Railroad Transport

The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Railroad Transport


a type of transportation that moves freight and passengers along rails in cars with the help of locomotive or motorized railcar traction.

Modern railroad transport is the result of a long process of development of the network of railroads and refinement of its individual parts, such as track, stations, cars, traction, signaling devices, and means of communication. Its origin is closely linked to the development of large-scale industry, especially mining and metallurgy. With the development of capitalism in the late 18th and early 19th century, the structure of freight traffic changed radically and the need arose for large shipments of iron ore, coal, lumber, building materials, and the like. “Railroads,” said Lenin, “are a summation of the basic capitalist industries, coal, iron, and steel; a summation and the most striking index of the development of world trade” (Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 27, p. 304).

The world’s first public railroad with steam traction was the line from Stockton to Darlington (21 km, England), built by G. Stephenson in 1825. Railroads appeared in Austria, Germany, Belgium, France, and other countries in the 1830’s, and the first railroad in the USA was opened in 1830. Russia was also among the first countries to begin building railroads (1837).

Railroad building began on the other continents between 1850 and 1870: in Asia, Africa, South America, and Australia. In the following years railroad building proceeded on a large scale but in an extremely uneven manner over time and from country to country. Early in the 20th century the length of the railroad network throughout the world exceeded 1 million km. The greatest increase occurred between 1880 and 1890 and before World War I, when an average of more than 20,000 km of railroads went into operation each year. The rapid growth of railroads in the 19th century was caused above all by their great advantages over other types of transportation. For example, the cost of hauling freight over the first railroads was four to seven times lower than by wagon and was less than the cost of shipping along shallow rivers and canals. The improvement of equipment and the increased volume brought further reductions in the cost of hauling freight. The unit cost of freight hauled by rail in the USSR is measured in fractions of a kopek (0.23) per ton-km (1970) and is the world’s lowest; unit cost of a passenger-km is about 0.55 kopeks. However, a low unit cost in rail transportation is possible only with very high traffic density (in the USSR, for example, more than 18 million ton-km per km of track in operation), long hauls (861 km in the USSR, for example), and heavy trains (more than 2,500 gross tons). When loads are hauled short distances by rail, and especially when the loads consist of small shipments in short trains, the unit cost of shipments increases several times and in many cases is greater than the cost of hauling such freight by truck.

Freight delivery by rail is approximately twice as fast as river and pipeline transportation but slower than truck and much slower than air transport. Freight moves by rail in the USSR, for example (with all types of empty time of cars en

Table 1. Length of network and size of shipments on railroads by countries in 1969
 Length of network (thousands of km)Density of network (km per 100 sq km)Freight shipmentsPassenger hauls
Volume (millions of tons)Volume (billions of ton-km)Average shipment distance (km)Volume (millions of persons)Volume (billions of passenger-km)Average length of trip (km)Average number of trips per inhabitant
1 For the state railroads of Japan. In addition, private railroads and interurban railways hauled about 9.5 billion passengers.
2 For the state railroads. In addition, private railroads and interurban railways accounted for about 95 billion passenger-km.
3 For the state railroads.
4 The general-use network (the network of the Ministry of Transportation). In addition, industrial enterprises had 119,100 km of spurs and sidings. Taking them into account, the total length of the railroad network of the USSR was 253,700 km and the density was 1.1 km per 100 sq km.
USA (total network)...334.04.31,4401,15077830219.9661.5
Great Britain............19.58.520927.011380529.63714.5
West Germany.............33.813.638069.01831,01937.13617.6
East Germany.............14.913.7252.039.415663617.62836.8

route taken into consideration), at about 240 to 320 km per day or 10 to 12 km/hr (1970). Freight is delivered at the same speed in most foreign countries. The speed of passenger trains (not counting expresses) is close to that of modern buses.

The capacity of the railroads is enormous and ranges from several million tons of freight per year (on single-track lines) to hundreds of millions of tons in each direction (on double-track lines). Railroad traffic moves regularly at all times of the day and year.

