|History of rail transport in the United States - from
to oceanic or river ports, and the absence of an interconnected
network was a major handicap during the Civil War. The North and Midwest
constructed networks that linked every city by 1860. In the heavily settled
Midwestern Corn Belt, over 80 percent of farms were within 5 miles (8 km)
of a railway, facilitating the shipment of grain, hogs, and cattle to national
and international markets. A large number of short lines were built, but
thanks to a fast developing financial system based on Wall Street and oriented
to railway bonds, the majority were consolidated into 20 trunk lines by
1890. State and local governments often subsidized lines, but rarely owned
|Wooden railroads, called wagonways were built in Unites
States starting from 1720s. A railroad was reportedly used in the construction
of the French fortress at Louisburg, Nova Scotia in 1720. Between 1762
and 1764, at the close of the French and Indian War, a gravity railroad
(mechanized tramway) (Montresor's Tramway) is built by British military
engineers up the steep riverside terrain near the Niagara River waterfall's
escarpment at the Niagara Portage (which the local Senecas called "Crawl
on All Fours.") in Lewiston, New York.
Railroads played a large role in the development of the
United States from the industrial revolution in the North-east (1810–1850)
to the settlement of the West (1850–1890). The American railroad mania
began with the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad in 1828 and flourished until
the Panic of 1873 bankrupted many companies and temporarily ended growth.
Although the South started early to build railways, it
concentrated on short lines linking cotton regions
The First Transcontinental Railroad
was completed in 1869.
The system was largely built by 1910, but then trucks
arrived to eat away the freight traffic, and automobiles (and later airplanes)
to devour the passenger traffic. After 1940, the use of diesel electric
locomotives made for much more efficient operations that needed fewer workers
on the road and in repair shops.
A series of bankruptcies and consolidations left the rail
system in the hands of a few large operations by the 1980s. Almost all
long-distance passenger traffic was shifted to Amtrak in 1971, a government-owned
operation. Commuter rail service is provided near a few major cities such
as New York, Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and the District
of Columbia. Computerization and improved equipment steadily reduced employment,
which peaked at 2.1 million in 1920, falling to 1.2 million in 1950 and
215,000 in 2010. Route mileage peaked at 254,251 miles (409,177 km) in
1916 and fell to 139,679 miles (224,792 km) in 2011.
Freight railroads continue to play an important role in
the United States' economy, especially for moving imports and exports using
containers, and for shipments of coal and, since 2010, of oil. According
to the British news magazine The Economist, "They are universally recognized
in the industry as the best in the world." Productivity rose 172% between
1981 and 2000, while rates rose 55% (after accounting for inflation). Rail's
share of the American freight market rose to 43%, the highest for any rich
Early period (1720–1825)
The animal powered Leiper Railroad followed in 1810 after
the preceding successful experiment — designed and built by merchant Thomas
Leiper, the railway connects Crum Creek to Ridley Creek, in Delaware County,
Pennsylvania. It was used until 1829, when it was temporarily replaced
by the Leiper Canal, then is reopened to replace the canal in 1852. This
became the Crum Creek Branch of the Baltimore and Philadelphia Railroad
(part of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad) in 1887. This is the first railroad
meant to be permanent, and the first to evolve into trackage of a common
carrier after an intervening closure.
In 1826 Massachusetts incorporated the Granite Railway
as a common freight carrier to primarily haul granite for the construction
of the Bunker Hill Monument; operations began later that year.
Other railroads authorized by states in 1826 and constructed
in the following years included the Delaware and Hudson Canal Company's
gravity railroad; and the Mohawk and Hudson Railroad, to carry freight
and passengers around a bend in the Erie Canal. To link the port of Baltimore
to the Ohio River, the state of Maryland in 1827 chartered the Baltimore
and Ohio Railroad (B&O), the first section of which opened in 1830.
Similarly, the South Carolina Canal and Railroad Company was chartered
in 1827 to connect Charleston to the Savannah River, and Pennsylvania built
the Main Line of Public Works between Philadelphia and the Ohio River.
The Americans closely followed and copied British railroad
technology. The Baltimore and Ohio Railroad was the first common carrier
and started passenger train service in May 1830, initially using horses
to pull train cars.:90 The South Carolina Canal and Rail Road Company
was the first to use steam locomotives regularly beginning with the Best
Friend of Charleston, the first American-built locomotive intended for
revenue service, in December 1830.
The B&O started developing steam locomotives in 1829
with Peter Cooper's Tom Thumb. This was the first American-built locomotive
to run in the U.S., although it was intended as a demonstration of the
potential of steam traction rather than as a revenue-earning locomotive.:96
Many of the earliest locomotives for American railroads were imported from
England, including the Stourbridge Lion and the John Bull, but a domestic
locomotive manufacturing industry was quickly established, with locomotives
like the DeWitt Clinton being built in the 1830s. The B&O's westward
route reached the Ohio River in 1852, the first eastern seaboard railroad
to do so.
