Evolution of modern rail

Since the first public railway opened in England in 1825, rail transport has spread rapidly around the world. Modern rail transport provides fast and safe movement of people. Long distance transport of freight by rail is economical and minimises impacts on the environment. Trains such as the Tilt Train have made travel much faster and recent developments such as Maglev technology aim to make train travel faster, quieter and more sustainable.


Street Tramways

Street tramways were a popular form of transport in major cities throughout the world during the 19th and 20th centuries. Horse-drawn trams were introduced in Brisbane in 1885. They were replaced by electric trams in 1897.

Trams were abolished in Brisbane in 1969 when a major program of freeway construction commenced. It was thought that trams had little place in a city where the car would be supreme.

Rockhampton also had a tram service, using nine steam trams. The first four were imported from France. Later trams had locally built bodies on imported chassis. The tram service began in 1909 and closed in 1939.


Electric Trains

The first electric suburban Set 01 stands at Roma Street station next to the newest Set 278 in November 2009. The first electric suburban Set 01 stands at Roma Street station next to the newest Set 278 in November 2009. (Source: David Mewes)

Electric trains are quieter, faster and easier to operate than steam or diesel.

The first electric train was developed in 1879 by German engineer Werner von Siemens. He built a train that could carry 30 passengers on a short journey. It travelled at a modest 6.5 kph.

In 1899 the Mount Morgan Gold Mining Company purchased three electric locomotives to haul ore on its underground rail system.

Electrification of Brisbane’s suburban railways was not seriously considered by the Queensland government until the late 1940s. Work was commenced but abandoned during the 1950s in favour of diesel electric locomotives.

The plan to electrify sections of the state rail network was revived in the early 1970s. Since 1974 more than 1000 km of track has been electrified including the Brisbane suburban network and the main north coast line from Brisbane to Rockhampton. Most of the central Queensland lines used to haul coal have been electrified since 1984.


Coal and trains

With the establishment of major open cut mines in central Queensland during the 1960s, Queensland Railways became an integral part of the coal industry. 

Coal haulage from central Queensland mines to ports at Gladstone, Hay Point and Abbott Point comprise a significant proportion of all freight on the Queensland Government’s rail network. As mines were developed, new lines were built and existing ones upgraded.

Initially all coal trains were powered by diesel locomotives. The advantages of electric locomotives soon saw diesel replaced by electric locomotives including. They moved heavier loads at faster speeds and at the same time made savings in fuel and maintenance.


Tilt Trains

An electric tilt train arrives at Gladstone station in July, 2001 An electric tilt train arrives at Gladstone station in July, 2001 (Source: David Mewes)

The journey from Brisbane to Rockhampton took some 14 hours in 1989. The journey now takes less than seven hours. This was partly achieved by improvements to the track, but even more significantly, the introduction of tilt train technology. 

Rail travel in Queensland sped into the future when the Rockhampton Tilt Train entered service in 1998. This electric powered train can travel at up to 160 kph. A diesel powered tilt train travelling between Brisbane and Cairns began working in 2003.

The diesel tilt train has seating for 30 business class and 260 economy class passengers. Passengers enjoy many luxuries including comfortable seating and modern video and audio systems. They can watch movies or view the track from a camera mounted in the driver’s cabin. Video monitors also show the train’s progress using a global positioning system.

High-speed Trains

High-speed trains represent a new era in rail travel. These vehicles can travel at over 200 kph on dedicated tracks and provide a high level of comfort for passengers. High-speed trains have developed as an alternative to air and road travel as airports and roads become increasingly congested.

Japan and Europe have invested heavily in high-speed trains.

  • The first regular high-speed train service was the Japanese Shinkansen (or bullet train) between Tokyo and Osaka introduced in 1964. 
  • The French Train à Grande Vitesse (TGV) was the first regular high–speed service in Europe. Other high-speed services followed in Germany, Italy, Spain, Belgium and Great Britain.

The latest generation of high-speed trains travel at or near 300 kph on dedicated track. Development continues and researchers predict that trains could travel at average speeds of 400 kph in the future.


Trains of the Future


Railway engineers have long dreamed of creating a rail system that does not use wheels and eliminates direct contact between train and track.  Maglev is the solution.

Maglev – or magnetic levitation – works on the principle of magnetic forces that opposite poles attract and like poles repel.

Very powerful magnets, known as superconducting magnets, are used to propel, lift and guide the train along the track. The train hovers over the track at a distance of between 10 and 20 mm.

Maglev has many advantages over conventional rail. For example, it:

  • has no moving parts to wear out
  • is extremely quiet
  • requires little maintenance
  • is environmentally friendly.

Maglev’s greatest potential is for high-speed, long distance travel.

After decades of research and testing, high-speed maglev trains are close to a reality. Researchers confidently predict these trains could travel at average speeds of 500 kph.

Queensland Museum's Find out about... is proudly supported by the Thyne Reid Foundation and the Tim Fairfax Family Foundation.