Obviously, there was no hope of all these railroads surviving on such meager earnings and the meltdown of the ill-fated Penn Central Corporation (the result of no traffic and stifling regulation) in the 1970s started a chain reaction that drove the rest of the Northeastern railroads into bankruptcy and the entire region’s transportation network into chaos. However, with the coming of Conrail following the northeastern and the creation of CSX and Norfolk Southern in the 1980s (and then the splitting of Conrail among themselves in 1999), along with the Staggers Act of 1980 that partially deregulated the railroad industry, eastern operations have become much more profitable as the railroads have gained longer hauls and been able to find their place within the transportation network.
Traditionally eastern railroading traffic has been made up of things like coal, wood products, aggregates, scrap, and chemicals although in more recent years (roughly beginning in the 1970s) TOFC and COFC service has become a large stable as well, as products arriving from China to western ports makes their way to eastern markets. From a railfan perspective there are several areas/operations in the east that are appealing whether because of their large volume of trains or geological/historical wonders. These include places like Horeshoe Curve and Sand Patch in Pennsylvania; the very steep Saluda Grade in North Carolina; anywhere along the Northeast Corridor between roughly Washington, D.C. and Boston, Massachusetts; famed Cumberland, Maryland a hub of B&O operations and current home to the Western Maryland Scenic Railroad; Strasburg Railroad in Pennsylvania where steam has always remained king; and Cass Railroad in Cass, West Virginia where the Shay geared-steam locomotive rules.
Western operations are defined by beautiful, open, panoramic views of flat plains (such as Kansas and Iowa), the Rocky Mountains (Colorado and Wyoming) and flowing trains of containers. This was not always the case, however. When railroads first began building west of Mississippi River in the 1840s much of their traffic was simply moving people and goods to growing western towns and cities. As the decades passed and markets began to become more diversified the petrochemical industry began to appear along the Gulf Coast regions of Texas and Louisiana, manufacturing centers along the West Coast in California (today almost completely gone), and farming in the Plains states (where the commonly known granger roads got their nickname).
In the last thirty years or so the Ports of Seattle and Long Beach, and Powder River Basin coal reserves in Wyoming and Montana have become extremely important bases of traffic for railroads like Union Pacific and BNSF Railway. These two railroads have feverishly been adding capacity in the last decade or so trying to keep up with the ever growing demand of this traffic as the low-sulfur, cleaner burning coal of the Powder River Basin is a highly demanded commodity for power plants seeking to reduce emissions and abide by ever-stringent EPA environmental regulations. Similarly, the Ports of Seattle and Long Beach are also rapidly growing trying to keep up with the demanded goods from China, Japan, and other western markets which either head to eastern markets of the U.S. or to our eastern ports to continue their journey by ship across the Atlantic Ocean.
As previously mentioned, the ability of western railroads to ship traffic over long distances kept profits up and bankruptcies low during the tumultuous years of the 1960s and 1970s (unlike the case for eastern railroads). This was due to the length between markets, which allowed for even greater profits for the larger railroads like Southern Pacific, Milwaukee Road, Union Pacific, and Missouri Pacific whose main lines stretched from the West Coast to, sometimes, the Midwest (in the case of the Milwaukee Road, with trackage rights included, it stretched from Louisville, Kentucky all of the way to Seattle, Washington!). The ability of such long route, reaching large markets like St. Louis, Chicago, Los Angeles, Dallas/Fort Worth, Kansas City and Seattle with fewer competitors was far less straining than in the east.
As mentioned before, western operations is often defined by beautiful, open, and panoramic views often not afforded in the east where rolling hills and deciduous forest obstruct such scenes, which is one reason many railfans are drawn to the railroads west of the Mississippi. As for the railroads and engineering feats that define the West some include fabled Tehachapi Loop, Tennessee Pass, the Feather River Canyon route of the Western Pacific, the Denver & Rio Grande Western’s historic narrow-gauge operations in Colorado, Santa Fe’s famous Cajon Pass, and the late St. Paul Pass, in Idaho, and Snoqualmie Pass, in Washington State, operated by the Milwaukee Road.
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