By 1850, 9,000 miles (14,000 km) of railroad lines had
been built. The federal government operated a land grant system between
1855 and 1871, through which new railway companies in the uninhabited West
were given millions of acres they could sell or pledge to bondholders.
A total of 129 million acres (520,000 km2) were granted to the railroads
before the program ended, supplemented by a further 51 million acres (210,000
km2) granted by the states, and by various government subsidies. This program
enabled the opening of numerous western lines, especially the Union Pacific-Central
Pacific with fast service from San Francisco to Omaha and east to Chicago.
West of Chicago, many cities grew up as rail centers, with repair shops
and a base of technically literate workers.
Railroads soon replaced many canals and turnpikes and
by the 1870s had significantly displaced steamboats as well. The railroads
were superior to these alternative modes of transportation, particularly
water routes because they lowered costs in two ways. Canals and rivers
were unavailable in the winter season due to freezing, but the railroads
ran year-round despite poor weather. And railroads were safer: the likelihood
of a train crash was less than the likelihood of a boat sinking. The railroads
provided cost-effective transportation because they allowed shippers to
have a smaller inventory of goods, which reduced storage costs during winter,
and to avoid insurance costs from the risk of losing goods during transit.
Likewise, railroads changed the style of transportation.
For the common person in the early 1800s, transportation was often travel
by horse or stage coach. The network of trails along which coaches navigated
were riddled with ditches, potholes, and stones. This made travel fairly
uncomfortable. Adding to injury, coaches were cramped with little leg room.
Travel by train offered a new style. Locomotives proved themselves a smooth,
headache free ride with plenty of room to move around. Some passenger trains
offered meals in the spacious dining car followed by a good night sleep
in the private sleeping quarters. Railroad companies in the North and Midwest
constructed networks that linked nearly every major city by 1860. In the
heavily settled Corn Belt (from Ohio to Iowa), over 80 percent of farms
were within 5 miles (8.0 km) of a railway. A large number of short lines
were built, but thanks to a fast developing financial system based on Wall
Street and oriented to railway securities, the majority were consolidated
into 20 trunk lines by 1890. Most of these railroads made money and ones
that didn't were soon bought up and incorporated in a larger system or
"rationalized". Although the transcontinental railroads dominated the media,
with the completion of the First Transcontinental Railroad in 1869 dramatically
symbolizing the nation’s unification after the divisiveness of the Civil
War, most construction actually took place in the industrial Northeast
and agricultural Midwest, and was designed to minimize shipping times and
costs. The railroads in the South were repaired and expanded and then,
after a lot of preparation, changed from a 5-foot gauge to standard gauge
of 4 foot 8 ½ inches in two days in May 1886.
With its extensive river system the United States supported
a large array of horse-drawn or mule-drawn barges on canals and paddle
wheel steamboats on rivers that competed with railroads after 1815 until
the 1870s. The canals and steamboats lost out because of the dramatic increases
in efficiency and speed of the railroads, which could go almost anywhere
year round. The railroads were faster and went to many places a canal would
be impractical or too expensive to build or a natural river never went.
Railroads also had better scheduling since they often could go year round,
more or less ignoring the weather. Canals and river traffic were cheaper
if you lived on or near a canal or river that wasn't frozen over part of
the year; but only a few did. Long distance transport of goods by wagon
to a canal or river was slow and expensive. A railroad to a city made it
an inland "port" that often prospered or turned a town into a city.
Civil War and Reconstruction (1861–1877)
control of the Confederate military.
|Rail was strategic during the American Civil War, and
the Union used its much larger system much more effectively. Practically
all the mills and factories supplying rails and equipment were in the North,
and the Union blockade kept the South from getting new equipment or spare
parts. The war was fought in the South, and Union raiders (and sometimes
Confederates too) systematically destroyed bridges and rolling stock —
and sometimes bent rails — to hinder the logistics of the enemy.
In the South, most railroads in 1860 were local affairs
connecting cotton regions with the nearest waterway. Most transport was
by boat, not rail, and after the Union blockaded the ports in 1861 and
seized the key rivers in 1862, long-distance travel was difficult. The
outbreak of war had a depressing effect on the economic fortunes of the
railroad companies, for the hoarding of the cotton crop in an attempt to
force European intervention left railroads bereft of their main source
of income. Many had to lay off employees, and in particular, let go skilled
technicians and engineers. For the early years of the war, the Confederate
government had a hands-off approach to the railroads. Only in mid-1863
did the Confederate government initiate an overall policy, and it was confined
solely to aiding the war effort. With the legislation of impressment the
same year, railroads and their rolling stock came under the de facto
A mortar mounted on a railroad
car used during the Civil War, 1865.
Conditions deteriorated rapidly in the Confederacy, as
there was no new equipment and raids on both sides systematically destroyed
key bridges, as well as locomotives and freight cars. Spare parts were
cannibalized; feeder lines were torn up to get replacement rails for trunk
lines, and the heavy use of rolling stock wore them out. In 1864-65 the
Confederate railroad network collapsed; little traffic moved in 1865.
