Transcontinental railroad

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Transcontinental railroads in and near the United States (1887).

A transcontinental railroad is a contiguous network of railroad trackage[1] that crosses a continental land mass with terminals at different oceans or continental borders. Such networks can be via the tracks of either a single railroad, or over those owned or controlled by multiple railway companies along a continuous route. Although Europe is crisscrossed by railways, the railroads within Europe are usually not considered transcontinental, with the possible exception of the historic Orient Express.

Transcontinental railroads helped open up unpopulated interior regions of continents to exploration and settlement that would not otherwise have been feasible. In many cases they also formed the backbones of cross-country passenger and freight transportation networks.

In the United States of America, a series of transcontinental railroads built over the last third of the 19th century created a nationwide transportation network that united the country by rail. The first of these, the 3,103-kilometre (1,928 mi) "Pacific Railroad", was built by the Central Pacific Railroad and Union Pacific Railroad to link the San Francisco Bay at Oakland, California with the nation's existing eastern railroad network at Council Bluffs, Iowa/Omaha, Nebraska thereby creating the world's first transcontinental railroad when it opened in 1869. Its construction was made possible by the US Government under Pacific Railroad Acts of 1862, 1864 and 1867.

North America

United States

The ceremony for the driving of the "Last Spike" the joining of the tracks of the CPRR and UPRR grades at Promontory Summit, Utah, on May 10, 1869, Andrew J. Russell’s “East and West Shaking Hands at Laying of Last Rail.” May 10, 1869.

A transcontinental railroad in the United States is any continuous rail line connecting a location on the U.S. Pacific coast with one or more of the railroads of the nation's eastern trunk line rail systems operating between the Missouri or Mississippi Rivers and the U.S. Atlantic coast. The first concrete plan for a transcontinental railroad in the United States was presented to Congress by Asa Whitney in 1845.[2]

The world's First Transcontinental Railroad was built between 1863 and 1869 to join the eastern and western halves of the United States. Begun just before the American Civil War, its construction was considered to be one of the greatest American technological feats of the 19th century. Known as the "Pacific Railroad" when it opened, this served as a vital link for trade, commerce, and travel and opened up vast regions of the North American heartland for settlement. Shipping and commerce could thrive away from navigable watercourses for the first time since the beginning of the nation. Much of this line is currently used by Amtrak's California Zephyr, although some parts were rerouted or abandoned.[3]

The transcontinental railroad provided fast, safe, and cheap travel. The fare for a one-week trip from Omaha to San Francisco on an emigrant sleeping car was about $65 for an adult. It replaced most of the far slower and more hazardous stagecoach lines and wagon trains. The number of emigrants taking the Oregon and California Trail declined dramatically. The sale of the railroad land grant lands and the transport provided for timber and crops led to the rapid settling of the "Great American Desert".[4]

The Union Pacific recruited laborers from Army veterans and Irish immigrants while most of the engineers were ex-Army men who had learned their trade keeping the trains running during the American Civil War.[5]

The Central Pacific Railroad faced a labor shortage in the more sparsely-settled West. It recruited Cantonese laborers in China, who did prodigious work building the line over and through the Sierra Nevada mountains and then across Nevada to their meeting in northern Utah.

George J. Gould attempted to assemble a truly transcontinental system in the 1900s. The line from San Francisco, California, to Toledo, Ohio, was completed in 1909, consisting of the Western Pacific Railway, Denver and Rio Grande Railroad, Missouri Pacific Railroad, and the Wabash Railroad. Beyond Toledo, the planned route would have used the Wheeling and Lake Erie Railroad (1900), Wabash Pittsburgh Terminal Railway, Little Kanawha Railroad, West Virginia Central and Pittsburgh Railway, Western Maryland Railroad and Philadelphia and Western Railway,[citation needed] but the Panic of 1907 strangled the plans before the Little Kanawha section in West Virginia could be finished. The Alphabet Route was completed in 1931, providing the portion of this line east of the Mississippi River. With the merging of the railroads, only the Union Pacific Railroad and the BNSF Railway remain to carry the entire route.


Lord Strathcona driving the "Last Spike" of Canada's first transcontinental railroad, the Canadian Pacific Railway, in 1885

The completion of Canada's first transcontinental railroad, on November 7, 1885 is an important milestone in Canadian history. Between 1881 and 1885, the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) completed a line that spanned from the port of Montreal to the Pacific coast, fulfilling a condition of British Columbia's 1871 entry into the Canadian Confederation. The City of Vancouver, incorporated in 1886, was designated the western terminus of the line. The CPR became the first transcontinental railway company in North America in 1889 after its International Railway of Maine opened, connecting CPR to the Atlantic coast.

The construction of a transcontinental railroad strengthened the Canadian claim to the remaining parts of British North America not yet constituted as provinces and territories of Canada, and it acted as a bulwark against potential incursions by the United States.

