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What is a Marine Railway?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 17, 2024
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A marine railway is a set of tracks which are used with a cradle to bring ships up out of the water. There are a number of uses for marine railways, and they can be found at sites like ship and boatyards, portages, locks, and some private properties. There are a number of ways in which a marine railway can be designed and may operate, and some facilities have attained historic status, having been in operation continuously for a very long time.

It can be necessary to move boats in and out of the water for a variety of reasons. A launch is one of the most well known, with boats being ceremoniously lowered into the water when they are completed. Boats also sometimes need to be hauled out of the water for storage or repairs. Marine railways can also be used to move boats over locks and portages. Casual boaters who live on the water may use a marine railway to move their boats in and out of dry storage.

The marine railway consists of a set of tracks or poles upon which a cradle is mounted. In the water, a ship is allowed to settle into the cradle, and then winches are operated to pull the cradle up out of the water along the tracks. Marine railways can operate under electric power, steam power, or even the power of working animals, depending on where they are located. In a location like a ship yard, the tracks may split on dry land to allow people to route boats to various locations in the yard for storage and repairs.

Marine railway systems, like other ship lifts, usually have a maximum weight rating. Boats which are too heavy cannot be moved on the marine railway because they may damage the tracks or the cradle. The system designers usually try to anticipate needs, assuming that ship and boat traffic is likely to grow in the area, in which case it makes sense to design a robust system which exceeds the current needs.

Seeing a marine railway in operation can be very interesting. Shipyards usually announce launches, allowing members of the public to celebrate the launch of a new ship, and they may also notify the public when ships or boats of particular interest will be moving through the shipyard. People who live near a shipyard are in an ideal position to see the marine railway in operation whenever it is needed.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGeek researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By hanley79 — On Jun 18, 2011

Does anybody else imagine an underground tunnel going beneath the ocean from continent to continent with a regular train inside of it? That's the mental image that I get when I hear or read the words "marine railway". Thanks to WiseGEEK I now know what the term actually means.

I think it's impressive that these things have been around so long that the first ones were powered by animals pulling on the pulley ropes, and then by steam power before finally getting to where they are today.

Animal power is pretty basic -- the Ancient Egyptians could have easily had marine railways.

By Malka — On Jun 15, 2011

@seHiro - Bravo, you brought up a point I was just about to mention! Marine railways aren't just used to launch a boat or lift it out of the water for repairs.

As the Big Chute Marine Railway you mentioned demonstrates partiularly well, sometimes marine railways are used as a way to transport boats out of one body of water and into a new one.

The railways just move the boats along in their cradles like train cars until they reach another spot where they can be lowered into the water, and they continue on from there. Pretty neat!

I'd imagine that some marine railways are used for moving boats in and out of the water as a part of regular sea to land to sea traffic as their regular function. Lifting boats out of the water for repairs and decommissioning or lowering boats into the water after repairs and for launches are probably the rarer function for the marine railway system.

By seHiro — On Jun 12, 2011

@malmal - Wow, I'll bet you would need a giant marine railway to fit a yacht inside! You're really lucky to be able to live so close to a shipyard; I wish I could just head over and watch if I wanted to see one of these neat boat-moving tools in operation firsthand.

I'd love to see a marine railway like the Big Chute Marine Railway in Ontario, Canada in action. From the pictures I've looked at online, it resembles a really giant elevator that can hold a ship up to 60 feet tall, and it's set on a track that slants down into the water.

The Big Chute Marine Railway originally could only move boats about half that size; they replaced the chute lift on it in 1923 to the current one that holds 60-foot boats so that large commercial ships could use the lift to travel through the area.

By malmal — On Jun 11, 2011

Dude, they let you go watch ships getting launched using the marine railways at the shipyards? There's a shipyard in my town that makes giant luxury yachts -- I should go see if I can watch them put one of those babies in the water!

Oh, I had a question about the article. According to WiseGEEK here, marine railways are also available for private use. I'm curious where you would go to find a marine railway for sale. Do you just have to wait until one is offered used from a shipyard if you want to own one privately?

It seems like the railway from a shipyard would be way bigger than you would need for a private boat (but then again, I'm thinking of those awesome huge ones down at the yacht yard, so I could be biased). Are there marine railway stores you can visit where you can look at them? I kind of want one now.

By SkittisH — On Jun 08, 2011

I wonder who makes these things? Marine railway design seems very interesting -- almost science fiction like, with how it involves lifting such large objects so carefully in and out of the water. I wonder who invented marine railways?

I think it's awesome that they announce when they will be launching a new ship using a marine railway -- seeing one in action would be fascinating, and might give me a better understanding of how they operate. maybe I can find a video of this kind of thing online if I dig around in the various search engines.

It seems kind of rare to know what one is, though -- I mean, I didn't know what a marine railway was until I read about it here on WiseGEEK, so maybe the average person doesn't know either.

I like to draw, and to understand the small workings of machine parts, so I'm particularly interested in learning how exactly the mechanisms in marine railways work together to lift and move a boat. I wonder if there are any CAD drawings of marine railways available anywhere to look at?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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