The Panic of 1873 was a major global economic depression
which ended rapid rail expansion in the United States. Many lines went
bankrupt or were barely able to pay the interest on their bonds, and workers
were laid off on a mass scale, with those still employed subject to large
cuts in wages. This worsening situation for railroad workers led to strikes
against many railroads, culminating in the Great Railroad Strike of 1877.
Ceremony for the completion of the
First Transcontinental Railroad,
|The Southern states had blocked westward rail expansion
before 1860, but after secession the Pacific Railway Acts were passed in
1862, allowing the first transcontinental railroad to be completed in 1869,
making possible a six-day trip from New York to San Francisco. Other transcontinentals
were built in the South (Southern Pacific, Santa Fe) and along the Canada–US
border (Northern Pacific, Great Northern), accelerating the settlement
of the West by offering inexpensive farms and ranches on credit, carrying
pioneers and supplies westward, and cattle, wheat and minerals eastward.
During the Reconstruction era, Northern money financed
the rebuilding and dramatic expansion of railroads throughout the South;
they were modernized in terms of track gauge, equipment and standards of
service. The Southern network expanded from 11,000 miles (17,700 km) in
1870 to 29,000 miles (46,700 km) in 1890. The lines were owned and directed
overwhelmingly by Northerners. Railroads helped create a mechanically skilled
group of craftsmen and broke the isolation of much of the region. Passengers
were few, however, and apart from hauling the cotton crop when it was harvested,
there was little freight traffic.
Strikers in Baltimore confronting the
Maryland National Guard, July 1877.
The Great Strike began on July 14 in Martinsburg, West
Virginia, in response to the cutting of wages for the second time in a
year by the B&O Railroad. The strike, and related violence, spread
to Cumberland, Maryland, Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Buffalo, Philadelphia,
Chicago and the Midwest. The strike lasted for 45 days, and ended only
with the intervention of local and state militias, and federal troops.
Labor unrest continued into the 1880s, such as the Great Southwest Railroad
Strike of 1886, which involved over 200,000 workers.
Expansion and consolidation (1878–1916)
Railway and the Southern Pacific Transportation Company spanned
several states. In response to monopolistic practices and other excesses
of some railroads and their owners, Congress passed the Interstate Commerce
Act and created the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) in 1887. The ICC
indirectly controlled the business activities of the railroads through
issuance of extensive regulations.
1879 cartoon depicting
William Henry Vanderbilt
as "The Modern Colossus
of (Rail) Roads."
|By 1880 the nation had 17,800 freight locomotives carrying
23,600 tons of freight, and 22,200 passenger locomotives. The U.S. railroad
industry was the nation's largest employer outside of the agricultural
sector. The effects of the American railways on rapid industrial growth
were many, including the opening of hundreds of millions of acres of very
good farm land ready for mechanization, lower costs for food and all goods,
a huge national sales market, the creation of a culture of engineering
excellence, and the creation of the modern system of management.
New York financier J.P. Morgan played an increasingly
dominant role in consolidating the rail system in the late 19th century.
He orchestrated reorganizations and consolidations in all parts of the
United States. Morgan raised large sums in Europe, but instead of only
handling the funds, he helped the railroads reorganize and achieve greater
efficiencies. He fought against the speculators interested in speculative
profits, and built a vision of an integrated transportation system. In
1885, he reorganized the New York, West Shore & Buffalo Railroad, leasing
it to the New York Central. In 1886, he reorganized the Philadelphia &
Reading, and in 1888 the Chesapeake & Ohio. He was heavily involved
with railroad tycoon James J. Hill and the Great Northern Railway.
Industrialists such as Morgan, Cornelius Vanderbilt and
Jay Gould became wealthy through railroad ownerships, as large railroad
companies such as the Grand Trunk
Morgan set up conferences in 1889 and 1890 that brought
together railroad presidents in order to help the industry follow the new
laws and write agreements for the maintenance of "public, reasonable, uniform
and stable rates." The conferences were the first of their kind, and by
creating a community of interest among competing lines paved the way for
the great consolidations of the early 20th century. Congress responded
by enacting antitrust legislation to prohibit monopolies of railroads (and
other industries), beginning with the Sherman Antitrust Act in 1890.
The Panic of 1893 was the largest economic depression
in U.S. history at that time. It was the result of railroad overbuilding
and shaky railroad financing, which set off a series of bank failures.
One-quarter of U.S. railroads had failed by mid-1894, representing over
40,000 miles (64,000 km). The failed lines included the Northern Pacific
Railway, the Union Pacific Railroad and the Atchison, Topeka & Santa
Fe Railroad. Acquisitions of the bankrupt companies led to further consolidation
of ownership. As of 1906, two-thirds of the rail mileage in the U.S. was
controlled by seven entities, with the New York Central, Pennsylvania Railroad
(PRR), and Morgan having the largest portions.
were widely considered at that time not to be significant
competitors. (Later in the 20th century, with different economic conditions
and changes in the law, UP successfully acquired the SP. See Resurgence
of freight railroads.)
