What Is a Transcontinental Railroad? Definition, Meaning and Concept

A transcontinental railway is a rail system that crosses an entire continent and terminates at sea or other continental borders. These rail systems were once the pinnacle of human technological innovation, and are still proving to be a useful and convenient means of transportation for many today. Transcontinental railroads still exist all over the planet and are regularly used for both passenger and freight transport.

Many historians regard the construction of the first American transcontinental railroad as a landmark moment in United States history. Built in the 1860s, the railroad joined the cultivated havens of the East Coast with the open, prosperous wilderness of the West, eliminating grueling months of hazardous travel for thousands of travelers. This transcontinental railroad actually only crossed about half the country directly; On the eastern edge of Omaha, Nebraska was connected to an existing network of eastern railroads. It was not until 1869 that the railroad came into contact with the Pacific Ocean, as the original western terminus was more than 100 miles (161 km) from the Pacific in Sacramento, California's capital.

While the American Transcontinental Railroad was hailed as a shining moment of American technological superiority, the railroad itself proved to be a commercial failure. The powerful railroad barons who owned the route soon learned that the cost of maintaining a track that traversed dozens of altitude and climate zones was far more expensive than they had originally planned. Although it united a country, the railway soon fell into disrepair. Although parts of the railway remain in service into the 21st century, it is no longer used as a transcontinental route.

The Trans-Siberian Railway, which connects Moscow to the Sea of ​​Japan, faced much harsher climates than the American effort, but proved much more durable over time. Begun in 1891, this transcontinental railroad has seen more or less continuous construction and improvement, becoming one of the best-known rail routes in the world. In the 21st century, crossing times from the Pacific to Russia's western border take around 12 transit days.

In Australia, the great Trans-Australian Railway faced interesting design problems as it wound its way across the deadly Nullabor Plain in the early 20th century. Chief among the concerns was that each of the Australian states had specific railway meters, none of which matched each other. The speed of the route suffered greatly from this problem, which forced passengers and freight to be unloaded and reloaded on different locomotives each time the gauge size changed. In the 1970s, standardization of this southernmost transcontinental railroad was completed, allowing leisurely travel from Port Augusta in the southeast to Kalgoorlie in the west.