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Consider a civilization with pre-industrial, possibly even pre-gunpowder technology, but the economic incentive to have continent-spanning railway tracks. Would it be possible for them to build those railway tracks in such a manner that they

  • require very little maintenance
  • can traverse undeveloped land with heavy rainfall / cold temperatures without changing their gauge or otherwise moving significantly
  • allow heavy multi-wagon trains to safely traverse them at speeds up to 80 km/h (50 mph)

If the answer to that is no, would it be possible for such a civilization to at least maintain a system of tracks already in place and continue to run trains at the specified speeds?

Finally, if the answer to that is no as well, is there any way our current civilization (or at least a reasonably realistic version of it 30-50 years in the future) could build railway tracks (even at uneconomical costs or requiring the use of otherwise needed materials) specifically for the purpose of being maintainable by the civilization described above?

Using little children as replacements for machine parts is not an option.

Addendum: The train is my goal in itself, so achieving the same benefits with other means like canals is unfortunately not an option either.

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    $\begingroup$ 80km/h? Didnt the whole cowboy-western railways go a maximum of about 30 to 40km/h? I have doubts most industrial trains could reach 80, let alone without industry... After industry they could, with records of 203km/h (although the train broke down). $\endgroup$ – Demigan Jul 3 '18 at 13:31
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    $\begingroup$ If you can figure out how to maintain existing track across a continent through poorly-developed areas with adverse weather conditions, with only very little maintenance, a lot of African nations would love to hear it. $\endgroup$ – pluckedkiwi Jul 3 '18 at 13:34
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    $\begingroup$ Forget the tracks, how do you build a train in a pre-industrial society? $\endgroup$ – Nuclear Wang Jul 3 '18 at 14:25
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    $\begingroup$ @BladeWraith There is a world of difference between personal "travel" and the shipping industry. A huge number of goods are still shipped cross-country by rail (e.g. 40% in the USA as of 2009), and then distributed locally by semi truck. Even other areas with smaller numbers still represent vast quantities - "only" 5% of goods shipped by rail in Japan (which obviously has lots of easy access to water-based shipping) is still 5% of everything shipped around Japan. $\endgroup$ – brichins Jul 3 '18 at 14:43
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    $\begingroup$ @BladeWraith In the US, which has the best rail freight network in the world, volumes have been rising since 1980. Likewise, nobody takes a ship across the ocean anymore, yet oceangoing cargo is at an all-time high. $\endgroup$ – user71659 Jul 3 '18 at 22:16

15 Answers 15

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It seems to me that the technology required to build and maintain trains and railway tracks would almost require "industrialization", if only at the steam age. You'd need to be able to smelt steel, forge and machine parts (at a pretty high quality if you want them to be easily replaceable) and set up assembly systems.

As for the maintainability of the tracks, you could look at our own history of how it was done. Considering the level of technology we were at at the beginning of the rail age, tracks were pretty reliable. I don't think they got to 50 MPH for some time, but the tracks didn't change much, unless the wheel base of the trains did. We're using tracks that were laid quite some time ago in some areas, with much less incident than the age would suggest.

If you go with the idea of the system already being in place, I'd still say the tracks themselves would be the lesser of the issues, compared to maintenance of the trains, and the equipment that builds/assembles them. A track is a fairly simple piece of metal, in comparison to any of the parts of the engine.

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Apart from the high speeds, I think this might be possible. Diolkos was "a trackway paved with hard limestone with parallel grooves running about 1.60 metres (63 in) apart" near Corinth, in Ancient Greece to quote Wikipedia. It operated from ~600BC to 100AD and seems to have been used for moving goods and entire ships overland.

It only ran for somewhere between 3 and 5 miles, but with a bit of imagination I think this could become what you want.

