Assuming a world where there were no steam engines available, would it be possible for large passenger or cargo trains to exist?

Would it be possible to use horse-engines to power a locomotive?

If the railway planners knew that they had a more limited source of power and had to rely almost entirely on momentum to carry the trains across big distances, and therefore managed to engineer tracks which were extremely flat, even flatter than real tracks, would that help? Or is it really feasible that railroad tracks could get much flatter due to the difficulty of building bridges and blasting rocks? Small hills I'm sure could be moved or dug through, but maybe it just wouldn't be feasible?

If horse-engines couldn't do it, would there be another potential way? What if the train cars were specially built to be very light-- would there be a way to make them lighter than real train cars?

  • $\begingroup$ Related reading: worldbuilding.stackexchange.com/questions/117055/… $\endgroup$
    – Willk
    Aug 21, 2018 at 23:49
  • $\begingroup$ Thank you @Willik! Super prompt reply! That helps me think about a lot of the issues presented. I'm still curious about the mechanics of a horse-engine locomotive, because unlike the related post, I don't need these trains to travel nearly as fast nor do I need them to carry nearly as much. $\endgroup$ Aug 22, 2018 at 0:05
  • $\begingroup$ This is what you may be interested in: Wagonway $\endgroup$
    – Alexander
    Aug 22, 2018 at 0:20
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    $\begingroup$ There were also canals that served the same purpose, sometimes with a road alongside so horses could pull the boats. $\endgroup$
    – workerjoe
    Aug 22, 2018 at 0:39
  • $\begingroup$ @Alexander that is a good redirect as well-- though not quite what I was thinking of, as I am wondering about a vehicle largely powered by momentum. The idea in my mind is that if the horses were actually powering an engine via treads and were carried on the vehicle rather than in front of it, the vehicle could, in theory, surpass the speed of the horses. Then I don't know of course if such a vehicle could actually stay intact at higher speeds. I don't really have any idea what the weight or speed limit of wagons of that era would be. $\endgroup$ Aug 22, 2018 at 1:01

5 Answers 5


Rather that using horses to pull or run on a tread, I would suggest a large set of Handcarts. If you were to combine the handcart mechanism and throw several of them into large carts, you could potentially power a passenger train or cargo train. Just make sure to cycle through people as they get tired so you can maintain a set speed. Your biggest issue will be building up speed, but once you reach a set speed, you just need to keep overcoming the friction force of the train on the rails (and any gravity effects, e.g. a slope)

To start a train off, you could use an extremely large push cart that is powered by a large stone or weight which can be lifted up by a pulley system. This gets the train up to speed before your man powered handcarts take over, and the starter cart is hauled back to the station for the next train.

Better yet, you could have the see-saw mechanism, large enough to have people jumping up and down on them which should help compared to using your arms (legs are much stronger than arms). If you could have multiple people lined up, it should be able to provide a pretty large amount of power, but of course the start up will still be slow.

You could also do small things like build stations on a small hill. They get pulled up manually, using pulleys and man power, or water power, or horse power and then they get pushed off to build up speed.

Another interesting concept would to put sails onto the train and have a land boat. You might have some problems if the wind is blowing the wrong direction but it could definitely get you going and travelling over long distances or along a coastal path or mountain range where the wind direction is usually only going one direction.

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    $\begingroup$ I’m sure a mechanical interlink could be designed to allow for banks of ‘rowers’. Why bother with the up/down motion of a two person handcart when there’s an entire industry of back/forth trained men already available? $\endgroup$
    – Joe Bloggs
    Aug 22, 2018 at 5:59

The way most ancient/pre-modern peoples moved large numbers of people and goods across long distances was by water. Sail around the coast, or along a river, or build a system of canals. Once your boat is floating, it's much less effort to move it than it would be to drag the equivalent weight across land. So in order for a locomotive to be necessary, some conditions would need to be met:

  • The route isn't secure/profitable enough to warrant investment in a canal, but a railway is cheap enough to make it worthwhile.

