to the nineteenth century.

The Romans initially used spring wagons for long journeys, possibly using some form of suspension on chains or leather. A medieval development, the ‘chariot branlant’ was suspended on chains so that the compartment no longer rested on the axle and gave a smoother ride. The transport vehicles of the aristocracy, ‘the carriage,’ sometimes gilded, were normally suspended using leaf springs. In the 17th century these carriage springs were made of steel.


It was not until the 18th century that the carriage steering system was improved. Erasmus Darwin, famous name, when he was a young doctor visiting patients all over England, found problems with the commonly used light carriage which was difficult to steer and likely to overturn. He proposed a change on design with the two front wheels turning about a center lying on the extended line of the back axle, an idea that was later patented as Ackerman steering.

The road taken…

And of course, there’s a matter of the roads that chariots, coaches, carriages are driven on. Roads matter.

Says Hilaire Belloc:

‘More than rivers, more than mountain chains, roads have moulded the political groups of men. The Alps with a mule-track across them are less of a barrier than fifteen miles of forest or rough land separating them from that track.’

Roads, sometimes deplorable, but oft-times not. I’ve come across the following, ‘A History of Roads from Ancient Times to Now,’ part of a Master of Science in Civil Engineering Submission by H.R. Jacobson, that’s certainly worth reading.

Without the Romans’ extensive road system there would have been no Roman Empire, but as Jacobson shows, the Romans were not the first of the great road builders. The Egyptians built roads along the dykes of the River Nile, as early as 3,700 BCE, employed a superintendent in charge of repairs and road construction. Out of Egypt, three great highways, mentioned in the Bible, The Philistine Road to Syria, The Wall Road to Caanan, and The Red Sea Road, that crossed the wilderness between the two arms of the Red Sea.

Even earlier than Egypt, in the land between the two rivers, Euphrates and Tigris, the Babylonians in the south and the Assyrians in the north, were prolific road and bridge builders. Jacobson gives a detailed description from Babylonian tablet inscriptions of commerce along a network of roads and their construction, five feet deep excavation, layers of broken brick and pot herds, large blocks of gypsum laid in bitumen. Inscriptions also proclaim Assyrian efficiency as engineers, constructing roads through inaccessible regions, ‘piercing mountains and leveling rocks.’ This is Semeris, widow of the first Emperor speaking, administering authority of the Empire after the death of her husband, she’s a dynamo herself.

To the East in Rome’s heyday, in China, you’ve got the Silk Road, one of the most significant traffic arteries in history, stretching to the Middle East from Peking, one quarter the length of the Equator, trading not only in silk, porcelain spices and tea, but also in knowledge and ideas.

Then there’s Rome itself, with its twenty-nine roads radiating from the city and its great international highways connecting the entire Empire, a total length of 52000 miles. Jacobson gives a detailed description of their construction, the foundations in three or four courses to a depth of four feet, strong foundations and durable surface, built to last, very impressive effort by pick and shovel. Of course it’s done by forced labour or corvee, practiced from ancient times and continuing in most countries up to the 19th century, even in England when road workers began to receive wages.

With the fall of Rome and collapse of the Empire, the rise of petty kingdoms on Europe led to the disintegration of roads and to highway robbery of travellers. In the Middle Ages, while road construction did not altogether cease, you get your Charlemagnes occasionally, it was sporadic. As royal power increased, government laws on road building and maintenance were passed in various countries, by Lois X1V in France and Henry V111 in England, but mostly with indifferent results.

In the late 18th century, in Britain you get road and bridge construction by innovative engineer, Thomas Telford, nick-named ‘the Colossus of Roads,’ building roads and new design bridges, daring suspension bridges and bridges made of iron, throughout England Scotland and Wales. He was followed, early in the 19th century, by John Macadam with his macadamized roads that reduced the costs of road construction and maintenance, these men affecting a modern revolution in roads.

The next revolution, the coming of the railway.

The steam engine that heralded in the modern age of transport on land, faster, longer, higher, cheaper, was not so much invented as developed, from its first practical use as a steam-power machine to pump water out of coal mines, developed by English engineers Thomas Savey and Thomas Newcomen to James Watt’s improved design that enabled the engine’s back and forth motion to turn a wheel.

Watt’s developments initiated the possibility of locomotive transport and over the next few years he and his associates improved steam engine design enough to power a 6-8 mph train movement.

