How Fast Did Early Trains Go?

How fast did early trains go? In the early days of  British railways, trains ran up to 78 mph by the year 1850. However, they ran at just 30mph in 1830. As railway technology and infrastructure progressed, train speed increased accordingly. In the U.S., trains ran much slower, reaching speeds of just 25 mph in the west until the late 19th century.

Prior to the railways, canals and horse-drawn carriages were a way of life. These journeys were often long-winded, traveled at walking pace, and were fraught with dangerous conditions. Railways took hold of the public’s interest due to their speed, efficiency, and potential for expansion. It was also more economical to build a railway in lieu of a canal, as the railway could be constructed on the surface of the land, instead of having to excavate a path. These traits made railways very attractive to potential investors, therefore, railways expanded exponentially in a short number of years.

During its infancy, the new railway technology was largely uncharted territory, therefore, many did not know for sure the true potential of the new technology. For the most part, train speed varied within different countries. For example, trains traveled much slower in the United States, especially in the west, as compared to trains in Britain. Unsurprisingly, this was mainly due to the quality of the infrastructure, rather than the relative mechanical operations of the train.

1892 GWR Broad Gauge/break of gauge

Many locomotives in the 1800s were capable of much quicker speeds under a full head of steam, however, various bridges, tunnels, and bends prohibited such speeds. However, trains in both the U.S. and Britain ran quicker on long stretches of straight trackage, and it should be noted that the average speeds were much lower due to station stops and slow orders. Additionally, during this time, British trains oftentimes stopped for dinner, as their were no dining facilities within the train.

For example, many early railroads in the U.S. used poorly constructed roadbeds and oftentimes, used tree trunks as ties. In fact, it is not until the latter half of the nineteenth century when roadbed and track infrastructure in the U.S. was re-engineered, allowing for faster trains. Many early trains in the U.S., especially in the west, traveled no faster than 25 mph, and although accidents were prevalent, little damage was done at such low speeds. In fact, one of the very first American locomotives, the Tom Thumb, built by Peter Cooper, lost a race to a horse after the locomotive suffered mechanical issues. It is important to note that many express trains in the northeastern portion of the country oftentimes ran 40-50mph on short stretches.

Similar to the west, the lack of solid infrastructure plagued rail travel in the south. Ballast technology was not as prevalent as it was in the north, and rail gauges lacked standardization. Most rail used was called strap rail, and would allow trains to travel at only 10-12mph. Strap rail was oftentimes, wooden rails, which strips of cast iron laid upon them. However, these straps would often become dislodged, striking the wheels and underside of the train. Additionally, due to most of the railroad projects being financed by private investors, much of the southern railroads differed in gauge. Therefore, it is believed that trains in the south traveled slower to avoid wear and tear on both the rolling stock and track infrastructure.

Across the pond in Britain, trains reached much quicker speeds, and had some degree of standardization. Passengers and freight could travel between London and cities in Scotland in a matter of hours. The routes between these two destinations was so competitive, trains would oftentimes race each other. This speed is due to advanced roadbed and track infrastructure,  which was much more standardized throughout the country. Although broad gauge was utilized on much of the Great Western Railway, standard gauge was prevalent throughout the remainder of the country.  Additionally, the introduction of the railway commenced the end of the canal age, as railways were much more economical to construct.

Evolution of Rail Travel

The evolution of rail travel, especially in its infancy, is surprisingly very well documented. Railways fueled the industrial revolution throughout the world, and helped shape the modern day. Rail transport around the globe changed the way people lived, traveled, and shipped goods.

The earliest railways consisted of small coal wagons being hauled by horses, and were located in England in the 17th century, which served the purpose of hauling coal from the collieries to the canals. These early railways only traveled as fast as the horses would take them, however, were efficient during the time.

During the 19th century, railways began to evolve throughout the world. Beginning in England, locomotive pioneers developed and perfected the design, which then spread throughout the world. The earliest locomotives in Britain went no quicker than a horse’s pace, however, with various innovations in steam technology, faster speeds were soon achieved. Throughout the 19th century, rail networks throughout the world began to materialize. As technology and infrastructure improved, speeds and reliability increased.

Syd Young

Types of Rail and Running Gear

In the early days of rail travel, much debate centered around which type of rail infrastructure would be used. Deciding which type of rail to be used greatly affected train speeds. Initially, railways were nothing more than iron plate ways with flanges on either side, with a smooth gauge in the center to allow for the horses passage. Running gear on these early wagons consisted of flat, un-flanged, metal wheels.

As railways evolved and speeds increased, cast iron rails began to be utilized, however, these rails were weak,and prone to cracking under the immense weight of a steam locomotive. While using cast iron rails, speeds were generally no quicker than 20mph, however, it is difficult to determine exact speeds. These cast iron rails usually used the fish belly design, in which the bottom of the rail was bowed out. Cast iron rails were used until the 1820’s, until George Stephenson utilized wrought iron rails on his Stockton & Darlington. Speeds then increased to an average of 30 mph. It was not until the steel rail was implemented in 1857, that trains began traveling at speeds of up to 60 mph in both the U.S. and Britain. The steel rails were much more durable and capable of high speeds, and is what is used today across the globe.

Prior to the invention of the truck or bogey, running gear on trains was nothing more than an axle mounted directly to the frame of a piece of rolling stock. This limited speeds, as the rough ride and wear on the wheels and rails was prevalent. Derailments were also inevitable under these circumstances, as the wheels had no room to maneuver around curves and switch points. Once the bogey was implemented around the mid 19th century, train speeds and ride quality increased. The bogie included shocks, bolsters, and various types of brake equipment. These factors contributed immensely to the increase of speeds.




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