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Rail transport

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Rail transport refers to the land transport of passengers and goods along railways or railroads. These consist of two parallel rails, usually of steel, generally mounted upon cross-sectional beams (termed "sleepers" or "ties") of timber, concrete or other material. The underlying support maintains the rails at a fixed distance (gauge) apart. Usually vehicles running on the rails are arranged in a train (a series of individual powered or unpowered vehicles linked together).



Rail transport is one of the most energy efficient means of mechanised land transport known. The rails provide very smooth and hard surfaces on which the wheels of the train may roll with a minimum of friction. As an example, a typical rail car can hold up to 125 tons of freight with this and the weight of the car on two four wheel support trucks. Fully loaded, the contact between each wheel and the rail is the space of about one U.S. ten cent dime. This is more comfortable than most other forms of land transport and saves energy. Trains also have a small frontal area in relation to the load they are carrying, which cuts down on air resistance and thus energy usage. In all, under the right circumstances, a train needs 50-70% less energy to transport a given tonnage of freight (or given number of passengers), than does road transport. Furthermore, together with the sleepers, the rails distribute the weight of the train evenly, allowing significantly greater loads per axle/wheel than in road transport.

Rail transport is also one of the safest modes of transport, and also makes a highly efficient use of space: a double tracked rail line can carry more passengers or freight in a given amount of time than a four-laned road.

As a result, rail transport is often the major form of public transport in many countries. In Asia, for example, many millions use trains as regular transport in India, South Korea, Japan, China, and elsewhere.

Commercially, rail transport has had a mixed record. Most rail systems, including urban metro/subway systems, are highly subsidised and have never or rarely been profitable; however, their indirect benefits are often great. For example, despite a well-developed network consisting of 4 grades of trains and a widespread urban rail network in Seoul and Pusan, Korean National Rail is a nationalized organization that has never come close to having receipts equal costs (see Transportation in South Korea). Similarly, passenger rail in the US and many other countries is still dependent on government subsidies. As a result levels of rail transport have in some times and places been reduced in order to save money (see Beeching Axe). Conversely, US freight railways have consolidated and become more efficient in their progress toward profitability. The East Japan Railway Company has taken an innovative and creative marketing stance and have achieved profitability as a result.

Like other forms of public transport, many railways are having to make considerable investment in order to meet new requirements for security in the face of recent terrorism incidents, for instance the Madrid train bombings of March 11, 2004. Securing railways is often more difficult than other modes of transport because stations are designed with easy access and high capacity as their primary goals rather than security, because most trains make many stops, rendering any sort of passenger screening difficult, and because securing the tracks as they run through cities and the countryside is impractical.


Main article: Rail transport operations

A rail transport system consists of several necessary elements, and should be viewed from a system-wide perspective when planning, constructing and maintaining it. Some locomotives may be wonderfully aesthetic constructions, but they won't work unless they are given an appropriate system on which to run. This system includes infrastructure such as tracks, railroad switches, signals, classification yards, etc.

Firstly there is the geography onto which the permanent way is built. Next are the requirements of the system – what was it built for? For carrying cargo, commuters, medium or long-distance travellers? Has that requirement changed over time and left the system to adapt?

As a result of this, what is the type of system? Is it light or urban heavy rail, high-speed or industrial rail? To what gauge is it built? In a broader sense, rail transport includes monorail, rubber-tyred metros and maglev, since the cars also run in a guided path. The term "guideway" better describes the non-traditional modes.

Trains require a propulsion mechanism: horses, or steam, diesel or electric locomotives. The last of these options, the most energy efficient, requires electrification of the system. To be electrified, a means of supplying electricity to the train is needed. This can be done with overhead wires or with a third rail system. The former is the more common method.

Depending on how much traffic they carry, railways can be built with a varying number of tracks. Rail lines that carry little traffic are often built with a single track which is used by trains traveling in both directions; on rail lines like these, "crossovers", "passing loops" or "passing sidings", which consist of short stretches of double track, are provided at certain points along the line to allow trains to pass each other, and travel in different directions. Alternatively, there may be larger sections of the line that are double track - effective timetabling can allow train travel up and down the partially double track line equivalent to travel on fully double tracks. Conversely, double tram track is sometimes intertwined at narrow passages (see tram tracks ). Single-track lines are cheaper to build, but can only handle a limited amount of traffic and are consequently only used on branch lines.