Coal trucks in mines had developed as rail carts because stiff wheel rolling on a rigid rail requires less energy than road wheels and is highly suitable for movement of bulk goods like coal, an incentive to experiment in rail-cart designs and flanged wheels. Before Stephenson’s Rocket, steam locomotion on tramways was successfully developed by Richard Trevithick. In 1804 the first railway journey by Trevithick’s steam engine hauled a train along the tramway of a mine in South Wales. Successful developments by other engineers soon followed.

In 1814, George Stephenson improved on these early designs, with his steam engine Blucher, first engine with flanged wheels, and in 1829, with his famous Rocket, that won a design competition to find the most suitable steam engine to haul trains. Stephenson’s Rocket was able to haul a load of 13 tons and was the fastest train ever built with the top speed of 30mp. George Stephenson and his son, Robert, were given the contract to produce locomotives for the new Liverpool to Manchester Railway which opened in 1830.

Faster, cheaper …

While the promoters of the competition were mainly interested in developing freight traffic, transporting cotton from the port of Liverpool to the Manchester textile mills, when they opened the railway they were surprised to find passenger traffic was just as remunerative. Steam locomotion, offering faster and cheaper transport than road transport was soon being developed on all continents.

If you want to see steam locomotion history at its most dramatic, take a look at the BBC story of railway developer, among other engineering feats, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, extraordinary name for an extraordinary engineer. Builder of great iron steamships, railways, suspension bridges, tunnels, viaducts for railway traveling at speed, train stations, including Paddington Station, experimenting with rail gauges for his Great Western Railway, by the end of his career he had built 1200 miles of rail, including stretches in Italy, Ireland and Bengal.

It’s kind of fitting, that in the 1930’s another English designed steam locomotive, The Mallard, traveling on the East Coast Grantham rail line, in July 1938, broke the world speed record with a speed of 126 mph.

Longer …

The United States with its great distances quickly developed railways, the first steam engines purchased from the Stephenson workshops. Perhaps the greatest railway achievement was the building of the Transcontinental Railroad, a world first, built between 1863 and 1869, linking the eastern and western halves of the continent.

The railroad was built in two parts, the Central Pacific, starting in San Francisco, and the Union Pacific, starting in Nebraska .and was built by army veterans and immigrant labour, mainly Irish and Chinese. Known as the ‘Pacific Railroad,’ it replaced slow and hazardous stage coaches and wagon trains, opening up vast regions of the North American heartland for settlement and commerce and providing fast, safe and cheap travel for passengers.

The next transcontinental railroad, breaking the American record as the longest railroad, was the Trans-Siberian Railway built between 1891 and 1916 under the supervision of Tsar Alexander 111. The world’s longest railway, crossing eight time zones the Trans-continental has southern branch links through Manchuria and Mongolia and a link north of Lake Baikal.

Constructing the railway was dramatic, divided into seven sections and working simultaneously, 62000 men, convict labour and soldiers, it would make a good movie… tracks built across endless steppes, over rivers, through forests, and swamps and permafrost, in extremes of temperature, sometimes attacked by bandits and occasionally by tigers.

Many dramatic episodes once it was in use. Strategic troop movements in the Russo-Japanese War, Russian Civil War and two World Wars. In the early part of the Second World War, Jewish and anti-Nazi’s used it to escape Europe by traveling east to the Pacific and boarding a ship to the United States.

It’s most important national effect, the opening up of Siberia to development. The Trans-Siberian Railway brought millions of peasant-migrants from regions of Russia and the Ukraine to Siberia and extended agricultural production. From 1896 until 1913, the railway transported out of Siberia, annually, on average 501,932 tonnes of grain, mostly wheat, and also bread and flour.


Another dramatic rail construction, begun in 1870, the building of the railroad in the Andes Mountains, from the Pacific port of Callao in Peru, to Lima and Huancayo, at 4,829 meters elevation. Construction included six zig-zags, and sixty-nine tunnels blasted through rock. It’s audacious contractor, American Henry Meiggs, is reported to have said, ‘I will place rails there, where the llamas walk.’ The railway’s architectural marvels include 58 bridges designed by Polish engineer, Ernest Malinowski, one of them the hair-raising Infiernillo Bridge with its span of 10,820 feet. The railroad’s main freight was minerals, cement and food stuffs.


