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Transcontinental railroad

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Transcontinental railroads in and near the United States by 1887

A transcontinental railroad or transcontinental railway is contiguous railroad trackage,[1] that crosses a continental land mass and has terminals at different oceans or continental borders. Such networks can be via the tracks of either a single railroad or over those owned or controlled by multiple railway companies along a continuous route. Although Europe is crisscrossed by railways, the railroads within Europe are usually not considered transcontinental, with the possible exception of the historic Orient Express. Transcontinental railroads helped open up interior regions of continents not previously colonized to exploration and settlement that would not otherwise have been feasible. In many cases they also formed the backbones of cross-country passenger and freight transportation networks. Many of them continue to have an important role in freight transportation and some like the Trans-Siberian Railway even have passenger trains going from one end to the other.



  • There are several ways to cross Africa transcontinentally via connecting east–west railways. One is the Benguela railway, completed in 1929. It starts in Lobito, Angola, and connects through Katanga to the Zambia railways system. From Zambia several ports are accessible on the Indian Ocean: Dar es Salaam in Tanzania through the TAZARA, and, through Zimbabwe, Beira and Maputo in Mozambique. The Angolan Civil War has made the Benguela line largely inoperative, but efforts are being taken to restore it. Another west–east corridor leads from the Atlantic harbours in Namibia, either Walvis Bay or Luderitz to the South African rail system that, in turn, links to ports on the Indian Ocean ( i.e. Durban, Maputo).
  • A 1015 km gap in the east–west line between Kinshasa and Ilebo filled by riverboats could be plugged with a new railway.[2]
  • There are two proposals for a line from the Red Sea to the Gulf of Guinea, including TransAfricaRail.
  • In 2010 a proposal sought to link Dakar to Port Sudan. Thirteen countries would be on the main route; another six would be served by branches.


  • A north-south transcontinental railway had been proposed by Cecil Rhodes, who termed it the Cape-Cairo railway. This system would act as a direct route from the northernmost British possession in Africa, Egypt, to the southernmost one, the Cape Colony. The project was never completed. During its development, a competing French colonial project for a competing line from Algiers or Dakar to Abidjan was abandoned after the Fashoda incident. This line would have had four gauge islands in three gauges.
  • An extension of Namibian Railways is being built in 2006 with the possible connection to Angolan Railways.
  • Libya has proposed a Trans-Saharan Railway connecting possibly to Nigeria which would connect with the proposed AfricaRail network.

African Union of Railways[edit]



  • Australia's east–west transcontinental rail corridor, consisting of lines built to three different track gauges, was completed in 1917, when the Trans-Australian Railway was opened between Port Augusta, South Australia and Kalgoorlie, Western Australia. This line, built by the federal government as a federation commitment, filled the last gap in the lines between the mainland state capitals of Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide and Perth. Passengers and freight alike suffered from time-consuming breaks of gauge: a Perth–Brisbane journey at that time involved two standard gauge 1435 mm (4 ft 812 in) lines, a broad gauge 1600 mm (5 ft 3 in) line, and three of 1067 mm (3 ft 6 in) gauge.
  • In the 1940s and 1960s, steps were taken to progressively reduce the huge inefficiencies caused by the numerous historically imposed breaks of gauge by linking the mainland capital cities with lines all of standard gauge.
  • In 1970, the route across the continent was completed to standard gauge and a new, all-through passenger train, the Indian Pacific was inaugurated.
  • An east–west transcontinental line across northern Australia from the Pilbara to the east coast – more than 1000 km (600 mi) north of the Sydney-Perth rail corridor – was proposed in 2006 by Project Iron Boomerang to connect iron ore mining in the Pilbara and coal mining in the Bowen Basin in Queensland, with steel manufacturing plants at both ends.[3]


The Adelaide–Darwin rail corridor, completed in 2004. Construction of the first of its five constituent lines had started 87 years earlier – and its ill-fated predecessor 39 years before that.


North America[edit]

United States[edit]

The ceremony for the driving of the "Last Spike," the joining of the tracks of the CPRR and UPRR grades at Promontory Summit, Utah, on May 10, 1869, Andrew J. Russell's "East and West Shaking Hands at Laying of Last Rail." May 10, 1869.

