When you think of railroads, you probably think of locomotives, coal, electricity, Amtrak, and bullet trains. When was the first railroad invented? If you had to guess, you would probably say that the first railroad was invented during the Industrial Revolution – and somewhere in Britain or the United States. But railroads have been around for much longer than most people would guess. Like many great inventions, there have been different versions of the railroad over time, developed in different parts of the world.
The Stockton & Darlington Railway (S&DR) is known as the first modern passenger railway in the world. It operated in northeast England from 1825 to 1863. While it inspired the construction of railways that came after it, it is not technically the first ever. There are several railways that predate S&DR.
Keep reading below to learn about this and some of the first railroads. The definition isn’t as specific as you’d think!
Which Country Had the First Railroad?
According to archeological evidence, the earliest versions of the railway can be traced back to as early as 200 BCE in ancient China. Some argue that the rut ways of ancient Greece and Rome qualify as ancient railways. These rut ways share one key feature with the railroad as we know it today: parallel channels that guide wheels long a specific route.
Whatever the case may be, the railway has been around in some form for over a thousand years. Without these earlier prototypes, our railway systems would not be the same.
But before we delve into the details, we should be clear about how we are defining “railway.”
For our purposes here, we will use “railroad” and “railway” interchangeably.
Like many inventions that we take for granted today, no single person came up with the railway overnight. The railway is an invention that has evolved over a thousand years.
Archeological digs show that the earliest prototypes or models can be found all the way back in BCE, way before the Industrial Revolution.
Of course, the earliest railways did not use steam-powered locomotives or electricity. Most consisted of wooden tracks that conveyed horse-drawn carts and carriages. The railways that most resemble modern-day rail systems were built for transporting goods and materials, such as coal.
The most basic definition of a railway is a permanent track used for guiding carriages and vehicles. For thousands of years, people have been trying to find the quickest and easiest ways to transport goods (and people). Based on prototypes and modern-day systems, a vehicle is pulled along, carrying goods or passengers. For most of known human history, horses were used to pull carriages down a track.
Since what constitutes a “railway” is broad, it is not surprising that some of the oldest known railways in the world came well before the steam-powered locomotive.
What Are The Types of Railways?
Some of the oldest railways in the world include:
- Cable railways
- Heritage railways
- Mine railways
- Railways for early steam-powered locomotives
Some of these are still operational, attracting visitors from all over the world. Most of the older railways are no longer running. In some cases, we do not have any official documentation of these structures. Only ruins that have been uncovered in archeological digs prove their existence.
Because the railway has appeared in different forms, there is no one candidate for the ‘first railway” in the world.
What Are The Oldest Railways in The World?
There are many “firsts” in railroad history, such as the first passenger railway, the first steam-powered locomotive, and the first long-distance railway system.
There are also “firsts” that are specific to a country. The first modern railway in the US appeared around the same time as the first modern railway in Britain.
When it comes to the “first” or “oldest” railroad in the world, you will need to take into consideration how the concept of a railroad evolved over time. Also, the first railway in the world is not the same as the oldest operating railway.
Here are some of the oldest railways in the world:
Middleton Railway (Leeds, England)
The Middleton Railway is the world’s oldest continuously working railway. Founded in 1758, it began as a wagonway for transporting coal to the town of Leeds. It was the most efficient transport of coal at this time, paving the way for Leeds to become the center of many industries.
The railway evolved over the next 200 years, eventually using steam-powered locomotives. The world’s first commercial locomotives were built for Middleton and attracted tech and industry enthusiasts from all over the world.
Because of the Middleton Railway and its pioneering locomotives, Leeds became England’s manufacturing center of locomotives. In the late 1960s, passenger services replaced the transportation of goods. It ran every weekend and on bank holidays.
To this day, Middleton offers weekend and holiday services, and visitors can rent trains for special occasions, such as birthdays and tour parties. The Middleton Railway is also an accredited museum and a heritage site.
The Tanfield Railway (County Durham, England)
The oldest operating railway in the world is the Tanfield Railway. Its path loops around 6 miles of countryside, and the railway is noted for its impeccably restored Victorian carriages and locomotives.
Tanfield Railway was built in 1725 as a wagonway, almost 25 years before the first government-sanctioned railway was built. Because of the steep hills and valleys of Northeast England, building a transport system for the coal industry was not an easy feat. Canals were not an option. Wagonways were the only viable means of transport for the Tyneside Roads.
Tanfield has become a tourist attraction and will be celebrating its tricentenary in 2025.
Caldbeck Mines Railway (Cumbria, England)
If you define “railway” to mean a cleared passageway or track for wheeling goods and materials back and forth, then the Caldbeck Mines qualifies as one of the oldest railways in the world.
According to the University of Leeds, the Caldbeck Mines date back to the 16th century (possibly built during the 1560s). It is technically a wagonway, just like the Middleton Railway in its earliest days. It was constructed by German miners employed by the Company of Mines Royal, an English mining company.
