Timeline of Railway History

The timeline of railway history is long and extensive. Discover the history of the world's railways and train tech here.

Timeline of Railway History

Railways have been around much longer than you may think. Powered trains are far newer. However, the concept of a railway has been kicking around since the 700s (yep, you read that correctly). On this page, we are going to take you on a journey through railway history.

This is not a complete timeline of railway history. That would be nigh on impossible. Instead, it is an overview of the main technological advancements in the world of railway travel. Key milestones that take us from centuries ago, through to the modern age.

Do bear in mind that we are not going to be talking about when every railway opens up throughout the world. This is just the key milestones that influence trains to this day.


The earliest railway development took place sometime in the world of the Ancient Greeks and Ancient Romans. In Corinth, in Ancient Greece, a rutway was developed. The job of this rutway was to allow boats to be rolled over the land. A rutway is a precursor to the modern railway. It is a set of grooves on the ground that form a track that something can travel across.The rutway (known as Diolkas, some of which can still be seen today) not only allowed boats to travel across land, but it was also a public travel system. People could hop on those boats and be transported the 8km length of the rutway.


A railed truck, known as a hund, is referenced in Italian texts. The hund is believed to be a railed truck that run through the Brenner Pass in Italy. Nobody knows if it was ever built or operated.


First known time that a hund was operated in Europe. It operated in what is now known as Slovakia (this region was part of Hungary, at the time)


A cabled railway opens up in Salzburg, Austria. The cable railway goes by the name Reisszug. This was a privately operated cabled railway that carried goods up into Hohensalzburg Castle. It is still in operation today, although in a slightly different form to what it was. This cable railway, back in 1515, was powered by humans and animals.


Austrian and German miners bring their railed technology over to England. They build rails that allow them to quickly move mining carts (known as 'hands') by hand. Nobody knows where these were first built, but it is likely that they were constructed around the Lake District.


The first funicular railway is installed in England. It is located close to the River Severn and is designed to move mined materials down to the river for further transport.


Construction of the first 'wagonway' is opened. The wagonway was a horse-powered system. It allowed horses to drag carts along tracks. The very first was known as the Wollaton Wagonway. Not much is known about the wagonway, other than the fact that it resulted in many different wagonways appearing throughout the United Kingdom.


The first wagonway, known as the Tranent - Cockenzie Waggonway appears in Scotland. Many sections of this wagonway stayed in use for around 300 years, and parts of the track were utilized by Robert Stevenson when he was designing his own railway tracks several centuries later.


The Tanfield Wagonway is constructed. At the time, this was the largest wagonway in the world. It was constructed in England (in Tanfield). Many sections of this wagonway are still in use today. It is classed as the oldest operating railway in the world.


The Middleton Railway opens near Leeds in England. This was a wagonway, but it eventually become one of the first commercially-operated railway lines in the world.


Boulton and Watt developed the first steam engine. This was not designed for transport, but merely as a device to help mines run much more effectively. This would have been the precursor to the steam engines that would come a few decades later.


Various developments in the creation of wrought iron. While none of it was intended for railways, these developments allowed for faster ways to produce iron, and even resulted in the development of wrought iron. Several decades later, it was this tech that would enable railways to expand quickly.


William Murdoch, a Scottish inventor, develops what is now known as the world's first steam-powered carriage. It wasn't quite a train, but it was an object that moved under steam power. This invention would later form the basis of many steam locomotives.


The very first railway tunnel is developed. The Butterley Gangroad was a mile long and carried limestone between Bullbridge and the Cromford Canal. This was a tramway. It went through many upgrades over the years, and it continued to be used up until 1833. Parts of the Butterley Gangroad can be seen to this very day.


The world's first public railway is opened. This is a wagonway in England. It is known as the Lake Lock Railroad. A horse and cart would pull passengers along the three-mile track length. As near as history can tell, this is the very first rail road designed for paying passengers rather than a way to transport goods or boats.