A transcontinental railroad in the United States is any continuous rail line connecting a location on the U.S. Pacific coast with one or more of the railroads of the nation's eastern trunk line rail systems operating between the Missouri or Mississippi Rivers and the U.S. Atlantic coast. The first concrete plan for a transcontinental railroad in the United States was presented to Congress by Asa Whitney in 1845.[13]

A series of transcontinental railroads built over the last third of the 19th century created a nationwide transportation network that united the country by rail. The first of these, the 3,103 km (1,928 mi) "Pacific Railroad", was built by the Central Pacific Railroad and Union Pacific Railroad, as well as the Western Pacific Railroad (1862-1870), to link the San Francisco Bay at Alameda, California, with the nation's existing eastern railroad network at Omaha, Nebraska/Council Bluffs, Iowa — thereby creating the world's second transcontinental railroad when it was completed from Omaha to Alameda on September 6, 1869. (The first transcontinental railroad was the Panama Railroad of 1855.) Its construction was made possible by the US government under Pacific Railroad Acts of 1862, 1864, and 1867. Its original course was very close to current Interstate 80.

Transcontinental railroad[edit]

The U.S. Post Office issued a commemorative stamp in 1944, on the 75th anniversary of the first transcontinental railroad in America. The engraving depicts the driving of the 'Golden Spike' at Promontory, Utah in 1869.

The U.S.'s first transcontinental railroad was built between 1863 and 1869 that connected the existing eastern U.S. rail network at Council Bluffs, Iowa, with the Pacific coast at the Oakland Long Wharf on San Francisco Bay. Its construction was considered to be one of the greatest American technological feats of the 19th century. Known as the "Pacific Railroad" when it opened, it served as a vital link for trade, commerce, and travel and opened up vast regions of the North American heartland for settlement. Much of the original route, especially on the Sierra grade west of Reno, Nevada, is currently used by Amtrak's California Zephyr, although many parts have been rerouted.[14]

The resulting coast-to-coast railroad connection revolutionized the settlement and economy of the American West.[N 1][N 2] It brought the western states and territories into alignment with the northern Union states and made transporting passengers and goods coast-to-coast considerably quicker, safer and less expensive. It replaced most of the far slower and more hazardous stagecoach lines and wagon trains. The number of emigrants taking the Oregon and California Trails declined dramatically. The sale of the railroad land grant lands and the transport provided for timber and crops led to the rapid settling of the "Great American Desert".[18]

The Union Pacific recruited laborers from Army veterans and Irish immigrants, while most of the engineers were ex-Army men who had learned their trade keeping the trains running during the American Civil War.[19]

The Central Pacific Railroad faced a labor shortage in the more sparsely settled West. It recruited Cantonese laborers in China, who built the line over and through the Sierra Nevada mountains and then across Nevada to their meeting in northern Utah. Chinese workers made up ninety percent of the workforce on the line.[20] The Chinese Labor Strike of 1867 was peaceful, with no violence, organized across the entire Sierra Nevada route, and was carried out according to a peaceful Confucian model of protest.[21] The strike began with the Summer Solstice in June, 1867 and lasted for eight days.[21]

Land Grants[edit]

The Transcontinental Railroad required land and a complex federal policy for purchasing, granting, conveying land. Some of these land-related acts included:

  • One motive for the Gadsden Purchase of land from Mexico in 1853 was to obtain suitable terrain for a southern transcontinental railroad, as the southern portion of the Mexican Cession was too mountainous. The Southern Pacific Railroad was completed in 1881.
  • The Pacific Railroad Act of 1862 (based on an earlier bill in 1856) authorized land grants for new lines that would "aid in the construction of a railroad and telegraph line from the Missouri river to the Pacific ocean".[22]
  • The rails of the "first transcontinental railroad" were joined on May 10, 1869, with the ceremonial driving of the "Last Spike" at Promontory Summit, Utah, after track was laid over a 2,826 km (1,756 mi) gap between Sacramento and Omaha, Nebraska/Council Bluffs, Iowa[23] in six years by the Union Pacific Railroad and Central Pacific Railroad.[24] Although through train service between Omaha and Sacramento was in operation as of that date, the road was not completed to the Pacific Ocean until September 6, 1869, when the first through train reached San Francisco Bay at Alameda Terminal, and on November 8, 1869, when it reached the terminus at Oakland Long Wharf. Later, November 6, 1869, was deemed to be the official completion date of the Pacific Railroad.[25] (A physical connection between Omaha, Nebraska, and the statutory Eastern terminus of the Pacific road at Council Bluffs, Iowa, located immediately across the Missouri River was also not finally established until the opening of UPRR railroad bridge across the river on March 25, 1873, prior to which transfers were made by ferry operated by the Council Bluffs & Nebraska Ferry Company.[26][27])
  • The first permanent, continuous line of railroad track from coast to coast was completed 15 months later on August 15, 1870, by the Kansas Pacific Railroad near its crossing of Comanche Creek at Strasburg, Colorado. This route connected to the eastern rail network via the Hannibal Bridge across the Missouri River at Kansas City completed June 30, 1869, passed through Denver, Colorado, and north to the Union Pacific Railroad at Cheyenne, Wyoming, making it theoretically possible for the first time to board a train at Jersey City, New Jersey, travel entirely by rail, and step down at the Alameda Wharf on San Francisco Bay in Oakland. This singularity existed until March 25, 1873 when the Union Pacific constructed the Missouri River Bridge in Omaha.[28][29]

