5 Fascinating Things You Didn’t Know About Trains and Rail Travel


Here in the 21st century, we as humans certainly have access to some truly amazing ways to get ourselves from Point A to Point B. We can fly through the air like birds, thanks to airplanes. We can delight in the incomparable independence and freedom an automobile gives us. However, travel by rail remains a much loved way to travel, and with good reason.

Rail travel is environmentally responsible, fast, and convenient. It also offers a richer travel experience than you might get from an automobile, a bus, or an airplane. Last, but certainly not least, trains and rail travel come attached to a rich history that not everyone is aware of. The following are just a few of the fascinating things you may not know about one of the world’s most enriching ways to get around.

1. “Horsepower” was originally part of a marketing strategy.

The first modern steam engine was invented by a man called James Watt – an option designed to be an upgraded version of an earlier design by Thomas Newcomen. Watt is also responsible for coming up with the means by which this newer engine’s power could be measured.

Watt accomplished this by calculating just how much power one horse could generate working in a mill over a certain period of time. He used those calculations to describe the power of his engine in terms of how many horses it could replace. Not only did putting things that way do the job of selling consumers on his product, but the term “horsepower” turned out to have lasting value. We still use it today.

2. Trains contributed greatly to the outcome of the Civil War.

Over the entire course of the Civil War, the railroads made it possible to do things people previously couldn’t. Thanks to trains, we could move heavy artillery quickly and easily over long distances. We could get entire battalions of soldiers from one place to another. (This was especially handy when it came to sending in emergency replacement troops, as Lincoln did in the Battle of Chickamauga in 1863.)

For this reason, railroad sabotage and control strategy were important considerations for both the North and the South. For example, the destruction of many thousands of miles of Confederate rail contributed greatly to the end result of the Civil War.

3. We have standardized time zones because of rail travel.




Britain had a standardized system in place for keeping track of time as early as 1847. America would follow suit about 40 years later, thanks to the outcome of the General Time Convention in October of 1883.

At the stroke of noon on November 18, railway offices in cities all across America calibrated their clocks according to a signal sent out by the U.S. Naval Observatory. In 1918, that standardized time became official across the land when Congress passed associated legislation. Daylight savings time was also established at that point, originally to conserve resources needed for WWI war efforts.

4. Modern trains are potentially a lot faster than you realize.




When the very first practical steam locomotive made its appearance in 1804, thanks to Richard Trevithick, its average speed was less than 10 mph – a veritable snail’s pace by modern standards. Today’s trains are capable of achieving speeds much faster than that.

The bullet trains of 1964 Japan were able to reach speeds exceeding 130 mph, and those stats have since only continued to climb. Currently, a Japanese bullet train can exceed speeds of 300 mph. There are also many trains in countries like Germany, France, and China capable of achieving similar extreme speeds.

5. Rail travel is responsible for the world’s first travel agency.

In 1841, an English minister by the name of Thomas Cook put together a train trip for 540 parishioners in conjunction with an upcoming London temperance meeting. He not only negotiated a set fare for each passenger, but that fare also included both a meal and their tickets.

This endeavor was such a big success that Cook decided to expand upon it, first in the United Kingdom, but later in America and other parts of Europe. In 1873, the agency he founded started an international rail timetable that is still in use today.

You can learn even more about the fascinating history of American rail travel by checking out our expansive selection of regional interest titles on the topic. Explore the development of notable rail lines, learn more about rail travel in specific locations, and much more!