Not much is known about this “railway,” but the scant details of its discovery and history have been documented in this book. Based on the little evidence that we have, Caldbeck Mines Railway was an underground railway servicing the Silver Gill Mine.
The Reisszug (Salzburg, Austria)
The Reisszug has the honor of potentially being one of the oldest cable (or funicular) railways in the world. It was constructed somewhere between the 1300s and 1500s to haul freight to the Hohensalzburg Castle in Salzburg, Austria.
The Reisszug is still in use as a private cable railway, with all its essential parts intact. One of the few improvements made to this railway was the installation of steel rails and cables. And electricity, of course.
The railway connects the east side of the Hohensalzburg Castle fortress to the garden of the Nonnberg Abbey. It is barely 1 mile in distance, so it makes for a very short ride. A car on this single track can transport up to 3 passengers at a time.
The earliest mention of the Reisszug was from the 14th century Archbishop of Salzburg, Matthäus Cardinal Lang. It is this documentation that supports Reisszug’s status as one of the oldest cable railways in the world.
Qin State Railway (China)
While this may seem like stretching the definition of “railway” out too thin, the Qin State Railway qualifies as one of the oldest in the world. It is estimated to have been built around 200 BCE (yes, you read that right) during the Qin Dynasty.
This railway consisted of wooden rails and, based on archaeological evidence, was part of a broader network of horse-drawn carts and carriages. Given the time period, the railway was constructed primarily for military purposes. However, it has not been in use for well over a millennium, and there is no official record of it that we know of.
Despite being as much as 2,000 years old, the Qin State Railway shares some of the same design principles of modern railways, such as:
- A paved double track
- Strong roadbeds
- Use of rails
The Qin State Railway certainly qualifies as the oldest railroad in the world.
Swansea and Mumbles Railway (Wales)
In 1807, the Swansea and Mumbles Railway became the first railway dedicated to passenger transport. The railway used horse-drawn trains until 1897, when steam-powered locomotives took over. Originally, the track ran from Swansea to Oystermouth. Eventually, it was expanded to Mumbles Pier in the 1890s.
In 1929, the Mumbles Railway began a tram service that was the largest in Great Britain at that time. Soon after WWII, the railway was sold to the South Wales Transport Company. Buses and coaches eventually replaced the trams, with the last tram running in 1960.
In the early 20th century, Swansea and Mumbles boasted 11 double-deck cars that seated 106 passengers. At that time, it was the largest passenger service railway in Britain. The railway finally closed in 1960 and only one of its cars, No. 7, was restored enough to be displayed at the Swansea Museum in the following years.
Strasburg Railroad (Pennsylvania, USA)
Chartered in 1832, the Strasburg is the oldest operating railroad in the United States and in the entire Western hemisphere. To this day, the railroad carries passengers from East Strasburg through Lancaster for a scenic passage through the Pennsylvania countryside.
Among its notable features are:
- A wooden dining car
- Wooden seats
- Vintage, first-class accommodations
One of its most prized attractions is Locomotive No. 90, one of the youngest, largest, and iconic locomotives belonging to the Strasburg Railroad. Originally built in 1924 for the Philly-based Baldwin Locomotive Works, this locomotive was sold to Strasburg Railroad in 1967.
Baltimore & Ohio Railroad (Baltimore, USA)
The Baltimore & Ohio Railroad gets a special mention because it was the first steam-operated, common freighter, and passenger railway in the United States. The B & O railroad company was established in 1827. The first stone was laid on Independence Day the following year (Interesting fact: American Revolutionary War leader and signer of the Declaration of Independence, Charles Carroll, laid this stone).
Over the course of its life, the B & O Railroad expanded its distances, first expanding to West Virginia and then towards Chicago and Cleveland after that. Its creation was spurred by the Erie Canal, which gave New York business people a competitive edge over others by giving them access to the Western parts of the country.
This long-distance passenger and common freight railroad would be eclipsed by Amtrak in the late 20th century.
Stockton & Darlington Railway (County Durham, England)
The Stockton & Darlington Railway is the oldest modern railway in the world. It operated between 1825 to 1863, making it one of the most short-lived railway systems mentioned.
Despite the periodic operation, it wins in the category of several important “firsts.” For one, S&DR was the first public or passenger railway to use steam-powered locomotives. Its track spanned 26 miles, pulling wagons from the Durham coal mines to the town of Stockton, carrying coal and passengers.
Being the first-ever passenger service railway, S&DR debuted stations, signal systems, and timetables or schedules. While it was not the first railway in the world, it was the first to travel a long distance. More importantly, it was one of the first modern marvels that drew engineers and train enthusiasts from all over the world.
It was soon surpassed by more extensive and better railways in Britain, but its legacy as the first modern passenger railway remains uncontested.
While the Stockton & Darlington Railway can be considered the first modern railroad, it is not the first railway in the world. The history of the railway parallels the history of the world, going as far back as the Qin Dynasty in China.