Subsequent transcontinental routes[edit]

The Gould System[edit]

George J. Gould attempted to assemble a truly transcontinental system in the 1900s. The line from San Francisco, California, to Toledo, Ohio, was completed in 1909, consisting of the Western Pacific Railway, Denver and Rio Grande Railroad, Missouri Pacific Railroad, and Wabash Railroad. Beyond Toledo, the planned route would have used the Wheeling and Lake Erie Railroad (1900), Wabash Pittsburgh Terminal Railway, Little Kanawha Railroad, West Virginia Central and Pittsburgh Railway, Western Maryland Railroad, and Philadelphia and Western Railway,[citation needed] but the Panic of 1907 strangled the plans before the Little Kanawha section in West Virginia could be finished. The Alphabet Route was completed in 1931, providing the portion of this line east of the Mississippi River. With the merging of the railroads, only the Union Pacific Railroad and the BNSF Railway remain to carry the entire route.


Donald Smith driving the Last Spike of Canada's first transcontinental railway, the Canadian Pacific Railway, in 1885

The completion of Canada's first transcontinental railway with the driving of the Last Spike at Craigellachie, British Columbia, on November 7, 1885, was an important milestone in Canadian history. Between 1881 and 1885, the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) completed a line that spanned from the port of Montreal to the Pacific coast, fulfilling a condition of British Columbia's 1871 entry into the Canadian Confederation. The City of Vancouver, incorporated in 1886, was designated the western terminus of the line. The CPR became the first transcontinental railway company in North America in 1889 after its International Railway of Maine opened, connecting CPR to the Atlantic coast.

The construction of a transcontinental railway strengthened the connection of British Columbia and the North-West Territories to the country they had recently joined, and acted as a bulwark against potential incursions by the United States.

Subsequently, two other transcontinental lines were built in Canada: the Canadian Northern Railway (CNoR) opened another line to the Pacific in 1915, and the combined Grand Trunk Pacific Railway (GTPR)/National Transcontinental Railway (NTR) system opened in 1917 following the completion of the Quebec Bridge, although its line to the Pacific opened in 1914. The CNoR, GTPR, and NTR were nationalized to form the Canadian National Railway, which currently is now Canada's largest transcontinental railway, with lines running all the way from the Pacific Coast to the Atlantic Coast.

South and Central America[edit]

There is activity to revive the connection between Valparaíso and Santiago in Chile and Mendoza, Argentina, through the Transandino project. Mendoza has an active connection to Buenos Aires. The old Transandino began in 1910 and ceased passenger service in 1978 and freight 4 years later. Technically a complete transcontinental link exists from Arica, Chile, to La Paz, Bolivia, to Buenos Aires, but this trans-Andean crossing is for freight only.

On December 6, 2017 the Brazilian President Michel Temer and his Bolivian counterpart Evo Morales signed an agreement for an Atlantic - Pacific railway. The construction will start in 2019 and will be finished in 2024. The new railway is planned to be 3750 km in length. There are two possible tracks in discussion: Both have an Atlantic end in Santos, Brazil but the Pacific ends are in Ilo, Peru and Matarani, Peru.[33]

Another longer Transcontinental freight-only railroad linking Lima, Peru, to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil is under development.


Current Panama Canal Railway line

The first railroad to directly connect two oceans (although not by crossing a broad "continental" land mass[34]) was the Panama Rail Road. Opened in 1855, this 77 km (48 mi) line was designated instead as an "inter-oceanic"[35] railroad crossing Country at its narrowest point, the Isthmus of Panama, when that area was still part of Colombia. (Panama split off from Colombia in 1903 and became the independent Republic of Panama). By spanning the isthmus, the line thus became the first railroad to completely cross any part of the Americas and physically connect ports on the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Given the tropical rain forest environment, the terrain, and diseases such as malaria and cholera, its completion was a considerable engineering challenge. The construction took five years after ground was first broken for the line in May, 1850, cost eight million dollars, and required more than seven thousand workers drawn from "every quarter of the globe."[36]

This railway was built to provide a shorter and more secure path between the United States' East and West Coasts. This need was mainly triggered by the California Gold Rush. Over the years the railway played a key role in the construction and the subsequent operation of the Panama Canal, due to its proximity to the canal. Currently, the railway operates under the private administration of the Panama Canal Railroad Company, and its upgraded capacity complements the cargo traffic through the Panama Canal.


