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this heavy regulation was not lifted until 1980 by which time the industry had been mostly left for dead as an outdated mode of transportation.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 during this time 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. The industry 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.
The first half of the 20th century is generally regarded as the "Golden Age" of railroads with several famous passenger trains, stations/terminals, and other landmark feats occurring within the industry during that time (roughly 1900 until 1950). This was also the time that the industry saw an all-time high of track mileage of 254,037 miles in 1916. Over all, it certainly was the period in our nation’s history that nearly everyone was exposed to railroads in one shape or form particularly because it was the fastest and preferred method of travel. By the turn of the century passenger rail equipment was becoming very specialized with comfort and luxury the order of the day. From 1900 through the 1920s “heavyweight” passenger equipment (its name given due to the heavy materials, like steel and iron used in its construction) was built until the 1930s.
George Pullman and his Pullman Palace Car Company which began building cars in 1867 (later reorganized as just the Pullman Car Company), was, by the 20th century, the premier manufacturer of passenger equipment and nearly every major railroad’s best recognized passenger train(s) carried some type of Pullman equipment. Its base of operations was Pullman, Illinois and its cars would become legendary by the peak of passenger rail travel in the early 1900s through, the mid-1940s. While the company is perhaps most famous for its sleepers it also built other types like of cars such as parlors and diners.
It was also during the early 20th century that the famous and legendary named passenger trains began to appear. Some were launched prior to the streamliner age while others were transformed into legendary names after their transition. A few of these include Santa Fe’s Chief and Super Chief (1926 and 1936), the Baltimore & Ohio’s Capitol Limited (1923), the jointly operated [by the Burlingon, Rio Grande, and Western Pacific] California Zephyr in 1949), the Milwaukee Road’s legendary Hiawathas(inaugurated in 1935), Great Northern’s venerable Empire Builder (1929), Southern Pacific’s Daylights (originally inaugurated in 1922), Southern’sCrescent Limited (1922), Pennsylvania Railroad’s famous Broadway Limited(1902), and the New York Central Railroad’s lauded 20th Century Limited(1902).
The Golden Age also saw the building of many of the largest and renowned passenger stations. Some of these include the late Pennsylvania Station (1911), New York Central’s Grand Central Terminal (it opened in 1913 and replaced the previous Grand Central Station), Lackawanna Railroad’s Hoboken Terminal (1907), the jointly built and operated [by Union Pacific, Santa Fe, and Southern Pacific] Los Angeles Union Passenger Terminal (today known as Los Angeles Union Station), and the jointly built and operated [by the PRR, Milwaukee, and Burlington] Chicago Union Station (1925), the jointly built and operated [by UP, Rio Grande, Burlington, Rock Island, and Santa Fe] Denver Union Station (1914). Sadly, a number of large stations, like the PRR’s Pennsylvania Station have since been razed but many still stand.
In terms of overall traffic levels, particularly in regards to passengers, the the first few decades of the 20th century were the peak years of the Golden Age. During this time railroads hauled an astonishing 98 percent of the intercity passenger traffic and 77 percent of intercity freight traffic. While railroads would be jammed with traffic during World War I and later World War II, these lucrative years would be short-lived, as the automobile became a much more reliable and convenient means of travel (it also helped that in 1925 the price of a Ford Model T was an affordable $260). Other modes that began to eat away at the railroads’ traffic base included airplanes, trucks, and buses. It was during the 1930s that lightweight materials, like aluminum, began to be used in car construction.
Not only did this material make the car lighter, which was easier on the track structure and less difficult for a locomotive to pull, streamlining became widely popular during the decade and aluminum was light and flexible enough to be used as shrouding to streamline both cars and locomotives (it also helped that the Art Deco movement was in full swing during the 1930s). One of the first, and perhaps most famous streamlined passenger trains was the Burlington’s Zephyr 9900 trainset, built in 1934. Sleek, fast, and comfortable (for instance, it broke the speed record for traveling between Denver and Chicago, covering the 1,000+ mile distance non-stop in only thirteen hours and five minutes) it paved the way for an entire generation of streamlined trains (the very first streamliner to debut, a few months before the Zephyr was the Union Pacific's M-10000 trainset). Famous passenger trains to follow included all of those mentioned above and nearly the entire 100+ Class I railroads during this time had some sort of streamlining added to their most prestigious train(s).
However, following WWII passenger rail traffic began to drop significantly and would not recover, even while railroads began to update their passenger fleets with new equipment into the 1950s. A decade later, in the 1960s, railroads were losing significantly with their passenger operations (passenger trains are rarely profitable; however, before the 1950s railroads were earning enough that their freight revenues could easily offset the loses) and desperately wanted out. The remnants of the "Golden Age" quickly ended following World War II and passenger operations, and the railroad industry as a whole, went into a spiraling decline. By the late 1960s passenger service was down right terrible on most lines, which resulted in the formation of Amtrak in 1971.