James J. Hill
|James J. Hill joined forces with Morgan and others to
gain control of the Northern Pacific. Hill formed the Northern Securities
Company to consolidate the operations of the Northern Pacific with Hill's
own Great Northern, but President Theodore Roosevelt, a trust-buster, strongly
disapproved and took it to court. In 1904 the federal courts dissolved
the Northern Security company (see Northern Securities Co. v. United States)
and the railroads had to go their separate, competitive ways. By that time
Morgan and Hill had ensured the Northern Pacific was well-organized and
able to survive easily on its own.
In 1901 the Union Pacific Railroad acquired all of the
stock of the Southern Pacific. The Federal government charged UP with violating
the Sherman Act, and in 1913 the Supreme Court ordered UP to divest itself
of all SP stock. This ruling was received with considerable alarm throughout
the industry, as UP and SP
A Delaware, Lackawanna and
Western Railroad wagon at a
level crossing, circa 1900
Continuing concern over rate discrimination by railroads
led Congress to enact additional laws, giving increased regulatory powers
to the ICC. The 1906 Hepburn Act gave the ICC authority to set maximum
rates and review the companies' financial records.
Nationalized management (1917–1920)
The United States Railroad Administration (USRA) temporarily
took over management of railroads during World War I to address inadequacy
in critical facilities throughout the overall system, such as terminals,
trackage, and rolling stock. President Woodrow Wilson issued an order for
nationalization on December 26, 1917. Management by USRA led to standardization
of equipment, reductions of duplicative passenger services, and better
coordination of freight traffic. Federal control of the railroads ended
in March 1920.
Railroads in the early automobile era (1921–1945)
In the early 20th century, some members of Congress, the
ICC, and some railroad executives developed concerns about inefficiencies
in the American railroad system. Memories of the 1893 panic, the continuing
proliferation of railroad companies, and duplicative facilities, fueled
this concern. To an extent the need to nationalize the system during the
war was an example of this inefficiency. These concerns were the impetus
for legislation to consider improvements to the system. The 1920 Esch-Cummins
Act directed the ICC to prepare and adopt a plan for the consolidation
of the railroad companies into a limited number of systems. In 1929 the
ICC published its proposed Complete Plan of Consolidation, also known as
the "Ripley Plan," after its author, William Z. Ripley of Harvard University.
The agency held hearings on the plan, but none of the proposed consolidations
was ever implemented. Many small railroads failed during the Great Depression
of the 1930s. Of those lines that survived, the stronger ones were not
interested in supporting the weaker ones. In 1940 Congress formally abandoned
the Ripley Plan.
Modern era (1946–present)
During the post-World War II boom many railroads were
driven out of business due to competition from airlines and Interstate
highways. The rise of the automobile led to the end of passenger train
service on most railroads. Trucking businesses had become major competitors
by the 1930s with the advent of improved paved roads, and after the war
they expanded their operations as the Interstate highway network grew,
and acquired increased market share of freight business. Railroads
continued to carry bulk freight such as coal, steel and other commodities.
However, the ICC continued to regulate railroad rates and other aspects
of railroad operations, which limited railroads' flexibility in responding
to changing market forces.
In 1966, Congress created the Federal Railroad Administration,
to issue and enforce rail safety regulations, administer railroad assistance
programs, and conduct research and development in support of improved railroad
safety and national rail transportation policy. The safety functions were
transferred from the ICC. The FRA was established as part of the new federal
Department of Transportation.
Two of the largest remaining railroads, the Pennsylvania
Railroad and the New York Central, merged in 1968 to form the Penn Central.
At the insistence of the ICC the New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad
was added to the merger in 1969; in 1970 the Penn Central declared bankruptcy,
the largest bankruptcy in U.S. history until then.:234 Other bankrupt
railroads included the Ann Arbor Railroad (1973), Erie Lackawanna Railway
(1972), Lehigh Valley Railroad (1970), Reading Company (1971), Central
Railroad of New Jersey (1967) and Lehigh and Hudson River Railway (1972).
In 1970 Congress created a government corporation, Amtrak,
to take over operation of Penn Central passenger lines and selected inter-city
passenger services from other private railroads, under the Rail Passenger
Service Act. Amtrak began operations in 1971.
Congress passed the Regional Rail Reorganization Act of
1973 (sometimes called the "3R Act") to salvage viable freight operations
from the bankrupt Penn Central and other lines in the northeast, mid-Atlantic
and midwestern regions, through the creation of the Consolidated Rail Corporation
(ConRail), a government-owned corporation. Conrail began operations in
1976. The 3R Act also formed the United States Railway Association, another
government corporation, taking over the powers of the ICC with respect
to allowing the bankrupt railroads to abandon unprofitable lines.
Amtrak acquired most of the right-of-way and facilities
of the Penn Central Northeast Corridor from Washington, D.C. to Boston,
under the Railroad Revitalization and Regulatory Reform Act (the "4R Act")
In addition to freight railroads, Conrail inherited commuter
rail operations from several predecessor railroads in the northeast, and
these operations continued to be unprofitable. State and local government
transportation agencies took over the passenger operations and acquired
the various rights-of-way from Conrail in 1983.
