Railroads in the 1880s saw further growth, particularly new construction and lines opening in the west. The decade would see the nation's rail mileage again nearly double hitting the 100,000+ mark for the first time. Aside from Standard Time being adopted during the decade other improvements included better passenger services, a standard gauge adopted and increased use of the automatic knuckle-coupler and air brake. While these two devices would not be federally mandated until the 1890s at least one state would required them to be used on all trains operating within its borders during the decade, which also saw more bridges spanning major waterways, such as the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers.
Railroads in the 1880s witnessed several new western extensions opening. For instance, in 1883 the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe opened its main line between Kansas and Santa Fe, New Mexico. Two years later the railroad had extended westward to Los Angeles and by 1888 had linked Chicago with the west coast. In 1883 the Northern Pacific Railway had completed its main line between Minneapolis/St. Paul and the Puget Sound and that same year the Southern Pacific had opened its line between New Orleans and Los Angeles through the southwest. Other new lines opening included the Denver & Rio Grande Railway (predecessor to the Denver & Rio Grande Western) between Ogden, Utah and Pueblo, Colorado in 1883 and the Texas & Pacific Railway between Shreveport, Louisiana and west Texas in 1882.
The industry during the decade would see the greatest growth of rail mileage ever in a single decade. Between the end of the 1870s and 1890 the country saw an increase of over 73,000 new miles of railroad built, or roughly over 7,000 miles a year with much of that being built in the south and western areas of the nation. By the time that the new decade of 1890 arrived total mileage had ballooned to more than 163,500. Perhaps the greatest achievement gained during the 1880s was a uniform track gauge of 4 feet, 8 1/2 inches which was adopted by nearly all railroads as the new standard gauge. Much of the track to be realigned was in the South but after the project was completed nationwide railroads, naturally, saw a much greater improvement in expediting freight and people to their respective points of destination. There was still, however, one differing gauge that gained somewhat widespread use beginning in the 1870s.
Known as narrow-gauge, it traditionally was three feet between the rails but some lines were as narrow as two feet. In any event, this newfangled gauge gained some success for its lower cost over a standard gauge route as the right-of-way did not need to be as wide, bridges could be built lighter and therefore equipment used could be smaller, lighter and cheaper to purchase and operate. By the mid-1880s there was over 11,500 miles of narrow-gauge railroad in operation around the country. Much of this gauge was used in branch line or industrial/short line operations, such as by logging companies who wanted a cheap and fast way to get logs off of the mountain. However, perhaps the most famous narrow-gauge operations were owned by the Denver & Rio Grande Railway, which began using such lines for branches built in southern Colorado and northern New Mexico to serve numerous mines in the region.
Widespread use of narrow-gauge systems was short-lived, however. Before 1920 less than half of the peak mileage, just 4,500, remained in service and by the 1950s this number was well under 1,000. Surprisingly, though, the D&RGW's narrow-gauge operations survived until 1967! Railroads during this era would see many improvements in passenger comfort and travel. In-car heating became available on trains beginning in 1881, using steam from the locomotive itself and electricity became available by 1887. That same year the first open-ended observation/vestibule car went into service. In the coming years these cars would become very popular for both passengers and dignitaries, and by the streamliner era of the 1930s the cars would gain radical curves and design to "finish" the end appearance of a trains.
Another major event which went into affect in the 1880s was the adoption of Standard Time Zones. Since the time could be different depending on where one was, along with the fact that it was earlier in the day the further west one was a plan was set in motion in the early 1870s to create a more unified timing system. Originally known as the Time Table Convention, later as the General Time Convention. William Allen was secretary of the convention in 1876 and would be the one credited with planning the four major time zones now common in the country: Eastern, Central, Mountain and Pacific. These zones lie along the 75th (Eastern), 90th (Central), 105th (Mountain) and 120th (Pacific) meridians. Railroads liked the new proposal and accepted it in 1883 with the new time going into affect on November 18th of that year.
Railroads of the decade gave way to a slowing pace in the 1890s. However, growth still ensued, particularly in the Midwest were the famed granger roads had taken root tapping virtually very nook and cranny in America's Breadbasket. Of course, this dizzying web of trackage would come back to haunt this railroad's by the 1960s when they were nothing more than a drain on profits. However, at this time these branches were highly profitable in agricultural traffic since railroads were the only viable means to move goods to market. The 1890s would see knuckle couplers and air brakes federally mandated on all trains drastically improving safety and efficiency. The only significant downturn of the decade was the Panic of 1893 which saw several railroads slip into receivership and some disappear forever.