I and a couple other people were doing some stuff with some speed record data. Organizing the data, making some graphs, etc.

While doing the train speed records, though, we noticed an oddity. For some reason, there's an 80 year gap between when one record was set - 1854 - and when it was broken - 1934. The records go:

46 km/h (29 mph)     1829
48 km/h (30 mph)     1830
96.6 km/h (60 mph)   1848
125.6 km/h (78 mph)  1850
131.6 km/h (82 mph)  1854-06    
166.6 km/h (104 mph) 1934-07-20
168.5 km/h (105 mph) 1935-03-05

This... doesn't really match the distribution for the rest of the records.


(speed is in meters per second)

So, being curious, I'm wondering: Why was there no increase in the speed record for 80 years? Was there no new technology being developed?

  • 1
    Another oddity is that the gap in speed is pretty wide, 35 km/h between 1854 and 1934 (there is a wider gap earlier, but that could be reasoned due to the train being a new, rapidly evolving technology). I guess you have checked all that you could, but it looks a lot like if there was missing data (either nobody was registering speed records those years or those are records are elsewhere).
    – SJuan76
    Sep 7 '17 at 20:54
  • 1
    If you look at the speed records for steam trains on the same page you linked to, there are records for 1893 and 1895, which sit between the 1854 and 1934 records. However, the maximum speeds in each case seem to be unauthenticated. Sep 7 '17 at 20:54
  • 2
    One of the limiting factors in a train's speed is the track itself. If the train goes faster around a curve than the track is designed for, it's going to derail. Changing a vehicle's speed is pretty easy but relaying a lot of track is not so easy. See this wiki article on high speed rail. Note that it references a speed record that is not listed in your table, I think because it was on a test track. Sep 7 '17 at 22:00
  • Perhaps there were factors that made higher speeds uneconomical, just as we don't have commercial aircraft going much above 600 mph, or cars travelling much more than 70 mph (Concorde and German autobahns excepted), when it's technically possible to build cars and planes that break the sound barrier.
    – jamesqf
    Sep 8 '17 at 3:45
  • As an aside, I would like to mention that Ted Judah imagined 100 mph trains cutting travel time across country from 6 months to 3 days and they called him crazy but he was just about 70 years ahead of his time.
    – Jeff
    Sep 8 '17 at 8:36

This website suggests that it was competition from the growing aviation industry that spurred development of higher speed trains in the 1930's.

There also are inferences in OP's site link that advances in track technology were the driving factor in the higher attained speeds starting in the mid-1930's; not advances in the locomotives themselves. Note that the frequent mention of the test track specs starting in 1934.

  • 1
    I (without reading the article but having been a regular commuter by rail), thought also that tracks were the problem. I would guess that most accidents are track related, including obstructions. Collisions with other trains was at one time also a big problem, i think until they worked out timing and communications. But anyway, no point in building fast engines when most of the track already laid would have to be replaced to use it.
    – Jeff
    Sep 8 '17 at 8:34

I think it's a combination of factors:

  • In 1850, rail was by far the fastest way to travel. This remained so until the 1930s, when cars and aircraft became common and (as a competitor) a possible threat to the railways. The railways (in Britain, at least) responded by offering faster passenger services on some lines, and designing new, fast locomotives to run them. The LNER A4 (which still holds the steam speed record) is one result of that. In the years before 1930, there was no need for publicity stunts like steam speed records.
  • The land speed record was basically accessible to anyone with some money and a garage. A rail speed record needs vastly more money and cooperation from a railway company for access to the track. This meant rail speed records were only broken when there was a perceived benefit to the railway.

In addition to competition from cars and airlines mentioned in the other answers, diesel locomotives and electric locomotives replaced steam locomotives in the early 20th century.

Basically, a steam locomotive's performance is roughly related to its size. A larger engine meant carting more coal (and water) around to operate it, and more weight that would put strain on the rails beneath it. This put a physical limit on how fast you could go on existing rail infrastructure. The switch to more efficient engine types basically upped the physical performance limit.

Another factor that may have played was public reluctance to actually go fast. When the first trains were introduced, some worried about colorful things like getting sea sick or women's uteruses flying out of their bodies because of the acceleration and high speeds.

  • I think this causes very significant scaling issues where increasing the power might rapidly become impossible due to this fuel and water-carrying requirement.
    – Jeff
    Sep 8 '17 at 9:14
  • Several of those 1934-1938 records were set with steam trains.
    – Hobbes
    Sep 8 '17 at 11:49
  • 2
    And there were advances in steam technology too, a 1938 LNER A4 class was far more efficient than a 1850-era steam loco.
    – Hobbes
    Sep 8 '17 at 11:53
  • @Hobbes: No quibbles with that. But it's still the record holder for steam powered locomotives, and a diesel-electric locomotive went faster within a year. Sep 8 '17 at 12:22

The reason appears to be that railroads were the breakthrough transport technology of the 1850s (perhaps alongside "ironclad ships in the 1860s). When a single technology is so much the "leading" sector, there may be limits to how far ahead it can go until similar, "peer" technologies catch up.

This "catchup" took place (mostly) in the 1920s for automobiles and airplanes. With aviation, there was a competing, and faster technology that induced railroads to speed up. With airplanes and cars, there were also new designs in engines, metallurgy, etc. that allowed for this speeding up in the 1930s.


The answers are multiple.

One point, you have the advance in technology : steam engines, then electric ones. 1500V for the French/world records in 1954 and 1955, 25kV 50Hz after (1981, 1989, 2007).

One another point, the political will. For example in France and Germany, the late XIX was the time of the max extension of the network (40 000 kms for France only in 1914). In 1870, France lost the war against Prussians, one of the reasons is the better german rails. After this war, France expanded its network. This need for a better network also drove a big evolution in steam machines : more power axle, higher steam presure, double-work steam (mainly in France and UK, compound system)...

Between 2 wars, it was the time of personal cars. In 1937, almost half the french lines closed (the smallest ones). Due tu budget shrink, the progress were slower. After WWII, some french black hats understood Coal or Diesel weren't the best for french railways (small country, lots of rivers and lakes, no coal nor petrol) and pushed electricity to its best. After beating 2 world records in 1954 and 1955, they understood that 1500V cc wasn't the best either : high current implying big copper, power station every 10 kms. So they pushed research for industrial 25kV 50Hz current, and for dedicated HSR. they finally achieved the TGV with the unbeaten 2007 record. Next evolution will be maglev, but it's a huge gap. I think the actual railway speed record will not be beaten, just because it's useless.


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