Subsequently, two other transcontinental lines were built in Canada: the Canadian Northern Railway (CNoR) opened another line to the Pacific in 1912, and the combined Grand Trunk Pacific Railway (GTPR)/National Transcontinental Railway (NTR) system opened in 1917 following the completion of the Quebec Bridge, although its line to the Pacific opened in 1914. The CNoR, GTPR, and NTR were nationalized to form the Canadian National Railway, which currently is now Canada's largest transcontinental railway, with lines running all the way from the Pacific Coast to the Atlantic Coast.

Central America (Inter-oceanic lines)


Current Panama Canal Railway line (interactive version)

The first railroad to directly connect two oceans (although not by crossing a broad "continental" land mass[13]) was the Panama Rail Road. Opened in 1855, this 77-kilometre (48 mi) line was designated instead as an "inter-oceanic" [14] railroad crossing Central America at its narrowest point, the Isthmus of Panama, when that area was still part of Colombia. (Panama split off from Columbia in 1903 and became the independent nation of Panama). By spanning the isthmus, the line thus became the first railroad to completely cross any part of the Americas and physically connect ports on the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Given the tropical rain forest environment, the terrain, and diseases such as malaria and cholera, its completion was a considerable engineering challenge. The construction took five years after ground was first broken for the line in May, 1850, cost eight million dollars, and required more than seven thousand workers drawn from "every quarter of the globe."[15]

This railway was built to provide a shorter and more secure path between the United States' East and West Coasts. This need was mainly triggered by the California Gold Rush. Over the years the railway played a key role in the construction and the subsequent operation of the Panama Canal, due to its proximity to the canal. Currently, the railway operates under the private administration of the Panama Canal Railroad Company, and its upgraded capacity complements the cargo traffic through the Panama Canal.


Guatemala railway (defunct) (interactive version)

A second Central American inter-oceanic railroad began operation in 1908 as a connection between Puerto San José and Puerto Barrios in Guatemala, but ceased passenger service to Puerto San José in 1989.

Costa Rica

Costa Rica railway network (interactive version)

A third Central American inter-oceanic railroad began operation in 1910 as a connection between Puntarenas and Limón in 1,067 mm (3 ft 6 in) gauge.

Mexico - Panama

  • FERISTSA - a proposed standard gauge (1,435 mm (4 ft 8 12 in)) north-south line.

South America

There is activity to revive the connection between Valparaíso and Santiago in Chile and Mendoza, Argentina, through the Transandino project. Mendoza has an active connection to Buenos Aires. The old Transandino began in 1910 and ceased passenger service in 1978 and freight 4 years later. Technically a complete transcontinental link exists from Arica, Chile, to La Paz, Bolivia, to Buenos Aires, but this trans-Andean crossing is for freight only.

Another longer Transcontinental freight-only railroad linking Lima, Peru, to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil is under development.



  • The Trans-Asian Railway is a project to link Singapore to Istanbul and is to a large degree complete with missing pieces primarily in Myanmar. The project has also linking corridors to China, the central Asian states, and Russia. This transcontinental line unfortunately uses a number of different gauges, 1,435 mm (4 ft 8 12 in), 1,676 mm (5 ft 6 in), 1,520 mm (4 ft 11 2732 in) and 1,000 mm (3 ft 3 38 in), though this problem may be lessened with the use of variable gauge axle systems such as the SUW 2000.
  • The TransKazakhstan Trunk Railways project by Kazakhstan Temir Zholy will connect China and Europe with standard gauge 1,435 mm (4 ft 8 12 in). Construction is set to start in 2006. Initially the line will go to western Kazakhstan, south through Turkmenistan to Iran, then to Turkey and Europe. A shorter to-be-constructed 1,435 mm (4 ft 8 12 in) link from Kazakhstan is considered going through Russia and either Belarus or Ukraine.
  • The Baghdad Railway connects Istanbul with Baghdad and finally Basra, a sea port at the Persian Gulf. When its construction started in the 1880s it was in those times a Transcontinental Railroad.



The Trans-Australian Railway was the first route operated by the Federal Government.

In the 1940s, 1970s, and 2000s steps were taken to rationalise the gauge chaos and connect the mainland capital cities mentioned above with standard gauge 1,435 mm (4 ft 8 12 in). Since 1970, when the direct standard gauge line across the country was completed, the passenger train on the Sydney to Perth line has been called the Indian Pacific.

The proposed Iron Boomerang would connect iron in the Pilbara with coal in Queensland, so achieving loaded operations in both directions.


