Rail Technology


The following are some of the major inventors, advances, and events related to the history of Railroad Technology:
  • The history of rail transport apparently dates back to early Greek history, around 600 B.C. - See Wikipedia
  • Wagonways were relatively common in Europe from about 1500 through 1800. Typically used in mining operations, they consisted of horses that hauled wagons on wooden tracks.
  • The first iron plate covered wooden rails were used on wagonways in Europe around the late 1700's.
  • James Watt, a Scottish inventor and mechanical engineer, developed a reciprocating steam engine capable of powering a wheel and then began investigating the use of high pressure steam acting directly upon a piston. This raised the possibility of a small engine that might be used to power a vehicle. Watt actually patented a design for a steam locomotive in 1784. His employee William Murdoch produced a working model of a self-propelled steam carriage later that year.
  • The first full scale working railway steam locomotive was built in the United Kingdom (U.K.) in 1804 by Richard Trevithick, an English engineer.
  • The first commercially successful steam locomotive was Matthew Murray's rack locomotive 'Salamanca' built in England for the narrow gauge Middleton Railway in 1812.
  • In 1812, Oliver Evans, an American engineer and inventor, published his vision of what steam railways could become, with cities and towns linked by a network of long distance railways plied by speedy locomotives, greatly reducing the time required for personal travel and for transport of goods.
  • In 1814, George Stephenson, an English civil engineer, built one of the first successful flanged-wheel adhesion locomotives. Stephenson played a pivotal role in the development and widespread adoption of the steam locomotive. His designs considerably improved on the work of the earlier pioneers.
  • The first railroad charter in North America was granted to Col. John Stevens in 1815. Grants to others soon followed, and work began on the first operational railroads in the U.S.
  • The American railroad mania began with the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad in 1828 and continued through much of the 19th century.
  • Designed and built by Peter Cooper in 1830, the 'Tom Thumb' was the first American-built steam locomotive to be operated on a common-carrier railroad.
  • From the beginning, there was a distinction between the light fast passenger loco and the slower more powerful goods engine. For more detail on the various advances in locomotive design, go to Wikipedia.
  • In 1830, the Liverpool and Manchester Railway in England was the first modern railway system. It carried both goods and passenger traffic on a regularly scheduled run. It was the first to use a doubletrack throughout its length and the first to have a signalling system.
  • Railway Post Office Cars and Express Cars were usedto distribute mail and express parcels between cities as early as the mid-1830's.
  • In 1832, Sir Charles Fox, a British inventor and civil engineer, was awarded one of his many patents for designing a new rail switch or railway points.
  • In 1837, Robert Davidson, a Scottish inventor, built the first electric locomotive.
  • In the 1840's, Telegraphy became a near-universal method of train coordination.
  • The introduction of steel rails in the mid-1800's led to a great expansion of railways across Europe and the U.S. beginning in the late 1860's.
  • In the U.S., although the South started building railways early on, it concentrated on short lines linking cotton regions to oceanic or river ports. The North and Midwest constructed rail networks that linked every city by 1860. In the heavily settled the Midwestern 'Corn Belt', over 80 percent of farms were within 10 miles of a railway, facilitating the shipment of grain, hogs and cattle to national and international markets.
Railroad stations served the railroad as a telegraph and train order office, many had a siding for trains to pass and a water tower to refill a steam locomotive tender with water. Most passenger stations included a ticket counter, baggage office, express office and post office. Railroad stations also served the developing western communities as a center for news, transportation and commerce. Learn more at http://www.railswest.com stations.html
  • The Pullman Sleeping Car was invented by George Pullman in 1857. Pullman's railroad coach or sleeper was designed for overnight passenger travel. It was introduced for use in the early 1860's.
  • In 1863, Scotsman Robert Francis Fairlie invented the Fairlie pivoting double-bogie articulated locomotive, allowing trains to negotiate tighter curves in the track. This innovation became the model for most future diesel and electric locomotives.
  • In 1867, the first US patent for railroad crossing gates was awarded to J. Nason and J. F. Wilson.
  • Throughout the 1860s and '70s, railroads adopted the use of a 'caboose', giving brakemen and the conductor some shelter and safety, and in the process creating a symbol of American railroading.
  • In 1868, Eli Janney, a U.S. Civil War veteran, conceived and patented the first "knuckle" coupler that replaced the link and pin couplers on North American railroads. His design is still in use today.
  • In May 1869, the construction of a transcontinental railroad across the U.S. was completed. It was one of America's greatest technological achievements.
Before the transcontinental railroad was completed, travel overland by stagecoach cost $1,000, took five or six months, and involved crossing rugged mountains and arid desert. The alternatives were to travel by sea around the tip of South America, a distance of 18,000 miles; or to cross the Isthmus of Panama, then travel north by ship to California. Each route took months and was dangerous and expensive. The transcontinental railroad would make it possible to complete the trip in five days at a cost of $150 for a first-class sleeper.
  • In 1869, George Westinghouse an American entrepreneur and engineer, invented the railway compressed air brake and was a pioneer of the electrical industry. He subsequently established the Westinghouse Air Brake Company. Modern trains still use some variation of his air brake system.
  • In 1870, Eliza Murfey patented 16 devices for improving the packing of bearings for railroad-car axles. These packings were used to lubricate the axles with oil which reduced derailments caused by seized axles and bearings.
  • In 1870, William Robinson invented the first track circuit used in railway signaling. He established the Robinson Electric Railway Signal Company in 1873 and during the 1870s his signal systems were installed on railroads throughout the U.S.
  • William Robert Sykes, a British telegrapher and clock maker, received a patent in 1875 for his 'lock and block' system for mechanically connecting railroad signals and switches. Sykes went on to found Sykes & Co. Railroad Signalling Instruments, in London, England. The company became part of the Westinghouse Brake and Signal Company after Syke’s death in 1917.
  • In 1879, Mary Walton developed a method of deflecting smoke stack emissions through water tanks and later adapted the system for use on locomotives. In 1881, she invented and received a patent for a noise reduction system used by elevated railroads in New York City.
  • In 1882, lavatories were first introduced for use on the Great Northern Railway coaches in the U.K.
  • In January 1888, the city of Richmond, Virginia, served as the American proving ground for electric railways.
  • By the 1890's, electric power became practical and more widespread, allowing extensive underground railways in the U.S. and Europe.
  • Elijah McCoy, a black inventor and engineer, is notable for his 57 U.S. patents. Many had to do with lubrication of railroad steam engines. Advertising for the mechanical lubricator, that began to be used in the early 1900's, gave rise to the expression "the real McCoy."
  • In 1917, General Electric (GE) produced its first experimental Diesel-electric locomotives, the first in the U.S., using Herman Lemp's control design.
  • In March 1918,the U.S. adopted five standard time zones across the nation and Alaska.
  • In May 1934, the first streamlined diesel locomotives, the 'Pioneer Zephyr', was put into service.
  • GE began mass production of diesel-electric railroad switching engines in the mid-1930's.
  • Diesel-electric railroad locomotion entered the American mainstream when the Burlington Railroad and Union Pacific used Diesel 'streamliners' to haul passengers in the late 1930's.
Diesel Locomotives were introduced on American Railways in the middle of the 1930's proving more energy efficiency and consuming less fuel than than a steam engine. This new locomotive used a Diesel generator to create electricity which powered axle-mounted electric motors. Read more about diesel locomotives.




