The largest rail networks in the world are true marvels of engineering and ingenuity. Connecting cities, countries, and even continents, they have fostered trade, facilitated travel, and redefined the human experience. On this journey, where the last stop is the world’s largest railway network, we’ll encounter the astonishing facts and mind-boggling numbers that underscore their enormity.
The world’s intricate networks of steel rails stretch out for millions of kilometres over, under and through every possible terrain. The largest train networks – encompassing high-tech metro systems, extensive freight and passenger lines, and epic transcontinental travel harking back to the romantic days of steam – touch every corner of our planet. They connect people, cultures, and economies in an astonishingly complex and carefully orchestrated symphony of movement.
The size of the biggest rail network in the world can be measured in a number of ways, including tonne-kilometres (tkm) – the unit of measurement used in transportation to represent the movement of one tonne of cargo over one kilometre – and passenger-kilometres (pkm), the metric used to represent the travel of one passenger over a distance of one kilometre.
In this article, we’re going to use the length of track in kilometres. It includes urban and suburban mass transportation systems as well as lines specifically used for the transportation of cargo.
United Kingdom | Approx. 16,200 km
The UK’s National Rail network carries around 1.8 billion passengers and over 100 million tonnes of freight every year. While it isn’t the world’s largest railway system, it is the oldest national rail network in the world. The first steam-powered passenger trains on the Stockton & Darlington Railway connected collieries in the north-east in 1825. The world’s first intercity rail line opened just five years later, connecting Manchester to Liverpool.
Japan | Approx. 30,600 km
By passenger numbers, Japan has the largest railway network in the world with over 20 billion passenger journeys recorded in its record year, almost exactly three times that of India, the world’s most populous country. Almost the entire system is for passenger services and the privatised network is one of the most efficient transport systems in the world, indeed if trains are delayed for over an hour, it will often make headline news. Japan is also home to Shinjuku, the world’s busiest train station servicing around 3.5 million passengers every day.
Germany | Approx. 33,400 km
Germany’s first railway was the Bavarian Ludwig Railway which opened in 1835 between Fürth and Nuremberg. The first intercity line was between Dresden and Leipzig, which opened in 1839. Today, the network carries around 2.8 billion passengers and almost 300 million tonnes of freight every year. One of the largest rail networks in the world, it has links into Denmark, Austria, the Benelux countries and the Czech Republic. The national railway company, Deutsche Bahn, employs almost 325,000 people.
Russia | Approx. 85,000 km
Russia has one of the largest rail networks in the world carrying approximately 1.2 billion tonnes of freight and a similar number of passengers every year. Coal, coke and ferrous metals account for almost 40% of all freight traffic and the average haul distances across the largest country on the planet are between 1,500 and 1,900 kilometres. The state-owned Russian Railways employs almost 800,000 people and it has rail links with a number of adjacent countries including Finland, Poland, China, North Korea and Mongolia.
India | Approx. 128,400 km
India has one of the world’s largest train networks. It plays a crucial role in the country’s economy and in the daily life of its citizens. India’s first train ran from Red Hills to Chintadripet in Chennai in 1836. Today, the network carries around 1.4 billion tonnes of freight, and services 8.4 billion passenger journeys. Indian Railways, operating under the Ministry of Railways, was the tenth-largest employer in the world in 2022 with a staff list running to almost 1.4 million employees.
China | Approx. 155,000 km
China has the second-biggest rail network in the world, as well as the world’s longest high-speed rail network, with over 42,000 kilometres of track. The first commercial railway was a 14.9 kilometre track linking Shanghai to Woosung which opened in 1876. Today, the network transports around 3.7 billion passengers and 4.4 billion tonnes of freight around the country.
China is also home to the world’s longest road and rail bridge, the 164.8 kilometre Danyang-Kunshan Grand Bridge, and the network has just over 16,000 tunnels and 5,500 stations.
USA | Approx. 260,000 km
The largest train network in the world is in the United States, with over a quarter of a million kilometres of track. Roughly 80% of the rail network is used for freight, carrying over 1.7 billion tonnes of cargo around the country.
Approximately 35,000 kilometres of track are for passenger trains. In 2019, Amtrak, the national passenger rail company, carried just 32.5 million long-distance passengers and a little over 500 million commuters travelled using the country’s mass transit systems.
The combination of cheap internal air travel and the massive proliferation of car ownership means the USA has similar passenger numbers to that of Switzerland, which has just 5,300 kilometres of railway track.
Connecting the Globe
The vast railway networks spanning across continents are not just physical infrastructures, but also represent innovation and the continued quest for connection. From the United States’ sprawling railways serving as freight arteries, to China’s vast high-speed network, India’s vital lifelines connecting millions daily, and the expansive German and Japanese systems, railways are a testament to ingenuity and the desire to conquer distance.
While the modern era may witness the potentially innovative transportation technologies – such as Hyperloop and autonomous vehicles – the scale, significance, and impact of the world’s largest rail networks remain undiminished. They continue to act as vital cogs in the machinery of global economies, enhancing trade, supporting tourism, and fostering cultural exchange.
As the world continues to grow and evolve, these rail networks will surely adapt to the changing times, carrying with them the stories of the past, while paving the way for future generations.