While some of the public was wary of railroads at first such as claiming them to be a "device of the devil" as one school board in Ohio put it or that travel by train would cause a "concussion of the brain" the efficiency they brought could not be argued. For instance, railroads could cut the distant it took between cities by steamboat in half. A good example is traveling between Cincinnati and St. Louis. By water this trip took 702 miles and three days but by railroad it took only 339 miles and 16 hours. While the Civil War was devastating to the nation it was also hard on railroads, particularly in the South. Despite the carnage brought by the war the railroad further proved its worth as a reliable and efficient means of moving people and material. After the discovery of gold in California the rush to the west coast was on and this included the railroads.
With the creation of the Pacific Railway Bill, which was signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln on July 1, 1862 designated the new Union Pacific Railroad (building westward from the Missouri River), along with the Central Pacific Railroad (building eastward from Sacramento), to complete the transcontinental railroad. Being given large tracts of land by the government the railroads were finally able to complete the line on May 10, 1869 at Promontory Point, Utah. Without this bill signed by Lincoln rail history and that of our country would likely have been very different. After the completion of the transcontinental railroad the industry exploded in terms of mileage and by the 1890s there was over 163,000 miles in operation. This time also saw many other advances such as the agreement on the standard track of 4 feet, 8 1/2 inches in the 1880s and the development of the automatic coupler and air brake, which revolutionized the efficiency railroads could provide along with allowing for much safer operations.
It was during this time through roughly the 1920s that railroads enjoyed their greatest dominance and profitability. The year 1916 saw peak mileage at over 254,000 and railroads held virtually 100% of all interstate traffic, both passenger and freight.
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: 160,000+ Miles
During the 1930s the streamliner era hit the nation as railroads attempted to sway patrons back to the rails since automobiles had become so reliable and affordable folks were taking to the road more and more. In terms of traffic World War II was the final act for the railroad industry. After the war ended both passenger and freight traffic declined steadily through the 1950s and no matter how hard railroads tried to lure passengers back onto trains it was to no avail. The decade saw the beginning of the mega-merger movement when smaller lines like the Virginian Railway were purchased by larger ones like the Norfolk & Western Railway. The 1960s would set the stage for the disaster of the 1970s as the industry cut maintenance and passenger trains drastically in an attempt to reduce costs. The common observer could see this themselves as tracks became weed-choked and many passenger trains were dilapidated with unmatched, dirty and sometimes worn out equipment (which was sometimes also the case for freight trains).
During the 1970s several famous companies went under, now termed fondly as fallen flags. The decade also saw the collapse of railroading in the Northeast as Penn Central went under taking most of its neighboring railroads with it. What came out of this mess was the government funded and subsidized Consolidated Rail Corporation or Conrail which began operations on April 1, 1976 in an attempt to revitalize the region. The year 1971 also saw most passenger train operations taking over by the National Railroad Passenger Corporation, or Amtrak, a government subsidized system. For a more in depth look at our country's passenger trains please click here.
Railroads today would likely be very different if it wasn't for the Staggers Rail Act of 1980, proposed by Harley Staggers of West Virginia that the railroad industry was able to regain its footing. The bill allowed railroads to be much deregulated and allowed them to more freely set their own freight rates and abandon unprofitable rail lines. Before this time railroads had been mostly left for dead as an outdated mode of transportation that should go the way of the stagecoach. The 1980s saw a slow recovery as Conrail posted its first profits in 1983 and the mega-merger movement continued with today's Norfolk Southern Railway and CSX Transportation formed during the decade. The 1990s saw a continued trend of mergers with the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway disappearing into the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway system when it merged with the Burlington Northern in 1995.
That same year Union Pacific purchased the Chicago & North Western Railway and Norfolk Southern and CSX gobbled up Conrail in 1999. The first decade of the 21st century has continued to see a railroad revival as freight has poured so heavily onto the rails that the industry is running out of capacity, a scenario many thought would never happen and has not been seen since World War II. We have also seen a renaissance of passenger railroading as folks flock to trains to beat the gridlock and look for a more relaxing way to commute and travel. The recovery of the railroad industry has been partly due to deregulation. However, other factors have also caused the revival. First, as our nation's infrastructure has been neglected over the past several decades highway congestion has gotten worse and worse. Today it has reached near critical levels and the only relief valve available is trains, thus people and goods have been returning to the rails. Another factor is the environment.
These days everyone is thinking green and since nothing is more efficient at moving people or goods per fuel mile than trains railroads have gained much praise for their environmental friendliness. Without the railroads it is probably safe to say that our country would not be the world leader that it is today and without them in the future there is little chance we, as a nation, could remain the power that we are. Yes, we may not have the most advanced high speed passenger rail system in the world (which, quite honestly is rather embarrassing) but we do have the most efficient and advanced freight system, which is marveled and emulated by other countries. For more reading about our country's railroad history please click here to visit the fallen flags section of the site.
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