Have you ever been sitting on the subway and wondered, “how did we get here?”
It’s awe-inspiring to think of how human ingenuity has transported us over time. From a nomadic existence to domesticating animals for riding. All the way to building huge transportation vessels for us to get from one end of a continent to the other.
Is the train an efficient way to travel today? We have planes and automobiles for that now. They can get us where we need to go quickly. But try putting yourself in the shoes of someone living in the mid 18th century…
There were no cars or airplanes or trains. Only people traveling across the seas by boat and across the land by horse and carriage. Folks in those days would have no clue what was coming for them next and how it would change the world in so many ways.
The locomotive would be a feat of engineering in 1797 and remains an impressive and useful transportation device in 2019.
Here’s everything you need to know about how trains work.
How Trains Work: Some History
Trains have evolved a lot since their inception. By the 20th century, those huge steam-powered beasts from the 1800s had been replaced with fuel and diesel-powered trains. Today we use electricity and magnetism to move them along.
The first steam locomotive was invented in England at the end of the 1700s. It worked by using burning coal to heat water inside a boiler. The steam from the water would be forced through valves that pushed a piston back and forth. Then the motion of the piston would control the wheels, and the train would move.
We quickly realized that this mode of transportation was far superior to using horses. The first railroad company for freight and passengers was the Stockton & Darlington Railroad Company. The locomotive had 6 coal cars and carried 450 passengers at a blazing clip of 9 MPH.
America’s History on the Railroad
About 30 years later in America, the B&O Railroad Company was established. By 1860, a whopping 30,000 miles of track had been laid.
In America, the railroad has a special place in its history. It was the foundation for western expansion. As the track was laid at a quicker pace, the railroad was able to transport people further and further west and tons of outposts would pop up along the way.
It’s funny to look back on the importance of the steam-powered passenger train now. In a little over 100 years, steam trains would be mostly replaced by diesel trains. Then, the rise of the interstate highway system would render locomotive based travel almost obsolete.
How Trains Work Now
We may have replaced the passenger train as a primary mode of travel, but trains are still prevalently used in large cities. You might know these as subways and LRT systems.
Runnin’ on Electricity
These trains run on electrical power generated from the “third rail”, which is just an electrical line on the track. The voltage is transferred from the lines and the electrical current powers the motor on the wheels, causing it to move.
How to Move
To operate one of these locomotives, you use the throttle to speed up and slow down, much like the gas pedal of a car.
The reversing gear, appropriately, allows the train to reverse. You’ll notice this when you’re on a passenger train and the conductor needs to back up to allow another train to pass.
Other than that, the drivers let the train tracks direct them where to go.
How to Brake
All trains use air brakes and hand brakes. The air brakes are option number 1; the pressure of the air pushes the brake against the wheel. Simultaneously, the driver is throttling down, like you would in a car.
The hand brake is used in emergencies when the air brake fails. Kor-Pak has a good rundown of the products used to make locomotive brakes.
Freight trains are still one of the most popular methods for transporting products across vast distances. This is probably because it’s the cheapest.
In America, class 1 freight railroads account for most of all freight hauling. There are 7 of them, and they cover long distances. There are also 33 regional freight railroads across America, each with between 350 to 600 miles of track.
Commonly, a freight train in America will haul coal for power plants, farm products, and chemicals. This accounts for many billions of dollars every year.
While the freight system is still thriving, the heyday for the passenger rail system in America has long since passed. The interstate highway system weaved through every nook and cranny of the country. Excitement about the advance of the railway system quieted down.
In Europe, however, passenger trains are still very popular to this day. Actually, passenger travel accounts for most of the European rail system. These are mostly government owned and operated.
In 1959, the Eurail system was created to provide travel to 30 countries in Europe. Connecting most of the notable European cities, traveling on the Eurail is much more efficient than automobiles, and competes with air travel.
Many other countries have well-developed passenger train systems. It’s hard to say where locomotive travel will go in the future with the lowering cost of airfare, but it is still thriving in certain parts of the world.
To Infinity and Beyond
Locomotive travel is still a source of innovation. Maglev trains are becoming prevalent in Asia and some of Europe. These use of superconducting magnetic rails instead of wheels.
There’s no telling where locomotive travel will go from here. The economic and environmental benefits of something like a Maglev train are undeniable when compared to the cost and fuel consumption of a flight or a cross-country trip in a car.
Train travel has been out of style for some time but could come back around soon because of this. How trains work needs to change in America. We need high-speed trains that can take us from point A to point B in no time.
It’s possible that one day America will adopt the European philosophy towards passenger train travel, but for now, locomotives are firmly entrenched on the freight side of things.
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