The National Association of Railroad Passengers, a non-profit
advocacy group, was organized in the late 1960s to support operation of
Beginning in the late 1970s Amtrak eliminated several
of its lightly-traveled lines. Ridership stagnated at roughly 20 million
passengers per year amid uncertain government aid from 1981 to about 2000.
Ridership increased during the first decade of the 21st century after implementation
of capital improvements in the Northeast Corridor and rises in automobile
Resurgence of freight railroads in the 1980s
Norfolk Southern was formed in 1982 from
the Norfolk and Western and Southern Railway
|In 1980 Congress enacted the Staggers Rail Act to revive
freight traffic, by removing restrictive regulations and enabling railroads
to be more competitive with the trucking industry. The Northeast Rail Service
Act of 1981 authorized additional deregulation of northeast railroads.
Among other things, these laws reduced the role of the ICC in regulating
the railroads and allowed the carriers to discontinue unprofitable routes.
More railroad companies merged and consolidated their lines in order to
remain successful. These changes led to the current system of fewer, but
profitable, Class I railroads covering larger regions of the United States.
Since the beginning of the current deregulatory era, the
following Class I railroads have been involved in mergers:
Union Pacific acquired the Missouri
Pacific and Missouri–Kansas–Texas Railroad in the 1980s, the
Chicago and North Western in 1995,
and the Southern Pacific in 1996
CSX was formed in 1986 from the Chessie
System and the Seaboard System
BNSF Railway was formed in 1996 from
the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe (the "Santa Fe")
and Burlington Northern
The use of double-stack rail cars
and intermodal containers,
facilitated by deregulation, has
improved railroads' competitiveness
Canadian Pacific acquired the Delaware
and Hudson in 1991
Canadian National acquired the Illinois
Central in 1999
CSX and Norfolk Southern acquired
most of the Conrail freight rail assets in 1997.
In 1995, when most of the ICC's powers had been eliminated,
Congress finally abolished the agency and transferred its remaining functions
to a new agency, the Surface Transportation Board.
In the early 21st century, several of the railroads, along
with the federal government and various port agencies, began to reinvest
in freight rail infrastructure, such as intermodal terminals and bridge
and tunnel improvements. These projects are designed to increase capacity
and efficiency across the national rail network. See Heartland Corridor
and National Gateway.
Both the Bill Clinton and Barack Obama administrations
had announced plans for new high-speed rail lines in their first terms.
In the case of Clinton era, the only tangible outcome was the introduction
of Amtrak's Acela Express, serving the Northeast Corridor, in 2000. Obama
even mentioned his rail plans in his State of the Union address, the first
time in decades a President had done so. While several small scale improvements
to rail lines were financed by federal money, more ambitious plans in Florida,
Ohio and other states failed when newly elected Republican governors stopped
existing high-speed rail plans and returned federal funding.
In 2015 construction began on the California High-Speed
Rail line. The Phase I portion, which will link Los Angeles and San Francisco
in under three hours, is projected to be complete in 2029.
In general, U.S. railroad companies imported technology from
Britain in the 1830s, particularly strap iron rails, as there were no rail
manufacturing facilities in the United States at that time. Heavy iron
"T" rails were first manufactured in the U.S. in the mid-1840s at Mount
Savage, Maryland and Danville, Pennsylvania. This improved rail design
permitted higher train speeds and more reliable operation. Discovery of
high-quality iron ores in the mid-19th century, particularly in the Great
Lakes region, led to fabrication of better-quality rails.
|The B&O established its Mount Clare Shops in Baltimore
in 1829. This was the first railroad manufacturing facility in the U.S.,
and the company built locomotives, railroad cars, iron bridges and other
equipment there. Following the B&O example, U.S. railroad companies
soon became self-sufficient, as thousands of domestic machine shops turned
out products and thousands of inventors and tinkerers improved the equipment.
Rail profiles used in the
Steel rails began to replace iron later in the 19th century.
Several railroads imported steel rails from England in the 1860s, and the
first commercially available steel rails in the U.S. were manufactured
in 1867 at the Cambria Iron Works in Johnstown, Pennsylvania. By the mid-1880s
U.S. railroads were using more steel rails than iron in building new or
Through the 1830s, 1840s, and 1850s, not only local projects,
but long-distance links, were completed, so that by 1860 the eastern half
of the continent, especially the Northeast, was linked by a network of
connecting railroads. However, although England had early adopted a standard
gauge of 4 ft 8 1?2 in (1,435 mm), once Americans started building locomotives,
they experimented with different gauges, resulting in the standard gauge,
or a close approximation, being adopted in the Northeast and Midwest U.S.,
but a 5 ft (1,524 mm) gauge in the South, and a 5 ft 6 in (1,676 mm) gauge
in Canada. In addition, the Erie Railway was built to 6 ft (1,829 mm) broad
gauge, and in the 1870s a widespread movement looked at the cheaper 3 ft
(914 mm) narrow gauge. Except for the latter, gauges were standardized
across North America after the end of the Civil War in 1865.
