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RAILROADS. Beginning in the nineteenth century in the United States, a vast system of railroads was developed that moved goods and people across great distances, facilitated the settlement of large portions of the country, created towns and cities, and unified a nation.

Early railways were a far cry from the great system of railroads that were built in the nineteenth century and that continue to be used today. The earliest railways in the United States were short, wooden railways built by quarries and mines along which horses pulled loads to nearby water ways. In 1827, quarry and mine operators in Quincy, Massachusetts, and Mauch Chunk, Pennsylvania, constructed the first full-size railways. The first locomotive for use on railways was imported from England in 1829. The English had been experimenting with steam-powered locomotives since the late eighteenth century and had developed a prototype by 1828. Horatio Allen, working for the Delaware & Hudson Canal Company, purchased four of these early steam locomotives and brought them to the United States. One, Stourbridge Lion, was tested on 8 August 1829, but proved to be too heavy for the tracks that had been constructed and was subsequently retired.

Undeterred, railroad companies continued to seek a viable steam-powered locomotive. By 1828, railroad track was being laid not only by the Delaware & Hudson, but also by the Baltimore & Ohio and the South Carolina Railroads. Locomotive engines were needed. Peter Cooper rose to the challenge and on 28 August 1830 drove his diminutive Tom Thumb locomotive at speeds approaching fifteen miles per hour while towing a car filled with thirty people. The thirteen-mile trip was made from Baltimore to Ellicot's Hill in Maryland.

With the viability of steam-powered locomotives proven, the race was on to build other, larger locomotives. The Baltimore & Ohio and the South Carolina railroads instituted contests for locomotive designs. E. L. Miller was commissioned by the South Carolina to construct what would be the first locomotive built in America for use on railroad. He named the locomotive The Best Friend of Charleston. Tested in October of 1830, the engine performed admirably. Unfortunately, The Best Friend exploded the following year, but not before the South Carolina Railroad inaugurated service on 25 December 1830. The Best Friend pulled train cars, the first locomotive to do so in the United States, along six miles of track out of Charleston. The age of the railroad in America had begun.

Other railroads quickly followed the South Carolina and the Baltimore & Ohio. Steam-powered railroads operating in the early 1830s included the Mohawk & Hudson, the earliest link in the future New York Central system, begun on 9 August 1831; the Camden and Amboy,

later part of the Pennsylvania system, in 1831; the Philadelphia, Germantown and Norristown in 1832; and the railroad connecting New Orleans with Lake Pontchar-train, afterward part of the Louisville and Nashville Railroad, on 17 September 1832. By 1835 railroads ran from Boston to Lowell, Massachusetts, the beginnings of the future Boston and Maine; to Worcester, Massachusetts, first link in the Boston and Albany Railroad; and to Providence, Rhode Island, the genesis of the New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad. The Petersburg Railroad, later part of the Atantic Coast Line, ran from the Virginia City into North Carolina.

By 1840, railroad track in the United States had reached almost three thousand miles; by 1850, more than nine thousand miles; by 1860 over thirty thousand miles. During these decades, technology associated with the steam locomotive continued to improve, and innovations were made in the design of the tracks themselves. Early tracks were constructed of wood, which was not strong enough to support ever-heavier locomotives. Iron rails were developed that could carry the weight of large, steam-powered locomotives. These rails were originally laid on crossties made of blocks of stone, which were not only expensive, but also could not support the weight of locomotives. They were replaced by wooden crossties similar to those used today.

Several other innovations helped foster the growth of railroads between 1840 and 1860. These included T-shaped rails that distributed the weight of trains evenly and hook-headed spikes that grabbed the rail, thus attaching it securely to the crossties. Swiveling trucks under railroad cars created greater stability, allowing trains to travel over rough roadbed and high terrain. The development of truss and cantilever bridges provided a way to get railroads over water ways and other obstructions. By the 1860s, track could be laid virtually any where.

In the 1850s the ambitious efforts to reach the seaports of the Atlantic and to reach the West were successful. The Erie Railroad and the Albany & New York Central connected New York State and New York City with the Great Lakes. Philadelphia established an all-rail connection with Pittsburgh, and Baltimore reached the Ohio River at Wheeling, Virginia (now West Virginia), early in the 1850s. Other lines were built across the more open and level country of the Middle West. Two railroads, the Michigan Central and the Michigan Southern, reached Chicago from the east in 1852. Both were later incorporated into the New York Central system. Lines were also built west from Chicago. The Galena & Chicago Union (later the Chicago and North Western) reached the Mississippi River in February 1854. Only a year later a route between Chicago and East Saint Louis afforded another rail connection between the eastern seaboard and the Mississippi River, while in 1857 two more connections were added. A direct route from the Atlantic to Chicago was constructed from Baltimore via Cincinnati. In addition, a route between Charleston, South Carolina, and Savannah, Georgia, on the Atlantic coast and Memphis, Tennessee, on the Mississippi, was built.

Railroads were also being built from the far bank of the Mississippi River westward. On 9 December 1852, the Pacific Railroad of Missouri (later the Missouri Pacific) ran five miles westward from Saint Louis. In 1856, the locomotive The Iron Horse crossed the Mississippi on the first railroad bridge. The bridge belonged to the Rock Island line, later called the Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific. By 1860, the railroad had reached the Missouri River on the tracks of the Hannibal & Saint Joseph (later part of the Burlington lines).


The thousands of miles of track laid and the locomotives and other railroad equipment built in the early years of the railroad in the United States were all done by private companies. These companies built their railroads to suit their needs and to specifications they determined. Tracks were built in a variety of gauges (the distance between the rails) ranging from two and one-half feet to six feet. By the 1870s, close to two dozen gauges of track were in use in the United States. Locomotives were built to fit the gauge of the track. In addition, the couplings used to attach one train car to another varied. The incompatibility of railroads was not a problem if the purpose of the railroads remained to move people and goods over short distances. However, when the potential of the railroad to travel greater distances, even to traverse the country, was realized, the need for industry standards became evident.

Track gauge was the first of such standards to be achieved. The standard gauge in the South was five feet. In the rest of the country, the predominant gauge was four feet eight and one-half inches—the standard English gauge that had been used because locomotives had been imported from England. In 1886, the South changed its gauge to conform to that of the rest of the country. Trains today run on this gauge of track except for a limited of number of narrow-gauge railroads.

Next came standardization of locomotives and railroad cars to fit the track; standardization of couplings followed. Early couplers were simple link and pin devices that were unsafe and unreliable. In 1885, forty-two improved couplers were tested in Buffalo, New York. In 1887, a coupler designed by Eli H. Janney was adopted as the standard; Janney's design remained in use until the 1970s.

Interchanging cars between railroads also required the standardization of brakes. Early train brakes were hand brakes operated by brakemen in each car. Efforts to standardize brakes were unsuccessful until 1869. In that year, George Westinghouse developed his first air brake. In 1871, he designed an air brake that would immediately engage if cars became separated. Westinghouse's air brakes were designed only to work on passenger trains. Air brakes for freight trains were not developed until 1887, after testing on the Chicago, Burlington, & Quincy in Burlington, Iowa. These air brakes, with improvements, have remained an integral part of freight trains.

One final, crucial feature of rail transport needed to be standardized: time. Efforts were made in the 1870s to standardize rail schedules and timetables. In light of the increasing interconnection of railroad lines, the timing of trains became critical. Each railroad originally had its own "standard time." This time was usually that of the railroad headquarters or an important town on the line. In an era when people were still keeping local time, the idea of a standard time seemed implausible if not impossible, but local time was increasingly becoming railroad time. Each town had a "regulator" clock by which local people set their watches and clocks. This clock often hung in the railroad station. On 18 November 1883, the American Railway Association adopted a "standard time" with four time zones one hour apart. The standard time system remained under the auspices of the railroad until 1918, when the U.S. Congress adopted the system and put it under the control of the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC).

The Growth of the Railroad, Railroad Towns, and the Population of the American Interior

Railroads began in the East, but quickly moved west, spider-webbing across the country. Wherever railroads went, people followed and towns grew. Previously uninhabited or sparsely inhabited areas of the country became towns almost overnight when the railroad came through. One striking example is the case of Terminus, Georgia. The small town of about thirty was chosen as the terminus for the Western & Atlantic Railroad. In 1845, it was renamed Atlanta and went on to become one of the most important cities in the South.