The rapid development of the railroad network in the late 19th and early 20th century was furthered by its great importance in military strategy. This has been the main reason for state aid to railroad building in many countries (such as free transfer of state lands to private railroad companies, the financing of railroad construction, and state guarantees of prompt payment of dividends on railroad shares). By the 1970’s, the only large country in which all railroads were privately owned was the USA. In other capitalist countries of the world, 85 percent of the railroad network is state owned, including more than 90 percent of the railroads in Great Britain, 85 percent in West Germany, 77 percent in Italy, 88 percent in Belgium, and 80 percent in Japan. In prerevolutionary Russia in 1913, 70 percent of the rail network was state owned and 30 percent was privately owned. Railroad building in capitalist countries was often accompanied by major financial scandals and by swindles. The low cost of railroad transport in comparison with other types gave the railroads a monopoly in many areas. This made it possible in the 19th century to establish preferential rates in rail shipments and to make tremendous profits. The development of railroad transport gave a large impetus to the centralization of capital. In the 19th century the cost of building 1 km of rail-road line was from 50,000 to 100,000 gold rubles. Consequently

Table 2. Length of network and size of shipments on common-carrier railroads of the world (by groups of countries) in 1967
 Length of network (km per 100 sq km)Density of network (km per 100 sq km)Freight trafficPassenger traffic
Entire areaInhabited areaVolume (millions of tons)Volume (billions of tons)Average distance traffic shipped (km)Average traffic density (millions of ton-km/kmVolume (billions of persons)Volume (billions of passenger-km)Average trip (in km)Average density of trips (millions of passenger km per km)
1 Including 133,000 km of common-carrier railroad (the network of the Ministry of Transportation) and 85,000 km of regular-gauge spur tracks serving industrial enterprises. Narrow-gauge tracks at industrial enterprises (about 34,000 km) are no t included. In 1970 the operational length of public railroads (the network of the Ministry of Transportation) was 135,200 km. The volume of freight and passenger traffic i s given only for the common-carrier railroad network because summary data are lacking for the spur tracks of industrial enterprises.
2 In 1970 the freight volume on common-carrier railroads of the USSR totaled 2,495 billion ton-km. The volume of shipments was 2,896 million tons for an average distance of 861 km. Passenger volume totaled 265.4 billion passenger-km, with 2.9 billion persons being transported.
Economically developed capitalist countries ..........6942.04.33,3361,5804782.2818.5500270.72
Economically underdeveloped and developing countries........ .2940.450.846042343870.804.9204420.69
Total capitalist and developing countries ........ .9880.981.933,9401,8144641.8323.4704300.71
USSR ..................21810.961.542.60522.160283016.22.9234901.76
Other European socialist countries ........ .927.17.071,2312642142.873.5123361.34
Non-European socialist countries ........ .470.400.626102363875.020.547951.00
Total socialist countries ...................3571.001.564,4462,7156117.596.6404621.13
Total world ........ .1,3450.991.818,3864,5295423.3629.91,108370.82

individuals could afford to build only small branch lines even if they were millionaires. Marx wrote: “The world would still be without railways if it had had to wait until accumulation had got a few individual capitals far enough to be adequate for the construction of a railway. Centralization, on the contrary, accomplished this in the twinkling of an eye by means of joint-stock companies” (K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 23, p. 642).

In 1967 there were 1,345,000 km of railroads in operation throughout the world, including 988,000 km in the capitalist countries (694,000 in the economically developed countries and 294,000 km in the developing countries) and 357,000 km in the socialist countries. The siting of the transport network (including the number of railroads), transport volume, and the state of technical development reflect the level of economic development of individual countries (see Tables 1 and 2). Although in most of the industrially developed countries the density of the railroad network is from 4 to 18 km per 100 sq km of territory, there are still many countries (mostly former colonies) in which there is less than 0.1 km per 100 sq km of territory, and in a number of countries there are no railroads whatsoever (including Afghanistan, Laos, Oman, Kuwait, Gambia, Somalia, the Central African Republic, and Rwanda).

In view of the high costs, railroad construction and operation are effective only when there is a large amount of freight to handle, that is, on the order of millions of tons a year. Railroad transport is important for a high density of shipments and tremendous freight volume. In 1967 the total freight volume for the whole world was 4,529 billion ton-km and passenger volume was 1,108 billion passenger-km. The railroads for the most part haul freight over medium and long distances. For short distances (and even long distances if density is low), it is more efficient in many cases to use truck transport. Petroleum products in bulk are usually best shipped by pipeline, regardless of the distance involved. The densest passenger rail traffic is mostly for suburban links to large industrial centers. A great number of passengers are also moved medium distances; passengers traveling long distances usually use air transport.

With the rapid development of new types of transport (air, motor vehicle, pipeline) in the 20th century and the tremendous increase in intercontinental maritime shipping, the ratio of rail freight and passenger traffic has dropped considerably, especially in countries with short-distance hauls (such as Great Britain, Belgium, West Germany, France, and Denmark).

More than 60 percent of world freight was shipped by sea in 1970 and only about 20 percent by rail. But domestically the railroads handle about half of all freight, and in many countries, including the USSR, they handle about 80 percent (see Table 3). The railroads handle about 15 percent of all world passenger traffic (including municipal transportation), accounting for more than 20 percent of interurban transportation; they account for about 40 percent of passengers handled by public transport (that is, excluding private automobiles). The figures cited demonstrate that railroad transport continues to play an important role in the public transportation system and that in many countries it even plays the principal role.

