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
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.
An A-B-A-B-B set of Santa Fe covered wagons, led by F7A #301, pulls the westbound San Francisco Chief during one of its final runs through Hercules, California in April of 1971. Amtrak was only a few days away.
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 through 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).
Several Lehigh Valley units including RS11 #402, U23B #508, C420 #408, and an EMD switcher congregate on the ready tracks at the Sayre, Pennsylvania terminal on July 3, 1975.
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.
Penn Central U25Bs #2685 and #2674 lead a southbound Erie Lackawanna freight through North Tonawanda, New York on August 5, 1973.
In any event, below are links are broken down into a timeline format from the industry's beginnings in the early 19th century through today:
The Beginning, The 1820s and '30s
A New Industry Takes Flight, The 1840s
The 1850s, A Blossoming Industry
The 1860s, Railroads In The Civil War
The Transcontinental Railroad
Heading West, The 1870s
A Standard Time Achieved, The 1880s
The First Aid Kit, A History (1880s)
Safety And Steel, The 1890s
The "Golden Age" Comes To A Close, 1900-1920
The Streamliner Era, The 1930s
Railroads In World War II, The 1940s
The Industry In Decline, The 1950s
Mergers/Bankruptcies, The 1960s And '70s
Railroading Today, The 1980s Onward
Notable Early Railroads
Baltimore & Ohio
Camden & Amboy
Delaware & Hudson
Mohawk & Hudson
South Carolina Canal And Rail Road Company
Great Locomotive Chase
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.
Please Click Here To Return To The Home Page
Norfolk Southern's C40-9W #9052 heads a parade of GEs leading westbound stack train 23M through Bailey, Pennsylvania on June 14, 2009.
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.
Related Reading You May Enjoy