Brief History of Railroads in Europe

The importance of rail transportation to the history of Europe cannot be understated; the implementation of railroads throughout Europe brought about huge changes to Europe as a continent and continues to play an important role in Europe to this day. When looking at the history of railroads in Europe, however, it is hard to look at “Europe.” The history of rail transportation happened in phases. Rail transportation first exploded in Great Britain and then spread to continental Europe, where each nation approached railroads differently and at different times.

Tapping a Puddler Furnace

Tapping a Puddler Furnace

Although each European country has a different history when it comes to railroads, every European country can trace the history of their railroads to the same beginning. The development of the modern railway system came about thanks to two factors: technological advances and war. Early trains were powered by steam engines, but steam engines were not originally suitable for rail transportation. The steam engine needed two major improvements before it would be suitable for rail transportation. The first issue with the steam engine was that its oscillating motion had to be made into a rotary motion that cold drive the wheels of a train. The second problem was that a stronger iron was needed to withstand the pressure needed to drive steam locomotives. The first problem was solved by James Watt. His Sun and Planet gear connected the piston to the wheels of the train somewhat off center to drive it forward. The second problem was solved by the implementation of the rolling and puddling process in 1783, which made iron stronger by eliminating impurities. The French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars also contributed to the rise of railroads in Europe. The loss of so many horses during these wars made an alternative form of transportation necessary. Thanks to these factors, the first steam locomotive came in 1804. By 1820, a properly running locomotive had been designed and the rolling and puddling process had been developed and widespread enough to make cheap, quality railroads possible.[1] From here, the history of railroads in Europe diverges by country.

Great Britain was “the pioneer of train travel.” The first public railway, the Stockton and Darlington Railway, was constructed in Britain in 1825.[2] It was not until 1830, however, that the train “Rocket” of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway grabbed the world’s attention and led to the start of the Railroad Era. Railroad Mania began in the 1840s, during which Parliament passed 272 acts, many of which led to the creation of new railroad companies. This Railway Mania led Britain to reach a new peak of 9,000 kilometers of track in 1950 compared to 1,500 kilometers in 1939 and 90 kilometers in 1829. Railroads became crucial to Britain’s economy. Trains transported iron and coal supplies from North England to the factory-filled cities of the East and West and transported many people from rural areas to cities, where they took jobs in the plethora of factories.[3]

Festival of Calais (1848) - Priests Bless the Railway Engine

Festival of Calais (1848) – Priests Bless the Railway Engine

France’s first railway came in 1828, three years after Great Britain erected its first railway. Although France was only a few years behind Britain when it came to rail transportation, the industry was not as important to the French as it was to the British.[4] The Napoleonic Wars hindered France’s ability to construct railroads and countries like Britain, Germany, Belgium, and Switzerland were able to continue to expand their railroads while France was incapacitated. Aside from this, many French citizens were opposed to the idea of a railway system. They were not happy with the idea of the country’s picturesque landscape being marred by the construction of railroads. France also lacked the coal and iron resources of Britain, with Britain producing over 200 million tons of coal annually compared to France’s measly 35 million tons. On top of this, France lacked a strong, central government, which meant it took ages for the government to reach decisions related to rail transport.[5] France also had many navigable waterways, which were supplemented by the construction of canals. A national railway network would have hurt these water-transport industries and local riverside businesses. It was not until the 1880s that France caught up to Britain in total railroad length.[6]

Germany’s first railroad came in 1835 with the construction of the six-kilometer Bayerische Ludwigsbahn, which was located in Bavaria. Germans had visited Britain prior to this and examined the British railway industry and brought what they learned back to Germany. British investors were also looking to invest in the industrialized regions of Germany.[7] In fact, the locomotive and driver of Germany’s first railroad were both British.[8] Railway construction boomed in Germany in the 1840s and the Germans once again learned from the British and passed laws to prevent something like Railway Mania from happening in Germany. By 1849, Germany had over 5,000 kilometers of track, double that of France, which had 2,467 kilometers of track at the time. Aside from economic benefits, a national railway system assisted in German unification.[9] As the various German states began developing their own railways, the corners of Germany began to connect.[10] In 1871, twenty-five German states were unified by the national railway network and by 1873 Germany had surpassed Britain’s total railway length.[11]

Tsarskoe Selo Railway (1837)

Tsarskoe Selo Railway (1837)

Russia was perhaps the European country that benefited most from railroads, seeing as their other modes of transportation, rivers and roads, were useless during the harsh Russian winters. Ironically, Russia was at first opposed to the implementation of a national railroad system. Czar Nicholas I supported rail transport, but Russian noblemen were skeptical of the profitability of railroads and many supported the development of canals instead. Russia did not start building modern railways until the 1830s, when between 1834 and 1836 E.A. Cherepanov and his son M.E. Cherepanov laid three and a half kilometers of railway to connect the Vyskii Factory and the Mednyi Mine. In 1836, Czar Nicholas I approved the construction of the Tsarskoe Selo Railway, which was a twenty-seven kilometer railroad that connected St. Petersburg to Tsarskoe Selo. After this, other railway lines were constructed throughout the country. It did not take Russia long to catch up with its European neighbors, with the country surpassing France in total rail length in 1876, Britain in 1886, and Germany in 1900. The national railway system greatly helped Russia’s economy and led to the employment of millions of workers.[12]

Railroads continued to expand throughout Europe, lacing the countries of the continent together slowly but surely. Greece was the last European country to start a train service. The first Greek railroad, the Piraeus-Athens service, opened in 1869, well after the first British train services were implemented. The Greek railroad system continued to expand during the 1900s and was eventually connected to the Macedonian railway system, which effectively added Greece to the European railway grid.[13] By the early 1900s, all of Europe had railway lines, and these lines formed a grid that connected Europe in a way it had never been connected before.

First Railway Line by Country

First Railway Line by Country


[1] Chris Butler, “Railroads and Their Impact (c. 1825-1900),” The Flow of History,

[2] Maureen Katemopoulos, “European Train History,” eHow,

[3] Sung Jik Cha, “Railroads in 19th Century Europe: Great Britain, France, Germany, and Russia,” ZUM Internet e.V., Last modified May 2008,

[4] Ibid.

[5] “History of Rail Transport in France,”,

[6] Cha.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Oxlade, John, “A brief history of German railways,” World RailFans, Last modified December 31, 2003,

[9] Cha.

[10] Oxlade.

[11] Cha.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Katemopoulos.