From TrainSpottingWorld, for Rail fans everywhere
- January 25 - The City Loop, Melbourne, opens Museum station and the Burnley and Caulfield tunnels.
- January 31 - Amtrak inaugurates the City of New Orleans passenger train service between Chicago and New Orleans, Louisiana.
- February 1 - Amtrak discontinues the Panama Limited passenger train service in favor of the City of New Orleans on the same route.
- April 2] - Amtrak inaugurates the Maple Leaf on a route connecting New York City, Albany, Buffalo and Toronto.
- April 26 - The Toronto, Hamilton and Buffalo Railway discontinues passenger train services.
- April - Auto-Train Corporation discontinues Auto-Train service.
- May 10 - Tyne and Wear Metro opens South Gosforth to Bank Foot via Fawdon.
- May - The Aberdeen Railway, in Scotland, closes between Brechin and Kinnaber Junction.
- June 30 - Last commuter train from Bethlehem Union Station to Philadelphia, PA operated by Conrail under contract with SEPTA, service from Quakertown to Lansdale continued until July, 26. All diesel trains on former Reading commuter lines were terminated in 1981 (Pottsville-Reading-Norristown, West Trenton-Newark) except the Fox Chase-Newtown line which continued until early 1983 which is also when SEPTA took over operation of Regional Rail electric commuter lines from Conrail. CR was initially forced to operate commuter services upon startup in April 1976, but petitioned to discontinue them by the 1980's, hence the state agencies taking over the services themselves by 1983. Rails are being lifted from Bucks/Lehigh County line just below Coopersburg north to Hellertown, about 7 miles, for a trail as of late 2008 after laying dormant since October, 1984 between north of Quakertown at Calif. Rd. and High St. in Hellertown just south of the former Saucon Yard. Crossings were paved over or removed between Calif. Rd. north of Quakertown and Water St. in Hellertown sometime in the 90's. The Saucon Yard was ripped up following Bethlehem Steel's closure, the mill closed 1995 and the coke works 1998. About a mile of single track was removed between Union Station and Iron Hill Yard through South Bethlehem around 2006. There is a proposal to restore commuter service between Shelly off Rt. 309, Quakertown and Lansdale within the next 5 years.
- July 19 - The San Diego Trolley (a new interurban light rail mass transit system) makes its inaugural run on the 15.9-mile long South Line between the U.S. International Border and Centre City San Diego.
- July 26 - The San Diego Trolley begins regular revenue service.
- August - The last passenger train is operated on the Northampton - Market Harborough branch line in England.
- September 1 - With the help of the Michigan National Guard as well as Grand Trunk Western and Chessie System railroads, Pere Marquette 1223 is moved to Grand Haven.
- September 15 - The Smithsonian Institution operates John Bull for the 150th anniversary of the locomotive's construction, making John Bull the oldest operable steam locomotive in the world.
- September 27 - SNCF inaugurates TGV service between Paris and Lyon.
- September 30 - Amtrak discontinues the Cardinal, Shenandoah, Black Hawk and Pacific International passenger train services.
- October 1 - Amtrak inaugurates the Capitol Limited connecting Chicago, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and Washington, D.C. via the Valpo Local line through Valparaiso, Indiana.
- October 2 - Amtrak renames the Inter-American passenger train service connecting Chicago, St. Louis, Missouri, Little Rock, Arkansas, Dallas and San Antonio, Texas as the Eagle.
- October 4 - Amtrak discontinues the Prairie Marksman passenger train service between Chicago and Peoria, Illinois.
- October 25 - Amtrak discontinues overnight service on the former Milwaukee Road's Pioneer Limited route.
- November 15 - Tyne and Wear Metro opens Haymarket to Heworth via Monument and Gateshead.
- December 6 - The City Loop, Melbourne, opens the City Circle tunnel.
- December 7 - British Rail's Advanced Passenger Train makes its first public demonstration run traveling from Glasgow Central station to Euston station in London.
- December 21 - The former Catasauqua and Fogelsville Railroad line east of Seiple, Pennsylvania, is abandoned by Conrail.
- December 31 - The Colorado and Southern Railway, Denver and New Orleans Railroad and Fort Worth and Denver Railway are merged into Burlington Northern Railroad.
- The Deltic locomotives are withdrawn from service in the United Kingdom.
- GWR 4900 Class 4936 Kinlet Hall is saved for preservation by the Kinlet Hall Locomotive Company and moved to Peak Rail at Matlock where restoration work begins.
- Union Pacific Railroad withdraws the last EMD DD35A from service.
- The last of New Zealand Railways' DF class of 1979 is built by General Motors Diesel Division of Canada.
- JR East inaugurates the Odoriko and Super View Odoriko service.
- Amtrak inaugurates the Desert Wind service connecting Los Angeles, California, and Ogden, Utah.
- VIA Rail discontinues the Atlantic service between Montreal, Quebec, and Halifax, Nova Scotia, via the International Railway of Maine and the Super Continental service between Montreal and Vancouver.
- The California State Railroad Museum completes construction of its Railroad History Museum.
- The last internal quarry line on the Leighton Buzzard Light Railway in England is abandoned.
- Wellington and Manawatu Railway locomotive number 9 is fully restored to operational condition on the Plains Vintage Railway in New Zealand.
- The Port Liner in Kobe, Japan, opens.
- Volunteers begin restoration work on Gamle Vossebanen's steam locomotive number 255 in Norway.
- The Paisley and Renfrew Railway discontinues all freight traffic on its line.
- The Bure Valley Railway discontinues hauling coal over its line.
- Canadian National Railway purchases Northern Alberta Railways from Canadian Pacific Railway.
- The Florida Gulf Coast Railroad Museum begins operations.
- The Mt. Rainier Scenic Railroad, in Washington, begins operations.
- The Illinois Railway Museum opens its 1.5 mile streetcar loop.
- The Londonderry and Lough Swilly Railway in Ireland is purchased by Patrick Doherty.
- Operations of the Tokyo Monorail is privatized and transferred from Japanese National Railways to the Tokyo Monorail Co., Ltd.
- Norges Statsbaner puts its new Di 4 class diesel-electric locomotives into regular service.
- 1981 E.H. Harriman Awards
|Group||Gold medal||Silver medal||Bronze medal|
- Awards presented by Railway Age magazine
- 1981 Railroader of the Year: Lawrence Cena (ATSF)