  • There is no suitable waterway, nor can one be engineered. Since your civilization clearly has engineering skill, this implies terrain where a locomotive is possible but a canal is not.

  • (Note that one obvious advantage of railways - point-to-point speed - is kind of ruled out by the lack of an engine.)

These points both imply traveling either short distances across land that can't be served by canals for political or economic reasons, or long distances across some kind of desert or tundra where water is scarce or frozen. Such an environment is naturally not great for large numbers of draught animals (so a horse-powered train may be problematic). In either case the land has to be relatively flat.

All of this is to say, there's a reason actual humans didn't invent such a system. Any answer is going to be at least slightly contrived. What options are left?

  • A network of winding stations, powered by windmills. Like a ground-based cable car, you have to unhook from the previous cable and attach to the next as you move along the track.

  • Something in your fantasy world permits you to create a very low-friction track. An abundance of naturally-occurring ball-bearings, or high-stength magnets, some way to keep the track frozen like a luge run, or maybe it rains oil.

  • Some kind of animal exists that can easily pull your train. A team of mammoths. A pack of super-strength camels.

  • Sail power, assuming the direction of the wind is somehow controllable (otherwise you need to tack, which rules out any kind of railway).


there is a new genre in the line of steampunk, called Clock punk. Although simple to us with the technology we have now, clock works were actually quite cutting edge for their time frame. in the 1600's Japan was given a dutch clock which someone dissected (or at least studied within an inch of it's life) and they created a clockwork doll. Once a tea cup was placed on the tray the doll held, the doll moved, once the weight was removed it went back to it's starting position. I'm quite fascinated by this concept myself and trying to figure out how to use it myself. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clockwork and here https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Karakuri_puppet. and also https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Automaton. I'm having trouble finding a link but more recently a man in Japan began using a similar process to the Japanese clockwork doll. He has trolleys in his factory that move pieces from one conveyor belt to another via a similar weight distribution process to conserve energy output. and let us not forget all the marvelous inventions of Leonardo DiVinci, whom I recently discovered had an idea for a steam powered engine. I also direct you to look for his clockwork automata. And dare I forget? he also had drawn plans for a clockwork driven cart, the original horseless carriage. Also, as to the horsepower of horse drawn vehicles, many a large city were still using horse drawn trolley's as late as the early 1900's. however, if you intend to use horses rather than say dinosaurs, then you would only be able to use a certain weight per number of animals you intend to use, unless, like someone else suggested you have hamster wheel like things in which the horses walked there by turning the wheels of the much larger train. Like they also suggested however, you would have to change out the animals to give them a break unless you want to be really cruel and just dump the dead horses off the train after they'd exhausted themselves. Either way, you would still have to have replacements.


There are many types of engines that could power a train. You are ruling out steam. The era rules out more modern engines like internal combustion and electric. However, a Stirling engine would be a era appropriate technology. It uses differences in temperature to produce motion. People have even built Stirling engine trains before.


Horse drawn carts and railways were used in mines as far back as the 1500's so you actually are not proposing anything new. The primary reason for adopting the horse drawn railways was for use in mines to pull carts which were far heavier than could be moved by manpower alone, and the use of rails reduced rolling friction and made moving heavy carts possible.

A horse drawn railroad might even be a logical development. A mine could use the railway to extract ore from the mine head and out to the surface, and then continue the track so teams of horses draw the wagons to a nearby town which produces charcoal (the primary fuel for metallurgy until the development of the coking process) for smelting and manufacturing. From there it isn't much of a stretch to imagine extending the lines further to the coast or river for access to shipping, and to other towns without access to rivers to extend the market.

These railways will not be anywhere near as fast or efficient as steam railways, and the primary limitation will be the number of horses available. This in turn is limited to the amount of fodder or grazing available, so a large part of running the railway is multiple stations along the way to unhitch teams and replace them with fresh teams, and stockpiles of fodder and water to feed the teams. Space for stabling and of course blacksmiths, harness makers and other people to attend the horses will also be critical.

Because of this great expense, horse drawn railways will be limited in location and size, and likely only be built where very high demand for transport exists.


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