Before the 1700's people had to use their own strength, and the power of animals, wind and water when they wanted to build, move anything, or transport themselves and their goods. 

Steam engine

Then, in the mid 1770s a steam engine was invented that burned fuel to produce heat energy. In a boiler, water was changed into steam, and when the steam expanded it's energy could be used to make an engine work.

James Watt (1736 - 1819)

James Watt (1736 - 1819) was a Scottish inventor and engineer. He invented an improved steam engine in 1769. One use of the steam engine was in transport, powering trains and boats as well as cars and buses. Watt's steam engines were also used in mines, and in factories where it drove machines to make many different kind of products.

Find out about James Watt and his inventions here.

Steam Power for locomotives

In the early 1800s, steam engines were used in locomotives to pull trains more quickly along smoother, stronger tracks. Trains began to carry passengers.

How a steam engine works.

Steam is made when coal is burned in the fire box in the locomotive, and heats water in the boiler until it turns into steam. The steam is stored in the steam head and then passed through hot pipes to the slide valve. The steam power moves a rod called a piston backwards and forwards. The piston is connected to the driving rod, which turns the wheels.

See animations of steam engines.

The Rocket

The Rocket is one of the most famous locomotives in the world. It was a steam locomotive built in 1829 and designed by Robert Stephenson. It won a competition to test locomotives for a new passenger train line in England. It travelled at nearly 50 kilometres per hour. 

By the late 1800s, steam powered passenger trains carried people living in the country to cities for work and for pleasure. City people travelled by train to the countryside or the seaside. On some trains there were carriages with bedrooms, called sleeping cars, and restaurants and bathrooms had been added.

Diesel Power

The diesel engine was invented in 1892 by a German engineer, Rudolf Diesel (1858 - 1913) 

Read about Rudolph Diesel.

The diesel fuel is burned to drive a generator which makes electricity. The electricity is stored in batteries below the locomotive, and the electricity from the batteries runs an electric motor which drives the wheels.

Go here for an animation of how a diesel engine works

Diesel trains were introduced in the 1930s. These trains were faster, quieter and cleaner than steam trains, and meant passengers had a more comfortable ride and can carry much heavier loads than steam engines. Diesel powered engines are still used today worldwide. Sometimes several diesel locomotives are linked together to haul cargo trains more than a kilometre long.

Electric powered trains

Electricity was first used to power trains in 1879. Power for the electric engine came from overhead cables, or from electricity running through a rail on the track. The first electric passenger train was presented by Werner von Siemens at Berlin in 1879.

High Speed Trains

Japan's Shinkansen high-speed trains are often called 'bullet trains', and were the first high speed trains. Services started in 1964 with the trains travelling at speeds of 210 kilometres per hour.They now travel at up to 300 km/h.

The trains are now knows as high speed bullet trains.  Read more here

TGV (train grande vitesse)

A French high-speed electric train, the TGV (which stands for train grande vitesse, French for 'high-speed train') was developed in the 1970s. It has an electric locomotive at either end and can travel at an average speed of 320 kilometres per hour. On 3 April 2007 it set the record for the fastest wheeled train, reaching a speed of 574.8 km/h. It also holds the world's highest average speed for a regular passenger service.  

Maglev train

The Maglev train works by magnetic levitation, and has no wheels. It rides on a cushion of air and is pulled along above the metal rails by magnets fitted to both the train and the track. Maglev trains are the fastest passenger-carrying vehicles and have travelled at 400 kilometres per hour.

The first commercial high-speed maglev train line is the Shanghai Transrapid Line in China, which began running in 2004. The 30 km journey is completed in 7 minutes and 20 seconds.

Watch a video about Japanese research using maglev to see how the technology works.



The Sydney monorail closed down in 2013.

The Sydney monorail closed down in 2013.

Monorails are only used for short distances. They are electric-powered. Some have wheels made of steel, and run on a steel track. Others straddle a central track and are balanced and guided by side panels and rubber guide wheels. The first electric monorail was built in Germany in 1901 and is still running. It hangs from an overhead track.

Read about different kinds of monorails used around the world here.

Light rail vehicles run on train and tram tracks

Light rail vehicles run on train and tram tracks

Light rail vehicles

Light rail vehicles have replaced trains in some places. They came into use in the early 1970s. Light rail vehicles look like two trams joined together. These electric-powered vehicles run on railway lines and stop at stations as well as running along tram lines picking up passengers in the streets. Light rail vehicles are air conditioned and can carry more than 150 people. They have a top speed of 80 kilometres per hour.

Rail transport in Australia

From 1854, when the first steam railway between Melbourne and Port Melbourne started, the railway system of the various colonies developed rapidly. When rail first started in Australia, private companies in the colonies of New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia  built their own rail system. At first the track and the engines and the carriages were imported. Later,  in the 1880s, these things were built in Australia.

Different gauges!

Each colony, later on each state, had different gauge tracks. (the distance between one track and the other) So at first the trains weren't able to travel from one state to the next. Passengers had to get off the train they started in, walk across the state border and get on another train that could travel on the tracks in the new state!

Three different gauges still exist in Australia, but the state capitals are now linked by one uniform gauge.

Steam locomotion was used until the 1950s when diesel-electric locomotives began to take over. 

Read more about the history of rail transport in Australia.