  • A 1,320-kilometre (820 mi) land grant railway from Charleville to Point Parker on the Gulf of Carpentaria, with branches, was proposed in the 1880s.[17]
  • The first north-south trans-Australia railway opened in January 2004 and links Darwin to Adelaide with the Ghan passenger train. The Adelaide-Darwin railway is standard or 1,435 mm (4 ft 8 12 in) gauge, though the original line to Alice Springs (never fully completed line) was 1,067 mm (3 ft 6 in) gauge.
  • In 2006, proposals for new lines in Queensland that would carry both intrastate coal traffic and interstate freight traffic would see standard gauge penetrate the state in considerable stretches for the first time. (ARHS Digest September 2006). The standard gauge Inland Railway would ultimately extend from Melbourne to Cairns.
  • Starting in 1867, Queensland built several railways going inland from several ports in a westerly direction. From the 1920s, steps were taken to connect these lines by the North-South North Coast line from Brisbane to Cairns.



  • There are several ways to cross Africa transcontinentally by connecting west-east railroads. One is the Benguela railway that was completed in 1929. It starts in Lobito, Angola and connects through Katanga to the Zambia railways system. From Zambia several ports are accessible on the Indian ocean: Dar es Salaam in Tanzania through the TAZARA, and, through Zimbabwe, Beira and Maputo in Mozambique. The Angolan Civil War has made the Benguela line largely inoperative, but efforts are being taken to restore it. Another west-east corridor leads from the Atlantic habours in Namibia, either Walvis Bay or Luderitz to the South African rail system that, in turn, links to ports on the Indian Ocean ( i.e. Durban, Maputo).
  • A 1015 km gap in the east-west line between Kinshasa and Ilebo filled by riverboats could be plugged with a new railway.[18]
  • There are two proposals for a line from the Red Sea to the Gulf of Guinea, including TransAfricaRail.
  • In 2010 a proposal surfaced to link Dakar to Port Sudan. Thirteen countries are on the main route, while another six would be served by branches.


  • A North-South transcontinental railroad had been proposed by Cecil Rhodes: the Cape-Cairo railway. This system was seen as the backbone for the African possessions of the British Empire, and was not completed. During its development, a competing French colonial project for a competing line from Algiers or Dakar to Abidjan was abandoned after the Fashoda incident. This line would have had four gauge islands in three gauges.
  • An extension of Namibian Railways is being built in 2006 with the possible connection to Angolan Railways.
  • Libya has proposed a Trans-Saharan Railway connecting possibly to Nigeria which would connect with the proposed AfricaRail network.

African Union of Railways

See also


  1. Trackage OnLine Def
  2. Bain, David Haward (1999). Empire Express; Building the first Transcontinental Railroad. Viking Penguin. ISBN 0-670-80889-X.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. Cooper, Bruce Clement (2005). Riding the Transcontinental Rails: Overland Travel on the Pacific Railroad 1865-1881. Philadelphia: Polyglot Press, 445 pages. ISBN 1411599934.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles> p. 1-15
  4. Richard White, Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America (2012)
  5. Collins, R.M. (2010). Irish Gandy Dancer: A tale of building the Transcontinental Railroad. Seattle: Create Space. p. 198. ISBN 978-1-4528-2631-8.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  6. "An Act to aid in the construction of a railroad and telegraph line from the Missouri river to the Pacific ocean, and to secure to the government the use of the same for postal, military, and other purposes 12 Stat. 489, July 1, 1862
  7. Executive Order of Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States, Fixing the Point of Commencement of the Pacific Railroad at Council Bluffs, Iowa, March 7, 1864 38th Congress, 1st Session SENATE Ex. Doc. No. 27
  8. "Ceremony at "Wedding of the Rails," May 10, 1869 at Promontory Point, Utah". World Digital Library. 1869-05-10. Retrieved 2013-07-21.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  9. The Official "Date of Completion" of the Transcontinental Railroad under the Provisions of the Pacific Railroad Act of 1862, et seq., as Established by the Supreme Court of the United States to be November 6, 1869. (99 U.S. 402) 1879 as transcribed from "ACTS AND JOINT RESOLUTIONS OF CONGRESS, AND DECISIONS OF THE SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES RELATING TO THE UNION PACIFIC, CENTRAL PACIFIC, AND WESTERN PACIFIC RAILROADS." WASHINGTON: Government Printing Office. 1897
  10. Omaha's First Century Installment V. — The Proud Era: 1870-1885
  11. UPRR Museum, Council Bluffs, IA
  12. "Eleventh Annual Report of the Board of Railroad Commissioners of the State of California for the year ending December 31, 1890" Sacramento: California State Office, J.D. Young, Superintendent of State Printing, 1890. p. 21
  13. Otis, F.N.,"Illustrated History of the Panama Railroad" (Harper & Bros., New York, 1861), p. 12
  14. "A Great Enterprise" The Portland (Maine) Transcript [Newspaper], February 17, 1855.
  15. Otis, p. 35
  16. Railway Gazette International | month=October | year=2010 | page=63 (with map)

Further reading

  • Glenn Williamson, Iron Muse: Photographing the Transcontinental Railroad. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2013.

External links