The railway train - which now carries passengers and freight in almost every country in the world - is 150 years old this month.
The railway train - which now carries passengers and freight in almost every country in the world - is 150 years old this month. The first public railway service to use locomotive traction was opened on September 27th, 1825. It ran between Stockton and Darlington, two towns twelve miles (20 kms) apart in north-eastern England. Its engine, "Locomotion Number One" was designed by the british railway engineer George Stephenson, who also designed the still more famous "Rocked" for the Liverpool-Manchester line which opened five years later.
By 1830 the first railway had also started operating in the United States - the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. A year or two later, trains were running in continental Europe. Providing cheap transport for coal, raw materials and heavy machinery, they were vital to the development of the industrial revolution. In the United States and Canada, they carried pioneers to open up the West.
Up to the Second World War, steam was king. A British locomotive, the Mallard, still holds the world speed record for steam, established as long ago as 1938. For by then, the writing was on the wall for steam. It was beginning to give way to electrification, where power was cheap and readily available, or to the diesel engine.
A century of continuous expansion for the railways has been followed by a half-century of constant struggle. Ever since the 1920s, railway transport has been threatened from both ends by the development of aviation as long-distance high-speed passenger carrier and by the greater convenience of road transport for shorter distances, both for passengers and freight.
In one country after another, the railways tackled this economic pressure, first by amalgamation of private local companies and then by state intervention, either by subsidy or outright nationalisation.
In an attempt to bring back passenger traffic, the railways introduced faster, smoother, more luxurious trains. The engines are there, capable of reaching speeds of up to 300 kilometres (190 miles) an hour but so far there are very few sections of track on which very high speeds can be reached. The world's fastest regular service is the Japanese Shinkansen "bullet train", which covers the 685 miles (1,096 kms) between Tokyo and Hakata in the south in just under seven hours - an average of about 100 miles (160 kms) an hour.
Individually, some of these services are highly profitable. But none of them has brought the national networks into solvency. All over the world, railways are losing money heavily. They are either receiving massive subsidies from national governments, or facing closure. Even the United States government has been driven to a massive financial rescue operation by the collapse of Penn Central and other lines in the north eastern states.
One reason for this is that railways are still labour-intensive, and for the most part the workers are highly unionised. Therefore, railway managements face ever-rising wage bills. On the other hand, the travelling public is still accustomed to regard railways as a cheap form of transport, and has put up strong sales resistance to increased fares.
In these conditions it might be expected that the railways would be reaching the end of their economic life. But this is not the case. Environmental and world economic factors come into the equation: the high cost of aviation fuel, which may have to be imported; the noise of a aircraft taking off and landing the congestion of road transport. Governments facing these problems are investing heavily to improve their railways the railways would seem to have not only a romantic past, but a hopeful outlook for the future.