Known as narrow-gauge, it traditionally was three feet between the rails but some lines were as narrow as two feet. In any event, this newfangled gauge gained some success for its lower cost over a standard gauge route as the right-of-way did not need to be as wide, bridges could be built lighter and therefore equipment used could be smaller, lighter and cheaper to purchase and operate. By the mid-1880s there was over 11,500 miles of narrow-gauge railroad in operation around the country. Much of this gauge was used in branch line or industrial/short line operations, such as by logging companies who wanted a cheap and fast way to get logs off of the mountain. However, perhaps the most famous narrow-gauge operations were owned by the Denver & Rio Grande Railway, which began using such lines for branches built in southern Colorado and northern New Mexico to serve numerous mines in the region.
Widespread use of narrow-gauge systems was short-lived, however. Before 1920 less than half of the peak mileage, just 4,500, remained in service and by the 1950s this number was well under 1,000. Surprisingly, though, the D&RGW's narrow-gauge operations survived until 1967! Railroads during this era would see many improvements in passenger comfort and travel. In-car heating became available on trains beginning in 1881, using steam from the locomotive itself and electricity became available by 1887. That same year the first open-ended observation/vestibule car went into service. In the coming years these cars would become very popular for both passengers and dignitaries, and by the streamliner era of the 1930s the cars would gain radical curves and design to "finish" the end appearance of a trains.
Another major event which went into affect in the 1880s was the adoption of Standard Time Zones. Since the time could be different depending on where one was, along with the fact that it was earlier in the day the further west one was a plan was set in motion in the early 1870s to create a more unified timing system. Originally known as the Time Table Convention, later as the General Time Convention. William Allen was secretary of the convention in 1876 and would be the one credited with planning the four major time zones now common in the country: Eastern, Central, Mountain and Pacific. These zones lie along the 75th (Eastern), 90th (Central), 105th (Mountain) and 120th (Pacific) meridians. Railroads liked the new proposal and accepted it in 1883 with the new time going into affect on November 18th of that year.
Railroads of the decade gave way to a slowing pace in the 1890s. However, growth still ensued, particularly in the Midwest were the famed granger roads had taken root tapping virtually very nook and cranny in America's Breadbasket. Of course, this dizzying web of trackage would come back to haunt this railroad's by the 1960s when they were nothing more than a drain on profits. However, at this time these branches were highly profitable in agricultural traffic since railroads were the only viable means to move goods to market. The 1890s would see knuckle couplers and air brakes federally mandated on all trains drastically improving safety and efficiency. The only significant downturn of the decade was the Panic of 1893 which saw several railroads slip into receivership and some disappear forever.
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