Railroad equipment is not the same in all countries. Moreover, the distance between the rails is different in the USSR from what it is in Western Europe (including even countries adjoining the USSR, except for Finland). Thus, either freight must be transferred from one car to another or the rail trucks must be replaced if freight or passengers are on a direct international line.

Railroads operated mostly with steam traction until World War II. After the war, many countries began to use electric and diesel traction. The railroads of the USA are served al-most entirely by diesel traction. In the USSR more than 96.5 percent of all shipments are by electric or diesel traction (1970). Steam traction is used in only 3.5 percent of railroad operations, mostly switching operations. The USSR leads the world in length of lines with electric traction (33,900 km in 1970) and in volume of shipments by electric traction.

Table 3. Percentage ratio of railroad traffic to total traffic (1969)
  Passenger volume2
 Freight volume1Public transportPublic transport and passenger cars
1On domestic lines, including the coasting trade
2 In interurban and suburban transportation
Capitalist countries   
Great Britain178446109
West Germany33044 412.8
Italy321 454521 8
Socialist countries   
East Germany82049 4

Socialist railroad transport. In the USSR, as in other socialist countries, all railroads are owned by the state and belong to all the people. In terms of absolute length of the railroad network, the USSR is second in the world after the USA, as was shown in Table 1.

The railroad network of the USSR has almost doubled during the years of Soviet power. Many new lines have been built, mainly in the eastern parts of the country, where before the revolution there were only a few poorly equipped single-track lines (from the Volga region to Vladivostok and Middle Asia and also the lines in the Urals). In order to exploit the tremendous natural resources of the vast eastern regions of the USSR it will be necessary to build a number of new long-distance railroad lines.

The old network has also been radically rebuilt: the main interregional trunk lines have been double-tracked, electrified, and equipped with automatic block systems and are able to handle large volumes of traffic. Two-axle cars have been replaced by large four-, six-, and eight-axle cars able to carry from 50 to. 125 tons of freight. All cars have automatic couplings and automatic brakes. The locomotives on USSR railroads include powerful electric and diesel models. Delivery speeds of freight are approximately four times as fast as in prerevolutionary times, and the weight of freight trains has increased several times. The speed of passenger trains has also greatly increased, and these trains usually have all-metal comfortable cars, many of which have air-conditioning.

Freight volume of USSR railroads increased almost 33 times and passenger traffic increased almost nine times between 1913 and 1970. Direct passenger service was provided by USSR railroads with 25 countries of Europe and Asia in 1969.

Although it constitutes only about 10 percent of the world total, the network of railroads of the Soviet Union handles about half of the world’s rail freight. Traffic density on USSR railroads is the highest in the world and is five to six times higher than in the USA. The intensity of use of trains and locomotives is much higher in the USSR than in the USA. All this demonstrates the great advantages of a planned socialist economy in the use of transport. A further increase of approximately 22 percent in railroad freight volume by 1975 will be brought about entirely by increased labor productivity.

The fundamental role of railroad transport in the USSR transport system will continue in the future—a situation determined by the country’s overall territorial, geographic, and economic features.

In other socialist countries (as in the USSR), railroad transport is nationalized and is the property of all the people (state ownership). Railroads play the central role in shipping. Railroad freight and passenger volume is growing rapidly, and considerable technical modernization is taking place: steam traction is being supplanted by electric and diesel; more up-to-date rolling stock, signaling devices, and block systems are being introduced; and labor-consuming work is being mechanized. In order to coordinate the work of the railroads, the transport commission of the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (Comecon) has been supplemented in its work by the Organization for Railroad Collaboration, which was set up in 1956. Seven European socialist countries set up the Railway Waggon Pool (RWP), which had more than 92,000 cars in the Comecon system in 1964, a number that has since been increased. The aim of the RWP is to reduce deadheading on international lines and increase the use of trunk lines and border transshipment bases. By 1972 the pool had reduced deadheading by 17–18 percent and had enabled the socialist countries to help each other with 4 million cars. In order to improve transportation ties between the socialist countries, major rail lines involved in mass international shipments are being rebuilt according to a master plan. For example, the Moscow-Kiev-L’vov-Prague line has been electrified, and Czechoslovakia and Poland have completed electrification of the through line from Warsaw to Prague. The railroad organizations of the socialist countries exchange the results of experiments and job experiences and do joint scientific work on a broad scale. Uniform transit rates have been established, and more favorable conditions are being created for the development of international railroad communications.


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The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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