North American Railroad Family Trees, By Brian Solomon

Header Photo: Drew Jacksich

If you have ever been interested in learning just how today's modern systems like CSX Transportation and Norfolk Southern were formed you should certainly put North American Railroad Family Trees by author Brian Solomon on your list of books to have in your collection.  This title isn't unusually large, just over 100 pages, but offers an excellent general history on the subject.  You will learn what inspired some mergers and how others fell apart, such as the collapse of Penn Central during the early 1970s that created Conrail, which was eventually absorbed by NS and CSX in the late 1990s.  The book also goes beyond just highlighting the mergers but also details events and circumstances that led to the fate of some railroads and steered the industry in a particular direction.

North American Railroad Family Trees first chapter begins by describing how many railroads got their start.  It's not surprising that many began as locally run systems and then slowly grew over the years or were acquired by other, larger railroads.  The book provides a great deal of insight here into exactly who controlled many of these companies by the early 20th century.  You might be surprised to learn that " 1907 more than 2,440 corporations owned railway lines in the United States..."  although just 17 operated the majority of the country's network.  Additionally, and perhaps most astonishing is that in essence just a handful of men controlled most of these railroads; names like J.P. Morgan, Jim Hill, Jay Gould, Collis P. Huntington, and Cornelius Vanderbilt.

Into chapter two Mr. Solomon highlights how changing government policies and new regulations during the early 1900s began shaping the future of the industry such as the Hepburn Act of 1906, which forced systems to divest control of companies in which they provided transportation (such as coal mines).  There were also several other provisions passed during this era to improve safety and further reel in the industry such as the Elkins Act of 1903, signed by President Theodore Roosevelt that increased the restrictions of rebates railroads receive.  Then in 1910 the Mann-Elkins Act was passed that expanded the powers of the Interstate Commerce Commission by requiring railroads to show just cause for any rise in freight rates.  

While perhaps unfair and an overreach by the government the industry partly brought about these regulations on themselves due to their arrogance towards the general public and unsafe travel conditions during the 19th century.  In any event, this heavy oversight became a growing burden as the years passed and was one reason for the industry's collapse in the 1970s.  The rest of the chapter highlights the growth and expansion of notable systems like the Southern Pacific and Baltimore & Ohio.  By chapter three Mr. Solomon has moved into the 1940s just after World War II and how the industry greatly changed following the conflict.  The first mega-mergers began in the 1950s with the Norfolk & Western acquiring the Virginian Railway in 1959.  That decade also witnessed the beginnings of retrenchment as interstate highways and airlines began taking away considerable passenger and freight traffic.

Chapter three discusses these and other factors that led to massive downsizing, cutbacks, abandonments, and bankruptcies that continued through the 1970s culminating with the Penn Central collapse.  Moving into chapter four Mr. Solomon concludes his historical narrative by highlighting its transition from 1980 through the present era.  The resurgence began in 1980 with deregulation via the Staggers Act, a new government mandate that relieved railroads from many of the burdens placed on them since the early 20th century; examples of this included the ability to more easily abandon or sell redundant trackage and new freedoms to set freight rates in an effort to remain competitive against other modes of transportation.  In this section Mr. Solomon has included plenty of charts and diagrams describing how railroads still in service at that time helped shape today's Class Is.

Moving into chapter five the book talks about how rail passenger, both intercity and regional commuter services, have changed drastically since the 1960s.  Back then nearly everything was still privately owned and operated.  Unfortunately, the high operating costs coupled with low return on investment resulted in a gradual decline in service to the point that public ownership and funding was virtually inevitable to avoid total shutdown.  Amtrak was one of the first initiatives created, born in 1971 through Congress to sustain intercity rail travel.  As the years passed many states began implementing their own local or regional commuter services and since then most have been very successful such as the Long Island Rail Road, Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, Chicago's Metra, and numerous others.

The book concludes with chapter six entitled Planned Systems And The Future. There is a lot of interesting information in this final section as it gives the reader an idea of what the industry may look like in the coming years as well as mergers that never came to be such as the failed Santa Fe Southern Pacific marriage or the Union Pacific's inability to purchase the Rock Island during the 1960s.  There are additional maps and charts here, including a neat overlay of principal main lines throughout the United States and Canada as well as a different merger scenarios that may come to pass in the future.  All in all this book is a fascinating look at the U.S. railroad industry, and taken from an angle a bit different than most others.