The following article was first published in the Oxford Junior Encyclopaedia (1957) and is a sound introduction to the various different railway systems around the world at the time.
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IN most countries the pattern of railway lines is determined by the geography (mountains, rivers, and coastal shape), and also reveals the country’s industrial and political history. Railways in Britain are strongly centred on London, which was the hub of finance and industrial enterprise when most of the main lines were projected in the 1830s and 1840s. The routes link up seaports, coalfields, and big industrial cities.
French railways radiate from Paris like the spokes of a wheel, but their biggest network of lines is in the industrial north and east. Belgium, on a railway map, looks like a mere continuation of France, for there are no geographical or political barriers between the two countries, and the French lines seem to run straight through Belgium. Many lines from both Paris and Berlin run straight to the frontier-between France and Germany; ever since the war of 1870 governments of both countries have encouraged these strategic railways, to carry troops in the event of war. One of the queerest railway patterns in Europe is formed by the two main lines that run along the banks of the River Rhine, sometimes within sight of one another, for a distance of more than 1oo miles. This deep and wide river, carrying much small shipping, has few bridges. The big cities of Germany are spread so widely over the country that its railway system is based on several regional capitals. The main lines of Czechoslovakia and Western Poland still show the railway pattern that was laid down when they were part of the German and Austrian Empires up till 1918. They are, therefore, centred on Berlin and Vienna.
The main lines of north Italy, joining industrial cities and receiving hydro-electric power from the Alps, are well developed. Few railways cross the mountain backbone of central Italy, and southern Italy has few industries.
Swiss railways are notable for the bold engineering which has run main-line express routes through long mountain tunnels, and for the ingenious methods devised for steep climbing by mountain railways. The record railway height in Europe is reached by the Jungfrau railway, one station being 11,465 feet above sea-level. This line has a gauge of 1 metre (3 ft. 3 in.), and climbs continuous gradients of 1 in 4 or 1 in 5 by the rack-and-pinion method. The highest through-route in Switzerland is the metre-gauge Bernina line, which rises to 7,400 feet; it climbs a gradient of 1 in 14 by the grip of ordinary wheels on plain rails.
Of the total mileage of the railways of the world, nearly one-third – 227,244 miles – is in the U.S.A. The American lines are all privately owned by separate companies. In the Eastern States the largest railways are the New York Central (11,000 miles) and the Pennsylvania Railroad (10,000 miles). Both connect New York with Chicago, the chief railway centre of the U.S.A. Following the race between two companies in the 1860s to link the Atlantic and Pacific coasts by rail several lines were laid across the Rocky Mountains. One railway, the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fé, running between Chicago and Los Angeles, climbs the 7,600-foot Raton Pass across the Rockies. Another line rises to 9,ooo feet to run through the Moffat tunnel. Although the less mountainous central and eastern States have a thick network of lines, thousands of square miles of the Western States are far from a railway.
Canada has one of the biggest individual railways in the world, the Canadian National Railways, with 23,500 miles of line. The other main Canadian organization, the Canadian Pacific, not only runs 20,9oo miles of line but also a fleet of ocean-going steamers with regular trading routes encircling the world. Both railways run across the whole width of the North American continent, one main line being 3,770 miles long and the other 3,360 miles. At Kicking Horse Pass in the Rocky Mountains, one line rises to 5,300 feet above sea-level.
All the greatest heights that have been reached by railways are in South America, in the Andes mountains. The mineral wealth of the mountains has encouraged the building of many railways from the Pacific coast up to the highlands of Peru, Chile, and Bolivia. The most notable line is the Central, of Peru, which runs from Callao, the port of Lima. In one stretch of over 100 miles this railway zigzags up steep valleys on a continuous gradient of 1 in 25 and using twenty-one reversing stations; these are points at which a train, having no room to turn at the end of one climb, backs towards the next stage of its climb (see picture). This railway rises to a height of 15,806 feet above sea-level, having passed through a tunnel at 15,694 feet. Oxygen is carried for passengers who suffer from ‘mountain sickness’, or faintness caused by the thin air at a high altitude. Another railway in Peru takes passengers 12,500 feet up to Lake Titicaca. One railway, starting from Antofagasta in Chile, rises to 12,000 feet and does not drop below that level for 500 miles. A branch of this line attains at Montt the world’s record railway altitude of 15,817 feet – all but level with the summit of Mont Blanc. These railways, except for the Central of Peru, are all of 1-metre gauge. The Trans-Andine Railway, linking Argentine with Chile, had to use rack-and-pinion climbing methods on steep gradients of 1 in 124.
One of the most remarkable railway systems in the world is the Trans-Siberian Railway, which runs right across the U.S.S.R. in Asia. It is physically possible to travel by railway from Britain to China, with very few changes of train on the way, by taking the railway ferry from England to France and a Trans-Siberian train for the longest stage. Even if there were no political hindrances to free travel, a change of train would still have to be made at the western frontier of Russia, for the Russian track gauge is 3½ inches wider than the European standard of 4 ft. 8½ in. From Moscow to the end of the railway, Vladivostok on the Pacific, is a journey of nearly 6,000 miles, taking 9 days in normal conditions, and forming the longest journey in the world that can be made without a change of train. From one point on the line a train runs through Manchuria, connecting with a Chinese railway to Peking and other cities in the heart of China. Where the Trans-Siberian Railway reaches Lake Baykal in the mountains of central Asia, the engineers who built the line could not take it across the lake, which is 30 miles wide at its narrowest. For some years the trains were carried across the lake in ferries during the summer months; in winter the ice on the lake was thick enough to bear the weight of trains running on a railway track laid over it. Later, however, the two ends of the line were linked up by a permanent track laid round the shore of the lake.
Australia’s greatest railway problem is that of gauges, as various States have gauges of 5 ft. 3 in., 4 ft. 8½ in., and 3 ft. 6 in. Australia has the longest stretch of perfectly straight line in the world – 328 miles across the Nullarbor Plain, an uninhabited wilderness withont a single tree. Yet within a few hours’ journey the passenger finds himself in Flinders Street Station in Melbourne, which claims to be the busiest in the world, handling over 300,ooo passengers daily. The biggest steel-arch railway bridge in the world is Sydney Harbour Bridge
The thirteen main-line railways of India and Pakistan are owned by their governments. Roughly half their mileage is the broad 5 ft. 6 in. gauge, while other railways are 1 metre, 2 ft, 6 in., and 2 foot. Famous mountain lines are the rack-and-pinion metre-gauge railway which reaches a height of 7,275 feet in the Nilgiri Hills, and the 2-foot-gauge Darjeeling-Himalaya Railway, rising to 7,407 feet at Ghoom.