Railroads required land on which to lay tracks, build rail yards, and construct depots. Beginning in the 1850s, speculators bought land in the hopes that a railroad would come through an area and they could then resell the land at a much higher price. Also in the 1850s, the United States government realized the value of the railroads and the land associated with them. One of the first railroads built as a single unit was the Illinois Central. The line could be built as one unit partly because the government granted land to the rail company in a patchwork pattern of alternating one-mile-square sections, with the government retaining ownership of the intervening lands. The combination of public and private ownership created by the grant and others like it led to the use and settlement of vacant lands, the extension of railroads into underdeveloped areas, and increased production and wealth. In return for the land grants, the railroads transported government

freight, mail, and personnel, including military troops, until 1946.

The government further encouraged settlement in the wake of the railroads through the Homestead Act of 1862. Settlers were granted 160 acres of land in the West on the condition that they farm it for five years; they could also purchase the land for $1.25 an acre after farming it for only six months. Few farmers could afford to take advantage of the latter provision, but many land speculators could. Thousands of acres of homestead land were purchased by speculators at what were paltry sums, forcing new settlers, in turn, to purchase land at inflated prices from speculators.

Railroads were crucial in moving goods to markets. Cities in the East, like New York and Boston, and in the Midwest, like Chicago, that had begun life as ports, became the centers for railroad transport of agricultural and industrial products. Railroads freed trade of the constrictions of the natural sources of transport, such as rivers, because railroads could be constructed almost anywhere. Like canals before them, railroads became in essence man-made rivers. Railroads moved freight and people between urban centers in the East into the interior of the country and ultimately toward the West.

Towns in the center of the country became boom-towns, acting as railroad transshipment points for goods.

Perhaps the best examples of this are the Kansas towns like Abilene and the infamous Dodge City. From the mid-1860s to the mid-1880s, Texas cowboys drove herds of longhorn cattle to these towns where they were loaded onto trains for shipment to stockyards and slaughterhouses in cities like Chicago. The cattle drives ended when the railroads moved even farther west and south to areas where the cattle were grazed and when farmers across whose lands the cattle were driven erected barbed-wire fences to keep out the trampling herds. Railroad towns that were no longer needed as access points for railroads often were abandoned as quickly as they arose or greatly reduced in population. Railroads brought boom and bust to towns and cities across the nation.

The Transcontinental Railroad

A large part of the effort to bring the railroad to the freight instead of the freight to the railroad culminated in the building of the first transcontinental railroad. On 1 July 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed a bill authorizing the construction of a railroad between the Missouri River and California. The idea for a transcontinental railroad had been around since at least 1848. Engineers had mapped several routes by the 1850s and railroads had been built along some portions of those routes. Rivalry between railroads had prevented the completion of a unified transcontinental route, however.

The outbreak of the Civil War removed the southern routes from consideration and increased the need for a transcontinental railroad for use by the military. Lincoln designated Council Bluffs, Iowa, as the starting place for the new railroad. Two railroads worked on the transcontinental railroad: The Union Pacific built westward from Omaha, Nebraska, and the Central Pacific built eastward from Sacramento, California. The two lines met on 10 May 1869 in Promontory, Utah, where the tracks were joined with a golden spike. The telegraph spread the news nationwide.

This first transcontinental route was built with government assistance in the form of land grants and loans. The line was intended for use by the military and was not expected to make money. Subsequent transcontinental railroads were built with the assistance of land grants but not governmental loans.

Several more transcontinental rail lines were completed between 1869 and 1910. In 1881, the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe building from the west met the Southern Pacific at Deming, New Mexico. The Southern Pacific continued eastward until it met the Texas & Pacific at Sierra Blanca, Texas, in 1883. Through the acquisition of other railroads and further construction, including a line to New Orleans and to California from Albuquerque, New Mexico, the second transcontinental railroad was completed in 1883.

Three routes were built to the Pacific Northwest. The Northern Pacific Railroad completed the first in 1883. It ran through the northern tier states. The second opened a year later when the Oregon Short Line joined the Union Pacific with Oregon Railway and Navigation Company tracks. Both railroads later became part of the Union Pacific System. Great Northern completed the third route: the first transcontinental railroad to be built without land grants, the extension connected the West coast with the Chicago, Milwaukee & Saint Paul Railroad.

A Union Pacific route to southern California was completed by the San Pedro, Los Angeles & Salt Lake Railroad in 1905. In 1910, the Western Pacific joined with the Denver, Rio Grande & Western Railroad at Salt Lake City to complete yet another transcontinental route.

The fever for constructing transcontinental routes did not lead to other parts of the railroad system being neglected. In the 1860s, twenty-two thousand miles of new track were laid. Over the course of the decade of the 1870s, forty thousand miles of new rail lines were built. In the 1880s, more than seven thousand miles of new rail line were laid. By the end of the nineteenth century, railroads crisscrossed America, transporting freight to ports and markets at an unprecedented volume.

The Railroads and the U.S. Government

The relationship between the U.S. government and the railroads began in the 1850s with the land grants given to railroads. The government had a vested interest in seeing the expansion of the railroads because this expansion made use of previously unused or underused land, creating new, and taxable, wealth.

A more direct relationship between the government and the railroads was forged during the Civil War. Before 1860, the majority of the railroad track in the United States was in the North. Railroads ran west from the North to the interior of the country; when the war started in 1861, railroads lost their markets in the South, but gained an even bigger market, the military. Railroads in both the North and the South became vital to the Union and Confederate militaries, and large railroad termini, like Atlanta, became prime military targets.

Railroads were used to move large numbers of troops to the sites of major battles. The outcome of the First Battle of Bull Run was determined by troops shifted by rail from the Shenandoah Valley to the vicinity of Manassas, Virginia. In preparation for the launching of General Braxton Bragg's Kentucky campaign, the Confederate Army of Tennessee was moved by rail from Tupelo, Mississippi, to Chattanooga, Tennessee. A more remarkable accomplishment was the movement of General James Longstreet's army corps by rail from Virginia through the Carolinas and Georgia, just in time to secure the Confederate victory of Chickamauga, Georgia. Most remarkable of all was the movement of General Joseph Hooker's two corps of twenty-two thousand men over a distance of twelve hundred miles from Virginia to the vicinity of Chattanooga, via Columbus, Indianapolis, Louisville, and Nashville.

More important even than these spectacular shifts of large army units from one strategic field to another was the part played by the railroads in the day-to-day movement of men, food, ammunition, matériel, and supplies from distant sources to the combat forces. Such movements reached their height during General William Tecumseh Sherman's campaign to capture Atlanta in the summer of 1864. His army of one hundred thousand men and thirty-five thousand animals was kept supplied and fit by a single-track railroad extending nearly five hundred miles from its base on the Ohio River at Louisville.

The military continued to use railroads in later wars. In April 1917, when railroad mileage in the United States was at its peak, the country entered World War I. A volunteer Railroads' War Board was established to coordinate the use of railroads to meet military requirements. When this board proved unsatisfactory, the railroads were taken over by the government on 1 January 1918; the takeover lasted twenty-six months.

During World War II, railroads initially remained under private directorship. Improvements made in the interwar years, perhaps in part because of needs realized during World War I, allowed the railroads to meet World War II military requirements despite less operational railroad track within the United States. Between the world wars, new, more powerful steam locomotives had been put into use; the diesel engine was introduced to passenger travel in 1934 and to freight service in 1941. Wooden cars had been replaced and passenger cars were air conditioned starting in 1929. Passenger train speeds increased and overnight service was instituted for freight service. Railroad signaling was centralized, increasing the capacity of rail lines. The organization and operation of car supply and distribution were improved to the extent that train car shortages became a thing of the past.

Railroad service was so improved that the government did not need to seize the railroads during World War II, but shortly after the war ended the situation changed. In 1946, President Harry S. Truman was forced to seize the railroads to handle a nationwide strike of engineers and trainmen that had paralyzed the railroads (and much of the nation) for two days. Strikes in 1948 and 1950 precipitated further government seizures. The intervention of the government in railroad-labor relations illustrates not only the importance of the railroads, but also the regulatory power the government wields in its relationship with the railroads.

