This page presents a series of "firsts" for railroad construction and operation in the U.S. and worldwide.
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What was the world's first railroad? What was the first train
in the world?
The earliest railroads consisted of horse-drawn carts on
wooden tracks, some built for mining as early as the 16th century.
The first railroad to operate with a steam locomotive was the
Penydarren Tramroad at Penydarren Ironworks in Merthyr Tydfil,
Wales. On February 21, 1804, a locomotive successfully pulled 10
tons of iron and 70 passengers at a maximum speed of 5mph over the
9-mile railroad. This early experiment in steam was considered a
success, but the locomotive's weight damaged the track and it was
never placed in revenue service.
What was the world's first railroad to use a steam locomotive
in revenue service?
The first railroad to use a steam locomotive in revenue
service (as opposed to tests or trials) was the Middleton Railway in
Leeds, UK. The railroad was initially built in 1758 to haul coal
using horse-drawn vehicles on wooden tracks. Matthew Murray built a
locomotive named Salamanca with four flanged wheels and a single cog
(toothed) wheel that engaged with an adjacent rack rail for
propulsion. Steam-powered coal trains began operating on August 12,
1812. Three additional locomotives were built and operated until
1834. The railroad was converted to standard gauge in 1881 and still
operates today as a tourist/heritage railway.
What was the world's first passenger railroad?
The first railroad to carry fare-paying passengers was the
Swansea and Mumbles Railway, originally known as the Oystermouth
Railway. The railroad was initially built in 1804-1806 and used horse-drawn vehicles to carry limestone between Swansea and Oystermouth in South Wales. Passenger service began on March 25,
1807, making it the first passenger railway in the world. Passenger
service lasted nearly 20 years, ending in 1826 when horse-powered
buses on an adjacent road stole much of the railroad's traffic.
Ironically, the first passenger railroad was also the first to
succumb to road versus rail competition.
What was the world's first passenger railroad to use a steam
The world's first steam-powered passenger railroad was the Stockton &
Darlington Railway, operating 25 miles of track through Darlington
in the North East of England. In September 1825, Robert Stephenson & Co. completed the first
steam locomotive for the railway, named Locomotion. The first train
operated on the 27th of the month carrying both coal and passengers.
Additional locomotives arrived the following year but passenger
service was largely horse-drawn until a complete conversion to steam
power in 1833.
What was the first railroad in the USA?
Several experimental and temporary construction-oriented
railroads were built during the 18th century, most powered by horses
or gravity. The first American railroad to operate with a steam
locomotive was the Delaware & Hudson Canal Company which built a
railroad between coal fields at Carbondale and its canal at
Honesdale, Pennsylvania. In 1828, the D&H ordered a steam locomotive
from Britain's Foster, Rastrick & Company. The locomotive, named the
Stourbridge Lion, was tested in Honesdale on August 8, 1829.
The locomotive performed well but, at 7-1/2 tons, was too heavy for
the wooden rails. The railroad was instead operated using gravity to
propel coal cars downgrade and a series of incline planes with
stationary steam engines to pull cars back up.
What was the first railroad in the USA to use a steam
locomotive in revenue service?
The first U.S. railroad to use a steam locomotive in revenue
service was the South Carolina Railroad. It opened on Christmas Day
1830 using the "Best Friend of Charleston" steam locomotive on six
miles of track in Charleston, South Carolina. The locomotive achieved a solo max
speed of 30mph, though regular passenger trains were limited to
approximately 12mph. The locomotive's boiler exploded on June 17,
1831, when a poorly trained fireman intentionally blocked the relief
valve. The crew was injured but the railroad continued operating
using other locomotives already acquired. By 1833, the railroad was
completed 136 miles from Charleston to Hamburg, South Carolina, the
world's longest railroad at the time.
When was the first U.S. transcontinental railroad completed?
The Central Pacific Railroad and Union Pacific Railroad met on
May 10, 1869 at Promontory Summit, Utah. The Transcontinental
Railroad linked the Atlantic and Pacific coasts by rail for the
What was the world's first rack/cog railway?
