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The First Railway in the World

18 June 2009

The first railways in the world is commonly believed to be structured 2000 years ago in Greece, Malta and parts of the Roman Empire, which used stone-cut tracks to guide the wheels of horse-drawn wagons.

The first railway in China is commonly believed to be structured in 1876 by foreign engineers. It only extended 15 mile in length between Shanghai (上海) and Wusong (吴淞), an ancient gateway and central town for today's great Shanghai region; and its existence only lasted for a year before it was ordered to be demolished by a backward ruling tribe called Manchurians originally migrated to China from further north.

The first railway designed and built by Chinese engineers is commonly believed to be structured in 1905 to 1909 in the outskirts of Beijing, and the chief engineer of the project Zhan Tianyou (詹天佑: 1861 - 1919) is honoured as the Father of China's Railway.

But a recently discovery in Henan Province (河南省) puts the credibility of Shanghai railway as the first railway in China in question, and the Mr Zhan's genuine fatherhood for Chinese indigenous railway in doubt, and further challenges the status of the Greek railway as the earliest recognizable railway in the world.

In Nanyang (南阳), Henan Province, a double-line railway was found lying silently in a remote mountainous area. The wooden sleepers are all decayed, but the tracks, made of hardwood trees, clearly received advanced anti-corrosion treatment, are still intact.

The standard distance between the sleepers of the modern railway is not designed according to standard walking or running pace of man, nor was that of Henan railway. However, the distance between the sleepers in Henan railway does match the galloping pace of horse. Thus along this double track railway, the heavy loaded goods, normally being carried on the backs of packhorses, could be transferred to wagons that were pulled by horses running on sleepers.

The question is who invented this revolutionary transportation system?

According to the carbon 14 (C14) dating results, the wooden sleepers and tracks were produced 2200 years ago, which was a time when China was united for the first time and ruled under the first emperor of China, the almighty First Emperor Qin.

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Current China railway network

China rail

A Mini-version of An Ancient Track

A model of a famous ancient trial Tea Horse Track (茶马古道) is currently open to public view for free in Lijiang (丽江市), Yunnan Province (云南省). The miniature track measures 200m long and comprised of 200 buildings, 500 horses and other animals, and 1,700 human characters.

(Source of info/photo: 陈海宁,

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