In the early years American railroads imported many steam
locomotives from England. While the B&O and the PRR built many of their
own steam locomotives, other railroads purchased from independent American
manufacturers. Prominent among the early steam manufacturers were Norris,
Baldwin and Rogers, followed by Lima and Alco later in the 19th and 20th
Diesel locomotives were first developed in Europe after
World War I, and U.S. railroads began to use them widely in the 1930s and
1940s. Most U.S. roads discontinued use of steam locomotives by the 1950s.
A diesel engine was expensive to build, but was less complex and easier
to maintain than a steam locomotive, and required only one person to operate.
This meant reduced costs and greater reliability for the railroads. Several
companies developed fast streamliner trains, such as the Super Chief and
the California Zephyr during the 1930s and 1940s. Their locomotives used
either diesel or similar internal combustion engine designs. See Dieselisation
in North America.
Though electric railways expanded in Europe, they never
reached the same popularity in North America. They were built primarily
in the north-west and the north-east beginning in the late 19th century.
While some railroads used electric locomotives for both freight and passenger
trains, by the end of the 20th century most freight trains were pulled
only by diesel locomotives. The Northeast Corridor, the most heavily travelled
passenger line in the US, is one of few long lines currently operating
with electrification. See Railroad electrification in the United States.
Signalling and communications
Early forms of American railroad signaling and communication
were virtually non-existent. Before telegraphs, the American railroads
initially managed their train operations using timetables. However, there
were no means of communication between drivers and dispatchers, and occasionally,
two trains were sent on a collision course, or "cornfield meets." With
the advent of the telegraph in the 1840s, a more sophisticated system was
developed that allowed the dissemination of alterations to the timetable,
known as train orders. These orders overrode the timetable, allowing the
cancellation, rescheduling and addition of trains. The earliest recorded
use of train orders was by the Erie Railroad in 1851.
The development of the electrical track circuit in the
1870s led to the use of systems of block signals, which improved the railroads'
speed, safety and efficiency. Mechanical interlockings, which prevent conflicting
movements at rail junctions and crossings, were also introduced in the
U.S. in the 1870s, after their initial development in Britain.
Labor relations and worker safety
Railways changed employment practices in many ways. Lines
with hundreds or thousands of employees developed systematic rules and
procedures, not only for running the equipment but in hiring, promoting,
paying and supervising employees. The railway system of management was
adopted by all major business sectors. Railways offered a new type of work
experience in enterprises vastly larger in size, complexity and management.
At first workers were recruited from occupations where skills were roughly
analogous and transferable, that is, workshop mechanics from the iron,
machine and building trades; conductors from stagecoach drivers, steamship
stewards and mail boat captains; station masters from commerce and commission
agencies; and clerks from government offices.
In response to the strikes of the 1870s and 1880s, Congress
passed the Arbitration Act of 1888, which authorized the creation of arbitration
panels with the power to investigate the causes of labor disputes and to
issue non-binding arbitration awards. The Act was a complete failure: only
one panel was ever convened under the Act, and that one, in the case of
the 1894 Pullman Strike, issued its report only after the strike had been
crushed by a federal court injunction backed by federal troops.
Congress attempted to correct these shortcomings in the
Erdman Act, passed in 1898. This law likewise provided for voluntary arbitration,
but made any award issued by the panel binding and enforceable in federal
court. It also outlawed discrimination against employees for union activities,
prohibited "yellow dog" contracts (employee agrees not to join a union
while employed), and required both sides to maintain the status quo during
any arbitration proceedings and for three months after an award was issued.
The arbitration procedures were rarely used. A successor statute, the Newlands
Act, was passed in 1913 and proved more effective, but was largely superseded
when the federal government nationalized the railroads in 1917.
As railroads expanded after the Civil War, so too did
the rate of accidents among railroad personnel, especially brakemen. Many
accidents were associated with the coupling and uncoupling of railroad
cars, and the operation of manually operated brakes (hand brakes). The
rise in accidents led to calls for safety legislation, as early as the
1870s. In the 1880s, the number of on-the-job fatalities of railroad workers
was second only to those of coal miners. Through that decade, several state
legislatures enacted safety laws. However, the specific requirements varied
among the states, making implementation difficult for interstate rail carriers,
and Congress passed the Safety Appliance Act in 1893 to provide a uniform
standard. The law required railroads to install air brakes and automatic
couplers on all trains, and led to a sharp drop in accidents.
The Esch–Cummins Act of 1920 terminated the nationalization
program and created a Railway Labor Board (RLB) to regulate wages and issue
non-binding proposals to settle disputes. In 1921 the RLB ordered a twelve
percent reduction in employees' wages, which led to the Great Railroad
Strike of 1922, involving rail shop workers nationwide, followed by a court
injunction to end the strike. Congress passed the Railway Labor Act of
1926 to rectify the shortcomings of the RLB procedures.