Guatemala railway (defunct)

A second Central American inter-oceanic railroad began operation in 1908 as a connection between Puerto San José and Puerto Barrios in Guatemala, but ceased passenger service to Puerto San José in 1989.

Costa Rica[edit]

Costa Rica railway network

A third Central American inter-oceanic railroad began operation in 1910 as a connection between Puntarenas and Limón in 1,067 mm (3 ft 6 in) gauge. It currently (2019) sees no passenger service.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "The charter of the last-named Company [Western Pacific Railroad] contemplated a line from Sacramento toward San Francisco, making the circuit of the Bay of that name [to San José]. Their franchise has recently [late 1867] been assigned to parties in the interest of the Central Pacific Railroad Company; and it is probable that this line will be formally incorporated with the Central Pacific Railroad, and the road extended from Sacramento to San Francisco by the "best, most direct and practicable route" so soon as the overland connection is completed. In the meantime the travel is abundantly accommodated by first-class steamers." – Central Pacific Railroad Company of California "Railroad Across the Continent, with an account of the Central Pacific Railroad of California", pp. 9-10, New York: Brown & Hewitt, Printers. September 1868.
  2. ^ The legal "date of completion" of the WPRR grade was subsequently designated to be January 22, 1870.[15] The formal consolidation of the Central Pacific Railroad of California with the Western Pacific Railroad Co., San Joaquin Valley Railroad Co., and San Francisco, Oakland & Alameda Railroad Co. under the name of the Central Pacific Railroad Company became effective on June 22, 1870, with the filing of Articles of Consolidation drawn under the laws of California with the California Secretary of State.[16][17]


