Stylized photographs of early steam engine Tom Thumb and the Superconducting Maglev for Train Appreciation Day

A Look Back at the History of trains

While our team at Northeast Maglev views every day as an opportunity to appreciate trains, May 14 is this year’s official National Train Day. In honor of the invention of the train and its evolution, we created a timeline to go more in-depth about trains and their history. While maglev train technology doesn’t use rails like most trains do (that’s right, maglev trains float over guideways using magnets), studying innovations in train and rail technology throughout history helps inform our decisions when designing the reliable, advanced, and sustainable systems of the future.

Early Trains 

Although trains as we know them first emerged in the 1800s, the idea of vehicles on wheels traveling on a track dates back a several thousand years. The first “railway” was documented in 1st millennia BCE, when Ancient Greeks used the rutway, a path of earth or stone with grooves in it for land carts to travel along. There’s also evidence that for a fee, both passengers and cargo could use the rutway, much like our modern-day rail system!

Similarly, in mid-1500s Germany, townspeople used wagonways, or pathways of wooden rails, to guide their horse-drawn wagons and carts. Wagonways were also often used with hunds, which were early rail carts used to carry material out of mines. Hunds were hand-propelled, much like the minecarts in Snow White and the Seven Dwarves! Luckily, the closest we get to hand-propelled trains today are either by reading up on history or taking a ride on the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train Roller Coaster at Disney World. It’s safe to say that most, if not all, trains these days don’t rely on manpower!


For the next big development in train history, we’re jumping forward to the early 1800s  in Great Britain. This is when we see the invention of the steam-powered locomotive, a train that burns materials, like coal, wood, and oil, to produce steam. The steam moves machinery that drives the train forward.  While the first steam-powered locomotives were used mainly to carry coal, they were able to transport people not long after.

One of America’s earliest transportation companies, the Delaware & Hudson Canal Company, is credited as operating America’s first steam locomotive. It is said that in 1830, Peter Cooper’s famously raced a horse on the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad and after reaching speeds of 15 mph, lost the race. Nevertheless, it was a huge feat for America’s train timeline (and, of course, makes for a great story!).

The Golden Age of Railroads 

The Pacific Railway Act was signed by President Abraham Lincoln in 1862. It authorized the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad, which spurred “The Golden Age” of rail from the 1870s to the 1920s. It wasn’t until 1883 that the first transcontinental route branched into the Pacific Northwest.

The expansion of rail in conjunction with the Industrial Revolution led to what is referred to as “The Gilded Age,” and, if you’ve been tuned into pop culture recently, you’ll see that the Met Gala used this era as inspiration for their most recent theme! The Gilded Age represents a time of rapid economic growth associated with the Industrial Revolution, vast changes in transportation, and physical expansion. But Mark Twain’s title of the era implied that while everything glittered on the surface, many systems were corrupt and dysfunctional underneath.

Major contributions to industrialism hinged on the back-breaking and ruthless labor of immigrants and marginalized groups. For example, over 20,000 Chinese immigrants were responsible for the dangerous, strenuous job of building the transcontinental railroad. They suffered from minimal wages and damaging working conditions, only for the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 to follow, prohibiting all immigration of Chinese laborers.

These are not the only instances where marginalized groups have acted as the undercurrent of advancing industries. Trains, railroads, and transportation systems, along with many other industries, often owe their success and profit to the suffering and persecution of minorities, and these groups deserve to be accurately represented with historical context. Looking forward, we’ve learned that large infrastructure projects can be inclusive, equitable, and sustainable offering benefits and opportunities to those who build, ride, and live near them.  

Diesel, Electric, and Bullets 

The Golden Age of Rail came to a close in the late 1920s as cars and planes would eventually supersede trains and steal their spotlight. Even the invention of the electric locomotive, which was first tested all the way back in 1880 by Thomas Edison on his own type of electric propulsion system on a track in New Jersey, couldn’t prolong The Golden Age. Electric trains never ended up taking over the rail system, and instead spread to streetcars and electrification in interurban rapid-transit systems (what we know today as trolleys).

The next big development for trains resulted in the diesel locomotive. Diesel locomotives, while first introduced in Sweden in 1913, took decades to stick elsewhere. They were finally introduced to the U.S. in the late 1930s, and The Baltimore & Ohio Railroad was once again a trailblazer in train technology. They are known as the first to use a diesel locomotive in the U.S. for mainline service, and diesel locomotives remain the primary trains used in major rail use today. Believe it or not, many of the first diesel locomotives built more than half a century ago can still be found in revenue service today.

The next new leg of rail to come about would be high-speed rail, which is a rail system that operates much faster than traditional rail, using an integrated system of rolling stock and dedicated tracks. The most referred to high-speed rail terminology would be in reference to the “bullet” train, which was first introduced by Japan in 1964. In less than three years, the Tokaido Shinkansen line, which ran bullet trains between Tokyo and Osaka, reached the 100 million passenger mark and went on to hit one billion by 1967.

France and Spain weren’t far behind with new speed records and widespread development for high-speed rail, and many countries in Europe followed suit, with their own implementations of high-speed rail gaining track (get it?). As of early 2022, China reported their world record of no fewer than 23,500 miles of high-speed rail lines across the country, with Spain in second place with just over 2,000.

High-speed rail has yet to make a true debut in the U.S., but many promising projects are in the works. Currently, California High-Speed Rail aims to connect the Bay Area and the Los Angeles Basin by 2030. Their trains will reflect the design of the Series 500 and new 700 Shinkansen trains that operate with a maximum speed of approximately 187mph. California isn’t the only state where high-speed rail is aiming to expand, with Texas having its own project in the works. We’re excited to see true high-speed rail finally make its way here to the U.S.

The Future of Trains: MAGLEV

What you may not know is that two years prior to the first diesel appearing in the U.S., German inventor Hermann Kemper designed the first train system to use magnetic levitation (). That’s right, maglev technology was first studied all the way back in 1937, and in fact, it was even mentioned by Jonathan Swift’s 1726 novel, Gulliver’s Travels. But the proposition of using superconducting magnets that would be powerful enough to levitate heavy passenger or freight train cars is owed to Dr. Gordon Danby and Dr. Powell, who hold the original patent for superconducting maglev. (Read more about these maglev pioneers on our blog here: National S.T.E.A.M. Day and Dr. Gordon Danby – Northeast Maglev).

While The Central Japan Railway Company started developing their maglev system back in 1962, their first running tests started in 1997. Then, in 2015, JR-Central introduced the L0 SCMAGLEV train, which set a land speed record for rail vehicles at a whopping 374.68 mph.

And as for maglev technology elsewhere, our team is eager to bring the train to the U.S. Northeast Corridor, linking Washington D.C., Baltimore, Wilmington, Philadelphia, and New York City under one hour. In the same way that we wouldn’t get much use out of a wagonway in modern times, we need updated transportation and infrastructure to suit today’s needs. Maglev is an efficient way to reliably support growing populations while improving air quality, we are eager to see it become a reality.


  1. Railroads In The Gilded Age (USA): Facts & Statistics (
  2. The Wooden Wagonways of Britain | Amusing Planet
  3. Superconducting Maglev – Development and Progress Toward Revenue Service | IEEE Council on Superconductivity (
  4. How Chinese Immigrants Helped Build the Transcontinental Railroad: – HISTORY
  5. How China’s high-speed rail network got built so fast | CNN Travel
  7. Trains: A history | Institute for Transportation (
  8. Locomotives (Trains): Definition, Invention, Railroads (
  9. Travel By Train Across The USA: East Coast To West Coast (
  10. Railroad Timeline – Important Moments in Railroad History (

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