Five Things You Didn’t Know About Trains

Because there’s more to the history of trains than delays, signalling errors and soggy sandwiches…

From early steam trains to modern forms of commuting.


Strange as it may sound, the world of trains has its very own folk hero. His name is Casey Jones, and he was an engineer on the American railroads back in the 19th Century. This was at the dawn of the age of steam travel in the States, when engineers were seen as rugged adventurers of the great wilderness. Casey Jones was famed for always running his trains on time, and for his unique train whistle, made up of several thin tubes - like pan pipes. As the story goes, residents of towns and villages would hear the whistle at night, and say "There goes Casey Jones".

What sealed his legend was the way he died. During one epic train journey, his fellow engineer was horrified to see another train stranded on the tracks in front of them. Realising an impact was inevitable, Casey Jones ordered his friend to jump, but stayed at the controls himself, hitting the brakes to minimise the force of the collision. Jones was killed, but his efforts saved the passengers on his train. His exploits inspired a folk song called "The Ballad of Casey Jones", as well as plays, films, rock songs and TV shows.


Think "old trains" and big, puffing steam engines will likely come to mind. But the original trains were actually driven by horses. These were slow, lumbering modes of transport by today's standards, achieving little more than 6 mph. Yet they came in very handy for transporting coal and other raw materials, before human beings decided to become cargo as well.

The world's very first passenger train service was created in South Wales in 1807, on a horse-drawn railway that had been used to move limestone from quarries. This led to the formation of the first known passenger railway station, called The Mount. It would be decades before the horses of the Mount were eventually replaced by steam engines.

Nori trains - or trains made from bamboo, were the simple forms of trains built in Cambodia following the fall of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge regime.

Nori trains - or trains made from bamboo, were the simple forms of trains built in Cambodia following the fall of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge regime.


After the fall of Pol Pot's brutal Khmer Rouge regime, Cambodia came up with an ingenious way of making use of the country's ruined railways. Lacking real trains, locals simply built "bamboo trains", or norries, by literally cobbling together pieces of wood with wheels and engines scavenged from old motorbikes and farming equipment.

These rickety contraptions rely on gravity to stay on the tracks, and early norry drivers even propelled the carriages using poles, like gondoliers in Venice. When two norries going in opposite directions happen to meet on the same stretch of track, one driver simply dissembles his train to allow the other to go past. Some of these bamboo trains are still in service today, and are a favourite with fascinated tourists.


One of the zaniest trains of all time was invented in the United States in the 1960s. The M-497, or "Black Beetle" was a jet-powered train. And not in a particularly sophisticated way either. Its inventors simply took a regular, ordinary passenger train and attached the jet engines from a B-36 bomber to one end of the carriage. The resulting hybrid looked like something from a science fiction film.

As one of the designers put it, "There's an old pilot legend that if an airplane looks good, it usually flies good. We felt that if the jet train looked good, it would run good." Surprisingly, it DID run good, reaching almost 185 mph in a test run. Sadly, it was regarded as just too expensive to put into mass production, so the jet engines were removed and the train simply put back into normal service, as if its jet-powered adventures had never happened.


In the early 20th Century, a visionary inventor called Louis Brennan developed a train that was balanced on a single set of wheels on a single rail, in the manner of a motorcycle. The carriage was able to stay upright thanks to a set of spinning gyroscopes. After creating an initial model in his own back garden in Kent, Brennan secured enough funding to build a full-sized version.

It made its public debut in 1910, in a demonstrated attended by Winston Churchill. The problem was the surreal look of the train, and the perceived danger of the carriage falling over. As one writer put it, "it might be difficult to persuade the public to cross a river or a deep ravine with a suspended rope as the sole track." The plans came to nothing and Brennan would go onto work on an early helicopter before his death in a car accident in the 1930s.