  1. ^ "Trackage OnLine Def". Archived from the original on 2014-09-24. Retrieved 2014-09-26.
  2. ^ "Afdb.org". Archived from the original on 2010-08-09. Retrieved 2009-02-18.
  3. ^ "PIB Project Update" (PDF). Australian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy. AusIMM Cairns. August 2019. Archived (PDF) from the original on 18 September 2020. Retrieved 30 August 2020.
  4. ^ History of the railway Archived 2013-10-29 at the Wayback Machine AustralAsia Railway Corporation
  5. ^ "Fares and timetables". Journey Beyond Rail. Archived from the original on 3 July 2022. Retrieved 28 June 2022.
  6. ^ "The Indian Pacific 2022 fares and timetables". Journey Beyond Rail. Archived from the original on 11 August 2022. Retrieved 18 April 2022.
  7. ^ "What is Inland Rail". Inland Rail. Australian Rail Track Corporation. 2022. Archived from the original on 31 July 2022. Retrieved 28 June 2022.
  8. ^ "Lonely Planet Guide to the Trans-Siberian Railway" (PDF). Lonely Planet Publications. Archived from the original (PDF) on 5 September 2012.
  9. ^ Thomas, Bryn; McCrohan, Daniel (2019). Trans-Siberian Handbook: The Guide to the World's Longest Railway Journey with 90 Maps and Guides to the Route, Cities and Towns in Russia, Mongolia and China (10 ed.). Trailblazer Publications. ISBN 978-1912716081. Retrieved 15 October 2020.
  10. ^ "New 8,400 mile train journey will connect London to Tokyo". The Independent. 2017-09-08. Archived from the original on 2020-11-12. Retrieved 2020-11-11.
  11. ^ a b "Russia offers a bridge across history to connect Tokyo to the Trans-Siberian railway". siberiantimes.com. Archived from the original on 2020-11-11. Retrieved 2020-11-11.
  12. ^ Railway Gazette International, October 2010, p. 63 (with map)
  13. ^ Bain, David Haward (1999). Empire Express; Building the first Transcontinental Railroad. Viking Penguin. ISBN 0-670-80889-X.
  14. ^ Cooper, Bruce Clement (2005). Riding the Transcontinental Rails: Overland Travel on the Pacific Railroad 1865–1881. Philadelphia: Polyglot Press, 445 pages. ISBN 1411599934. p. 1-15
  15. ^ Letter from Charles F. Conant, Assistant Secretary, US Department of the Treasury, to US Rep. William Lawrence (R-OH8), March 9, 1876
  16. ^ Letter from Z.B. Sturgus, Chief, Lands and Railroad Division, Office of the Secretary, US Department of the Interior, to US Rep. William Lawrence (R-OH8), April 28, 1876
  17. ^ Speech by Rep. William A. Piper (D-CA1) in the US House of Representatives, April 8, 1876
  18. ^ Richard White, Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America (2012)
  19. ^ Collins, R.M. (2010). Irish Gandy Dancer: A tale of building the Transcontinental Railroad. Seattle: Create Space. p. 198. ISBN 978-1-4528-2631-8.
  20. ^ Chang, Gordon H; Fishkin, Shelley Fisher (2019). The Chinese and the iron road: Building the transcontinental railroad. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press. ISBN 9781503608290.
  21. ^ a b Ryan, Patrick Spaulding (2022-05-11). "Saving Face Without Words: A Confucian Perspective on The Strike of 1867". International Journal of Humanities, Art and Social Studies (IJHAS) (forthcoming). doi:10.2139/ssrn.4067005. S2CID 248036295. Retrieved 2022-05-12.
  22. ^ "An Act to aid in the construction of a railroad and telegraph line from the Missouri river to the Pacific ocean, and to secure to the government the use of the same for postal, military, and other purposes Archived 2016-05-27 at the Wayback Machine 12 Stat. 489, July 1, 1862
  23. ^ Executive Order of Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States, Fixing the Point of Commencement of the Pacific Railroad at Council Bluffs, Iowa, March 7, 1864 Archived June 29, 2011, at the Wayback Machine 38th Congress, 1st Session SENATE Ex. Doc. No. 27
  24. ^ "Ceremony at "Wedding of the Rails," May 10, 1869 at Promontory Point, Utah". World Digital Library. 1869-05-10. Archived from the original on 2013-10-18. Retrieved 2013-07-21.
  25. ^ The Official "Date of Completion" of the Transcontinental Railroad under the Provisions of the Pacific Railroad Act of 1862, et seq., as Established by the Supreme Court of the United States to be November 6, 1869. (99 U.S. 402) 1879 Archived February 5, 2007, at the Wayback Machine as transcribed from "ACTS AND JOINT RESOLUTIONS OF CONGRESS, AND DECISIONS OF THE SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES RELATING TO THE UNION PACIFIC, CENTRAL PACIFIC, AND WESTERN PACIFIC RAILROADS." WASHINGTON: Government Printing Office. 1897
  26. ^ "Omaha's First Century Installment V. — The Proud Era: 1870–1885". Archived from the original on 2017-07-02. Retrieved 2008-08-18.
  27. ^ UPRR Museum, Council Bluffs, IA Archived 2009-09-17 at the Wayback Machine
  28. ^ Fink, Robert (July 27, 1970). "National Register of Historic Places Inventory – Registration Form: Comanche Crossing of the Kansas Pacific Railroad". NP Gallery. National Park Service. Archived from the original on April 8, 2016. Retrieved September 9, 2016.
  29. ^ Borneman, Walter R. (2014-11-18). Iron Horses: America's Race to Bring the Railroads West. Little, Brown. ISBN 9780316371797.
  30. ^ a b c Myrick, David, New Mexico's Railroads, A Historic Survey, University of New Mexico Press 1990. ISBN 0-8263-1185-7
  31. ^ Beebe, Lucius and Clegg, Charles, "Rio Grande, Mainline of the Rockies", Howell-North Books 1962.
  32. ^ "Eleventh Annual Report of the Board of Railroad Commissioners of the State of California for the year ending December 31, 1890" Sacramento: California State Office, J.D. Young, Superintendent of State Printing, 1890. p. 21
  33. ^ "Transkontinentale Eisenbahn: Brasilien und Bolivien gehen das Jahrhundertprojekt an". Faz.net. Archived from the original on 2020-08-20. Retrieved 2020-06-03.
  34. ^ Otis, F.N.,"Illustrated History of the Panama Railroad" (Harper & Bros., New York, 1861), p. 12
  35. ^ "A Great Enterprise" The Portland (Maine) Transcript [Newspaper], February 17, 1855.
  36. ^ Otis, p. 35

Further reading[edit]

  • Glenn Williamson, Iron Muse: Photographing the Transcontinental Railroad. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2013.

External links[edit]