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A number of industrial railways and tramways existed from the mid-18th century, the earliest recorded being a military railway, Montresor's Farmway, opened in 1764 at the Niagara Portage in Lewiston, New York.
Probably the first public railway was the Leiper Railroad, opened in 1810 from Crum Creek to Ridley Creek, just ¾ mile (1.2km) in length, located a few miles to the south west of Philadelphia. The line was later closed and replaced by a canal, but subesquently reopened as as railway, forming part of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad.
Another railway sometimes cited as the oldest in America was the Granite Railway, a few miles south Boston, Massachusetts. It was built for the purpose of carrying the granite stone which had been specially selected for the construction of the Bunker Hill monument at Charlestown, immediately to the north of Boston. The railway was constructed to a gauge of 5ft (1524mm), using wooden rails topped with iron plates. The stone was conveyed in horse drawn wagons from from the quarries at Quincy to a wharf on the Neponset River, from where it was taken by sea to the harbour at Charlestown. The quarry remained open after completion of the monument, and continued to make use of the railway. Remains of the line can be seen in the Quincy Quarries Reservation.
The first railway to use steam locomotives opened in 1829 from Carbondale to Honesdale, Pennsylvania. It was built by the Delaware & Hudson Canal Company, to convey anthracite from the mines to the canal wharf. Loaded trains ran down the 16 mile (25km) line under gravity, the empty wagons being hauled back up by locomotive. The company later evolved into the Delaware & Hudson Railroad, the original line becoming part of their network.
Possibly the first recognisably modern railway, and probably also the first passenger carrying railway, was the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad. The first section of this line, 1½ miles (2.4km) from Mount Clare in Baltimore, Maryland to Carrollton (present day Carroll), opened in January, 1830. The line was extended a few months later to Ellicott's Mills (present day Ellicott City), giving it a total length of 13 miles (21km). The line remains open today as part of the CSX network. The section from West Baltimore to St Denis is used by MARC commuter trains. The original Mount Clare station now forms part of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Museum.Back to Top
As in Europe, the early railways used a variety of gauges and construction methods. However, by the time of the construction of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, the gauge of 4ft 8½in (1435mm) had become standard in Great Britain and was adopted in most of Europe. The Americans adopted the same gauge because of the avalability of ready made equipment. In the northern states, the same gauge was used by the majority of later public railways, leading rapidly to a coherent network of lines covering much of the Northeast and Midwest. Meanwhile the southern states acquired a hotchpotch of individual short lines, to a variety of gaugeas ranging from 5 to 6 feet. Following the Civil War, spurred on by the opening up of the West by the new standard gauge transcontinentals, and influenced by commercial interests keen to exploit the resources of the south, almost all lines were eventually converted to standard gauge.
On the other hand, mining and logging operations, and a few public railways in mountainous areas - notably the extensive 3ft (914mm) network of the Denver & Rio Grande Western - used narrow gauge. Parts of the latter remain in existence as tourist operations: the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad and the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad.Back to Top
It first became possible to cross the North American continent by rail from coast to coast in 1869, when the lines of the Central Pacific Railroad met those of the Union Pacific at Promontory Summit, Utah. Several other transcontinental routes followed in later years but, curiously, to this day it is still not possible to travel from coast to coast on the lines of a single railroad company.
The original line via Promontory was bypassed in 1904 by an ambitious combination of cutting and viaduct crossing the Great Salt Lake. The original line continued to provide a service for local communities only until it eventually closed in 1938.
The Golden Spike National Historic Site is now located at the point where the original lines met. The site includes a museum, and a reconstruction of part of the original track. Exact replicas of the two locomotives involved in the completion ceremony can be viewed, and are steamed occasionally for special events.Back to Top
The first line between the USA and Canada was the Atlantic & St Lawrence Railroad (in Canada, the St Lawrence & Atlantic Railway) opened in 1853 from Portland, Maine to Montreal, Quebec. The line later became part of the Canadian National system, but is now in private hands again as the St Lawrence & Atlantic Railroad, a subsidiary of Genesee & Wyoming Inc.
The first line between the USA and Mexico opened in 1882 when the New Mexico & Arizona Railroad of the USA met the Sonora Railway of Mexico at Nogales. Both companies were subsidiaries of the Aitchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway. The line is now owned by Union Pacific on the USA side of the border, and by Ferromex on the Mexican side.Back to Top
The electric motor was reputedly invented by Thomas Davenport, a blacksmith of Forestdale, Vermont. He demonstrated a small, electrically powered locomotive engine as early as 1835. However, the first practical railway use of electric traction was the streetcar system designed by Frank J Sprague for Richmond, Virginia, opened in 1888. This became the prototype for streetcars (trams) in many cities of the USA and throughout the world.
With its long main lines and sparse traffic, the USA lagged behind other countries of the world in terms electrifying its rail network. Most lines are diesel operated, with a few notable execeptions. Most of the lines entering New York were electrified early on, to avoid problems with pollution in the long tunnels approaching the city. Several of the major railroads in the Northeast extended electrification to their main lines, which laid the basis for the prestigious electrically hauled express passenger trains, Acela and Metroliner, of Amtrak's Northeast Corridor services.
Elsewhere, electrification was adopted generally for metros (subways) and commuter railways, but on the main lines generally only in special circumstances, such as a long, poorly ventilated tunnel or a particularly steep gradient. Most of these unusual cases have now been removed, with improvements to diesel traction. On the other hand, a few new dedicated freight lines with captive traffic have been constructed with electric traction throughout.Back to Top
From the latter part of the 20th century onwards, increased competition from road and air put pressure on the railway industry. Passenger traffic was at a particularly low ebb in the 1960s when the government realized the importance of the railway service to many Middle American communities, and stepped in to form a new company, Amtrak, which took over the passenger operations of almost all the major railroads from May 1, 1971. By the 1980s, all the remaining long haul passenger services had either been taken over by Amtrak or had ceased operating. A number of commuter services, some of them operating over quite long distances, remain independent of Amtrak but are for the most part supported by State or municipal authorities. The only main line railway company in the US now operating passenger and freight trains is the Alaska Railroad.
Meanwhile, the freight sector, too, has undergone a retrenchment. Major operators have merged, reducing the total number of companies operating Class I railroads. Duplicated routes have been abandoned, although some of these have been bought up by new companies seeing a traffic opportunity. Branches have been spun off as separate short lines, while at the same time many short lines have been combined into groups of larger holding companies, yielding both savings on administration and broader market opportunities. The picture continues to change, but the general outlook for the future of rail transportation in the US does look healthier today than it has done for some decades past.
Flag image from CIA World Factbook