The idea of using "tracked" roads is at least 2000 years old; quarries in Greece, Malta, and the Roman Empire used cut stone tracks to haul loads pulled by animals. Around 1550 German miners used wooden tubs known as "hunt" running on two wide boards for rails to move ore within mines. These hunts used a guide pin system for steering utilising the slot between the two board rails. In 1604 Huntingdon Beaumont completed a wagonway, (the Wollaton Wagonway) built to transport coal from the mines at Strelley to Wollaton just west of Nottingham, England. Wagonways have been proven to exist in Broseley, Shropshire from 1605, although it is widely believed that they were in evidence prior to this.
Wagonways improved coal transport by allowing one horse to deliver between 10 to 13 tons of coal per run - an approximate fourfold increase. Wagonways were usually designed to carry the fully loaded wagons downhill to a canal or boat dock and then return the empty wagons back to the mine.
At the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in the 18th century, the rails were made of wood; were a few inches wide; and were fastened down, end to end, on logs of wood, or "sleepers", placed crosswise at intervals of two or three feet. In time, it became a common practice to cover them with a thin flat sheathing or "plating" of iron, in order to add to their life and reduce friction. This caused more wear on the wooden rollers of the wagons, and, towards the middle of the 18th century, led to the introduction of iron wheels, the use of which is recorded on a wooden railway near Bath in 1734. But the iron sheathing was not strong enough to resist buckling under the passage of the loaded wagons, so rails made wholly of iron were invented.
Another form of rail, the edge rail, was first used by William Jessop on a line which was opened as part of the Charnwood Forest Canal between Loughborough and Nanpantan in Leicestershire in 1789. This line was originally designed as a plateway on the Outram system, but objections were raised to rails with upstanding ledges or flanges being laid on the turnpike road, this difficulty was overcome by paving, or "causewaying", the road up to the level of the top of the flanges. In 1790 Jessop and his partner Outram began to manufacture edge-rails. Another example of the edge rail application was the Lake Lock Rail Road used primarily for coal transport. This was a public railway (charging a toll) and opened for traffic in 1798. The route started at Lake Lock, Stanley, on the Aire & Calder Navigation, near Wakefield, UK, and ran to Outwood, a distance of approximately 3 miles (4.8 km). Edge-rails were also used on the near by Middleton Railway.
These two systems of constructing iron railways, the "L" plate-rail and the smooth edge-rail, continued to exist side by side until well on into the 19th century. In most parts of England the plate-rail was preferred, and it was used on the Surrey Iron Railway, from Wandsworth to West Croydon, which, sanctioned by parliament in 1801, was finished in 1803, and like the Lake Lock Rail Road was available to the public on payment of tolls, previous lines having all been private and reserved exclusively for the use of their owners. Since it was used by individual operators, vehicles would vary greatly in wheel spacing (gauge) and the plate rail coped better.
In South Wales again, where in 1811 the railways were connected with canals, collieries, iron and copper works, and had a total length of nearly 150 miles, the plateway was almost universal. But in the North of England and in Scotland the edge-rail was held in greater favor, and by the third decade of the century its superiority was generally established. Wheels tended to bind against the flange of the plate rail and mud and stones would build up.
The manufacture of the rails themselves was gradually improved. By making them in longer lengths a reduction was effected in the number of joints, always the weakest part of the line; and another advance consisted in the substitution of wrought iron for cast iron, though that material did not gain wide adoption until after the patent for an improved method of rolling rails granted in 1820 to John Birkinshaw, of the Bedlington Ironworks, Northumberland. His rails were wedge-shaped in section, much wider at the top than at the bottom, with the intermediate portion or web thinner still, and he recommended that they should be made 18 ft (5.5 m) long, even suggesting that several of them might be welded together end to end to form considerable lengths. They were supported on sleepers by chairs at intervals of 3 ft (915 mm), and were fish-bellied between the points of support. As used by George Stephenson on the Stockton & Darlington and Canterbury & Whitstable lines they weighed 28 lb/yd (14 kg/m). On the Liverpool and Manchester Railway they were usually 12 or 15 ft (3.66 or 4.6 m) long and weighed 35 lb/yd (17 kg/m), and they were fastened by iron wedges to chairs weighing 15 or 17 lb (6.8 or 7.7 kg) each. The chairs were in turn fixed to the sleepers by two iron spikes, half-round wooden cross sleepers being employed on embankments and stone blocks 20 in (508 mm) square by 10 in (254 mm) deep in cuttings. The fishbellied rails, however, were found to break near the chairs, and from 1834 they began to be replaced with parallel rails weighing 50 lb/yd (25 kg/m).
The wagonway had come into considerable use in connection with collieries and quarries before it was realized that for the carriage of general merchandise it might prove a serious competitor to the canals, of which a large distance had been constructed in Great Britain during that period. In the article on "Railways" in the Supplement to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, published in 1824, it is said: "It will appear that this species of inland carriage is principally applicable where trade is considerable and the length of conveyance short; and is chiefly useful, therefore, in transporting the mineral produce of the kingdom from the mines to the nearest land or water communication, whether sea, river or canal. Attempts have been made to bring it into more general use, but without success; and it is only in particular circumstances that navigation, with the aid either of locks or inclined planes to surmount the elevations, will not present a more convenient medium for an extended trade." It must be remembered, however, that at this time the railways were nearly all worked by horse-traction, and that the use of steam had made but little progress.
Richard Trevithick, in 1804, in the first recorded use of self propelled steam power on a railway, ran a high-pressure steam locomotive with smooth wheels, on an 'L' section plateway near Merthyr Tydfil, but it was found more expensive than horses. He made three trips from the iron mines at Penydarren to the Merthyr-Cardiff Canal and each time broke the rails that were designed for horse wagon loads. In 1812 the Middleton Railway (edgeway, rack rail) successfully used twin cylinder steam locomotives made by Matthew Murray of Holbeck, Leeds. In 1821 a wagonway was proposed that would connect the mines at West Durham, Darlington and the River Tees at Stockton, George Stephenson successfully argued that horse drawn wagonways were obsolete and a steam powered railway could carry 50 times as much coal. Shortly after the completion of the Stockton and Darlington railway in 1825 coal transport prices began falling rapidly.
Stationary steam engines for mining were generally available around the middle of the 18th century, wagonways and steam powered railways that had steep uphill sections would employ a cable powered by a stationary steam engine to work the inclined sections. British troops in Lewiston New York used a cable wagonway to move supplies to base before the American Revolutionary War. The Stockton and Darlington had two inclined sections powered by cable.
The transition from a wagonway to a fully steam powered railway was a gradual evolution. Railways up to 1835 that were steam powered often made runs with horses when the steam locomotive were unavailable. The Baltimore and Ohio Railroad initially opened in 1830 with 13 miles (21 km) of track was horse powered. Railroads powered by stationary engines and cables (San Francisco cable cars) and horse-drawn trams (Isle of Man, Manx Tramway) are still in use today.