History of the Railroad - Article 5

The Rail

Part 1

     The track and roadbed are the earlier facets of the railroad’s infrastructure. The principal part of the roadbed is the rails. If you had a perfect level roadbed, with the proper amount of ballast, along with flawlessly squared and laid wooden ties, it would amount to nothing without the rails.

     Railroading was not invented in England, but you might say perfected. The coal mine engineers, upon studying the horse and mules, pulled the heavy-laden carts filled with coal from the mines. They saw where if they used flanged wheels with timbered tracks as guides, this would place less strain on the horses.  This would also allow them to pull heavier loads.

     Prior to 1760 wagonways or tramways used just wooden rails to guide the horse drawn wagons. Timber was plentiful and inexpensive at the time. There was a problem though. The wooden rails wore down fast.

      The first solution was to put a wooden rail on top of the other one. This would make it easy to replace the worn section. Then in 1760 an iron strap was used to combat the problem. 1   

Little Eaton Tramway Replica Wagon

Original text: Author:Tina Cordon, Source:Own Picture, Tina Cordon 16:02,

 3 November 2006 (UTC)Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0

Tina Cordon, CC BY-SA 3.0 <http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/>, via Wikimedia Commons


A section of strap rail used in the early Cog Railway at Mt. Washington between 1866 and 1874.

Spikes are used to fasten the strap rails to the timbers.

Z22, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.


     The strap-on rail was a length of timber with an iron strap laid and fastened on upon it. The iron strap was to stop the wear and tear of the timber. However, at times functional when the train passed over the rail, it would cause the strap to break away and curl up. It came to be known as a “snakehead.” The strap-on rail could not suffer the abuse of the heavy locomotives.

     When the strap would curl up it had the possibility of penetrating the car coming up from behind and injuring or killing passengers. The strap-on rails were used to around 1840. 2

     L-shaped tracks were used so the wagons would keep from slipping off the tracks. The lip or L-shape helped keep the wheels aligned. Wheels were later fitted with a flange which protected the wooden rails. Two ways of keeping wheels to stay on the track were:


  1. Edge of rails could be turned up, making an L shape to guide the wheels along the track.
  2. Or, have a wheel fitted with a flange. 4


Reconstruction of Kilmarnock and Troon plateway

Roger Griffith / Rosser, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Reconstruction of Kilmarnock and Troon plateway

Roger Griffith / Rosser, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons


     In 1776 was the first time the L-rail was tried out. It was at the Duke of Norfolk’s colliery (coal mine) in Yorkshire, England. The introduction of the latest in rail technology turned out to be very unpopular.

     At the start upon laying the track, when the collier workers started figuring out that the usage of the tracks would cost jobs, it began to become unpopular fast. Due to the track guiding the wagons along, the horses could pull heavier loads, also needing less horses and men.

     The workers were so mad that they started tearing up the track. They then proceeded to chase the plate layer into the woods where he stayed for three days.

     The L-shaped turned out to be inefficient and unmanageable. Various inventors tried to put the flange on the wheel instead of the track. William Jesop’s, in 1789, used this flanged wheel on his wagonways with success. They were soon the norm for all railroads. Of his other inventions, Jesop’s was also credited for laying the rail on top of the cross tie (sleepers.)  


                                                          Fishbelly edge rails laid on stone blocks on the Cromford and High Peak Railway

Chevin, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons


    The “Fish Belly” rail, so named because of its design, was made of cast iron. Used with flanged wheels, were brittle and could only be made in short lengths. Due to the short lengths, it became uneven and made for a rough ride. 4

     A breakthrough in rolling techniques and the introduction of track being made of wrought iron. The rails could be made in longer lengths which greatly enhanced the ride as well as increasing safety. 

     Various tracks to the rails design happened over the next few years helped elevate a lot of problems. These inventions were one of the huge contributions to the railroad explosive growths during the period of 1825 – 1840. 3



Rail profiles used by United States railroads in the 19th century.  1897

By Edward Ernest Russell Tratman - Railway Track and Track Work. (New York: Engineering News Publishing Co.) p. 54.,

Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11830420



     The above picture shows the various designs over the years.                                                                                                      

     In 1830, Robert L. Stevens, the President and Engineer of the newly formed Camden and Amboy Railroad, was on a trip to England. He was on his way to buy rails (tracks) and a locomotive.

     The reason he was going to purchase the track in England was due to being unable to find an rolling mill that could produce the rails to his standards. 

     While on the trip, Stevens was whittling on a piece of wood and came up with the t-rail design. 3 The t-rail was one of the most important inventions of the industrial revolution. They will be discussed further in the next article.




  1. Railroad Track: It’s Evolution Nearly 200 Years; Railroad Track: Dimensions, Width, Weight-Per-Feet/Yard www,americian-rails.com By Adam Burns.
  2. The Great Railroad Revolution; The History of Trains in America by Christian Wolmar
  3. The American Railway: It’s Construction, Development, Management, and Trains by Thomas Curtis Clarke
  4. Encyclopedia Britannica at Railroad - Open Saloon, Double-Deck Cars, On-Train Dining Car, and Sleeping Cars | Britannica