I had this thought when I was on my way into the city the other day. I don't have a licence, so whenever I want to go into the city I have to use the train, which takes something like 25 minutes to travel the 18.4km (according to Hyperdia) into the city. This, however, isn't much of a change from the half an hour it takes to drive the 18 or so km (according to Google maps) into the city via the roads. This, for some reason, made me think:

If, for some reason, people had to walk from my town into the city, and they could only either walk along the roads or the train tracks, which one would be more efficient?

So, what would the benefits (if there are any) to following the train tracks apposed to walking along the roads into the city be? Would it be more time efficient? Would it be better to use the train tracks to transport things if the people could rig some kind of man-powered cart as apposed to one used via the roads? Could following the train tracks be easier if the roads were particularly hilly, maybe?

Also, let's assume that there are no cars or trains (or other obstacles) blocking the routes (and no vehicles of any kind will suddenly come along to flatten the walkers, either), and that vehicles that use anything other than man power of some sort are unable to be used (so things like bicycles and carts are fine).

For Reference

Distance by train: 18.4km

Time taken by train: 24 minutes

Distance by road: 17-18km

Time taken by road (by car): 26-28 minutes in good traffic

(Don't know if this is important but will mention it anyway) The train tracks go through three tunnels, the longest of which takes something like 30-40 seconds to pass through.

I hope this is enough information. Thank you for any comments, suggestions, or answers!

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    $\begingroup$ I don't see a relation to worldbuilding in this question; it's more a discussion on the most efficient way for you to get to town, a very real problem in a very real Earth. $\endgroup$ – Frostfyre Nov 9 '16 at 19:24
  • $\begingroup$ @Frostfyre This is something I thought of and thought I might use in the future, in a fictional setting. Even if it is based on something in the real world I figured it still counts as worldbuilding, just as other questions based around forms of transportation and how they work/how they could be made, etc., are. $\endgroup$ – s.anne.w Nov 9 '16 at 23:06

This really should be a comment, but since you can't make paragraphs in comments...

First, we need more background. What is the condition of the railway bed? Does it still have tracks and ties, or have they been torn up and the bed perhaps smoothed? It's pretty hard to walk on a railway, since the ties are not spaced at most people's stride length. At the other extreme, abandoned railway beds make good walking & biking trails. See e.g. http://www.railstotrails.org/

Second, what sort of terrain do you have? Barring for instance Swiss cog railways and the like, the max grade is usually about 2.2% (per Google), and in hilly country the route will take long detours to maintain this grade. Highway grades tend to max out around 6-7% in the US. Smaller road may be steeper, up to 18% or more in places like Switzerland & Yorkshire. (Not a lot of fun when you're biking up them, and embarassing when Swiss grannies doing their grocery shopping pass you on the climbs.) So on foot it may be much more efficient to take the shorter hilly road instead of the longer railway. But if you're on a bike, the opposite might be true.

If you have tracks, and access to something like a handcart, then it's virtually always going to be more efficient to go by rail, because steel wheels on steel rails have very low friction.

  • $\begingroup$ "If you have tracks, and access to something like a handcart..." until an actual train comes by at 5-10x your speed, and runs you over... – EDIT – sorry, just realised the OP counted that out. But I still don't see why it's shown from time to time in movies when a train might be expected, it always struck me as really dangerous. $\endgroup$ – Dan W Feb 20 '19 at 20:58

Train tracks tend to ignore convenient things like restaurants, gas stations, and other places where pedestrians could stop, rest, and eat. Even if they parallel roads there could be fences in the way. They may also use bridges that are not optimized for pedestrian safety (even if no train comes). They also tend to go through industrial zones where personal safety is at risk, if there are malcontents roaming around. Finally, most folks don't actually know how the train tracks run, so without a map they may take a fork away from where they wanted to go. So lots of reasons for folks to walk along the route they would drive, especially if no vehicles are running.

Railroads are usually gravel surfaces with lots of weeds and debris, so if you were going to jog or push a cart it would be more difficult than a road surface. For hiking you may be ok on a rail bed but I think walking on a road surface would still be easier.

Some benefits though. You will probably have less foot traffic to contend with. The railway may bypass checkpoints set up to monitor/stop said foot traffic. Rail lines may offer good visibility up and down the track (geography dependent) so you can see others from far enough away to escape if necessary. Of course they may also cut through woods or hills that allow for an ambush. Roads can share the same issues.


Train tracks are likely to be more direct. They will take a relatively direct route from useful location outside a city to inside a city, often going very close to the city center (if passenger train). Due to the specialized nature of train tracks, they are more difficult to walk on then compared to a road. In my experience trying to use a bike on train tracks can be futile, but could vary depending on local construction and standards.
Cycling on open, unblocked roads is more likely to get you to your destination faster then any other method if you have light or no cargo. An industrial rail hand car is a man powered rail vehicle which could be used to move cargo using only man power. Historically they weren't used to travel long distance but necessity could change that.
Comparing a road bicycle and a rail hand car would boil down to cargo load and user fitness.


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