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World Railroad Records & Firsts

This page presents a series of "firsts" for railroad construction and operation in the U.S. and worldwide.

More railroad records:  Locomotives,  Bridges & Tunnels,  Routes & Track,  Train Records,  Train Wrecks

Note: This page was written by Christopher Muller and is copyright RailServe.com. Content may not be reproduced in whole or in part on any website, message board, or other medium. Please contact us with any questions, suggestions, or corrections.

What was the world's first railroad? What was the first train in the world?

The earliest railroads consisted of horse-drawn carts on wooden tracks, some built for mining as early as the 16th century. The first railroad to operate with a steam locomotive was the Penydarren Tramroad at Penydarren Ironworks in Merthyr Tydfil, Wales. On February 21, 1804, a locomotive successfully pulled 10 tons of iron and 70 passengers at a maximum speed of 5mph over the 9-mile railroad. This early experiment in steam was considered a success, but the locomotive's weight damaged the track and it was never placed in revenue service.

What was the world's first railroad to use a steam locomotive in revenue service?

The first railroad to use a steam locomotive in revenue service (as opposed to tests or trials) was the Middleton Railway in Leeds, UK. The railroad was initially built in 1758 to haul coal using horse-drawn vehicles on wooden tracks. Matthew Murray built a locomotive named Salamanca with four flanged wheels and a single cog (toothed) wheel that engaged with an adjacent rack rail for propulsion. Steam-powered coal trains began operating on August 12, 1812. Three additional locomotives were built and operated until 1834. The railroad was converted to standard gauge in 1881 and still operates today as a tourist/heritage railway.

What was the world's first passenger railroad?

The first railroad to carry fare-paying passengers was the Swansea and Mumbles Railway, originally known as the Oystermouth Railway. The railroad was initially built in 1804-1806 and used horse-drawn vehicles to carry limestone between Swansea and Oystermouth in South Wales. Passenger service began on March 25, 1807, making it the first passenger railway in the world. Passenger service lasted nearly 20 years, ending in 1826 when horse-powered buses on an adjacent road stole much of the railroad's traffic. Ironically, the first passenger railroad was also the first to succumb to road versus rail competition.

What was the world's first passenger railroad to use a steam locomotive?

The world's first steam-powered passenger railroad was the Stockton & Darlington Railway, operating 25 miles of track through Darlington in the North East of England. In September 1825, Robert Stephenson & Co. completed the first steam locomotive for the railway, named Locomotion. The first train operated on the 27th of the month carrying both coal and passengers. Additional locomotives arrived the following year but passenger service was largely horse-drawn until a complete conversion to steam power in 1833.

What was the first railroad in the USA?

Several experimental and temporary construction-oriented railroads were built during the 18th century, most powered by horses or gravity. The first American railroad to operate with a steam locomotive was the Delaware & Hudson Canal Company which built a railroad between coal fields at Carbondale and its canal at Honesdale, Pennsylvania. In 1828, the D&H ordered a steam locomotive from Britain's Foster, Rastrick & Company. The locomotive, named the Stourbridge Lion, was tested in Honesdale on August 8, 1829. The locomotive performed well but, at 7-1/2 tons, was too heavy for the wooden rails. The railroad was instead operated using gravity to propel coal cars downgrade and a series of incline planes with stationary steam engines to pull cars back up.

What was the first railroad in the USA to use a steam locomotive in revenue service?

The first U.S. railroad to use a steam locomotive in revenue service was the South Carolina Railroad. It opened on Christmas Day 1830 using the "Best Friend of Charleston" steam locomotive on six miles of track in Charleston, South Carolina. The locomotive achieved a solo max speed of 30mph, though regular passenger trains were limited to approximately 12mph. The locomotive's boiler exploded on June 17, 1831, when a poorly trained fireman intentionally blocked the relief valve. The crew was injured but the railroad continued operating using other locomotives already acquired. By 1833, the railroad was completed 136 miles from Charleston to Hamburg, South Carolina, the world's longest railroad at the time.

When was the first U.S. transcontinental railroad completed?

The Central Pacific Railroad and Union Pacific Railroad met on May 10, 1869 at Promontory Summit, Utah. The Transcontinental Railroad linked the Atlantic and Pacific coasts by rail for the first time.

What was the world's first rack/cog railway?