Railroads and U.S. Government Regulation

Much of the history of the relationship between the U.S. government and railroads has involved regulation or its lack. Early in the growth of railroads, the government tended to ignore what were later seen to be the excesses of railroad developers. The desire to drive the railroad west in the 1860s overrode concerns about land speculators buying up homestead land and led to the distribution of millions of acres of government land to railroads at minimal prices. In the 1880s, railroads set about competing for business, using any means necessary, including special terms to companies who shipped a lot of freight. Planning was minimal—railroads ran everywhere and nowhere at all; railroads were spending a lot, but making little. Ultimately railroads' power to control land and access to markets resulted in farmers who could not afford to ship their goods to market.

In the 1890s, in part in response to the discontent of farmers and others with the disorganized state of the railroads, "robber barons" (wealthy speculators and businessmen) bought companies in many industries, consolidating them into large, monopolistic corporations. The foremost of these businessmen in the railroad industry was J. P. Morgan, who set up the House of Morgan in New York City. Morgan proceeded to merge railroads across the country, claiming to be attempting to stabilize the industry. In so doing, he created trusts, virtual monopolies, with interlocking directorates. Investors flocked to trusts like Morgan's. The result for small businessmen was the same as under the previous, disorganized system: power over the railroads rested in the hands of a few individuals who gave preferential treatment to large industrial producers. The government watched these events more or less from the sidelines until, in 1902 President Theodore Roosevelt challenged Morgan's creation of Northern Securities, an entity set up to unite competing railroad moguls from the East and West coasts. Roosevelt used the power of the Sherman Antitrust Act (1890), setting a precedent for dissolving railroad and other corporate monopolies.

Attempts to regulate the railroad industry had been made prior to the use of antitrust laws against railroads. Another means the government used to try to regulate railroads was control of interstate trade. Early attempts to regulate railroad rates and practices by states had been only partly successful, although in 1876 the so-called Granger laws had been upheld by the Supreme Court for intrastate application. In 1886, however, the Court held, in Wabash, Saint Louis and Pacific Railroad Company v. Illinois, that Congress had exclusive jurisdiction over inter-state commerce and that a state could not regulate even the intrastate portion of an interstate movement. Efforts had been made for a dozen years before to have Congress enact regulatory legislation. The decision in the Wabash case resulted in passage on 4 February 1887, of the Interstate Commerce Act, which created the Interstate Commerce Commission. Subsequent legislation broadened the commission's jurisdiction and responsibilities, increased its powers, and strengthened its organization.

Between 1890 and 1900 another 40,000 miles of track were added to the railroad net; after 1900, still another 60,000 miles of line were built, bringing the total of first main track to its peak of 254,000 miles in 1916. Mileage of all tracks, including additional main tracks, passing tracks, sidings, and yards, reached its maximum of 430,000 miles in 1930. By 1960, mileage of line declined to approximately 220,000, and miles of track of all kinds had declined 390,000. This reduction in mileage was the result of many factors, including the exhaustion of the mines, forests, and other natural resources that were the reason for being of many branch lines; intensified competition from water routes and highways; and the coordination and consolidations that made many lines un-necessary. In 1916 more than fourteen hundred companies operated 254,000 miles of line; in 1960, fewer than six hundred companies operated 220,000 miles of line—but the reduced mileage had more than double the effective carrying capacity of the earlier, more extensive network.

Congress voted to return the railroads to private operation and set up the terms of such operation in the Transportation Act of 1920. Among the changes in government policy was recognition of a measure of responsibility for financial results, found in the direction to the ICC to fix rates at such a level as would enable the railroads, as a whole or in groups, to earn a fair return on the value of the properties devoted to public service. This provision was frequently described as a government guarantee of railroad profits, although there was no guarantee of earnings. Commercial conditions and competitive forces kept railway earnings well below the called-for level, and the government was not asked or required to make up the deficiency.

Another shift in government policy related to consolidation of railroads, which had initially been frowned on but was later encouraged by the Transportation Act of 1920. The change in policy stemmed from the fact that consolidation in one form or another had from early times been the way the major systems, some of which included properties originally built by a hundred or more companies, achieved growth. Accordingly the 1920 law directed the ICC to develop a plan of consolidation for the railroads; in 1933, the ICC requested that it be relieved of this requirement.

In passing the Transportation Act of 1958 Congress somewhat relaxed regulatory requirements on the railroads, providing, in effect, that competitive cost factors be given greater consideration in determining the lawfulness of rates, so long as the rates proposed were compensatory to the carrier and not discriminatory.

Railroads and Labor

The construction of a massive project like railroads requires a tremendous amount of labor. Once built, railroad upkeep and operation requires even more labor. Ancillary industries utilized large labor forces for the production of iron, and later steel, the felling of trees and processing of wood, and the production of other materials necessary for the manufacture of tracks, locomotives, and train cars. Service industries employed workers to fill jobs such as porters, waiters, and other functions on railroads. Finally, fuel had to be mined and processed to run the locomotives.

Relations between railroads and their workers have often been rancorous. Tension was present from the beginning because of the danger associated with many rail-road jobs. One of the earliest and most dangerous was that of brakeman. Brakemen rode on top of freight cars, hopping down to stick wooden clubs into the spokes of the wheels of the train to bring it to a halt. The air brake ended this particularly hazardous employment, but other rail jobs were also dangerous. Not only were railroad jobs often dangerous, they usually did not pay well. In the 1870s, many rail workers were paid less than $2 per twelve-hour day.

The combination of dangerous work, long hours, and low pay led to railroads and labor often being at loggerheads. Railroad workers went on strike several times in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In 1877, one of the largest and most devastating strikes involved Baltimore & Ohio Railroad workers in Martinsburg, West Virginia, who went on strike to protest wage cuts. The strike spread to Baltimore, then to the Pittsburgh and the Pennsylvania railroads, and eventually to St. Louis. Although some national railroad labor unions disavowed the strike, local strikers held train stations and set them afire. State militias and the national guard were called out to break the strike in several locations. A thousand people were imprisoned during the strike, which eventually involved one hundred thousand workers. When the railroads rescinded the wage cuts, the strike, which had involved more than half the freight on the country's railroads, came to an end.

The Homestead and Pullman strikes of 1892 and 1894, respectively, further frayed relations between laborers and railroad management. Strikes and unrest in the railroad industry led the federal government to institute regulations that mitigated some of the labor problems. The first federal legislation addressing relations between railroads and their employees was passed in 1888. The law applied only to employees in train and engine service: the first railway employees to form successful unions—the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers in 1863, the Order of Railway Conductors in 1868, the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen and Enginemen in 1873, and the Brotherhood of Railroad Trainmen in 1883. These, with the addition of the Switchmen's Union of North America, organized in 1894, constitute the "operating" group of unions. "Nonoperating" crafts formed organizations at various dates—the telegraphers (1886), the six shop-craft unions (1888–1893), the maintenance-of-way employees (1891), the clerks and station employees (1898), the signalmen (1901).

The Erdman Act (1898) and the Newlands Act (1913), which provided various measures for mediation, conciliation, arbitration, and fact-finding in connection with railway labor disputes, dealt with train service cases only. The Transportation Act of 1920 that encouraged the consolidation of railroads also set up the U.S. Railroad Labor Board and granted it jurisdiction over all crafts of employees and power to determine wage rates and working conditions; however, the act did not grant the Labor Board the power to enforce its decisions. In 1922, the shopmen brought about the first nationwide strike on the railroads when they struck in response to a Labor Board decision reducing wages. The strike failed, but its aftereffects were such that in the Railway Labor Act of 1926, agreed to by the unions and the railroads, the Labor Board was abolished and the principles of earlier labor legislation, with their reliance on mediation and conciliation, were restored. The 1926 law was amended in important particulars in 1934, at the urging of the Railway Labor Executives Association, an organization of the "standard" railway unions formed in 1929.

In 1934, the Railroad Retirement Act was passed as the first of the Social Security measures of the New Deal. This legislation was declared unconstitutional, but in 1937 a retirement and unemployment insurance system was set up under legislation agreed upon by the Railway Labor Executives Association and the Association of American Railroads, an organization of the industry formed in 1934.

Strikes by the engineers and trainmen and other groups of unions in 1946, 1948, and 1950 led, in 1951, to amendment of the 1934 Railway Labor Act. The amendment removed the prohibition on requiring union membership as a condition of railroad employment, thus permitting the establishment of the union shop by negotiation. Such agreements were negotiated on most railroads.

