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What is Rail Transport?

Malcolm Tatum
Updated May 23, 2024
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Rail transport is the process of conveying or transporting people, livestock, and general goods using a vehicle mounted onto a rail system. The most common form of rail transport is generally known as a railroad or railway. One of the older forms of conveyance, rail transportation for freight and people, continues to be a viable and reliable form of moving from a point of origin to a destination in today’s world.

Historians do not always agree upon the exact origins of rail transport. Some look upon early conveyances that involved some sort of wheeled device mounted on a system of wood rails as the forerunner to modern rail transport. In this application, the power to move the device was derived from either humans or animals pulling the vehicle up and down the series of tracks.

Others tend to consider the real history of rail transport as beginning with the development of the steam engine. With the steam engine came the ideal of creating a conveyance that would move by using steam pressure to turn the wheels on the device. In order for this type of railway transport to function, metal tracks were laid down and connected with heavy wood ties on the underside of the track. The ties kept the two rails in proper alignment and helped to make the locomotive more stable when moving along the track system.

Created in the late 18th century, the steam engine was a major factor in the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century. Over time, railway transportation became exceedingly popular for not only the transport of livestock and various types of goods, but also for the transport of humans. Without a doubt, rail transport played a huge role in the expansion of the United States during the entire 19th century, especially after the completion of a major project to connect the West Coast with the East Coast by way of rail. From 1869 on, the westward migration was fueled by the use of railway transportation, a much more efficient method than the use of horse drawn wagons or stagecoaches.

Rail car transport continued to evolve during the first half of the 20th century. Further refinements allowed the steam engine to handle the transportation of more goods as well as more people. Railways were improved with the implementation of electrical transmission to augment the steam locomotive. Rail transport had become so popular that even the introduction of the private motor vehicle was unable to dampen the public’s enthusiasm for traveling by rail. At the same time, railways remained the chief means of conveying goods in many nations.

While the creation of diesel locomotion after World War II helped rail transport to remain a viable option, other forms of transportation began to cut into the use of railways for the transport of both people and manufactured goods. Enhanced road systems made the use of long haul trucks much more affordable and faster, allowing trucking firms to directly compete with railroads. Bus companies also took advantage of the better roads and began to run nationwide routes, allowing people to take long trips at relatively inexpensive rates. Passenger airlines were much more common by the 1950’s and are often cited as the reason for the decrease in passenger traffic on railroads in a number of countries.

While there were those who predicted the demise of rail transport, this form of transportation continues to operate. In recent years, major railways have found ways to compete with other forms of ground transportation. In some instances, the railways interline with other transportation options as part of an overall transportation package. The creation of light rail transportation that provides swift conveyance to and from a limited number of locations has also proven to be a viable alternative to flying or driving in some cases.

WikiMotors is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Malcolm Tatum
By Malcolm Tatum
Malcolm Tatum, a former teleconferencing industry professional, followed his passion for trivia, research, and writing to become a full-time freelance writer. He has contributed articles to a variety of print and online publications, including WikiMotors, and his work has also been featured in poetry collections, devotional anthologies, and newspapers. When not writing, Malcolm enjoys collecting vinyl records, following minor league baseball, and cycling.
Discussion Comments
By anon341949 — On Jul 16, 2013

This information was very helpful for my project. I am very thankful to to the people involved in making something as useful as this and I am looking forward to seeing more.

By FrameMaker — On Apr 01, 2011

@Georgesplane- Bus-Rapid Transit (BRT) systems are much like subways and Light Rail Transit (LRT) systems in the fact that they operate on a closed loop with dedicated transit and transfer stations. BRT systems are essentially light rail systems on wheels. With the TransMilenio example, the main bus network is fed by a feeder bus system that picks up passengers at the fringes of the service area and delivers them to a central transfer station.

BRT and LRT systems each have their advantages and disadvantages. LRT systems attract more riders and they run on electricity, but they are more expensive and they are not flexible. LRT systems are best suited for dense urban areas. BRT systems are better for less dense urban areas, but they are less aesthetically pleasing and they do not have as high a ridership.

In my opinion, a combination of BRT and LRT would be best for a city like Phoenix. The LRT could connect and run through the dense areas of Glendale, Phoenix, Tempe, Mesa, and Scottsdale. The BRT could connect the less dense sprawl of Phoenix to the dense down towns.

By Georgesplane — On Mar 29, 2011

I live in Phoenix, and the city built a new light rail system. I was talking about the light rail with a friend and she said that bus-rapid transit would be better. She said she went to Colombia and rode the Trans Millenio in Bogota. She thought it would have been a better option for Phoenix metro area than the light rail. What I would like to know is how bus-rapid transit differs from the bus system we already have and which would be better for Phoenix.

By mentirosa — On Oct 14, 2009

Rail transportation in Europe is well developed and quite efficient.

It took me 4 and 1/2 hours to get directly from Trieste to Milan, longer than lets say flying, but the trains are clean, more spacious and the price is reasonable. It is a very good alternative to flying.

Malcolm Tatum
Malcolm Tatum
Malcolm Tatum, a former teleconferencing industry professional, followed his passion for trivia, research, and writing...
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