The Boulton and Watt steam engine's patent expires. This meant that steam engine technology was available to all. It kickstarted the idea that maybe these steam engines could be used to power transport. Many people used this steam engine technology to come up with ideas related to this.


Richard Trevithick develops the very first steam locomotive for railways. It is not known whether the first model entered service. If it did, then it would have been used in Shropshire, England.


The Surrey Ironway is opened up. This is a plateway originally developed for horses and carts. Crucially, this is a double-tracked ironway. It stayed in operation for well over 100 years, and good chunks of the Surrey Ironway are still in use today.


The first serving records that a steam locomotive was used. This was also developed by Richard Trevithick. It was used in Wales. While the steam locomotive was not perfect, it did start an era where the idea of using horses and carts along railway tracks could start to be ditched.


The Croydon Merstham ; Godstone railway opens up. This is another plateway. This was likely the first time that we started to see interconnected railways develop. Up until this point, many railways stood alone, mostly for shipping goods between one point and another. The Croydon Merstham ; Godstone railway connected up to the Surrey Ironway.


The world's first railway designed for paying passengers was developed in Swansea, Wales. This was known as the Swansea ; Mumbles Railway. It was a plateway. Passengers would pay to be taken on the horse-drawn railway service. The track was originally used for the transportation of mined materials, but an Act of Parliament converted it to a passenger railway. It stayed in operation until 1960, but went through various forms before that.


The very first railway opened up by Act of Parliament was introduced in Scotland. This railway was known as the Kilmarnock ; Troon Railway. This would later play a key role in the development of modern trains because it was one of the first places that George Stephenson would test out his steam trains a few years later.


The very first steam locomotive for passenger use was trialed by Richard Trevithick in London. His locomotive was not designed for transporting passengers from one place to another. Instead, he set up a display in central London. This display would have customers pay to travel around a small, circular track on his locomotive. The intention was to market his steam locomotive 'Catch Me Who Can'. This was the last steam locomotive that he ever developed.


One of the first railways was developed in the United States. Thomas Leiper, a Scottish inventor, started selling the idea of wagonways in Philadelphia. He wanted to demonstrate that a company would be able to haul many more goods using a wagonway than they would sticking a horse on a paved road. He continued the development of more of these wagonways into 1810, still in Philadelphia.


The first commercial steam locomotive is introduced. While not much is known about the steam locomotive, it is believed to be called the Salamanca. It was developed by Matthew Murray and is brought into operation in Leeds.The design of this locomotive was heavily inspired by the same steam locomotive that Richard Trevithick had demonstrated in London a few years before.


The world's oldest surviving steam locomotive is developed and brought into operation. Puffing Billy was built by William Hedley. It was built for the Wylam Waggonway.  The design of this locomotive went on to inspire later steam locomotives. This included the position of the cylinders, as well as how the wheels were designed to provide more traction when traveling along the tracks.


George Stephenson enters the world of steam locomotives. His very first design, Blucher, was used in Scotland. It was not effective, though. At the time, the tracks that existed throughout the world were not good enough to handle the weight that a steam locomotive like this would be able to cope with. This resulted in George Stephenson developing his own railway lines.


George Stephenson opens his very first railway line. This is the first railway line in the world designed specifically for the use of steam locomotives. It was not intended for animal power.  This is the Hetton Colliery Railway.


George Stephenson unveils the Stockton ; Darlington Railway. This is the very first purpose-built railway for steam locomotives that would carry passengers. This was one of the most efficient transportation methods at the time. Around 600 passengers were day could be hauled along the tracks. The era of railed transport had finally begun.


The very first demonstration of a steam-powered railway takes place in the United States. In New Jersey, specifically. John Stevens is the creator. This was not designed for passenger use. Instead, it was designed for John Stevens to show off the merits of a steam locomotive. It was a circular track of just 1/2 a mile long. It is no longer in existence.