Passenger Transport in the Early Twentieth Century

The romance of railroad travel extends perhaps as far back to the day when Tom Thumb pulled a train car with thirty people through the Maryland countryside. The first sleeper car, an innovation that provided some comfort on long rail journeys, was made for the Cumberland Valley Railroad that ran through Pennsylvania and Maryland. In 1856, the sleeper car that was to become an American classic was invented by George W. Pullman. The cars had an upper and lower berths and were improved by all-steel construction in 1859.

The heyday of passenger rail travel, however, did not begin until the 1920s. The year that kicked off that decade saw a record 1.2 billion passengers. The immense rider-ship was short lived; the automobile became more and more popular throughout the 1920s. In 1934, the Burlington, Chicago & Quincy line introduced the Zephyr—a streamlined, diesel-powered locomotive. The locomotive was unveiled at the Century of Progress Exhibition and was later featured in the 1934 movie, The Silver Streak. The country was transfixed, and by the end of the decade rail travel had again become fashionable. Many railroad lines ran streamlined trains and passenger travel increased by 38 percent between 1930 and 1939, though total ridership remained at less than half of the highs of 1920.

World War II again interrupted the popularity of rail travel. Railroads remained profitable during the war years because government used the railroads to move troops, supplies, and equipment and because of the scarcity of other means of transport during gas rationing. After World War II, railroads failed to recapture the American imagination and never recovered the phenomenal number of passengers of the early part of the century. Automobiles and airplanes took a firm hold as the preferred means of passenger transport in the United States. Railroads turned to more profitable freight business as their main source of income.

Throughout the postwar years the railroads made many capital improvements, spending, on average, more than $1 billion a year. The most significant change was the replacement of steam power by diesel-electric power. Continuous-welded rail in lengths of a quarter-mile, a half-mile, and even longer came into wider use. Railroads were increasingly maintained by more efficient off-track equipment. New freight cars that rode more smoothly were designed. An automatic terminal with electronic controls, known as the push-button yard, was developed. Container or trailer-on-flatcar service, commonly called piggybacking, was introduced. Containers today are used in the transport of much of the freight in the United States and abroad.

The Late Twentieth Century and Early Twenty-first Century

Fewer passengers and decreased freight and mail service in the second half of the twentieth century led to railroad bankruptcies as well as mergers and acquisitions designed to streamline the industry. By the 1970s, railroad passengers accounted for only 7.2 percent of travelers in the United States. By contrast, airline passengers represented 73 percent of travelers each year. Freight service has evolved differently. Between 1980 and 2000, while the number of miles of track decreased from 202,000 to approximately 173,000, the amount of freight transported annually increased from 918 billion ton-miles (one ton transported one mile) to 1.4 trillion ton-miles.

New types of freight service appeared in the 1960s. Although the number of freight cars in service dropped slightly, the average capacity per car increased by nearly 25 percent. In addition, container freight service continued to grow. Railroads also rebuilt a declining coal traffic by reducing rates through the introduction of "unit trains," which are whole trains of permanently coupled cars that carry bulk tonnage to a single destination on a regular schedule. Unit trains were so popular that they were soon in use for hauling a variety of commodities.

During the 1960s and early 1970s, total investment in the railroad industry grew only modestly. The rather bleak financial picture was in part relieved by technological advances. A major reduction in overheated locomotive engines ("hot boxes") was achieved during the 1960s. Improved lubrication plus infrared detection devices at trackside reduced the incidence of overheated engines by more than 90 percent.

Beginning in the late 1960s, railroad cars were tagged with automatic car identification, which allowed them to be tracked anywhere in the country. The use of computers to control train traffic burgeoned during the decade, with almost ten thousand miles of Centralized Traffic Control installed.

Passenger rail service dropped sharply in the 1960s. In 1961 passenger service was offered on more than 40 percent of the nation's railroads. By 1971 passenger trains were running on less than 20 percent of the national mileage. In an effort to save the failing passenger rail industry in the United States, the government sponsored a project for high-speed passenger service in the Northeast corridor from Boston to Washington, D.C., running through New York City and Philadelphia. The service was dubbed the Metroliner and is today part of the Amtrak system.

Amtrak, National Railroad Passenger Corporation, is a federally sponsored entity that took control of most railroad passenger service in May 1971. In 2000, Amtrak had 22,000 miles of track and served forty-six states and over five hundred communities. Despite a ridership of over 22 million passengers in 2000, Amtrak faced a severe financial crisis. Amtrak and the government continue to work together to try to maintain passenger rail service across the United States.

The number of railroad employees declined steadily in tandem with declining ridership in the 1960s. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the number of railroad employees hovers at slightly over one hundred thousand; the average annual income of a railroad employee is $60,000 per year.

Since the middle of the twentieth century, mergers have become a survival tactic for railroads. The aim was to achieve significant operational savings, which were projected and claimed for nearly every proposed merger. In 1960, 116 Class I, large freight, railroads operated in the United States; only nine were in operation by 1997. Class I railroads dropped from 106 to 76 between 1960 and 1965.

The federal government continued to play a role in railroad affairs in the second half of the twentieth century. In addition to sponsoring Amtrak, the federal government addressed regulatory issues. Federal controls had been somewhat lessened by the Transportation Act of 1958, but most railroad managers still believed their industry to be overregulated. In 1970, the Department of Transportation was established; in 1980, sweeping changes were made to federal government regulatory practices. The Stag-gers Rail Act (1980) forced partial deregulation of the industry. In addition, the decline in passenger service and a decreased need for freight service because of greater railroad efficiency, along with government support of the airlines and highway construction, led to the railroads becoming unable to compete effectively. Federal regulation also prevented railroads from reacting to changes in the marketplace.

Deregulation permitted railroads to make changes that increased their revenues. For example, unprofitable branch lines could be closed. Railroads were also forced into free competition with air and road carriers. Shippers could now demand better prices from railroad carriers. More recently, the small number of freight railroads has caused some concern among shippers, who have begun to question the competitiveness in the industry.

Recent technological advances are revolutionizing railroads in other areas. In the 1990s, the airbrake had its first significant change since the 1930s. The Electro-Pneumatic brake system now in use allows the command for the brakes on a train to be sent electronically by the engineer, thereby increasing braking control. Computers control many other phases of railroad operation; satellites monitor the position of trains to prevent collisions. Many trains, like those of the Metro-North commuter train in southern New York, are now equipped with a system that sends signals to a display in the train, eliminating the need for wayside signaling. Finally, high-speed passenger rail service has been developed. At present, it is in limited use by Amtrak in the Northeast corridor. The hope is that commuters and travelers will see high-speed rail as an alternative to air travel and automobiles, ushering in another great age of passenger train travel.


Bianculli, Anthony J. Trains and Technology: The American Railroad in the Nineteenth Century. Vol. 1, Trains and Technology. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2001.

Daniels, Rudolph. Trains across the Continent: North American Railroad History. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000.

Del Vecchio, Mike. Pictorial History of America's Railroads. Osceola, Wis.: MBI Publishing, 2001.

Saunders, Richard, Jr. Merging Lines: American Railroads, 1900– 1970. DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2001.

Schweiterman, Joseph P. When the Railroad Leaves Town: American Communities in the Age of Rail Line Abandonment. Kirksville, Mo.: Truman State University Press, 2001.

Stover, John F., and Mark C. Carnes. The Routledge Historical Atlas of the American Railroads. New York: Routledge, 1999.

Usselman, Steven W. Regulating Railroad Innovation: Business, Technology, and Politics in America, 1840–1920. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

Williams, John Hoyt. A Great and Shining Road: The Epic Story of the Transcontinental Railroad. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1996

Christine K.Kimbrough

See alsoHomestead Movement ; Homestead Strike ; Inter-state Commerce Laws ; Land Speculation ; Monopoly ; Northern Securities Company v. United States ; Pullman Strike ; Pullmans ; Steam Power and Engines ; Transcontinental Railroad, Building of ; Transportation and Travel ; Transportation, Department of ; Trust-Busting .

