The Concept of the (Passenger) Train

Passenger rail was once the primary way people traveled the US and around the world over land. Before we get into passenger rail, we will give you a brief history how how trains came to be.

History of Railroads

The railroads were first invented to reduce the physical burden on draft animals, like horses, that were needed to haul coal from mines to towns for heating and electricity production. It was later discovered that it was easier on the animals to pull the heavy loads if they were pulled on rails rather than a dirt path. Originally, the rails were made of wood, but quickly changed to iron for more durability, The history of trains as we know them today goes back to 1827, when the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad was chartered to build the first rail line in the US. This rail line opened in 1828. It’s construction was prompted by the competition in New York for shipping to the Midwest via the Erie Canal and the Great Lakes.

Locomotives didn’t come onto the scene until 1814 – quite a while after the invention of the concept of moving items via railroads was conceived. Steam locomotives replaced horses because they don’t get tired as quickly as animals, meaning better productivity in the industries that used them. In fact, a steam locomotive is colloquially called an “Iron Horse” because of this historical fact.

The earliest steam locomotive to ever pull a passenger train. On display at the Darlington Railway Museum – Darlington, England.
(Photo taken from teachinghistory.org)

The Beginnings of Passenger Trains

With the success of trains in hauling coal, it soon became evident that the train could be an easier and faster way to transport passengers than stagecoach or (on rivers) paddlewheel steamer. By the 1830’s passenger trains started running in the Northeastern United States, as people looked for cheaper and faster ways to travel. By the 1860’s they had expanded to the Midwest. For example, the first railroad in Wisconsin was the Milwaukee and Mississippi Railroad in the 1850’s, whose goal was to build a railroad between Milwaukee and the Mississippi River to boost Milwaukee’s economy. Passenger service on the line started in 1891.

Although early passenger rail travel was not very comfortable by today’s standards, it was much more comfortable than the alternative methods available at the time. However, after the Civil War, passenger comfort on trains greatly improved, so did speeds. By the 1890’s, railroads were expanding rapidly, and Chicago was becoming “the rail hub of the nation,” a designation that remains to this day.