Five Of The Longest Railway Networks Of The World

A journey by train is always a beautiful experience. The vistas that roll past you accompanied by the gentle rocking of the train car, the rhythmic clattering of its wheels, the rumbling noise made by the engine, the screeches and hisses from the brakes and the melancholy call of the whistle are all fascinating memories left after a train journey.

Rail transport is one of the most cost effective and practical mode of transportation. In rail transport, the rolling stock - wheeled vehicles like locomotives, wagons, coaches and railroad cars – with metal wheels, run on pre-installed steel rail tracks. These networks of tracks are much more efficient than our normal roads, as they have lower frictional resistance, and allow a single locomotive engine to haul a large number of passenger or cargo cars in a safe manner. Modern day railway networks are life lines for most nations as they play a major role in the cheap transport of millions of passengers and tons of cargo on a daily basis.

The emergence of Railways

In the days before railroads, traversing inland territories, especially in large countries, was a very difficult, often dangerous and time taking process. Even with some of the well engineered ancient roads, travelling in antique times often depended on factors like weather conditions and access to provisions for survival. Railways opened up territories and countries, and contributed immensely to the progress, spreading out and settlement of humanity in vast nations like United States and Canada. These steel highways connected faraway places by reducing the time and distance between them and spreading the presence of civilization. It was one of the greatest technological inventions and can be seen as the foundation stone for Industrial Revolution.

The earliest predecessor to the modern day concept of railroad networks can be traced back to the days of ancient Greeks and Romans. Instances of usage of roads with prebuilt tracks – as simple as ruts on the surface or more complex in the form of wooden or stone rails – for moving carriages containing heavy loads can be seen from that time period. The Diolkos wagonway of Corinth in Ancient Greece, which can be seen as an elementary form of railway, was used to transport boats and large ships overland across the Isthmus of Corinth. This 6 km long paved trackway was built around 600 BC and was operational until late 1st century AD. Roads with stone tracks were also used by Ancient Romans for transporting heavy loads from quarries and mines. The vehicles were pulled either by horses or by slaves and the tracks helped the wheels to move more freely because of the reduction in friction and they acted as deliberate guides for the wheels making transportation more efficient.

The earliest known funicular railway - a type of cable railway with tram like carriages that move up and down a steep slope - is Reisszug, a private line that was used for ferrying cargo to the Hohensalzburg Castle at Salzburg in Austria, which was built in either 1495 or 1504. This line is still operational and can be considered as the oldest existing railway line. By the middle of 16th century, the collieries of Europe began to use wooden tracks to lighten the load for the horses. These rails made the wagons run more smoothly and easily while transporting the cargo of coal from mines to the rivers. Iron plates were later bolted on the wooden rails, which improved the durability of these tracks.

With the advent of the Watt steam engine in the late eighteenth century, invented by the Scottish engineer James Watt, a new phase was opened for the modern day railway transportation. Carrying on an idea presented by James Watt about the designing of a self-propelling steam engine that can be used as a locomotive for powering vehicles, William Murdock, who was an employee of Watt, came up with the first working model of a self-propelled steam carriage in 1784. It was a very small working model, which was almost a foot in height and was built with three thin wheels.

William Murdock's miniature steam road locomotive. [Source]

In 1804, Richard Trevithick, a British inventor, who was inspired by the steam carriage developed by Murdock, built a high pressure steam engine, which was then mounted on wheels to form the first fully working steam locomotive. His locomotive successfully pulled five wagons carrying 70 passengers and 11 tons of coal a distance of 14 km along the tramway of the Penydarren ironworks, in Wales at a speed of 8 km/h.

By 1813, steam locomotives were commonly used to pull heavy loads in mines and quarries in England. The oldest surviving steam locomotive in the world is Puffing Billy, built in 1813, and is now preserved in London Science Museum.

Steam locomotive Puffing Billy in 1862

In 1814, George Stephenson, an English engineer, who is also known as the Father of the Railways started designing a series of steam locomotives, which were used in coal mines for pulling coal wagons. With each design he improved the speed and power of the engines and came up with engineering ideas, which enhanced the durability of the rail tracks.

In 1825, he supervised the construction of the world’s first public railroad between Stockton and Darlington in the north of England. In 1829 he developed the steam locomotive named Rocket, which then became a sort of template for most of the later steam engines. Stephenson became the most influential name in the field of steam locomotion, and the company he gave shape to soon become the pioneers in building steam locomotives across the globe. In 1830, the first railway line to run exclusively on steam locomotion for both passenger and freight transport was opened between Liverpool and Manchester in the United Kingdom. This railway line had many innovations like double track, signaling system and timetable, and it can be seen as the real beginning of modern day railway services.

A view on the Liverpool and Manchester Railway from 1831.

The longest railway networks

1. United States

When it comes to the longest railway networks in the world, The United States tops the table with more than 250,000 km of operational railway lines. Railroads played a major role in the opening up and overall development of United States.

A moment from the celebration of the completion of the First Transcontinental Railroad, in 1869.

Operated by private companies, the railway lines in United States are essential arteries for the nation’s freight movement.

2. China

With a total length of railway lines in exceed of 120,000km, China has the second longest railway network. The railway networks in China are nationalized and is operated by the state owned China Railway Corporation. Railways play an important role in the long-distance transportation in China. With 19,000 km of high-speed rail(HSR), -a type of rail transport that operates much faster than traditional rail traffic - China has the longest HSR network in the world. With massive infrastructure investments and more and more new railway lines every year, China is one of the fastest growing railway networks in the world.

3. Russia

At 86,000km, Russia has the third longest railway network in the world. Operated by the state owned Russian Railways, this railway network is a major carrier for freight in Russia. The Trans-Siberian Railway, which is a part of the Russian railways, is the longest railway line in the world, with a length of 9,289 km.

4. India

India has the fourth longest railway network in the world. Operated by the state owned Indian Railways, this network has a route length of about 66,687 km. Indian Railways carries over 22 million passengers a day, and is a major mode of transportation for both passengers and cargo in the country.

With more than 1.4 million employees, Indian Railways is the world's largest commercial employer. Indian Railways operates a number of luxury train services and Maharajas' Express, which covers some of the major heritage and tourist destinations, was chosen as The World's Leading Luxury Train by the World Travel Awards for the last five years.

5. Canada

With more than 46,000 km of railway route length, Canada has the fifth largest railway network in the world. A major part of Canada’s freight transport depends on its railway services.