Transcontinental railroads in and near the United States (1887).
A transcontinental railroad is a contiguous network of railroad trackage that crosses a continental land mass with 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 unpopulated interior regions of continents 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.
In the United States of America, transcontinental railroads created a nation-wide transportation network that united the country. This network replaced the wagon trains of previous decades and allowed for the transportation of larger quantities of goods over longer distances. Construction by the Central Pacific Railroad and Union Pacific Railroad of the 1,928 mile "Pacific Railroad" link between Council Bluff,IA/Omaha, NE and the San Francisco Bay at Oakland, CA via Ogden, UT and Sacramento, CA connecting with the existing railroad network to the East Coast via ferry creating the world's first transcontinental railroad when it opened in 1869 was made possible by the Congress through the passage of Pacific Railroad Acts of 1862, 1864 and 1867.
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.
The world's First Transcontinental Railroad was built between 1863 and 1869 to join the eastern and western halves of the United States. Begun just preceding the American Civil War, 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, this served as a vital link for trade, commerce, and travel and opened up vast regions of the North American heartland for settlement. Shipping and commerce could thrive away from navigable watercourses for the first time since the beginning of the nation. Much of this line is currently used by the California Zephyr, although some parts were rerouted or abandoned.
The transcontinental railroad provided fast, safe, and cheap transportation. The fare for a one week trip from Omaha to San Francisco on an emigrant sleeping car was about $65 for an adult. It replaced most of the far slower and more hazardous stagecoach lines and wagon trains. The number of emigrants taking the Oregon and California Trail 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".
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.
The Central Pacific Railroad faced a labor shortage in the more sparsely-settled West. It recruited Cantonese laborers in China, who did prodigious work building the line over and through the Sierra Nevada mountains and then across Nevada to their meeting in northern Utah.
A motive for the Gadsden Purchase of land from Mexico in 1853 was to provide suitable terrain for a southern transcontinental railroad, since the topography of the southern portion of the existing Mexican Cession land 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".
In 1909 the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul (or Milwaukee Road) completed a privately built Pacific extension to Seattle. On completion the line was renamed the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific. Although the Pacific Extension was privately funded, predecessor roads did benefit from the federal land grant act, so it can not be said to have been built without federal aid.
The completion of Canada's first transcontinental railroad, on November 7, 1885 is 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 first railroad to directly connect two oceans (although not by crossing a broad "continental" land mass) was the Panama Rail Road. Opened in 1855, this 48-mile (77 km) line was designated instead as an "inter-oceanic"  railroad crossing Central America at its narrowest point, the Isthmus of Panama, when that area was still part of the northern province of Colombia from which it would split off to become the independent nation of Panama in 1903. 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 PacificOceans. 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."
This railway was built to satisfy the need for a shorter and more secure path between the United States' East and West Coasts, a need triggered mainly by the California Gold Rush. Over the years it played a key role in the construction and the subsequent operation of the Panama Canal, due to its proximity with the water way. 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.
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.
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.
The first Eurasian transcontinental railroad was the Trans-Siberian railway (with connecting lines in Europe), completed in 1905 which connects Moscow with Vladivostok on the Pacific coast. There are two connections from this line to China. It is the world's longest rail line at 9,289 km (5,772 mi) long. This line connects the European railroad system with China, Mongolia and Korea. Since the former Soviet countries and Mongolia use a broader gauge, a break of gauge is necessary either at the eastern frontiers of Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and Romania or the Chinese border. In spite of this there are through services of passenger trains between Moscow and Beijing or through coaches from Berlin to Novosibirsk. Almost every major town along the Trans-Siberian railway has its own return service to Moscow.
A second rail line connects Istanbul in Turkey with China via Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. This route imposes a break of gauge at the Iranian border with Turkmenistan and at the Chinese border. En route there is a train ferry in eastern Turkey across Lake Van. The European and Asian parts of Istanbul are linked by a train ferry, and an undersea tunnel is under construction. There is no through service of passenger trains on the entire line. A uniform gauge connection was proposed in 2006, commencing with new construction in Kazakhstan. A decision to make the internal railways of Afghanistan 1,435 mm (4 ft 81⁄2 in) gauge potentially opens up a new standard gauge route to China, since China abuts this country.
The Trans-Asian Railway is a project to link Singapore to Istanbul and is to a large degree complete with missing pieces primarily in Myanmar. The project has also linking corridors to China, the central Asian states, and Russia. This transcontinental line unfortunately uses a number of different gauges, 1,435 mm (4 ft 81⁄2 in), 1,676 mm (5 ft 6 in), 1,520 mm (4 ft 1127⁄32 in) and 1,000 mm (3 ft 33⁄8 in), though this problem may be lessened with the use of variable gauge axle systems such as the SUW 2000.
The TransKazakhstan Trunk Railways project by Kazakhstan Temir Zholy will connect China and Europe at a gauge of 1,435 mm (4 ft 81⁄2 in). Construction is set to start in 2006. Initially the line will go to western Kazakhstan, south through Turkmenistan to Iran, then to Turkey and Europe. A shorter to-be-constructed 1,435 mm (4 ft 81⁄2 in) link from Kazakhstan is considered going through Russia and either Belarus or Ukraine.
The Baghdad Railway connects Istanbul with Baghdad and finally Basra, a sea port at the Persian Gulf. When its construction started in the 1880s it was in those times a Transcontinental Railroad.
The Trans-Australian Railway was the first route operated by the Federal Government.
In the 1940s, 1970s, and 2000s steps were taken to rationalise the gauge chaos and connect the mainland capital cities mentioned above with a streamlined 1,435 mm (4 ft 81⁄2 in) uniform gauge system. Since 1970, when the direct line across the country was all completed as standard gauge, the passenger train on the Sydney to Perth line has been called the Indian Pacific.
The first north-south trans-Australia railway opened in January 2004 and links Darwin to Adelaide with the Ghan passenger train. The Adelaide-Darwin railway is standard or 1,435 mm (4 ft 81⁄2 in) gauge, though the original line to Alice Springs (never fully completed line) was 1,067 mm (3 ft 6 in) gauge.
In 2006, proposals for new lines in Queensland that would carry both intrastate coal traffic and interstate freight traffic would see standard gauge penetrate the state in considerable stretches for the first time. (ARHS Digest September 2006). The standard gauge Inland Railway would ultimately extend from Melbourne to Cairns.
Starting in 1867, Queensland built several railways going inland from several ports in a westerly direction. From the 1920s, steps were taken to connect these lines by the North-South North Coast line from Brisbane to Cairns.
A 1015 km gap in the east-west line between Kinshasa and Ilebo filled by riverboats could be plugged with a new railway.
There are two proposals for a line from the Red Sea to the Gulf of Guinea, including TransAfricaRail.
In 2010 a proposal surfaced to link Dakar to Port Sudan. Thirteen countries are on the main route, while another six would be served by branches.
A North-South transcontinental railroad had been proposed by Cecil Rhodes: the Cape-Cairo railway. This system was seen as the backbone for the African possessions of the British Empire, and was not 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.