Rail transport is the process of conveying or transporting people, livestock, and general goods using a vehicle mounted onto a rail system. The most common form of rail transport is generally known as a railroad or railway. One of the older forms of conveyance, rail transportation for freight and people, continues to be a viable and reliable form of moving from a point of origin to a destination in today’s world.
Historians do not always agree upon the exact origins of rail transport. Some look upon early conveyances that involved some sort of wheeled device mounted on a system of wood rails as the forerunner to modern rail transport. In this application, the power to move the device was derived from either humans or animals pulling the vehicle up and down the series of tracks.
Others tend to consider the real history of rail transport as beginning with the development of the steam engine. With the steam engine came the ideal of creating a conveyance that would move by using steam pressure to turn the wheels on the device. In order for this type of railway transport to function, metal tracks were laid down and connected with heavy wood ties on the underside of the track. The ties kept the two rails in proper alignment and helped to make the locomotive more stable when moving along the track system.
Created in the late 18th century, the steam engine was a major factor in the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century. Over time, railway transportation became exceedingly popular for not only the transport of livestock and various types of goods, but also for the transport of humans. Without a doubt, rail transport played a huge role in the expansion of the United States during the entire 19th century, especially after the completion of a major project to connect the West Coast with the East Coast by way of rail. From 1869 on, the westward migration was fueled by the use of railway transportation, a much more efficient method than the use of horse drawn wagons or stagecoaches.
Rail car transport continued to evolve during the first half of the 20th century. Further refinements allowed the steam engine to handle the transportation of more goods as well as more people. Railways were improved with the implementation of electrical transmission to augment the steam locomotive. Rail transport had become so popular that even the introduction of the private motor vehicle was unable to dampen the public’s enthusiasm for traveling by rail. At the same time, railways remained the chief means of conveying goods in many nations.
While the creation of diesel locomotion after World War II helped rail transport to remain a viable option, other forms of transportation began to cut into the use of railways for the transport of both people and manufactured goods. Enhanced road systems made the use of long haul trucks much more affordable and faster, allowing trucking firms to directly compete with railroads. Bus companies also took advantage of the better roads and began to run nationwide routes, allowing people to take long trips at relatively inexpensive rates. Passenger airlines were much more common by the 1950’s and are often cited as the reason for the decrease in passenger traffic on railroads in a number of countries.
While there were those who predicted the demise of rail transport, this form of transportation continues to operate. In recent years, major railways have found ways to compete with other forms of ground transportation. In some instances, the railways interline with other transportation options as part of an overall transportation package. The creation of light rail transportation that provides swift conveyance to and from a limited number of locations has also proven to be a viable alternative to flying or driving in some cases.