The first practical form of mechanized transport, railways had their start in England in the 1820s. They remained the only practical overland mechanized transport for well over 100 years.
James Watt, a Scottish inventor and mechanical engineer, was responsible for improvements to the steam engine that caused this device to see wider use and encouraged wider experimentation, though it was not used for locomotive power until Richard Trevithick developed the high pressure steam engine in the 1800s.
In 1812 Oliver Evans, a United States engineer and inventor, published his vision of what steam railways could become, with cities and towns linked by a network of long distance railways plied by speedy locomotives, greatly reducing the time required for personal travel and for transport of goods. Evans specified that there should be separate sets of parallel tracks for trains going in different directions.
In 1813, George Stephenson persuaded the manager of the colliery where he worked to allow him to build a steam-powered machine. He built the Blucher, the first successful flanged-wheel adhesion locomotive. The flanges enabled the trains to run on top of the rails instead of in sunken tracks. This greatly simplified construction of switches and rails, and opened the way to the modern railroad.
The Stockton and Darlington Railway Company's first line was opened on September 27, 1825. Stephenson himself drove The Locomotion, which drew large crowds of spectators.
The steam locomotive was invented in the early stages of the industrial revolution, and railroads became essential to the swift movement of goods and labour that was needed for industrialization. In the beginning, canals were in competition with the railroads, but the railroads quickly gained ground as steam and rail technology improved, and railroads were built in places where canals were not practical.
In the 1850s, many steam-powered railways had reached London, increasing congestion in that city. A Metropolitan Railway was built to connect several of these separate railway terminals, and thus became the first "Metro."
In many countries, these electric street railways grew beyond the metropolitan areas to connect with other urban centers. In the USA, "Electric Interurban" railroad networks connected most urban areas in the states of Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York. In Southern California, the Pacific Electric Railway connected most cities in Los Angeles and Orange Counties, and the Inland Empire. There were similar systems in Europe. One of the more notable rail systems connected every town and city in Belgium.
The remnants of these systems still exist, and in many places they have been modernized to become part of the urban "rapid transit" system in their respective areas.
In the 20th century, highways and air travel replaced railroads for most long-distance passenger travel in the United States, but railroads remain important for hauling freight in the United States, and for passenger transport in many other countries