Edit: This doesn't look much like a modern railway, using grooves instead of raised rails and flanged wheels. However: "According to the British historian of science M.J.T. Lewis, the Diolkos represented a railway, in the basic sense of a prepared track which so guides the vehicles running on it that they cannot leave the track." wiki source

If limestone was replaced with something more durable, like granite, carefully designed grooves could keep wooden 'bogies' in the grooves. Sloped edges could provide the same negative-feedback loop to simple wooden wheels much like the shape of steel wheels keeps them on a modern track. Multiple wooden vehicles could be roped together to be towed by the same mechanism: be it animals or humans, or a more fictional ancient engine.

If the Aeolipile (1st century AD steam engine) had ever been developed beyond a curiousity this could have provided an early steam engine.

Diolkos today, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Diolkos,_Western_End._Pic_04.jpg

(source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Diolkos,_Western_End._Pic_04.jpg)

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    $\begingroup$ Welcome to Worldbuilding.SE! When you have a moment, please take our tour and visit our help center to learn more about us. This is a good observation, but weren't the grooves to hold the cart wheels? Could this tech be used to create durable raised rails instead? A bit more information about how this tech could be used to fill the OP's needs would be great! $\endgroup$ – JBH Jul 3 '18 at 15:03
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    $\begingroup$ Edited in a bit more, essentially I see no reason why a 'railway' has to actually have raised rails! Grooves and wooden wheels seems to fit the definition to me. $\endgroup$ – MrBunsy Jul 3 '18 at 15:19
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    $\begingroup$ "If the Aeolipile (1st century AD steam engine) had ever been developed beyond a curiousity" - then we'd end up having the industrial age 1500 years earlier. $\endgroup$ – UKMonkey Jul 3 '18 at 16:16
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    $\begingroup$ Raised rails aren't a requirement, but maintenance would be much more effort. Debris building up in a groove is much more likely than it accumulating on a rail. $\endgroup$ – Philip Tinney Jul 3 '18 at 18:00
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    $\begingroup$ In some ways, it's unfortunate that the Greeks invented the aeolipile. Modern people see "steam moving an object" and think "Steam engine! Ancient Greek industrial revolution!", when in fact the aeolipile is a technological dead end. Turning the aeolipile into a useful engine requires knowledge, materials, and techniques that only became available very late in the industrial revolution. $\endgroup$ – Mark Jul 4 '18 at 0:03
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The way that preindustrial / early industrial people achieved what you want is with canals.

barton bridge

Depicted: Barton aqueduct taking the canal across a river.

England had hundreds of miles of canals, and there were canals serving most major European and American cities. You can build and use a canal with Roman technology and the Romans did so, using them to connect rivers. It sounds like your wet world would be well served by canals. I am not sure if they used sledges when the canals froze, but they could.

I am not sure how you were going to get a preindustrial train or any other land vehicle to go 80 km/h. Cheetahs pull them? But with the canals you could do it. Iceboats can go that fast. I am pretty sure they used iceboats in Amsterdam but I am less sure about long haul sail-powered ice barges. Getting something that big up to that kind of speed is so awesome I think you would want to keep it confined to a fantasy world.

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  • $\begingroup$ Thanks for posting "canals" so I didn't have to look it up. :) There is no practical way to get the desired speeds out a canal, but the overall cost and time per shipment is still dramatically better than roadways. $\endgroup$ – brichins Jul 3 '18 at 14:46
  • $\begingroup$ /Thanks for posting "canals" / @brichins - woops. Corrected. $\endgroup$ – Willk Jul 3 '18 at 15:22
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    $\begingroup$ Yay! Canals! This is absolutely correct. However, you have overlooked the extensive canals built in Imperial China. They were the majors when came to constructing them. Canals also meet the low maintenance requirement. The old canals should be rehabilitated and used for transportation or leisure. $\endgroup$ – a4android Jul 4 '18 at 4:42
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    $\begingroup$ In winter you would use skates to run the express Ice-Boats and in summer you would use regular sail boats. $\endgroup$ – KalleMP Jul 4 '18 at 20:50
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    $\begingroup$ @BrianDrummond Yes, and 18kts to me seems considerably slower than mach 2.0 $\endgroup$ – J... Jul 6 '18 at 12:26
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Sorry but no. Without an industry, you can't meet the required performances. You require to forge huge amount of steel with millimetrical precision, no errors are allowed, and a preindustrial civilization could never do it.