Congress added railroad worker safety laws throughout
the 20th century. Significant among this legislation is the Federal Railroad
Safety Act of 1970, which gave the FRA broad resposibilities over all aspects
of rail safety, and expanded the agency's authority to cover all railroads,
both interstate and intrastate.
Impact on American economy and society
According to historian Henry Adams the system of railroads
the energies of a generation, for it
required all the new machinery to be created--capital, banks, mines, furnaces,
technical knowledge, mechanical population,
together with a steady remodelling of social and political habits, ideas,
and institutions to
fit the new scale and suit the new
conditions. The generation between 1865 and 1895 was already mortgaged
to the railways, and no
one knew it better than the generation
The impact can be examined through five aspects: shipping,
finance, management, careers, and popular reaction.
Shipping freight and passengers
First they provided a highly efficient network for shipping
freight and passengers across a large national market. The result was a
transforming impact on most sectors of the economy including manufacturing,
retail and wholesale, agriculture and finance. Supplemented with the telegraph
that added rapid communications, the United States now had an integrated
national market practically the size of Europe, with no internal barriers
or tariffs, all supported by a common language, and financial system and
a common legal system. The railroads at first supplemented, then largely
replaced the previous transportation modes of turnpikes and canals, rivers
and intracoastal ocean traffic. For highly efficient Northern railroads
played a major role in winning the Civil War, while the overburdened Southern
lines collapsed in the face of an insurmountable challenge In the late
19th century pipelines were built for the oil trade, and in the 20th century
trucking and aviation emerged.
Basis of the private financial system
Railroads financing provided the basis of the private
(non-governmental) financial system. Construction of railroads was far
more expensive than factories or canals. The famous Erie canal, 300 miles
long in upstate New York, cost $7 million of state money, which was about
what private investors spent on one short railroad in Western Massachusetts.
A new steamboat on the Hudson, Mississippi, Missouri, or Ohio rivers cost
about the same as one mile of track.
In 1860, the combined total of railroad stocks and bonds
was $1.8 billion; 1897 it reached $10.6 billion (compared to a total national
debt of $1.2 billion). Funding came from financiers throughout the Northeast,
and from Europe, especially Britain. The federal government provided no
cash to any other railroads. However it did provide unoccupied free land
to some of the Western railroads, so they could sell it to farmers and
have customers along the route. Some cash came from states, or from local
governments that use money as a leverage to prevent being bypassed by the
main line. Larger sound came from the southern states during the Reconstruction
era, as they try to rebuild their destroyed rail system. Some states such
as Maine and Texas also made land grants to local railroads; the state
total was 49 million acres. The emerging American financial system was
based on railroad bonds. Boston was the first center, but New York by 1860
was the dominant financial market. The British invested heavily in railroads
around the world, but nowhere more so than the United States; The total
came to about $3 billion by 1914. In 1914-1917, they liquidated their American
assets to pay for war supplies.
Inventing modern management
The third dimension was in designing complex managerial
systems that could handle far more complicated simultaneous relationships
than could be dreamed of by the local factory owner who could patrol every
part of his own factory in a matter of hours. Civil engineers became the
senior management of railroads. The leading innovators were the Western
Railroad of Massachusetts and the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad in the 1840s,
the Erie in the 1850s and the Pennsylvania in the 1860s.
After a serious accident, the Western Railroad of Massachusetts
put in place a system of responsibility for district managers and dispatchers
keep track of all train movement. Discipline was essential—everyone had
to follow the rules exactly to prevent accidents. Decision-making powers
had to be distributed to ensure safety and to juggle the complexity of
numerous trains running in both directions on a single track, keeping to
schedules that could easily be disrupted by weather mechanical breakdowns,
washouts or hitting a wandering cow. As the lines grew longer with more
and more business originating at dozens of different stations, the Baltimore
and Ohio set up more complex system that separated finances from daily
operations. The Erie Railroad, faced with growing competition, had to make
lower bids for freight movement, and had to know on a daily basis how much
each train was costing them. Statistics was the weapon of choice. By the
1860s, the Pennsylvania Railroad—the largest in the world—was making further
advances in using bureaucracy under John Edgar Thomson, president 1852-1874.
He divided the system into several geographical divisions, which each reported
daily to a general superintendent in Philadelphia. All the American railroads
copied each other in the new managerial advances, and by the 1870s emerging
big businesses in the industrial field likewise copied the railroad model.
The fourth dimension was in management of the workforce,
both blue-collar workers and white-collar workers. Railroading became a
career in which young men entered at about age 18 to 20, and spent their
entire lives usually with the same line. Young men could start working
on the tracks, become a fireman, and work his way up to engineer. The mechanical
world of the roundhouses have their own career tracks. A typical career
path would see a young man hired at age 18 as a shop laborer, be promoted
to skilled mechanic at age 24, brakeman at 25, freight conductor at 27,
and passenger conductor at age 57. Women were not hired.
