Evolution of Train Design

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When the first locomotives were developed back around some 200 years ago, people thought their speed and continuous shaking vibrations would make it difficult for the passengers to breathe and might get unconscious on the trip.

But nowadays we see the trains running at fast speeds of 300 miles per hour covering long distances in no time.

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Today we simply go purchase or book a ticket online and travel easily but trains like any other mode of transportation have changed dramatically over the years and have centuries of history of its development.

The Timeline

Early-stage designs

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The history of Railway Transport began with simpler and slower designs as early as 1550 in Germany. The pathways of wooden rails referred to as “wagonways” were designed to ease the horse-drawn wagons or carts for movement on the dirt roads.

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Horses pulling loaded coal waggons make one final delivery along The Little Eaton Gangway wagonway (open 1795–1908)_©Photo from Wikipedia.

Even in the ancient civilizations of Greece and Egypt and during the 1600s-1800s of industrial Europe, horses were used as primary sources for pulling train cars. Specifically designed tracks enabled the journey along with two directions, making it easier for the horses or bulls to deliver coal, iron, and other goods.

Then in the 1700s, iron replaced the wooden rails and wheels, “tramways” took over the “wagonways” becoming popular around Europe. Horses remained the primary source of power for cargo until steam-powered propulsion came along in the early 1800s.

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When we look at the history of innovation in Railway design over the last two centuries, from the industrial revolution in the 19th century to the modern learner greener locomotives, we can see the timeline of its design from the past, in the present to the future development.

The mastermind Cornish engineer Richard Trevithick showed off his railway invention two centuries ago connecting the world in the process as he demonstrated the first operational railway steam locomotive, thereby setting up the stage for the railway revolution.

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The New Castle, built by Richard Trevithick in 1803, the first locomotive to do actual work. _©Wikipedia

Richard Trevithick’s kicks breakthrough of steam power(1804)

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Richard Trevithick had been working on various trials of high-pressure steam engines with mixed results before his big breakthrough in 1804. A disaster in 1803 experiment where four men died got his rivals arguing the risks of high-pressure steam propulsion in trains. Still, his ‘Penydarren locomotive’ which became successfully full scale working steam locomotive recognized his central role in the history of the evolution of Trains

Evolution of Steam Propulsion(1812-1848)

With Richard Trevithick setting up the stage for the steam-powered Trains, subsequent innovators in Britain gradually began building on in the first half of the 19th century.

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Matthew Murray was successful in proving that steam locomotion is commercially viable back in 1812 with Salamanca, a locomotive named to honor Duke of Wellington’s victory in 1812. It was the first locomotive to have incorporated two cylinders and use the rack and pinion linear actuator to convert rotational motion into forwarding momentum.

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Engraving depicting Matthew Murray’s steam locomotive built for John Blenkinsop used to haul coals from Middleton Colliery to Leeds in 1812 _© Alamy Stock Photo

However, George Stephenson rose above everyone else to be known as the father of railways and one of the most important engineers and designers of the Victorian era. He built 16 experimental locomotives between 1814 and 1826 for use at the Killingworth Collinery. Stephenson built the world’s first steam-propelled intercity train between Liverpool and Manchester in 1830. In his lifetime he had established a leading railway building company in the UK, the US, and continental Europe. 

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A contemporary drawing of Rocket_©Wikipedia

Trains getting Electrified (1879)

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In the late 19th century, Germany became the hub of electric locomotive development with the first electric passenger train demonstrated by famous Werner von Siemens, the founder of the international engineering company Siemens AG in 1879. Siemens built the world’s first electric tram line in Berlin in 1881 kick starting the stage for tram line development.

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First Electric Tram by Siemens in 1881_©Wikimedia Commons

The electric locomotives got a boost in the following decade as the necessary need for less polluting trains came up in subways and tunnels. The advancement in technology and industry helped in improving the efficiency and manufacturing of electric locomotives.

Kalman Kando, a Hungarian engineer developed longer-distance electric railway lines such as the 106km spread Valtellina railway of Italy.

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Diesel Engine development (1892-1945)

Dr. Rudolf Diesel came up with his compression ignition engine commonly known as Diesel engine in 1892. While it took several decades to properly utilize the benefits of diesel propulsion for locomotives, there went the development of efficient train engines with improved power-to-weight ratios until the late 19th century mostly at Swiis engineering firm Sulzer, where Rudolf Diesel himself worked. Once diesel came on track it made steam propulsion virtually obsolete by 1945, with steam locomotives are hardly seen in developed countries by the late ’60s.

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Diesel’s third test engine used in the successful 1897 acceptance test(1 cylinder, four-stroke, water-cooled, air injection of fuel ©Diesel.net

Output: 14.7 kW (20 hp)
Fuel consumption: 317 g/kWh (238 g/hp-hr)
Efficiency: 26.2%
Number of revolutions: 172 min-1
Displacement volume: 19.6 L
Bore: 250 mm
Stroke: 400 mm)Diesel.net

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The rapid replacement of diesel engines over steam ones was due to clear operational advantages of diesel locomotives such as cheaper maintenance and idling time, multiple-locomotive operation, better thermal efficiency, and less labor-intensive operations.

The rise of Diesel-Electric Trains (1945-present)

As diesel propulsion began replacing the steam trains, the post-war period saw multiple innovators trying new ideas and concepts for improving rail propulsion with mixed results.

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Some attractive concepts like that of gas turbine electric locomotives gained attention to a certain extent but diesel remains the dominant till date.

There have been three common power transmission systems used along with diesel engines that include hydraulic, electric, and mechanical. Of which the diesel-electric locomotives have received by far the most recognition during which a diesel drives a DC or AC generator, which then powers the traction motors. These diesel-electric locomotives represent the maximum of diesel locomotives in commission at present.

The Future of Trains

With the increasing environmental concerns, the popular diesel trains that have a large impact due to the emission of greenhouse gases, as well as other harmful gases like nitrogen oxides and particulates, brought the development of eco-friendly locomotive alternatives.

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TEM19 LNG-powered locomotive _©source: Transmashholding

The liquefied natural gas(LNG) propulsion is gaining speed around the world with significantly lower pricing than diesel with 30% fewer carbon emissions and a 70% cut in nitrogen oxides.

There are the bullet trains that recently many countries are improving upon which originally came through as high-speed railway(HSR), developed by Japan in the late 1950s.

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Japan’s Shinkansen Bullet Train_©CNN Travel

Then we have the locomotives running on sustainable hydrogen fuel cells instead of diesel engines which emit only water during their operation, conceptually called as “Hydrail”. It’s a small start but according to Stan Thompson, a prominent hydrogen economy advocate it will be the world’s dominant railway propulsion technology by 2050.

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Hydrail in UK_©London Reconnections

We also have the concept of “Maglev”, short for Magnetic Levitation which has become the biggest viable technological competitor of the high-speed rail industry. The conventional passenger trains are no match for these superior speed maglev cars. It is potentially more energy-efficient compared to conventional trains.

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China’s Maglev Train_©CNN Travel

There is the concept of inventor Elon Musk, founder of Tesla Motors and SpaceX, called the “Hyperloop” is an idea to provide “express transport” for our lifestyles moving into the future. Hyperloop’s promise of 700 miles per hour sounds way into the future considering the fact that the fastest train at the moment, China’s Shanghai Maglev has the speed of 267 miles per hour.

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Elon Musk’s Hyperloop Train_©Wonderful Engineering
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