Secondly, a preindustrial civilization couldn't even start building the trains, which require continous and careful mainteinance

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    $\begingroup$ Agreed, but don't forget the simply industrial nature of mining the coal, or producing the fuel whatever it may be, and transpoing that to the train stations, without fuel the whole endevour would fall over before it starts and you need industrial age industry (pun intended) to provide that fuel $\endgroup$ – Blade Wraith Jul 3 '18 at 13:44
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    $\begingroup$ From watching old b&w movies about trains and locomotive maintenance, a steam locomotive needs about 6-8 hours of preventative maintenance per day. $\endgroup$ – Tangurena Jul 3 '18 at 14:44
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    $\begingroup$ +1 There's a reason why trains didn't exist until industrialisation; Romans and other empires certainly had motivation to have one, but it just wasn't something that could be constructed $\endgroup$ – UKMonkey Jul 3 '18 at 16:15
  • $\begingroup$ Trains have been run on wood, it just required a lot of fuel wagon and forest. $\endgroup$ – KalleMP Jul 4 '18 at 20:51
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I agree with most of the answers suggesting the difficulties, but consider these points:

  • One of the advantages of rail over oxcarts on farm paths is that the tracks are laid on a carefully prepared bed. You have rails on sleepers, sleepers on ballast, ballast on the foundation.
    That could be done with wooden rails and animal-drawn wagons and still provide a benefit. Think of an effort comparable in scale to Roman roadbuilding, only that it prepares wooden tracks for standard-gauge oxwagons.
  • For animal-drawn railways, consider horsecars and wagonways.
  • With proper attention to drainage, the ballast and foundation could be better suited to rainy climates than ordinary roads which might develop ruts that become mudholes.

All of this does not even come close to 50 mph and steam power, of course, but it could greatly increase the efficiency of intercity transport.

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  • $\begingroup$ Something simple like tree pruning left undone for 10-30 years will ruin a rail road unless it was built on a meter thick concrete road on a 2 meter high gravel ridge. $\endgroup$ – KalleMP Jul 4 '18 at 20:54
  • $\begingroup$ Here is a video of scheduled maintenance of a modern cost constrained section of track (long sections that have to turn a profit). - youtube.com/watch?v=CP8Gn6m9re8 $\endgroup$ – KalleMP Jul 4 '18 at 21:02
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You haven't said anything about your world's level of parity with Earth, but I'm assuming no magic.

Have you considered an unpowered unobtainium / handwavium maglev system? If 2 magnetic rare earth elements that naturally and strongly repelled each other were common and easily mined, it would be simple to lay a gravel bed of one and plate the underside of a cart with the other. Something of a hover-barge canal system. Speed could be attained with sails or horses.

The effects of these materials on the rest of your culture (floating houses, trade demands with the tycoons who control the only sources of element B, etc) would need to be addressed as well.

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    $\begingroup$ A boat needs a keel to prevent it being blown sideways by the wind. Is a maglev system able to fill the same role? Can it hold a cart on the track while the wind is trying to push it off sideways? $\endgroup$ – Jared K Jul 3 '18 at 15:29
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    $\begingroup$ @JaredK It's pretty easy. look at an "A" or "M" for the shape of the cart. [highly Exaggerated] The empty space on the bottom is how you form the "road", which should protect it from moving sideways. Then the approach also has the benefit of having really, really simple Trainstations, since a Flat "track" does the trick inside cities, where you go slower and with more care $\endgroup$ – Hobbamok Jul 4 '18 at 11:45
  • $\begingroup$ As Hobbamok said, you just need a raised section to restrict later movement. This could be a raised center with a catamaran (2-hull) boat, or a bank on each side of the track. I would lean towards an arrangement that allowed an actual boat/barge to transition from a waterway onto a track. $\endgroup$ – brichins Jul 5 '18 at 3:12
  • $\begingroup$ No arrangement of permanent magnets can give you levitation, thanks to Earnshaw's theorem. You'd either need to build a system of rails to stop it moving side to side, or use a diamagnetic material. Though the only thing that's diamagnetic enough to lift other stuff is a superconductor, and they're hard to come by in pre-industrial times. $\endgroup$ – patstew Jul 11 '18 at 12:45
  • $\begingroup$ @patstew Excellent point, which is why we don't have such systems. Fortunately, by definition handwavium has properties that sidestep Earnshaw's theorem, and unobtainium derivatives are both superconductive and diamagnetic. None of these compounds are available for study on Earth, but are plentiful on other worlds and/or alternate timelines. $\endgroup$ – brichins Jul 12 '18 at 15:00
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Yes. Those are called Canal.

