What is a Transcontinental Railroad?

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  • Written By: Jessica Ellis
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 05 November 2019
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A transcontinental railroad is a rail system that crosses an entire continent, ending at a sea or other continental borders. These rail systems were once the peak of human technological innovation, and even today prove a useful and convenient means of transportation for many. Transcontinental railroads still exist all over the planet, and see regular use for both passenger and freight transportation.

Many historians consider the building of the American First Transcontinental Railroad as a landmark moment in US history. Built in the 1860s, the railroad joined the cultured havens of the East Coast with the open, thriving wildernesses of the West, eliminating grueling months of dangerous travel for thousands of travelers. This transcontinental railroad actually only crossed about half the country directly; the eastern terminus in Omaha, Nebraska was connected to an already-existent network of eastern railroads. Not until 1869 did the railroad come into contact with the Pacific Ocean, as the original western terminus was over 100 miles (161 km) from the Pacific in California's capital of Sacramento.


While the American Transcontinental Railroad was hailed as a bright moment of American technological superiority, the railroad itself proved a commercial failure. The mighty railroad barons that owned the route soon learned that the cost of maintaining a track that passed through dozens of weather and altitude zones was more far more expensive than they had originally planned. Though it united a country, the railroad soon fell into disrepair. Though parts of the railroad remain in service in the 21st century, it is no longer used as a transcontinental route.

The Trans-Siberian railway, connecting Moscow with the Sea of Japan, faced far harsher climates than the American effort, but proved far more durable over time. Begun in 1891, this transcontinental railroad has undergone more or less continuous construction and improvement, becoming one of the best known railway routes in the world. In the 21st century, crossing times from the Pacific to the western border of Russia take around 12 days of transit.

In Australia, the great Trans-Australian railroad faced interesting design issues as it worked its way across the deathly hot Nullabor plain in the early 20th century. Chief among concerns was that the individual Australian states each had specific rail gauges, none of which matched one another. Route speed suffered greatly because of this issue, which forced passengers and freight to unload and reload onto different locomotives every time the gauge size shifted. In the 1970s, standardization of this southernmost transcontinental railroad was completed, allowing a leisurely journey from Port Augusta in the southeast,to Kalgoorlie in the west.


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