And at a snail’s pace, railways in the 1850’s in the Land of Oz…

The early development of railways in the land down under, not so much high drama as a tale of folly interspersed with logic of the situation. Professor Geoffrey Blainey recounts this history in the book in which he coined the phrase ‘The Tyranny of Distance:’

‘When the first steam train ran in Australia,’ writes Geoffrey Blainey, ‘the puffs of smoke were like the opening of a magician’s act. In a land where settlers had wandered far from the coast and navigable rivers were few, – and often un-navigable, steam locomotives seemed likely to transform the country.’ (Ch 10.)

There was a flaw in this optimism however, a little matter of costs. A thirty mile railroad cost as much as ten of the steam boats that were plying the coastal trade, and as Australia’s surveyor-general, Major Mitchell, observed, he could not hope much from railroad speculation in a country where the population was far below a million. (Ch 10.)

Mistakes were made. The only railroad in the 1850’s that made a profit was the first railway completed, two and a half miles of rail in the State of Victoria from Melbourne’s Flinders Street to the deep waters of Port Melbourne. Sydney’s first two private ventures of the early fifties, railway lines from Sydney to Parramatta, and from Sydney to Newcastle, both ran out of funds and had to be taken over by the government.

Victoria’s next rail venture, in 1853, the Geelong and Melbourne Railway Company, built parallel to the coastline, was promoted on the mistaken assumption that it could capture the coastal shipping trade and was also quickly nationalized. In South Australia, another company that built railroads in the 1850’s repeated this pattern and fate, coastal railways would not compete in cost with local shipping.

Experience had shown that once population sufficiently increased, the sound path for railways to take was to go inland where inland pastoral towns or farming areas were important enough to justify investment in railways and no waterways would compete. Following the gold rushes, railroads were built to populous gold towns with assured traffic. By the 1880’s Australia had nearly 4000 miles of railway, radiating out from main city ports, from Sydney and Newcastle in New South Wales, Melbourne in Victoria, Adelaide and a few other ports in South Australia, Brisbane and few northern ports in Queensland. None of these fan-shaped systems met up at state borders.

These state rail systems were built on different gauges, so that when Melbourne and Sydney, extending their rail system came to meet up at the border of Victoria and New South Wales in 1883 at Albury-Wodonga, any passengers or freight that crossed over the border had to unload then reload on the other side, a costly delay.

With benefit of hindsight there were accusations of folly, but in actuality the differences in rail gauge was a response to the commerce of the time. A uniform gauge was a trivial problem to the engineer designers who favored particular gauges. The engineer of Sydney’s first rail, Wentworth Shields, had preferred the Irish 5 feet 3 inches gauge, as did Victoria and South Australia, but his successor persuaded Parliament to sanction the English 4 feet 81/2 inches gauge. It was probably too late, anyway, for Victoria and South Australia to buy new rolling stock and they proceeded with the wider gauge. At any rate, differences in States’ rail gauges were regarded as so unimportant that Queensland and Western Australia opted for a narrower gauge still, cheaper to build and more maneuverable in the mountains. Wrote one touring newspaper editor, passengers from Victoria were astonished to find that the Toowoomba train ‘ran round curves like a snake without any strain, without noise and without oscillation.’ (Ch 11.)

The narrow gauge came to dominate four of the six colonies for reasons of economy. Another ninety-four years were to pass before all state capitals were joined by one standard gauge. In that ninety-four years a number of follies in the history or rail Down Under. You might enjoy reading about them in Geoffrey Blainey’s book.

Travel by steam train continued up to the 1940’s, but then the heyday of steam engine locomotion passed, replaced by electric and diesel trains and other modes of travel, faster, further, cheaper… What doesn’t change, however, is human adaptability in getting around, on wheels, or …


  1. Well, a new website to peruse!
    Very nice.
    A branch of my family was involved with bringing rail into the state of Mississippi.
    A development that made rail possible was the financial markets.
    Rail was fiendishly expensive.
    Getting rail to work required financial tools, not just engineers.

  2. Fiendishly expensive, as Oz, with its small population discovered,
    in rail investment, a thirty mile railroad cost as much as ten steam

    Hunter, yr family history, rail into Mississipi, bet there’s a good story there.

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