In pre-industrial societies, the use of canals is that a human or a horse on shore use a rope to pull a boat. The boat stay away form the border thanks to its rudder (need one man onbard to operate).

enter image description here

Of course, to travel at 80 km/h, you'll need a modern boat. But a single human can easily pull 30 tonnes at a steady 1 or 2 km/h

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    $\begingroup$ There is no way you will get a boat, of any type from any era, to travel 80km/h on a canal. The construction is shallow and narrow enough that an exponential amount of effort is needed to push the displaced water 'around' the boat in order for it to move forward. For comparison, a boat travelling like this, ie making a bow wave, breaking wash and rip tide, is probably travelling at about 6-8km/h, just over the speed limit on English canals of 4mph (6.4km/h). $\endgroup$ – Stephen Jul 3 '18 at 17:02
  • $\begingroup$ @Stephen Krateng obviously don't mean to have pre industrial vehicule riding at 80km/h. So we also can assume those vehicule to be futuristic. An ekranoplan plunging a runder in the water for sharp turns would be cool. Not exactly what people imagine when they hear "Train" but still ;-) $\endgroup$ – Madlozoz Jul 4 '18 at 7:18
  • $\begingroup$ Actually, my thinking was how to get a structure that is useful (thus maintained) by a pre-industrial society and can also be used with modern-futuristic vehicule $\endgroup$ – Madlozoz Jul 4 '18 at 7:21
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Not with heavy loads at high speeds no. For the kind of loads and speeds that were being used in the later years of the age of steam you need mechanised hauling which requires fine-tolerance machining and interchangable parts, and metal rails which are a huge industrial manufacturing undertaking.

For smaller slower moving loads you can use wooden rails and animal traction but you'd still need a lot of co-operation between the realms that the rail network is to connect, that was rare in most pre-industrial nations. Still rare in many parts of the world today in fact, that's why you have to change the wheels on trains crossing a number of international borders.

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I will not buy this record, eet is scratched.

There are 2 issues with pre-industrial high speed (well 50 mph is pretty high in those times) rail: Energy and tolerances.

Anything moving at 50 mph has to be built to reasonably tight tolerances to avoid destroying itself, and any train moving at that speed must be on tracks which have been carefully manufactured to avoid the rails failing or the train leaving them.

The issue of energy is that there are some energy density and efficiency levels you need to reach in order to sustain motion at those speeds and not spend more time refuelling than travelling. Wood, for example, does not carry high enough energy density to be a steam fuel over continental distances.

Nuclear, baby

The only path I can see from within the given bounds is to instead go to higher technology which can be built such that it is able to avoid maintenance. One option for the fuel there is nuclear fuel, which could be prepared in such amounts that they are effectively limitless, and a priesthood which dutifully obeys the sacred rules which codify operational health and safety. Bring forth the sacred glittering tongs!

Rail printer

The tolerances problem is harder; rails are long and thin and subject to both natural and man-made threats. So a feasible long term solution is an effectively magical mountain which contains an automated system for collecting ore, refining the appropriate steel and ultimately printing rails and other necessary bits. This too would be a responsibility of the priesthood, to honour the deity by keeping the gleaming lines straight and pure and parallel from horizon to horizon.