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The idea of using rails for transportation was first conceived in the sixteenth century. The first railroads used wooden rails to guide horse-drawn wagons. In the eighteenth century, cast-iron wheels and rails were used in Europe and England, and by the nineteenth century, horses had been replaced by many steam-driven engines as the source of power. The first public railroad equipped for steam-powered engines was a twenty-mile track built in England in the 1820s.

In the United States, the first commercial steam-powered railroad service was provided in South Carolina. On December 25, 1830, the South Carolina Railroad pulled a short passenger train out of Charleston. Compared with the trains and lines in the early 2000s, the first trains were small and the lines were short. But the technology continued to improve, and railroads increased in number, size, and strength throughout the first half of the nineteenth century. In 1830 only 23 miles of rail existed in the United States. By the mid-1830s, more than 1,000 miles of railroad tracks had been laid, and by 1850 more than 9,000 miles of rails existed.

At first, most of the railroads were constructed in the eastern states. As the United States bought, acquired, and conquered land to the west of the colonies in the first half of the nineteenth century, many industrialists came to see the railroad as the perfect vehicle for access to the natural resources and growing markets of the West. The idea of a transcontinental railroad was born in the early 1840s. The discovery of gold in California in 1848 accelerated the plans, but the most important event that inspired the creation of a transcontinental railroad was the Civil War.

The federal government was eager to assume control over California to gain a strategic advantage over the Confederacy. Passage to California by rail was the best way to secure a link to the West. In May 1862 Congress passed the pacific railroad act, 43 U.S.C.A. § 942-3, which granted public land to the Union Pacific Railroad for each mile of track that it laid from Nebraska to California. The land grants were designed to encourage private investment in the railroads. Shortly thereafter, the Central Pacific Railroad began to compete with the Union Pacific for government land grants.

The construction of a transcontinental rail system was an enormous task. It was difficult for the private sector to find the resources to fund such an endeavor, and it became apparent to all concerned that a railroad system that spanned the entire country would not be developed without some help from the government. From 1862 to 1871, the federal government granted more than 100 million acres of land to private railroad companies to promote the construction of railroads. As the country moved westward, construction increased. As construction increased, the need to move materials and goods increased, and this created a dependency on the railroads.

The railroads became the most important service in the country from the late nineteenth century through the first part of the twentieth century. They largely supplanted the use of canals and other waterways for shipping large loads because they were faster than watercraft, operated on more direct routes, and were capable of carrying larger loads. As the public dependency on railroads increased, the railroad business became extremely profitable. Railroad companies consolidated and integrated the rail lines but maintained a vast system connecting all of the continental United States.

In 1920 the Transportation Act, 40 U.S.C.A. § 316, allowed railroads to abandon certain routes that were not profitable. As the railroads consolidated, they were forced to cut costs by laying-off workers. Congress addressed the problem by freezing railroad employment levels for three years in the Emergency Railroad Transportation Act of 1933. Shortly thereafter, the interstate commerce commission mandated protections for dismissed or displaced railroad workers. As of 2003, dismissed or laid-off railroad workers are entitled to compensation, fringe benefits, moving and housing expenses, and training for new employment.

The railroad boom of the late nineteenth century not only made moguls of railroad owners but also led to monopolies in other markets, such as the coal, iron, and steel markets. Large railroad companies were able to offer lower prices to buyers than could smaller companies. Unlike other producers, the railroads did not have to pay for shipping costs. The public outcry over these unfair trade practices, and the inability of states to deal with an essentially interstate problem, forced Congress to regulate the railroad industry. Around the same time, the existing railroad companies began to support regulation of railroad prices to keep rates from dropping due to increased competition within the railroad industry itself.

Congress passed the sherman anti-trust act of 1890 (15 U.S.C.A. § 1 et seq.) to prevent monopolization and the unreasonable interference with the ordinary and usual competitive pricing or distribution system of the open market in interstate trade. In 1887 Congress passed the interstate commerce act (24 Stat. 379), which established the Interstate Commerce Commission to regulate, in large part, the railroad industry. The commission was granted the power to set railroad rates. However, the Supreme Court struck down this grant of power, and the commission was relegated to an information-gathering agency. In 1906 Congress again granted to the Interstate Commerce Commission the power to set railroad service rates, and this grant of power survived judicial review (Delaware, Lackawanna, & Western Railroad Co. v. United States, 231 U.S. 363, 34 S. Ct. 65, 58 L. Ed. 269 [1913]).

The Robber Barons

The U.S. railroad barons of the mid-to late-nineteenth century loomed over the nation's economy. Unfettered by rules and unrestrained by lawmakers and judges, the handful of railroad owners and executives could do virtually whatever they wanted. The vast fortunes they built and control they exercised not only helped to expand national frontiers but also ushered in the market controls that now limit the creation of trusts and monopolies.

The railroad barons were colorful men. Probably the most notorious was Jay Gould (1836–1892). A onetime tannery operator from New York with little education, Gould gained control of the Erie Railroad while still in his early thirties. His methods included a number of unlawful or unethical practices: issuing fraudulent stock, bribing legislators, starting price wars against competitors, betraying associates, using his newspaper to cause financial ruin, and manipulating the gold market. Gould even managed to dupe the U.S. Treasury, causing the 1869 stock market panic. At the time of his death, he was worth $77 million.

The barons were passionately monopolistic. As a director of the Union Pacific Railroad, Edward Henry Harriman (1849–1909) gobbled up western competitors until he controlled the entire Pacific Coast. But he could not out-gobble James J. Hill (1838–1916), the immensely successful Canadian immigrant whose Great Northern Railway linked the North to the West. Harriman's vicious stock battle with Hill led to a mutually satisfying truce: a short-lived monopoly called the Northern Securities Company, which the U.S. Supreme Court dissolved in 1904.

The barons' heyday began to decline at the turn of the century with increasing public outrage over unpredictable ticket prices and fluctuations in the stock market tied to the railroads. Increasing federal pressure, through laws, regulation, and court orders, ended their reign. By 1907, when the interstate commerce commission denounced Harriman and other financiers for trying to destroy rival railroads, the age of the "robber barons" was over.

further readings

Strom, Claire. 2003. Profiting from the Plains: The Great Northern Railway and Corporate Development of the American West. Seattle: Univ. of Washington Press.

Young, Earle B. 1999. Tracks to the Sea: Galveston and Western Railroad Development, 1866–1900. College Station: Texas A&M Univ. Press.

Another important concern about railroads was price discrimination in railroad service. Railroads are common carriers, which describes a transportation business that offers service to the general public. The rates charged by common carriers are regulated under the theory that their service has an effect on interstate commerce, which is within the regulatory power of the federal government under Article I, Section 8, Clause 3, of the U.S. Constitution. Under its power to regulate interstate commerce, Congress prevents rate discrimination on the public railways because rate discrimination is a patently unfair trade practice that has a detrimental effect on interstate commerce and the economic health of the country. For instance, a railroad cannot charge some customers one rate for shipping on the railroad and charge a subsidiary of the railroad company a lesser rate. Passenger trains also may not discriminate in rates or service because they offer carrier service to the general public.

Congress and the states have enacted numerous statutes and regulations to address the extraordinary number of issues presented by railroads. The subject matter of these statutes and administrative regulations ranges from safety regulations to local speed limits to rate controls. In 1966 Congress created the Federal Railroad Administration along with the transportation department to give special attention to railroad concerns.

The success of the railroad system was not without costs. Railroad work proved to be among the most dangerous occupations in existence. Freight car derailments, undependable brakes, and the challenging task of switching heavy, rolling cars from one track to another in railroad yards all took their toll on railroad workers. Approximately 3,500 railroad workers were killed each year between 1903 and 1907, and the death toll continued at approximately one a day for several years after that.

States began to enact safety measures to protect railroad employees, but the state laws varied and did not always provide protection for workers. In 1970 Congress passed the Federal Railroad Safety Act, 49 U.S.C.A. § 20101 et seq., to achieve uniformity in railroad safety regulations. The act provides for safety enforcement procedures, track safety standards, freight car safety standards, emergency order procedures, train-marking regulations, accident report procedures, locomotive safety and inspection standards, safety appliance standards, power brake and drawbar specifications, and regulations on signal systems and train control systems.

Railroad work is still a relatively taxing occupation, but it is nowhere near as dangerous as it once was. The quality of freight equipment has improved, and due to the creation of single-unit trains, freight cars do not have to be switched from track to track as often as they once were. Most railroad-related accidents and deaths now occur at grade crossings, where railroad tracks cross roadways.