The first railway opens in France. This was a horse and cart railway, so a wagonway. However, it is this railway that is said to have started the development of railways across France, which to this day has a very extensive network.


The Mauch Chunk Switchback Railway enters operation in Philadelphia, United States. While other railways had existed in the United States up until this point, this was the largest of them. Crucially, it is the very first railway in the United States that would carry paying passengers. However, its primary purpose, like many railways at the time, was to haul mined products.


The Lancashire Witch is developed by Robert Stephenson. This is a steam-powered locomotive that could carry up to 150 passengers at a time. Trials started on the Bolton ; Leigh Railway. Tests were minor up until 1831 when it entered full operation.


The first horse and carriage railway opened up in what is now known as the Czech Republic. At over 100km long, this was the longest single railway in mainland Europe up until this point.


Improvements to the development of pig iron, a material that would be used extensively in the creation of railways. These improvements allowed to make the creation of pig iron faster and cheaper. These improvements would go on to assist with the rapid expansion of the railways across the world.


The Baltimore ; Ohio railway begins development in the United States. This is the oldest proper railway in the United States, and it stayed in operation until the 1980s. Other railways were being developed throughout the United States at the same time.


The Rainhill Trials are held in Liverpool. This was a competition to determine the future of steam locomotives. While there were many entries, it was Stephenson's Rocket that stood out. Able to travel at whopping 29mph, this was the fastest steam locomotive ever developed, and it is the one that most people associate with the development of the railways.


The English-built Stourbridge Lion is shipped over to the United States. While steam engines had been in operation in the country for a few years, this was the very first one to come from overseas. It was heavily inspired by the designs of Stephenson, and it was one of the fasted steam locomotives to operate in the United States at the time.


The Baltimore ; Ohio Railway in the United States finally opens up to paying customers. The Tom Thumb steam locomotive was trialed on the track. This was developed by Peter Cooper, and it was the very first steam locomotive to be developed by an American inventor.


The Liverpool ; Manchester Railway opens up in the United Kingdom. This was the world's first steam-powered locomotive track to offer timetable services. This meant that the railways were starting to creep ever closer to the point that they exist in today i.e. a timetabled, ticketed service. The intention of the original Liverpool ; Manchester Railway was to prove that passenger railway services would be the future.


The Saint-Etienne-Lyon Railway is opened in France. This was the first railway in France to use steam power.


The Canterbury ; Whitstable Railway in the United Kingdom continues the development of passenger services. By now, it is clear that train passenger services would be the future, and this railway would start to sell season tickets to regular travelers.


The railway switch is developed. This piece of tech would be the future of railways throughout the world, and it is something that is used to this very day. Charles Fox's railway switch would allow trains to switch from one track to another, which would make scheduling services, and moving locomotives from one place to another, a whole lot easier.


The first parts of the New York Central Railroad begin construction. At the time, this was known as the Boston ; Albany Railroad.


The first railway opens in Ireland. This was the Dublin ; Kingstown Railway. This is an important milestone in the development of commuter railways. It was the very first designed specifically for commuters traveling short distances. It was just 5 miles long.


The first rail lines open up in Germany and Belgium. Some of these lines are still in use today, mostly to get into France. The first long-distance rail line in Germany opens up a couple of years later in 1837.


The London ; Birmingham line opens up in England. This is the very first railroad in the world designed for connecting up two cities that were a reasonable distance apart. It was 112 miles long. As a result, the very first train terminal opened up in London (Euston).


The very first electric locomotive is developed by Robert Davidson, a Scottish inventor.


The Edmondson Railway ticket is developed. Up until this point, all train tickets would have been handwritten. However, the railways were becoming ever busy, and this was starting to become quite cumbersome to deal with. This railway ticket would allow tickets to be issued far quicker, and it would make running the railways smoother. While printed tickets may seem like a very small invention, they really did help the development of the railways.

