What is an Electric Locomotive?

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  • Written By: Harriette Halepis
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 05 November 2019
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An electric locomotive is a type of train that is powered by electricity. This source of electricity usually comes from an external area such as a third rail, a battery, or overhead electrical lines. Locomotives that also include a diesel or gas motor are classified as diesel-electric locomotives. Even though the electric locomotive still exists today, the first electric train was actually developed during the 1800s.

Robert Davidson of Aberdeen, Scotland, created the first electric train in 1837. Davidson's train was powered by batteries, though at the time batteries were referred to as "galvanic cells." Later, Davidson created another train dubbed "Galvani" that was on display at the Royal Scottish Society of Arts in 1841. The Galvani was tested on the Edinburgh and Glasgow Railway, though insufficient battery life made the train impractical for passenger use.

It was not until 1879 that the first electric passenger train was invented. Drawing from Davidson's earlier invention, Werner von Siemens created an electric locomotive that was propelled by a 2.2kilowat motor. With help from a third rail that was attached to an electrical source, von Siemens' train was quite efficient; this train carried over 90,000 passengers during a four month stint.


Prior to the invention of the electric locomotive, most trains were powered by steam. However, towns that had a railroad station also had many complaining residents, since the steam from earlier locomotives was considered harmful. Thus, most municipalities around the globe were anxious to replace steam engines with electric locomotives.

The first large electric locomotive line was opened in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1895. In order to build this line, various tunnels had to be dug around the city of Baltimore. Upon successful completion of this project, many European cities began to build electric train lines. In fact, all trains within the country of Switzerland today are entirely powered by electricity. Shortly thereafter, nearly every country across the world began to build electric train lines.

Today, the electric locomotive is still quite popular throughout the globe. Many countries in Europe still rely upon the electric locomotive, and many commuter rails within the United States are powered by electricity. The main difference between the original electric trains and the trains that can be seen today is the speed at which today's trains travel. One of the fastest engines developed thus far was invented in 2006.

When Siemens Electric created the Eurosprinter type ES64-U4, which is capable of traveling up to 357 kilometers, or 221 miles, per hour, the world of electric trains changed for good. Modern trains can now operate at extremely high speeds, making the electric train more efficient than ever before. The electric locomotive has come a long way from its beginnings, and its safe to state that this form of transportation is here to stay for many more years to come.


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