Railroad labor, management, and executive unions have been responsible for many of the gains in railroad safety. Railroad unions were some of the first unions created, and they quickly evolved to be among the most powerful.

Under the law, railroads are a special form of transportation. Railroad companies must pay taxes on their land and pay for the maintenance of their rights of way. This is not the case for other transporters. Trucking companies do not have to pay their own separate taxes for roadways, and they do not have to pay to maintain them. Barge companies do not have to pay taxes on or maintain the waterways that they use, and airlines use airports and airways built in large part with public funds. Railroad companies must pay to build and maintain their tracks because they are for their exclusive use. However, railroad companies have received some assistance from government because railroads are important to the nation's economy and because they have needed it.

In the 1930s the trucking industry made technological strides that put it in direct competition with the railroads. Pneumatic tires were created to support heavier freights, hydraulic brakes were devised to safely increase the weight of a load, and a network of paved intercity highways provided easy access and direct routes. The market advantages of trucking became apparent immediately, and the golden age of railroading came to an end after world war ii. Railroads abandoned thousands of miles of tracks and laid-off workers. The radical shift in transportation reshaped the map of the United States as small towns that depended on railroads for business turned into ghost towns.

The Regional Rail Reorganization Act of 1973 (45 U.S.C.A. §§ 701–797) consolidated the bankrupt northeastern railroads into a single railroad called ConRail, a for-profit corporation comprised of the bankrupt railroads. The consolidation resulted in some abandonments, but it eliminated duplicate mileage and helped save and maintain the most popular routes. In March 1997 ConRail was bought by CSX Corp. and Norfolk Southern Corp. It was to be divided between the two companies.

Congress gave railroad companies federal funds to upgrade the railroad system in the Railroad Revitalization and Regulatory Reform Act of 1976 (45 U.S.C.A. § 801 et seq.). This act also shortened the length of time that railroads had to wait before abandoning a track.

President jimmy carter proved to be a champion of railroad deregulation. Under Carter's watch, the Interstate Commerce Commission dropped the government controls on shipping rates for coal, eliminated regulations regarding the shipping of produce, and made it easier for railroads to abandon unprofitable lines. Congress topped off several years of railroad legislation with the Staggers Rail Act of 1980 (codified in scattered sections of titles 11, 45, and 49 of the U.S.C.A.). The Staggers Act eliminated government rate controls and made it still easier for railroads to abandon lines. Although the deregulation resulted in many layoffs, the changes lowered prices, made railroads more profitable, and allowed railroad companies to increase expenditures on safety measures.

The railroad system in the United States reached its peak in 1920, when approximately 272,000 miles of rails existed. As of 2003, less than 150,000 miles of rails exist. Railroads do not dominate the transportation market like they once did, but the railroad system has been pared down and stabilized. The rails remain necessary for large, bulky loads of heavy cargo. For personal transportation, the passenger service Amtrak was established in 1970 and subsidized by Congress to provide nationwide railroad passenger service at reduced rates. Amtrak and a few shorter, private lines offer passenger service in many parts of the country.

By the mid-1990s, Amtrak bordered on financial ruin. In 1997, the railroad was $83 million in debt and was becoming unable to pay its creditors. In November 1997, Congress approved the Amtrak Reform and Accountability Act of 1997, Pub. L. No. 105-134, 111 Stat. 2570, in an effort to save the company. The act released $5 billion in operating and capital expenses to the company each year through 2002. The goal of the legislation was for Amtrak to modernize the railroad's equipment and facilities in an effort to increase revenue and ridership.

Although funding under the statute was supposed to end in 2002, the company's financial shape worsened. By 2002, the railroad, which employs 24,000 people and runs 265 trains per day, was about $4 billion in debt, having lost $1.1 billion in 2001 alone. Congress approved short-term funding in February 2003, but many speculated that the company would have to stop services and possibly declare bankruptcy. Amtrak's latest problems came at the same time that many of the nation's airlines had declared themselves close to declaring bankruptcy.

further readings

American Law Institute (ALI). 1996. Drug and Alcohol Testing Issues in the Airline and Railroad Industries, by Robert J. DeLucia. Airline and Railroad Labor and Employment Law Series, ALI order no. ABA CLE, SA31.

Ballam, Deborah A. 1994. "The Evolution of the Government-Business Relationship in the United States: Colonial Times to Present." American Business Law Journal 31 (February).

MacDonald, James M., and Linda C. Cavalluzzo. 1996. "Railroad Deregulation: Pricing Reforms, Shipper Responses, and the Effect on Labor." Industrial and Labor Relations Review 50 (October).

Phillips, Theodore G. 1991. "Beyond 16 U.S.C. §1247(D): The Scope of Congress's Power to Preserve Railroad Rights-of-Way." Hastings Constitutional Law Quarterly 18 (summer).

Smolinsky, Paul. 1995. "Railroad Labor Law." George Washington Law Review 63 (June).

Wild, Steven R. 1995. "A History of Railroad Abandonments." Transportation Law Journal 23 (summer).


Antitrust Law; Carriers; Commerce Clause.

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railroad or railway, form of transportation most commonly consisting of steel rails, called tracks, on which trains of freight cars, passenger cars, and other rolling stock are drawn by one locomotive or more. However, there are other types of railways, including those whose units consist of single self-propelled cars, cable-drawn railways used to ascend steep grades, and monorails whose cars are usually propelled along a single rail.

Early Railroads

As early as 1556 Georgius Agricola, in his book on minerals, De re metallica, mentioned a mining railway running on wooden poles. The replacement of wooden poles by cast-iron rails in the late 18th cent. and the development by Richard Trevithick in 1804 of a locomotive capable of heavy haulage (20 tons) prepared the railroad for uses other than mining. But it was not until 1825 that steam-powered freight and passenger service started on the Stockton and Darlington Railway in England.

American Railroads

The Early Nineteenth Century

In the United States, as in England, the first railroads, employing horse-drawn wagons, were used to haul minerals. The earliest such railroad, built from Quincy, Mass. to the Neponset River dates from 1826, and in the next year another was built in Pennsylvania from the coal mines in Carbon County to the Lehigh River. In 1829 two locomotives were imported from England, but they were found to be too heavy for the existing tracks. Thereafter, locomotives suited to the American railway were produced domestically, and Matthias Baldwin of Philadelphia soon took the lead in building them. The Baltimore & Ohio RR began operation in 1828 with horse-drawn cars, but after the successful run (1830) of the Tom Thumb, a locomotive built by Peter Cooper, steam power was used.

In the United States a turnpike era and then a canal era had immediately preceded the coming of the railroads, which proved to be fast, direct, and reliable in all weather. After 1830 the railroads grew so quickly that within a decade their mileage surpassed that of the canals. While the stagecoach type of railroad car was giving way to the square type in the 1830s, many short-run railroads began to appear throughout the United States. The big cities on the Atlantic Coast became the nerve centers, while inland points were readily connected with one another. Only the Erie RR was projected on a grand scale.

Because of the long distances involved, the United States and Russia had sleeping cars earlier than other countries. A type of sleeping car containing three tiers of berths on one side of the coach appeared in 1836 on the Cumberland Railway's run between Philadelphia and Harrisburg. Sleeping cars of a more modern type were patented (1856) by George M. Pullman and soon put in operation. The first all-steel car appeared in 1859.

An Era of Rapid Expansion

The Atlantic Coast was connected with the Great Lakes in 1850, with Chicago in 1853, and with the western side of the Mississippi in 1856. Cast iron proved too brittle in railway construction and was gradually replaced by wrought iron, which in turn, by 1863, was generally replaced by steel. At the same time, two acts of Congress (1862 and 1864) initiated the building of the first transcontinental railroad: the Union Pacific RR built westward from Nebraska and the Central Pacific RR built eastward from California; the two met at Promontory Summit, Utah, and were joined with a golden spike on May 10, 1869. For many years railroad tracks had varied in width, so that cars could not pass from one line to another. However, in the mid-1880s a standard gauge of 4 ft 8 1/2 in. (1.44 m) was adopted, mainly because the transcontinental railroad had, on federal orders, used such a width for its tracks.