White-collar careers paths likewise were delineated. Educated
young men started in clerical or statistical work and moved up to station
agents or bureaucrats at the divisional or central headquarters. At each
level they had more and more knowledge experience and human capital. They
were very hard to replace, and were virtually guaranteed permanent jobs
and provided with insurance and medical care. Hiring, firing and wage rates
were set not by foreman, but by central administrators, in order to minimize
favoritism and personality conflicts. Everything was by the book, and increasingly
complex set of rules told everyone exactly what they should do it every
circumstance, and exactly what their rank and pay would be. Young men
who were first hired in the 1840s and 1850s retired from the same railroad
40 or 50 years later. To discourage them from leaving for another company,
they were promised pensions when they retired. Indeed, the railroads invented
the American pension system.
Love–hate relationship with the railroads
America developed a love–hate relationship with railroads.
Boosters in every city worked feverishly to make sure the railroad came
through, knowing their urban dreams depended upon it. The mechanical size,
scope and efficiency of the railroads made a profound impression; people
would dress in their Sunday best to go down to the terminal to watch the
train come in. David Nye argues that:
The startling introduction of railroads
into this agricultural society provoked a discussion that soon arrived
at the enthusiastic consensus
that railways were sublime and that
they would help to unify, dignified, expand and enrich the nation. They
became part of the public
celebrations of Republicanism. The
rhetoric, the form, and the central figures of civic ceremonies changed
to accommodate the
intrusion of this technology....[Between
1828 and 1869] Americans integrated the railroad into the national economy
and enfolded it
within the sublime.
Travel became much easier, cheaper and more common. Shoppers
from small towns could make day trips to big city stores. Hotels, resorts
and tourist attractions were built to accommodate the demand. The realization
that anyone could buy a ticket for a thousand-mile trip was empowering.
Historians Gary Cross and Rick Szostak argue:
with the freedom to travel came a greater
sense of national identity and a reduction in regional cultural diversity.
Farm children could more
easily acquaint themselves with the
big city, and easterners could readily visit the West. It is hard to imagine
a United States of
continental proportions without the
The engineers became model citizens, bringing their can-do
spirit and their systematic work effort to all phases of the economy as
well as local and national government.[ By 1910, major cities were building
magnificent palatial railroad stations, such as the Pennsylvania Station
in New York City, and the Union Station in Washington DC.
But there was also a dark side. As early as the 1830s,
novelists and poets began fretting that the railroads would destroy the
rustic attractions of the American landscape. By the 1840s concerns were
rising about terrible accidents when speeding trains crashed into helpless
wooden carriages. By the 1870s, railroads were vilified by Western farmers
who absorbed the Granger movement theme that monopolistic carriers controlled
too much pricing power, and that the state legislatures had to impose maximum
prices. Local merchants and shippers supported the demand and got some
"Granger Laws" passed. Anti-railroad complaints were loudly repeated in
late 19th century political rhetoric. The idea of establishing a strong
rate fixing federal body was achieved during the Progressive Era, primarily
by a coalition of shipping interests. Railroad historians mark the Hepburn
Act of 1906 that gave the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) the power
to set maximum railroad rates as a damaging blow to the long-term profitability
and growth of railroads. After 1910 the lines faced an emerging trucking
industry to compete with for freight, and automobiles and buses to compete
for passenger service.
There is no question about the importance of railroads
in American history. Churella finds that back in the 1950s business and
economic historians, led by Alfred D. Chandler, Jr. and Robert Fogel, made
railroads the centerpiece of advanced historiography. That era has
passed as graduate programs have faded away, courses on railroad history
do not make the curriculum, and the historiography has shifted away from
professional historian to the "rail fans"—very well informed amateur writers
fascinated by the memorabilia, technology and locomotives of the steam
era. Looking at the voluminous output of rail fan authors, Klein says:
The vast bulk of this work is devoted
to minute descriptions of power, rolling stock, obscure short lines, and
technical subjects.... But few address the larger questions of railroad
history or place their topic in broader contexts.
The result is a multiplicity of histories of specific
railroads, large and small. Typically they deal with standard topics: the
builders and their organizational, legislative and financial dealings;
colorful construction crews laying down wood ties and steel rail; the development
of locomotives and passenger cars; boosters who sought a stop in their
little town else it would die; the 1880–1920 golden age of the passenger
long-distance travel and local excursions; the steady erosion of passenger
service during the automobile age; the freight agent and the small-town
depot. They end with the more recent saga of retrenchment, merger, and
abandonment. Klein, Churella, Roth, and Franham all find that the popular
writers show little interest in the development of managerial and organizational
complexity of the sort that Chandler studied, or the economic impact that
concerned Fogel's cohort. From outside the field of railroad history, academic
labor historians now deal with the culture of the workers, strikes, the
careers for blue collar and white collar men, and racial discrimination.
Academic political historians deal with the Granger, Populist and Progressive
attacks, and in federal or state regulation.
1830 = 40
1840 = 2,755
1850 = 8,571
1860 = 28,920
1870 = 49,168
1880 = 87,801
1890 = 163,562