What's my motivation?

One question that comes to mind is 'why?'. Why would a civilisation leave just a very carefully prepared railway and associated infrastructure, but fail to survive to maintain it? Perhaps an option is something along the lines of an alien race which constructs such things in order to do terraforming in a semi- automated fashion in advance of their arrival. A train would be a reasonable system with which to deliver biomaterial, release CO2 or other compounds mined from the mountain across a significant fraction of the habitable surface.

In such a scheme, it also makes some sense for the alien race to anoint a monarchy and priesthood; by empowering the monarchy over other groups with this ability to travel at speed, the monarchy is dependent on the success of the railyway. Thus they should both dominate the continental political sphere and use part of that power to keep the priesthood in clean vestments.

The gleaming, incongruous, holy rail would be a magnet for unrest.

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    $\begingroup$ Would coal not be sufficient, considering it's fairly easy to shovel it into the engine even for a preindustrial civilization? As for the tracks, if there's no need to ever build new routes, is there no way to build the them in a way that protects them from wear and tear for at least a few centuries? $\endgroup$ – Krateng Jul 4 '18 at 10:53
  • $\begingroup$ I really don't understand where you're coming from, here. Even wood has plenty high enough energy density to power a steam train to 50mph. Coal will take you to more than double that; oil to even more. So what's all this stuff about nuclear? To the best of my knowledge, nobody has ever built a nuclear-powered train, even today, but we currently have trains that massively exceed the asker's requirements without needing that. You don't need to carry all the fuel with you: refuelling is trivial, especially with wood. $\endgroup$ – David Richerby Jul 4 '18 at 13:32
  • $\begingroup$ You have to compare rail against the alternatives. A rigid (steel) wheel on a rigid rail has advantages in that it has much less vibration than a rigid wheel on a dirt road, so it can go faster. (The limiting effect is called wheel hop) We eventually solved this problem with pneumatic tires, however they have high rolling resistance, consuming significant energy. Even if a rigid rail vehicle was horse powered, you'd win. (Ignore what you saw in those Western movies about stagecoaches, the average speed of a stagecoach was around 5 MPH) $\endgroup$ – user71659 Jul 5 '18 at 3:29
  • $\begingroup$ @DavidRicherby, the problem is not with the amount of energy to be gotten out out wood or coal etc. the problem is the refueling process. Tornado 60163 the newest Steam train built which featured in Top Gear and a couple of films, traveled form London to Edinburgh ~400 miles at no more than 70mph and needed to take on coal 4 times and water once. and each coal stop took half an hour and that was with industrial machinery to load it. but you also have to get the coal to the stations. its the practicality of those fuels without the infrastructure to support it that is the problem. $\endgroup$ – Blade Wraith Jul 5 '18 at 7:52
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    $\begingroup$ @BladeWraith Steam locomotives in the UK are currently restricted to 70mph; the Tornado design could do 100 for short stretches. When steam locomotives we’re in wide use, they would have carried two coal tenders and changed locomotives half-way to avoid lengthy fuelling breaks. The only reason fuelling Tornado took so long is that they had to do it in a yard, away from the station, and the specialist equipment no longer exists so they had to use a bucket loader. But, come on. Anyone who can build a steam locomotive can supply it with stuff to burn. That’s the easy part. $\endgroup$ – David Richerby Jul 5 '18 at 10:54
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Probably there is (or was) some centre of industrialisation somewhere. Mining was needed, and furnaces and presses and rollers to make the steel tracks. The track itself was laid for long-term operation on concrete sleepers on raised concrete ballast and the expansion joints are frequent to allow for an extreme seasonal change in temperature. The tracks themselves are not without maintenance, requiring grinding every so often and/or occasional replacement as they wear. Provided the tracks are reasonably straight speeds can exceed 120km/h but slows at bends and any irregularities. The steel rail of railway tracks and train weels are specific shapes to allow the train to run smoothly on top.

