National Rail Networks :: Look Back in Time
No one can overlook the importance of railroad infrastructure and the challenges of distance in historical economic advancement. If a country can’t get its goods to a robust marketplace with money, the economy doesn’t grow. Ship, truck and airplane transport are all part of the modern trade and transport equation, but rail is often the cheapest way to ship goods overland.
The world’s first national rail networks began in Britain, with the first inter-city line connecting the industrial midland city Manchester with the port of Liverpool in 1830.
So which country forged a national rail network next? Seems like it was Egypt. Other countries like France may have had short rail lines in place, but not an network that could move goods for long distances overland. Egypt’s rail system connected ports on the Indian Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea until the Suez Canal was opened in 1869.
2016 UPDATE: The Railway Museum in Cairo has reopened.
I recently visited Cairo and hoped to visit the Egyptian Railway Museum which occupies a large area adjacent to track #1 at the main railway station. In front of the station sits an antique locomotive, part of the Egyptian rail network built by Robert Stephenson. The Stephenson family produced notable civil engineers, designers of railroads and bridges. The Stevenson family (writer Robert Louis Stevenson) were lighthouse engineers.
The locomotive designed and built by Robert Stephenson holds a place of honor in front of Cairo’s train station and nearby signs pointed to the museum inside the station. It appeared to be a replica.
As I walked closer, I saw the railway museum was in a state of deplorable ruin with massive piles of rubble outside, windows broken out, and an abandoned dozer tilting on piles of broken stones and tile. The museum building was a wrecked shell. Was a renovation project placed on hold because of the disruption caused by deep-seated unrest back in early 2011? Or was the building destroyed as a byproduct of cultural editing and property destruction undertaken during the “Year of Morsi” ? I could only wonder.
The petition with millions of signatures pleading to remove Morsi was delivered to the high court on May 30, 2013, the afternoon I left Cairo. About thirty days later, massive popular demonstrations were underway in Tahir Square, early July 2013. Subsequent to the citizen petition, the Egyptian army removed Mr. Morsi from office. But that’s another story.
Historical Background on Railroads
The first section between Cairo and Alexandria was built in 1854. By 1856-1858, Egypt had a functioning railway network, which fitted the British interest in keeping the region stable and to secure faster communications and transport routes to India, the crown of British colonial resources.
Britain’s main interest centered on stabilizing the region, so the government tended to support the Ottoman Empire (theoretically sovereign over Egypt at the time) against all challengers, while British merchants tried to find business opportunities in the Nile Valley and Suez. An “overland route” opened between the port of Alexandria and the Gulf of Suez in the 1840s and Robert Stephenson’s railroad, completed in the 1856, improved the route.
American continental railroads were instrumental in opening the western wilderness to travel and trade. Russia, with distances far greater than the U.S., opened a single line from Moscow to St. Petersburg in 1851. With more land distance than the U.S. to cover, and few or no western and southern ports, Russia understood the value of connecting the capital and to ports in the Far East. Russia had 36,000 miles of rail by 1900 and opened the Trans-Siberian RR in 1903. Japan built rail connections between Tokyo and Yokohama in 1872.