Technological Innovations

In addition to tracks, cars had also differed in design; in 1867 the car builders organized to plan standardized cars. Separate compartments in cars first appeared in Europe in 1873 and in the United States in 1883. George Westinghouse patented his air brake in 1872, but not until 1884 were all passenger cars provided with such equipment, and not until 1887 were air brakes being added to freight cars. Electric light, from power provided by storage batteries, was first used by a railroad in 1881 in England on the London, Brighton, and South Coast Railway. Automatic couplers were first added to cars in 1887; such equipment was in use on nearly all railroads in the country within little more than a decade. Subsequent developments included the introduction of steam heat (water was heated in the locomotive and conducted to the passenger cars through pipes) and the construction of refrigerator freight cars; large-scale use of such cars, originally cooled by salted ice, began in 1887.

Abuses and Regulation

Starting with the Panic of 1837, which was precipitated by the collapse of the railroad boom in England, overexpansion and unsound financing of the railroads had affected the national economy. During the turnpike- and canal-building booms the federal and state governments had done much of the financing; consequently, during the panic many states found it necessary to repudiate the debts thus incurred. That experience discouraged government participation in the railroad boom that was just beginning and accounted in large part for private instead of public ownership of railroads in the United States.

Growing sectionalism and the conflict between the North and the South before the Civil War had tended to block large-scale projects (e.g., that of Asa Whitney), but the war itself gave tremendous impetus to railroads (e.g., the Pennsylvania RR), which aided in the transportation of troops and supplies. After the Civil War the great battles of the railway financiers began. Cornelius Vanderbilt consolidated the New York Central RR system, but he, like others—e.g., Jay Gould, Daniel Drew, and James Fisk—was accused of acting with complete disregard for the American public. The 1880s saw the revival of Southern railway construction and the last period of feverish expansion, attributable in part to such financiers as James J. Hill and Henry Villard. One of the greatest financial battles over American railways was fought by Hill and Edward H. Harriman.

In 1887 the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) was established to cope with the abuses that had resulted in part from the rapid expansion of the railroads, whose steadily increasing political power, excessive rates, and rebate policy had caused much popular discontent. For years the ICC sought to establish adequate controls over the railroads but lacked the necessary power. Its authority was accordingly increased by additional legislation until, in 1906 the Hepburn Act gave it, among other powers, that of fixing rates. Subsequent acts further expanded federal regulatory powers.

In 1917 the federal government took over the railroads for the duration of World War I. Although the Transportation Act of 1920 returned the railroads to their private owners, it also granted the ICC general control over the lines, including the right to mediate labor disputes, which had become an important factor. Organization of railway labor began with the unionization (1864) of locomotive engineers; by 1900 railroad personnel were organized on an almost nationwide basis. The many unions were headed by the Big Four—the brotherhoods of the engineers, the firemen and enginemen, the conductors, and the trainmen.

Decline and Revival

After 1920 the railroads failed to recapture their former prosperity largely because of added competition from the automobile, the bus, long-distance trucking, and the airplane. The widespread introduction of diesel power on long-distance passenger train routes and the electrification of heavily traveled urban lines in the 1930s still failed to revive the industry. During World War II, however, when gasoline rationing forced many travelers to abandon their cars, railroads increased their passenger traffic. After the war, railroads tried to maintain their gains through the introduction of air-conditioning and lighter, faster, more streamlined cars, built of steel and aluminum.

In spite of the changes, however, business, especially passenger travel, continued to decline. The industry's financial difficulties peaked with the bankruptcy of the Penn Central RR in 1970, but since then railroads have staged a modest revival. The Railroads Revitalization and Regulatory Reform Act (1976) and the Staggers Act (1980) deregulated the industry by making it easier for railroads to set their own rates, abandon unprofitable lines, and buy other railroads, thus creating economies of scale. Under deregulation, railroads could offer rate discounts to get more customers. Moreover, variable gasoline prices and technological change made the industry more competitive with trucking. Containers that adapt to truck, ship, or train travel, multilevel automobile-rack train cars, computerized tracking systems, and piggyback carriers that allow trains to carry fully loaded trucks also aided the modernization of freight service.

The amount of freight moved by railroads increased by 34% between 1970 and 1992, and rail's share of the freight industry, relative to trucking and other forms of transport, remained stable through the 1990s, reversing decades of decline. In 1996 the 10 major railroad companies had operating revenue of nearly $33 billion. The 1980s and 90s saw the consolidation of the U.S. freight industry, which resulted in four major railroad companies: Burlington Northern Santa Fe, CSX, Union Pacific, and Norfolk Southern, as well as the expansion of the Canadian National into the United States with its purchase of the Illinois Central. As a result, the Surface Transportation Board blocked the proposed merger of the Burlington Northern Santa Fe and Canadian National systems in 2000 and issued (2001) new regulations designed to assure that future mergers would increase competition.


In the 1960s growing concerns over air pollution caused by automobile use, overcrowding of highways and airports, and the inconvenient out-of-town location of many large airports caused many people to call for government support of large-scale railroad passenger service. Finally, by the terms of the Rail Passenger Service Act (1970), a National Railroad Passenger Corporation was created to operate virtually every intercity passenger rail line in the United States.

Known as Amtrak, the quasipublic agency reduced the number of intercity passenger trains by one half in its first year of operation, retaining service only in areas of high-density travel. Amtrak, which now operates up to 300 intercity passenger trains per day on 21,000 miles of track in 46 states, carried nearly 26 million intercity passengers in 2007.

Railroads in Other Countries

Other nations with important railway lines include Great Britain, whose well-integrated railroad system, built mostly with private capital, was amalgamated into four lines by the Railway Act of 1921; nationalized in 1948, the system was largely privatized again by 1995. In Canada, the promise of a transcontinental railroad was a major impetus to confederation (see Canadian Pacific Railway). Railroads in France date from 1827, and after the 1840s France had one of the largest railroad systems in Europe. In 1994 the Channel Tunnel between England and France opened for passenger service, using a high-speed rail link. The first German railroad, running from Nuremberg to Furth, began operation in 1835. Soon Germany had a well-developed system, and by the beginning of the 20th cent. a majority of its railroads were owned by the state. The entire system was under state control by 1922. The first monorail line began operation (1899) in Elberfeld-Barmen (now Wuppertal), Germany.

In most other European countries, railroads date from about the middle of the 19th cent. and came increasingly under government ownership and operation. In Russian and other countries of the former Soviet Union, railroad construction, also begun in the mid-19th cent., received a great stimulus following the 1917 revolution, when railroads were first extended into Siberia. British capital and U.S. engineering skill laid the basis for many of the railroads of South America. Railroads of historical importance include the Baghdad Railway, the Trans-Caspian RR, the Chinese Eastern Railway, the Transandine Railway, and the Trans-Siberian RR.

High-Speed Passenger Service

Although the railroad played a significant role in the transportation of both passengers and freight during the 19th and early 20th cent., in the latter part of the 20th cent., the automobile and the aircraft eroded the railroad's importance for passenger travel until the introduction of high-speed rail. Faster than the automobile and more convenient than the airplane, high-speed passenger service was pioneered in Japan with the introduction of the Shinkansen, popularly known as the "bullet train," in 1964. The French Train à Grande Vitesse, or TGV, introduced the high-speed train to Europe in 1981. Other Continental countries soon followed—Italy (1988), Germany (1991), and Spain (1992)—and Great Britain began a high-speed service in 1984. It was not until 2000, however, that high-speed service began in the United States with the Acela Express, running between Washington, D.C., and Boston. Other countries that have or are developing high-speed rail lines include Australia, China, Finland, South Korea, Sweden, and Taiwan. China now has the most extensive high-speed rail network in the world. Maglev trains (see magnetic levitation) have been run experimentally on short tracks in several countries. A maglev line linking Shanghai's financial district with its new airport was opened in 2002; scheduled commericial operation began in 2004.

High-speed trains have operational speeds of 186 mi per hr (300 km per hr) or more. The non-maglev speed record, set by the French TGV Atlantique during tests, is 320 mi per hr (515 km per hr). A Japanese maglev train has reached 374 mi per hr (603 km per hr). To attain these speeds requires high-quality track, roadbed, and right of way. Among the features associated with high-speed trains are the absence of grade, or level, crossings; wide spacing between tracks; four tracks at through stations so that slower, local trains can be bypassed; concrete foundations topped by tarmac and then ballast to minimize movement of the track; curves with a radius greater than 3 mi (5 km); and the avoidance of tunnels.