The first cog railway was the Middleton Railway in Leeds, UK,
also the first railway in the world to use a steam locomotive in
revenue service. The rack and pinion system was patented by John
Blenkinsop, the Middleton coal mine manager. Blenkinsop believed
that a locomotive light enough not to break the track (a problem
experienced during prior attempts at steam locomotive use, including
at the Penydarren Ironworks) would not have sufficient adhesion to
to haul loaded coal cars on steep grades. The wooden track railroad,
initially built in 1758 to haul coal using horse-drawn vehicles, was
replaced with iron rail and a third cog rail. Matthew Murray of the
engineering firm Fenton, Murray & Wood built a locomotive to operate
on the cog railway, named the Salamanca. The world's first cog
railway was operating on August 12, 1812. Blenkinsop's design was a
success but the locomotive's boiler exploded in 1818 due to improper
safety valve use. A second boiler explosion in 1834 led to the
abandonment of steam and return to horse power. By the time steam
was reintroduced in 1866, modern track and locomotive design negated
the need for a cog system.
What was the world's first mountain-climbing rack/cog
The Mount Washington Cog Railway in the White Mountains of New
Hampshire was the world's first mountain-climbing cog railway when
completed in 1869. The 3.1-mile railroad climbs from Marshfield Base
Station (elevation 2700') to the summit of Mt. Washington (6288')
with an average grade of 25% and max grade of 37.4% (Jacob's
Ladder). The railroad has been in continuous operation since 1869
and today operates a combination of steam and diesel locomotives.
What was the first subway in the world?
The world's first subway was the Metropolitan Railway in
London. The Met opened on January 10, 1863, operating nearly four
miles between Paddington (Bishop's Road) and Farringdon Street via
King's Cross. The railway used steam locomotives to haul gas-lit
wooden carriages. The subway was expanded many times and is used
the London Underground.
What was the first subway in the USA?
The first attempted subway in the U.S. was the Beach Pneumatic
Transit Company in New York City. Alfred Ely Beach completed a
demonstration subway beneath one block of Broadway from Warren
Street to Murray Street, opened to the public on February 26, 1870.
A single subway car was propelled by a large reversible fan at one
end of the tunnel. It is unclear how this pneumatic technology could
be applied on a larger scale. Political opposition by New York
City's mayor followed by the Panic of 1873 spelled the end to
Beach's subway ambitions.
The earliest American subway still in use is in Boston. The
Tremont Street Subway opened on September 1, 1897, serving four
stations at Boylston Street, Park Street, Scollay Square, and Adams
Square. The subway was operated with trolleys powered by an overhead
line. Much of the original tunnel is now part of MBTA's Green Line
between Boylston, Park Street, and Government Center.
What was world's first electric-powered public passenger railway?
Werner von Siemens (founder of today's multinational Siemens
AG) demonstrated an electric locomotive at the Berlin industrial
Exposition in 1879 and nearly 100,000 attendees rode the electric
train. Just two years later, Siemens also designed the first public
electric trolley, the Gross-Lichterfelde Tramway. On May 12, 1881,
the 1.5-mile railway opened at Lichterfelde, Germany, carrying a
maximum of 26 passengers at speeds up to 30mph.
What was the first electric-powered public passenger railway
in the USA?
Inventor Leo Daft tested several electric locomotives in New
Jersey in 1881 and 1882. A larger scale test was conducted in
November 1883 using a 2-ton, 12 horsepower locomotive on the
Saratoga & Mt. McGregor Railroad in New York. However, it was on
August 10, 1885, that Daft completed the first public electric
railway in the USA. The Baltimore and Hampden horsecar line was
converted to third rail electric power and operated successfully for
What was the first large scale electric trolley system in the
Richmond Union Passenger Railway began operation of 10
electric streetcars on February 2, 1888 in Richmond, Virginia. The
electric system designed by Frank Julian Sprague featured two 5.6 kW
motors on each car powered by a 450-volt overhead trolley wire. Four
months after opening, Richmond had 40 streetcars operating over 12
miles of track at a maximum speed of 15mph. By the following year,
dozens of cities worldwide were planning trolley systems based on
Sprague's technology used in Richmond.
What was the first electrification of a mainline steam
The world's first electrification of a mainline steam freight
and passenger railroad was the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad's Howard
Street Tunnel, completed in 1895. Electric locomotives coupled to
full trains (including steam locomotive) and pulled them nearly
three miles between Camden Street Station and a new station at Mount
Royal Avenue through the 7,339 foot tunnel. The tunnel is used today
by diesel-powered CSX freight trains.