It would theoretically be possible to build a gunpowder internal combustion engine but, it would be rather complicated even compared to modern carburettor engines and would require advanced metals and metalworking skills. And, large stocks of gunpowder.

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If you have powerful locomotives, enterprising men within your universe will consider using the engines for other purposes. Milling grain, pumping water, digging holes, that sort of thing.

Linking a whole continent together also makes it economically feasible to make, say, a hundred million shoes per year in a factory, and expect to sell them.

So if you have the railway network, you are almost guaranteed to get the industrial era.

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  • $\begingroup$ This. Engine equals industrialization. $\endgroup$ – Jan Hudec Jul 4 '18 at 22:05
  • $\begingroup$ Catch 22 -- to alter (re-purpose) n existing locomotive, or to create a new engine, then I think you would need (or already have) industrial-era technology, materials and tools. $\endgroup$ – ChrisW Jul 5 '18 at 14:11
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I suppose that literally only building the tracks isn't too difficult in theory:

  • Prepare a flattish empty road (perhaps building embankments over wet ground)
  • A bed of gravel on the road
  • Horizontal wooden ties in the gravel
  • Metal rails pinned together to the ties

Some bits of it (e.g. bridges) are more difficult, but nothing the Romans couldn't manage (viz. the Pont du Gard or innumerable other aqueducts).

I think that these days they weld the the rails together (using thermite), but back in the day the rails just sat in metal brackets which were pinned to the ties.

Making the engines is far more difficult, as is even making iron and manufacturing the rails. But if someone else makes the rails and pins and brackets in advance, you could store them indefinitely.

In summary they could (have the technological ability to) maintain the tracks if not the engines, if provided with spare parts.

A fair bit of man-power though; and I haven't investigated how they're meant to keep the wood from rotting. Or concrete might do instead of wood, for the ties (concrete too is Roman-era technology).

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It's likely that the 25 to 40 ton stones used to build the Neolithic monument in Wiltshire, England were moved by rail from the quarry in Craig Rhos-y-felin, Wales around 4500 years ago. A wooden track could be laid in front of the stone and then taken up behind it and moved to the front. This method of laying track only under the train is still used at the Sandaoling coal mine in China. However 50mph would not be obtainable using this method. By fitting the track in a continuous loop around the wheels very high speeds can be achieved, some track laying vehicles such as tanks are capable of speeds of 70mph or more.

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The railway system along with trains is left by precursor civilisation

In present time people use the remnants of old technology without need to maintain it because of it's self-sufficient properties. After numerous attempts to reproduct it without needed knowledge far less advanced copies were made, though lasting conflicts over the pieces of old slowed down technological progress.

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cultral contamination from overseas colonists that have left due to some reasons.

This is similar to what the Spanish have left in Brazil in the late 18th century. The Spanish went to south America due to the abundant silver ore there. They brought mining facilities and rails to the continent, and silver mines were operating until the middle 18th century, when they were defeated by the British on the Atlantic ocean. The colonists abandoned south America until middle 19th century, where the older mining equipment have been abandoned there.

In your world, the primitive civilization may be on a continent similar to south America, where a specific, precious resource were found. The more technologically advanced civilization then set up mining colonies on the continent, and built the extensive rail system using parts shipped from overseas. However, when the market for said resource collapsed, the colony was no longer profitable, and as a result the colonists left the continent and left the rail system and equipment, possibly spare parts and construction material for more tracks, behind.

Due to the relatively low technology, akin to 19th century America, the tracks were designed for animal hauled wagons, and the wagons were made of primitive materials like wood, which is easily reproducible. The natives, quick were used for the mining, learned the maintainance manual of the rail system, possibly even the construction of the wagons that runs on the rails.

After the colonists have left, the remaining stash of rails and replacement parts would probably last for about a few hundred years, even more if the wagons were light enough, which could last well over 2000 years with maintenance.

The colonists would probably return some few decades later, though.

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