Railway history

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Railway history is a sub-field of history that researches the development and impacts of railways. While wagonways, tramways, and railways in some form date back to antiquity, railways started to have social and economic impacts in early 19th century in Britain. Railway history, like history itself, is compounded by sub-disciplines. Railway history is most often categorized (as per the Library of Congress subject headings) as a sub-field of economic history, mainly because so much of the early histories focused on the interaction of railways with governments and the people (i.e., political economy). Secondarily, historians began focusing on individual companies, and so railroad history is often considered a sub-field of business history as well. Historians of labor, culture, technology, and cities have also made significant contributions to the historical meanings and implications of railways.

Geographic histories

Railways of the United Kingdom
History of railways (Britain)
History of railways (British Empire)
History of railways in Canada
History of railways (Europe)
History of railways (Asia)
History of railways (Africa)
History of railways (South America)
History of railways (North America)
Railway history (U.S.A.)
History of railways in Canada

Railway history as Labor History

Walter Licht showed that railways changed employment in the United States in many ways. Lines with hundreds or thousands of employees developed systematic rules and procedures, not only for running the equipment but also for hiring, promoting, paying and supervising employees. The railway system of labor relations was adopted by all major businesses by the end of the nineteenth century. Railways offered a new type of work experience in enterprises vastly larger in size, complexity and management. At first workers were recruited from occupations where skills were roughly analogous and transferable, that is, workshop mechanics from the iron, machine and building trades; conductors from stagecoach drivers, steamship stewards and mail boat captains; station masters from commerce and commission agencies; and clerks from government offices.

  • Walter Licht, Working for the Railroad: The Organization of Work in the Nineteenth Century Princeton University Press, 1983
  • Morgan, Stephen L. "Personnel Discipline and Industrial Relations on the Railways of Republican China." The Australian Journal of Politics and History 47, no. 1 (2001): 24–

Railway history as business history

Alfred D. Chandler has made the greatest impact on railway history as business history. His many books of the subject have emphasized the technological complexity of railroads and the administrative problems posed by a business enterprise conducted over a vast geographic territory. He, and others such as Thomas C. Cochran, and Maury Klein, has shown how railroad civil-engineers, managers, and administrators developed novel methods of operation, administration, and business organization that transformed business enterprises, ultimately making big business possible.

  • Cochran, Thomas Childs. Railroad Leaders, 1845-1890: The Business Mind in Action. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1953.
  • Chandler, Alfred D., Jr. "The Railroads: Pioneers in Modern Corporate Management." Business History Review 39, No. 1, Special Transportation Issue (Spring, 1965): 16-40
  • Chandler, Alfred D., Jr. The Visible Hand: The Managerial Revolution in American Business. Cambridge, MA and London: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1977.
  • Chandler, Alfred D., Jr. The Railroads: The Nation's First Big Business. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1965.


  • Alston, Liviu. Railways and Energy. Washington, DC: World Bank. 1984.
  • Biddle, Gordon. Britain's Historic Railway Buildings: An Oxford Gazetteer of Structures and Sites. (2003). 759 pp.
  • Drinkwater, Robert. "Code of the Rail" Beaver 2005 85(1): 41-43. ISSN: 0005-7517 Fulltext: in Ebsco
  • Grant, H. Roger. The Railroad: The Life Story of a Technology. Greenwood, 2005. 182 pp.
  • Marsden, Ben and Smith, Crosbie. Engineering Empires: A Cultural History of Technology in Nineteenth-Century Britain. 2005. 351 pp.
  • McGowan, Christopher. Rail, Steam, And Speed: The "Rocket" and the Birth of Steam Locomotion. (2004). 400 pp.
  • Riley, C. J. The Encyclopedia of Trains & Locomotives (2002).

Primary sources

External links