The first cog railway was the Middleton Railway in Leeds, UK, also the first railway in the world to use a steam locomotive in revenue service. The rack and pinion system was patented by John Blenkinsop, the Middleton coal mine manager. Blenkinsop believed that a locomotive light enough not to break the track (a problem experienced during prior attempts at steam locomotive use, including at the Penydarren Ironworks) would not have sufficient adhesion to to haul loaded coal cars on steep grades. The wooden track railroad, initially built in 1758 to haul coal using horse-drawn vehicles, was replaced with iron rail and a third cog rail. Matthew Murray of the engineering firm Fenton, Murray & Wood built a locomotive to operate on the cog railway, named the Salamanca. The world's first cog railway was operating on August 12, 1812. Blenkinsop's design was a success but the locomotive's boiler exploded in 1818 due to improper safety valve use. A second boiler explosion in 1834 led to the abandonment of steam and return to horse power. By the time steam was reintroduced in 1866, modern track and locomotive design negated the need for a cog system.

What was the world's first mountain-climbing rack/cog railway?

The Mount Washington Cog Railway in the White Mountains of New Hampshire was the world's first mountain-climbing cog railway when completed in 1869. The 3.1-mile railroad climbs from Marshfield Base Station (elevation 2700') to the summit of Mt. Washington (6288') with an average grade of 25% and max grade of 37.4% (Jacob's Ladder). The railroad has been in continuous operation since 1869 and today operates a combination of steam and diesel locomotives.

What was the first subway in the world?

The world's first subway was the Metropolitan Railway in London. The Met opened on January 10, 1863, operating nearly four miles between Paddington (Bishop's Road) and Farringdon Street via King's Cross. The railway used steam locomotives to haul gas-lit wooden carriages. The subway was expanded many times and is used today by the London Underground.

What was the first subway in the USA?

The first attempted subway in the U.S. was the Beach Pneumatic Transit Company in New York City. Alfred Ely Beach completed a demonstration subway beneath one block of Broadway from Warren Street to Murray Street, opened to the public on February 26, 1870. A single subway car was propelled by a large reversible fan at one end of the tunnel. It is unclear how this pneumatic technology could be applied on a larger scale. Political opposition by New York City's mayor followed by the Panic of 1873 spelled the end to Beach's subway ambitions.

The earliest American subway still in use is in Boston. The Tremont Street Subway opened on September 1, 1897, serving four stations at Boylston Street, Park Street, Scollay Square, and Adams Square. The subway was operated with trolleys powered by an overhead line. Much of the original tunnel is now part of MBTA's Green Line between Boylston, Park Street, and Government Center.

What was world's first electric-powered public passenger railway?

Werner von Siemens (founder of today's multinational Siemens AG) demonstrated an electric locomotive at the Berlin industrial Exposition in 1879 and nearly 100,000 attendees rode the electric train. Just two years later, Siemens also designed the first public electric trolley, the Gross-Lichterfelde Tramway. On May 12, 1881, the 1.5-mile railway opened at Lichterfelde, Germany, carrying a maximum of 26 passengers at speeds up to 30mph.

What was the first electric-powered public passenger railway in the USA?

Inventor Leo Daft tested several electric locomotives in New Jersey in 1881 and 1882. A larger scale test was conducted in November 1883 using a 2-ton, 12 horsepower locomotive on the Saratoga & Mt. McGregor Railroad in New York. However, it was on  August 10, 1885, that Daft completed the first public electric railway in the USA. The Baltimore and Hampden horsecar line was converted to third rail electric power and operated successfully for several years.

What was the first large scale electric trolley system in the world?

Richmond Union Passenger Railway began operation of 10 electric streetcars on February 2, 1888 in Richmond, Virginia. The electric system designed by Frank Julian Sprague featured two 5.6 kW motors on each car powered by a 450-volt overhead trolley wire. Four months after opening, Richmond had 40 streetcars operating over 12 miles of track at a maximum speed of 15mph. By the following year, dozens of cities worldwide were planning trolley systems based on Sprague's technology used in Richmond.

What was the first electrification of a mainline steam railroad?

The world's first electrification of a mainline steam freight and passenger railroad was the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad's Howard Street Tunnel, completed in 1895. Electric locomotives coupled to full trains (including steam locomotive) and pulled them nearly three miles between Camden Street Station and a new station at Mount Royal Avenue through the 7,339 foot tunnel. The tunnel is used today by diesel-powered CSX freight trains.

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