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This paper investigates the multi-layered evolution of planning ideas informing early railway construction. It shows how railways, by affecting the territory at large, engendered quite unprecedented regional and urban planning problems, as well as landscape architectural problems, at a time when the corresponding disciplines were far from established. Hence, knowledge was being built up in reaction to contemporary practice and was then transposed into guidelines meant to inform further practice. In the light of several railway, architectural, and urban planning treatises of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries, from the British, French, German, Belgian and American contexts, the paper highlights the emergence of an increasing awareness that railway planning and design could not be dealt with in terms of pure transportation problems, but that mobility infrastructure engendered a multitude of spatial 'side-effects' at all scales. This process is illustrated by the way in which 'internal' design concerns, as present in the early railway treatises of the mid-nineteenth century, are gradually complemented by 'contextual' concerns to railway design within the growing theoretical corpus of urban and regional planning literature around and after 1900.