1837 to 1839

Various countries on mainland Europe started to open up their own railways.


Royal Commission on Railway Gauges was held in the United Kingdom. The intention was to determine which gauge the railways should be in the future. The commission decided that all future railways should be 4 feet, 8 1/2" wide. This is something that continues to this day. Some established lines were able to keep their old gauge, but this would be phased out.


The first international railway is developed. Paris, France, and Brussels, Belgium were connected up by train.


The rapid expansion of railway lines throughout Europe. Hundreds of miles of track are laid across the continent.


America's first union station is opened up in Indianapolis. This was the first time that competing railway companies would share a terminus.


The Panama Railway is opened. This is the very first railway to cross continents.


Steel rails were introduced in the UK. They didn't spread rapidly, to begin with. However, this would mark the transition from iron to steel.


French inventor, Henri Giffard, would invent the injector for engines. It would allow steam locomotives to operate much more effectively and at far higher speeds.


The precursor to the London Underground was opened. The Metropolitan Railway in London was the world's first underground railway. It is this railway that would end up spawning multiple underground railways around the world. Although the tech was still basic at this point.


The first sleeper trains are introduced in the United States. The Pullman Sleeping Car would make it easier for longer distance rail travel later on. After all, if people can sleep while traveling, longer distance travel becomes easier.


The air brake is invented by George Westinghouse. This would make it easier for trains traveling at a fast speed to rapidly slow down. His tech is tech that is still being used to this very day.


Vacuum brakes are invented.


The very first electric rail line is showcased in Germany. This resulted in the development of the Gross-Lichterfelde Tramway opening up a few years later, which would be the first proper electric rail line in the world.


The Southern Pacific and Northern Pacific Railways open up in the United States. These are both transcontinental rail lines.


The Orient Express, which runs from Paris to Constantinople opens up. This, at this point, is the longest train trip in the world. This line goes through many forms over the years, at one point operating from London. It is eventually discontinued in 2009, over a century later.


The City ; South London Railway is opened up. Not only is this the first proper underground railway (at a deep level), but it is also the first railway to be developed with electrification in mind.


The Trans-Siberian Railway begins construction.


The Liverpool Overhead Railway opens its doors. This was a turning point in the history of railways. The Liverpool Overhead Railway would pioneer electric signaling and color lights. It also developed the electric escalator, which helped with the growing number of passengers (the escalator would come much later).

Crucially, this was the first elevated railroad in the world to run on electric power.


The diesel locomotive is introduced in Switzerland. Articulated trams are invented in the United States.


The Flying Scotsman becomes the fastest train in the world. It hits 100km/h.

Also in 1934, a streamlined train is showcased at Chicago's World Fair. This design reduced air resistance, which would allow trains to travel faster and much more efficiently. This design was improved over the coming years and decades.


Magnetic levitation trains are patented in Germany. These trains would have less friction, allowing them to travel faster and more efficiently. This was known as maglev tech, and it resulted in the development of the monorail, and some of the world's fastest trains much later on.


The Mallard train in England hits a world speed record. It can travel at 203 km/h.


Diesel-electric locomotives spread around the United States. Many of these follow the streamlined design showcased in Chicago in 1934.


The very last steam train to be constructed in England is produced. This is the Evening Star. The end of the production of steam trains would bring on an age of electric trains designed to be faster than ever before.

Commercial operation of steam trains in the UK (at least on mainline trains) would end in 1968.


British Rail introduces the APT train. It can travel at 261 km/h. However, the train breaks down and it disappears for a few years for improvements to be made. It is only ever brought into operation on a single line.


The world record for electric train speed is broken in France. This train can travel at 515 km/h.


Introduction of the first dedicated high-speed track in the UK. This would run from London Waterloo to Paris (through the Channel Tunnel).

Eventually, similar tracks would be installed to run between Madrid and Barcelona, in Spain.

2020 to 2021

Driverless trains enter operation in Germany and China.