By 1900 the country's total rail mileage had increased from 163,597 in 1890 to over 193,000. Railroads in the 20th century were so well entrenched as the primary mode of transportation that it seemed rails poked into every small community and area of the country, particularly in the Midwest and Northeast. Railroading in the 1890s would see several east-west and north-south main lines in operation including no less than five routes connecting the west coast with Midwest and Deep South. Revenues by this time had topped $1 billion with three quarters of a million workers employed in the industry. By the 20th century this number continued to increase. From a statistical standpoint, the first 20 years of the new century signaled the railroad industry's zenith in terms of size and reach as traffic and rails were slowly lost following 1920 (which accelerated with the coming of the depression).
While the railroad would industry would see its record mileage in 1916 of 254,037 after that year mileage slowly declined and wouldn't stop through the end of the century. Also, the railroad industry's "Golden Age", or that time period when railroads were the dominate mode of transportation, ended after roughly 1920 when other modes of travel began to slowly entrench on the iron horse. To make matters worse, the greed and monopolist practices of tycoons and railroad owners finally cost them as several new federal laws were passed to reel in the industry. Unfortunately, this heavy regulation was not lifted until 1980 by which time the industry had been mostly left for dead as an outdated mode of transportation.
The first of these regulations to pass was the Elkins Act of 1903, signed by President Theodore Roosevelt, which increased the restrictions of rebates railroads received. Soon after in 1906 the Hepburn Act was passed giving the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) more power over the industry including the ability to set freight rates. Then, in 1910 the Mann-Elkins Act was passed further increasing the powers of the ICC and requiring that railroads show just cause for any rise in freight rates.
Perhaps the greatest improvement to take place with railroads in the 20th century was the complete transformation from iron to steel for use as rails, and railroad construction projects in general. The durability and strength of steel could simply not be matched and before 1910 virtually all lines had been replaced with steel.
However, aside from the record mileage set in 1916 and healthy profits earned, the time period between 1900 and 1920 was rather downtrodden for the railroad industry. Aside from many new regulations enacted against the industry when the U.S. entered World War I in March of 1917. Railroads were totally unprepared for the tsunami of traffic that followed. Not only did freight yards jam and trains snarl to a crawl but many railroads simply did not have enough locomotives and cars to weather the storm. Needing to keep traffic flowing for the war effort the federal government stepped in and took over the industry in late December of 1917 under the direction of the United States Railroad Administration (USRA).
While the railroads were paid a rent for the use of their property the USRA was not exactly kind to the industry. More interested in keeping traffic moving for the war effort than earning profits the USRA eliminated what it deemed unnecessary passenger trains and centralized the location of car shops and maintenance areas.
On March 1, 1920 the government returned the industry back to private ownership and there were some positives to come from USRA control. First, the USRA retired worn out equipment and ordered thousands of new steam locomotives and rolling stock. In the case of locomotives the agency had standardized the designs, such as with the 4-8-2 Light Mountain and 4-6-2 Pacific. And, after government control the industry realized it did not want a repeat of the USRA and worked hard to be ready and prepared for the next major event where the railroads would play a vital role. Unfortunately, they would not have to wait long with World War II only 21 years away.
Railroads in the 20th century after 1920 would live in a different world as automobiles and airplanes began to eat into the industry's dominance in the transportation sector. Millions of Ford Model-T's were on the road after 1920, highways were improving, and the airplane was becoming more reliable. The "Roarin' Twenties" would lead to the Great Depression of 1929 and a financial collapse of the United States. The depression was no easier on the railroads and many fell into receivership or were purchased by stronger companies. One bright spot did hit the industry in the 1930s however, the fabled streamliner. While the golden age of railroading may have ended after 1920 its best remembered and most beautiful trains did not appear until the streamliner era of the 1930s.
Lastly, for more reading about railroad history in general is the book The Complete Book of North American Railroading
put together by several noted railroad authors such as Mike Schafer,
Jim Boyd, and Steve Glischinski (the others are Kevin EuDaly, Steve
Jessup, and Andrew McBride). Filled with more than 350 pages of
excellent photography and information
the book generally covers the industry from its earliest beginnings,
through the "Golden Age," and finally to today. If you're interested in
perhaps purchasing this book please visit the link below which will
take you to ordering information through Amazon.com, the trusted online shopping network.