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  • By the 1970s, diesel and electric power had replaced steam power on most of the world's railroads.
  • Starting with the opening of the first Shinkansen line between Tokyo and Osaka in Japan in 1964, high-speed rail transport operating at speeds in excess of 300 km/h, have now been built in many countries across Europe and Asia.
  • In the 1970' s, interest in an alternative high-speed technology centered on magnetic levitation  emerged referred to as MAGLEV.
  • In 2000, Amtrak introduced the high speed Acela Express (150 mph) passenger train on the Northeast Rail Corridor in the U.S.
  • In 2008, new U.S. legislation mandated that railroads implement positive train control (PTC) technology on main lines used to transport passengers and toxic-by-inhalation materials by 2015. PTC technology is designed to automatically stop or slow a train before certain types of accidents occur, including train-to-train collisions, derailments caused by excessive speed, switches left in the wrong position, etc.
  • In March 2011, the AAR Tank Car Committee petitioned the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) to adopt higher standards for DOT-111 tank cars carrying packing group I and II commodities - such as crude oil and ethanol. The standards include enhanced tank head and shell puncture resistance systems and top fittings protection that exceed current requirements. All tank cars ordered after 2011 are built to these higher standards.
  • From 2008 to 2012, major Class I railroads in the U.S. purchased 2,669 new state-of-the-art locomotives, and rebuilt another 845 locomotives to improve their capabilities, according to the Association of American Railroads (AAR). They also installed 77 million new crossties and 2.9 million tons of new rail, and placed 61 million cubic yards of ballast.

The rate of innovation on America's railroads is increasing rapidly as new technologies are being created to handle the continued growth in rail traffic, stiff competition, increased train speeds, new safety requirements, and more. Some of the many new inventions include:

  • Wayside detectors - These sensors identify defects—overheated bearings and damaged wheels, dragging hoses, deteriorating bearings, cracked wheels, and excessively high or wide loads—on passing rail cars.
  • Acoustic detector systems - These trackside systems use "acoustic signatures" to evaluate the sound of internal bearings to identify those nearing failure. They supplement or replace systems that measure the heat that bearings generate to identify those in the process of failing.
  • Track geometry cars - These technology-rich cars use sophisticated electronic and optical instruments to inspect track alignment, gauge, curvature, and other track conditions. This information helps railroads determine when track needs maintenance.
  • Ground-penetrating radar - This technology helps identify below-ground problems—such as excessive water penetration and deteriorated ballast—that hinder track stability.

In addition, the rail industry has also made considerable advancements in the use of information technology (IT) systems. For example:

  • TTCI has developed the Integrated Railway Remote Information Service (InteRRIS), an advanced Internet database tracking railroad vehicles and equipment.
  • The Equipment Health Monitoring Initiative is a predictive and proactive maintenance system designed to detect potential safety problems and poorly performing equipment.
  • Norfolk Southern uses a variety of data analysis tools to identify trends in customer freight claims and damage notifications for specific shippers or commodities that require attention.
  • GPS, geo-fencing, security applications for Smartphones, iPads, wireless networks, and solar-powered devices are just some of the many other technologies being integrated into day-to-day railroad operations.
  • The Rail Corridor Risk Management System is a sophisticated statistical routing model designed to ensure that materials are transported on routes that pose the least overall safety and security risk.

Expect even more technological advances as high speed rail and foreign competition drive companies to gain a competitive edge in the global transportation marketplace through continuous innovation.

The Hyperloop is a conceptual high-speed transportation system popularized by entrepreneur Elon Musk, incorporating reduced-pressure tubes in which pressurized capsules ride on a cushion of air that is driven by a combination of linear induction motors and air compressors. It is anticipated that passengers would be transported at an average speed of around 600 mph. A preliminary design document was made public in August 2013. A technical feasibility study is expected to be produced in 2015.




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