On busier lines, two or more tracks are provided, one or more for each direction of travel. On very busy lines as many as eight tracks (four tracks in each direction) are used to handle large amounts of traffic.

With the advent of containerized freight in the 1960s, rail and ship transportation have become an integrated network that move bulk goods very efficiently with a very low labor cost. An example is that goods from east Asia that are bound for Europe will often be shipped across the Pacific and transferred to trains to cross North America and be transferred back to a ship for the Atlantic crossing.

Major cities often have metro and/or light rail/tram systems. For a tram on the road the terms streetcar track or tram track are used, rather than railway or railroad. A tram with its own right-of-way is called a tramway.

Safety and railway disasters

Trains can travel at very high speed, are heavy, unable to deviate from the path laid out by the track and require a great distance to stop. Possibilities for accidents include jumping the track, derailment, head-on collision with another train coming the opposite way and collision with an automobile at a level crossing. Level crossing collisions are relatively common in the United States where there are several thousand each year killing about 500 people. For information regarding major accidents, see List of rail accidents. The accidents allowed that lessons were learned and practices changed.

The most important safety measure is railway signalling. Train whistles are used to warn an oncoming train.


Main article: History of rail transport

The first horse tracked vehicles, drawn wagonways appeared in Greece, Malta, and parts of the Roman Empire at least 2000 years ago using cut-stone tracks. They began reappearing in Europe, from around 1550, usually operating with crude wooden tracks.

In the late 18th century iron rails began to appear: British civil engineer William Jessop designed edge rails to be used with flanged wheels for use on a scheme in Loughborough, Leicestershire (in 1789 and subsequently opened an iron-works to produce more rails). In 1802, Jessop opened the Surrey Iron Railway in south London - arguably the world's first public railway, albeit a horse-drawn one.

The first steam locomotive to operate on tracks, built by Richard Trevithick was operated in 1804 in Wales, although it was not financially successful, with Trevithick ending bankrupt. A more successful endeavour in locomotive building was George Stephenson's famous Rocket steam locomotive. In 1806 a horse-drawn railway was built between Swansea and Mumbles. In 1807 this railway started carrying fare-paying passengers - the first in the world to do so.

The first successful steam-operated railway, the Stockton and Darlington Railway, ran in northern England in the 1820s. This was soon followed by the Liverpool and Manchester Railway, which proved the viability of rail transport. Railways soon spread throughout Britain and through the world, and became the dominant means of land transport for nearly a century, until the invention of aircraft and automobiles, which prompted a gradual decline in railways.

The United States inaugurated its first railroad, the Baltimore & Ohio, in 1827.

The use of overhead cables conducting electricity, invented by Granville T. Woods in 1888, amongst several other improvements by Woods, led to the development of electrified railways, the first of which was operated at Coney Island from 1892.

Twin diesel locomotives of the Union Pacific refueling at Dunsmuir, California
Twin diesel locomotives of the Union Pacific refueling at Dunsmuir, California

Diesel and electric trains and locomotives replaced steam in many countries in the decades after World War II.

Many countries since the 1960s have adopted High-speed railways.


Main article: Rail terminology

In Britain and other British Commonwealth countries the term railway is used in preference to railroad, while in the United States the reverse is true. However, railroad has been used historically in Britain and a number of American companies have railway in their names instead of railroad (the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway being the most pre-eminent modern example). See the article on usage of the terms railroad and railway for more information.

In Britain the term railway often refers to the complete organisation of tracks, trains, stations, signaling, timetables and the organising companies which collectively make up a coordinated railway system, while permanent way or p/way refers to the tracks alone.

See also: Rail transport in the United Kingdom

Subways, metros, elevated lines, trolley lines, and undergrounds are all specialized railways.

For translations of the word 'railroad', see International railroad terminology.

Rail transport by country

Main article: Rail transport by country

Of 236 countries and dependencies, 143 have rail transport (including several with very little), of which ca. 90 have passenger services.

See also: Rail usage statistics by country, List of countries by rail transport network size

See also

External links

  • - Defending Rail Services and Jobs in the North of England
  • - maps of European railway networks
  • - rail transport by country
  • - travel planner of German Railways (covers Europe, as well as at least each branch of the Trans-Siberian railway)
  • - links to railway companies and timetables
  • - links
  • Rinbad - on railway geography and infrastructure in Europe and around the world
  • - National Railcard International Survey - Survey of national rail discount cards in various European countries
  • Track maps

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