For their many advantages, some in public simply did not like the iron horse. As John Stover points out in his book, "The Routledge Historical Atlas Of The American Railroads," one school board in Ohio described them as a "device of the devil" while those overseeing the Massachusetts turnpike called them "cruel turnpike killers" and "despisers of horseflesh." There was even a claim that rail travel would cause a "concussion of the brain." Despite corporate malfeasance and the public's weariness, the efficiency and speed trains offered could simply not be argued. During the Civil War railroads once more proved their worth as they quickly transported men and material to the front lines at speeds not previously possible. The North effectively harnessed this advantage, as historian John P. Hankey points out in his article, "The Railroad War: How The Iron Road Changed The American Civil War," from the March, 2011 issue of Trains Magazine. Its ability to do so was predominantly why it won the war. Before hostilities had ended efforts were already underway to link the entire continent by rail. With the creation of the Pacific Railway Act, signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln on July 1, 1862, authorizing construction of the Transcontinental Railroad. The new legislation formed the Union Pacific Railroad to build west from the Missouri River at Omaha, Nebraska while the Central Pacific struck out eastward from Sacramento, California. Both companies were given large tracts of land to complete their respective sections.
After several years of hard work, particularly for the Central Pacific, the two met at Promontory Point, Utah during a formal ceremony held on May 10, 1869. Without the Pacific Railway Act our country's history would likely be very different as rail travel opened the west to new economic opportunities. After the Transcontinental Railroad's completion the industry exploded; by the 1890s there were more than 163,000 miles in operation. Eventually, four major railroads established direct lines from the Midwest to West Coast including the Great Northern, Northern Pacific, Santa Fe, and Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul & Pacific (Milwaukee Road) while others worked together in linking both points. The era also saw many other advances as the late historian Jim Boyd notes in his book, "The American Freight Train." After several years of distrust a standard track gauge of 4 feet, 8 1/2 inches was adopted during the 1880s along with development of the automatic coupler and air brake. All three initiatives proved revolutionary, allowing for greater efficiency and much safer operations. From the late 19th century though the 1920's railroads enjoyed their greatest dominance and profitability; in particular was the year 1916, which saw mileage peak at over 254,000 and railroads carried virtually 100% of all interstate traffic.
Rail Mileage Throughout The Years
Below is a timeline of railroad mileage throughout the years:
1840: 2,808 Miles
1850: 9,021 Miles
1860: 30,000+ Miles
1870: 52,922 Miles
1880: 93,267 Miles
1890: 163,597 Miles
1900: 193,346 Miles
1916: 254,037 Miles
1945: 226,696 Miles
1963: 214,387 Miles
1995: 170,000+ Miles
Today: 138,477 Miles
Sources: "The Routledge Historical Atlas Of The American Railroads," by John F. Stover. New York: Routledge, 1999. Federal Railroad Administration's "Summary Of Class II and Class III Railroad Capital Needs And Funding Source" Report (October, 2014)
During the 1930s the streamliner era hit the nation, all in an attempt to sway patrons back to the rails. These fast, sleek new machines provided a new perk; color and modernity never before seen. The industry's transportation dominance ended after World War II, as a long decline followed thereafter. In response, the so-called mega-merger movement was launched in the 1950s in an attempt to cut costs through consolidation. At the time the move was only partially successful as railroads slipped into despair by the 1970's. The common observer could see this for themselves as tracks became weed-choked while trains were dilapidated. For carriers like the Rock Island and Penn Central, both on the verge of complete shutdown, dirty and barely operational equipment was not uncommon. What happened in the 1970's has many causes although it can arguably be traced back to expanded powers placed upon the Interstate Commerce Commission following the passage of the Elkins Act (1903) and, in particular, the Hepburn Act (1906) and Mann-Elkins Act (1910). The latter two legislative actions gave ICC the authority to set freight rates and force railroads to explain why any rate change should be implemented.
It was a lengthy, time-consuming process that was rarely successful. The expanded federal oversight was all brought about to limit railroads' power as many executives had grown arrogant and forgetful of their ultimate purpose, to serve the public interest. Unfortunately, the legislation went too far and had placed an increasing burden on the industry by the post-World War II period, at which point they no longer held a transportation monopoly. During the 1970s several famous companies went under, now termed fondly as "fallen flags." The decade also saw the collapse of Northeastern rail service following Penn Central's 1970 bankruptcy. Its failure led to others as neighboring railroads filed for reorganization. What eventually came out of the mess was the Consolidated Rail Corporation. A federally-funded corporation to restore service, Conrail began on April 1, 1976. A few years earlier, also partially in response to PC's downfall, another government-sponsored railroad was born, the National Railroad Passenger Corporation (Amtrak). It launched on May 1, 1971 and relieved many of their money-losing passenger services.
In his book, "Rock Island Requiem," author Gregory Schneider highlights how bad the issue became during the Penn Central bankruptcy hearings. Until deregulation the industry was not a true free market, everything (including any potential line abandonment) was controlled through the ICC. Before Penn Central was folded into Conrail, Federal Railroad Administrator John Ingram highlighted the difficulty for any railroad to abandon an unprofitable branch. While touring the former Pennsylvania Railroad's Delmarva Peninsula trackage he said this during a speech highlighting the PC's plight:
"Let me tell you a little story about the abandonment of unprofitable branch lines. One weekend last summer I was headed for Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, to enjoy the Atlantic Ocean. You have to drive across the Eastern Shore of Maryland to get there, and I asked my staff to list a few of those Eastern Shore branch lines that the Penn Central wants to abandon. I wanted to see for myself - perhaps count the boxcars on sidings to see if there really was a shortage of business. I drove to the area, checked my maps, and simply couldn't find anything that looked like a railroad. On Monday morning, I hollered at my staff for having sent me off on a wild goose chase, but they stuck to their guns. So we went back - this time with property maps and a surveyor. We found the branch line, all right. At one place it was directly under a junkyard full of wrecked cars. At another point the highway department had covered the tracks with at least eight inches of pavement. And just off the road we found a six-inch wide tree growing between the rails. That line had been completely forgotten, yet grown men were arguing before the ICC that that stretch of track was vital to the Nation's economy!"
Railroads of today would likely be very different if it wasn't for the Staggers Rail Act of 1980, proposed by Harley Staggers of West Virginia. Prior to this legislation there had been discussions of simply nationalizing the entire industry, a scary proposition that both executives and those in the government wished to avoid. The bill brought a great level of deregulation as railroads regained their footing thanks to renewed freedom in setting freight rates and abandoning unprofitable rail lines. The 1980s saw a slow recovery as Conrail posted its first profits in late 1981 and the mega-merger movement continued, creating today's Norfolk Southern Railway and CSX Transportation that decade. In the 1990's the trend continued as the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway and Burlington Northern merged to form the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway in 1995. Also, Union Pacific purchased the Chicago & North Western while Norfolk Southern and CSX gobbled up Conrail in 1999. The freight growth has continued into the 21st century. We have also seen a renaissance in rail travel as folks look to escape the highway gridlock.
Books Featured In This Article