A marine railway is a set of tracks which are used with a cradle to bring ships up out of the water. There are a number of uses for marine railways, and they can be found at sites like ship and boatyards, portages, locks, and some private properties. There are a number of ways in which a marine railway can be designed and may operate, and some facilities have attained historic status, having been in operation continuously for a very long time.
It can be necessary to move boats in and out of the water for a variety of reasons. A launch is one of the most well known, with boats being ceremoniously lowered into the water when they are completed. Boats also sometimes need to be hauled out of the water for storage or repairs. Marine railways can also be used to move boats over locks and portages. Casual boaters who live on the water may use a marine railway to move their boats in and out of dry storage.
The marine railway consists of a set of tracks or poles upon which a cradle is mounted. In the water, a ship is allowed to settle into the cradle, and then winches are operated to pull the cradle up out of the water along the tracks. Marine railways can operate under electric power, steam power, or even the power of working animals, depending on where they are located. In a location like a ship yard, the tracks may split on dry land to allow people to route boats to various locations in the yard for storage and repairs.
Marine railway systems, like other ship lifts, usually have a maximum weight rating. Boats which are too heavy cannot be moved on the marine railway because they may damage the tracks or the cradle. The system designers usually try to anticipate needs, assuming that ship and boat traffic is likely to grow in the area, in which case it makes sense to design a robust system which exceeds the current needs.
Seeing a marine railway in operation can be very interesting. Shipyards usually announce launches, allowing members of the public to celebrate the launch of a new ship, and they may also notify the public when ships or boats of particular interest will be moving through the shipyard. People who live near a shipyard are in an ideal position to see the marine railway in operation whenever it is needed.