See M. Josephson, The Robber Barons (1962); P. Hastings, Railroads: An International History (1972); F. Hubbard, Encyclopedia of North American Railroading (1981); N. Faith, The World the Railways Made (1991); D. Hayes, Historical Atlas of the North American Railroad (2010); R. White, Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America (2011); H. R. Grant, Railroads and the American People (2012); C. Wolmar, The Great Railroad Revolution (2012).

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First Efforts. Most of the first railroads in America, such as the two-mile-long granite railroad of Quincy, Massachusetts, in 1826, were short routes intended only

to ship bulk commodities to or from the nearest port, steamboat landing, or canal. The early lines did not even use steam power but relied on horses, mules, oxen, and in some instances sails to push the small carriages over wooden rails (sometimes with iron covers) resting on the ground. It was the Erie Canal that finally prompted the construction of modern interregional steam railroads. The first such railroad in America started with an 1827 meeting by a group of Baltimore merchants who assembled to take under consideration the best means of restoring to the city of Baltimore that portion of the western trade which [had] recently been diverted to New York by the completion of the Erie Canal. Their solution was to construct a two-hundred-mile steam rail line from Baltimore to Wheeling, Virginia (later West Virginia), on the Ohio River. They called their railroad the Baltimore and Ohio (B & O).

University of Railroad Engineering. Traversing mountain ranges and deep ravines, designing new engines and freight cars, finding capital to finance construction, learning how to coordinate traffic flowsthese were the problems that faced the B & Os engineers as well as all early American railroad companies trying to connect the East with the burgeoning economies across the Appalachians. Older railroad technology proved inadequate to address these new problems. For example, the iron-covered wooden rails used on older routes simply could not handle the heavier locomotives needed to pull trains over the Appalachians. Moreover, those same iron rail covers tended to peel away from their wooden bases and rip into carriages (these pieces of iron were called snakeheads), occasionally impaling passengers. Solid iron rails were the most obvious solution, but the young American iron industry could not supply enough of these, and to purchase British rails required great amounts of capital. In 1830 Robert Stephens, part owner of the Camden and Amboy rail line, solved the problem by designing a T-shaped rail that provided the strength of a solid rail without using nearly as much metal. The Stephens T-rail, eighteen feet long and thirty-six pounds per yard, became the standard American rail. B & O engineers developed many such standards and practices. Specifications for road grades, car construction, and track alignment developed on the B & O became the industry norm for decades to come. So many rail engineers learned their craft while working on the B & O that the line became known as the University of Railroad Engineering.

Travel Hazards. In the 1830s a British visitor to America got off her train and realized that she had thirteen holes burned in her dress from the cinders that had blown back across the carriages from the locomotives smokestack. Frequent boiler explosions led some railroads to surround passengers carriages with cotton bales while on other lines passengers occasionally had to get out and help stop the train because the wooden brakes could not do the job. Delays were frequent and frustrating, especially in the first years of rail travel when most railroads could only afford to build single-track lines. To avoid collisions, trains ran on strict schedules monitored by the conductors pocket watches, and when two trains were scheduled for the same line, one had to get off on a siding and wait for the scheduled train to pass before continuing. If the scheduled train broke down, which happened often, the second train might have to wait for hours. Different railroads used different gauges (widths of track) throughout the country, especially in the South, where travelers had to change railroads six or seven times or interrupt rail travel with stage or steamboat just to get the six hundred miles from New Orleans to Charleston. Moreover, few competing railroads meeting in major cities built connecting services. In Philadelphia, served by five different railroads, passengers and shippers had to hire wagons to carry their belongings from one station to another.

Ripple Effect. Despite these problems the American rail network grew exponentially in the 1840s and 1850s, from about three thousand miles of track in 1840 to thirty thousand miles in 1860more than the rest of the world combined. Railroad trains, the first all-weather, all-terrain motorized transportation in human history, drastically reduced the price of shipping commodities to market by as much as 95 percent between 1815 and 1860. These savings rippled through the economy. Farmers near rail routes saw their land values rise and the value of their crops increase, adding to their ability to buy manufactured goods. Increased agricultural spending power helped expand the nations industrial sector, but so too did the demands of rail construction and finance. Steel production rose, and stock markets boomed as a result. Not everyone, however, liked these changes. Especially upset were the canal companies losing business to railroads, tavern owners on turnpikes no longer used for freight shipping, the owners of stock in failed railroads, the communities bypassed by rail routes, and the Saint Louis and New Orleans steamboat companies that lost freight business to the eastern roads.


On every Monday and Thursday starting in December 1851, William Cranch Bond of the Harvard Observatory checked the mean solar time in Boston (itself set to the Greenwich, England, Prime Meridan) and then telegraphed that time to railroad stations throughout New England. From those station clocks every train conductor and engineer in the region set their own pocket watches. For the first time, clocks throughout the United States were synchronized.

Before the railroads expanded into regional systems, all land time in the United States was local time. As long as rail systems were self-contained, conductors could run trains by schedules geared to local times posted at terminals. Starting in the 1840s, however, previously isolated train systems began to merge with lines using different local times, which proved dangerous. In 1841 Americas first interregional line, the Western Railroad (also called the Worcester and Albany), experienced a fatal accident due to time confusion. To prevent future incidents the Western announced a policy that the clock at the upper depot in Worcester shall be taken to be the standard time, and all conductors before leaving Worcester are required to compare and regulate their time by that clock, and to see that the clocks at all other stations which they pass conform to the standard time The Postal Service, which began using railroads in the 1830s, also encouraged railroads to adopt more stringent time controls by demanding on-time delivery of the mails.

By the middle of the 1850s every regional railroad ran on a standard zone geared to a particular clock in a particular locality, and many were now getting telegraphed time. Even that archfoe of modern indiustrial society Henry David Thoreau noted with appreciation the newfound predictability of the trains running on the Fitchburg Railroad along Walden Pond: they go and come with such precision, and their whistle can be heard so far, he wrote, that farmers set their clocks by them, and thus one well-conducted institution regulates the whole country.

Source: Carlene Stephens, The Most Reliable Time:William Bond, the New England Railroads, and Time Awareness in 19th-Century America, Technology and Culture, 30 (January 1989): 124

A Perfect Passion. By the 1850s one visiting Frenchman could write that Americans had a perfect passion for railroads, loving them as a lover loves his mistress. Economic advantages were of course paramount in Americas love affair with the railroad, but cultural factors played a part as well. For example, railroads seemed a democratic transportation medium. As Daniel Webster noted in an 1847 speech, railroads equalize the condition of men. The richest must travel in the cars, for there they travel fastest; the poorest can travel in the cars, while they could not travel otherwise, because this mode of conveyance costs but little time or money. He might have added that unlike European railroads, American passenger cars were not divided by class of servicefirst class for the

wealthy, third for the peasants. Americans, or at least white Americans, had only one class of passenger service (black people were often forced to sit in a separate section of the car), and that service by the 1850s was quite elegant even by European standards, with upholstered seats (convertible to beds) and fine woodwork gracing the carriages. With the more-powerful locomotives of the 1850s and tracks finally bridging the Alleghenies and the nations biggest rivers, the railroad now seemed to many Americans a force of nature, an almost living example of Americas republican ingenuity, its expanding imperial reach, and growing international prestige.


Eugene Alvarez, Travel on Southern Antebellum Railroads, 18281860 (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1974);

Alfred D. Chandler Jr., The Visible Hand: The Managerial Revolution in America (Cambridge, Mass.; Harvard University Press, 1977);

James S. Dilts, The Great Road: The Building of the Baltimore and Ohio, The Nations First Railroad, 18281853 (Stanford, Cal.; Stanford University Press, 1996);

D.W. Meinig, The Shaping of America: A Geographical Perspective on 500 Years of History, Volume II; Continental America, 18001867 (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1993);

John Stover, History of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad (West Lafayette, Ind, : Purdue University Press, 1961).

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The first Russian railways, built as early as 1838, were tsarist whimsies that ran from St. Petersburg to the summer palaces of Tsarskoye Selo and Pavlovsk. Emperor Nicholas I (r. 18251855) ordered the construction of these and the MoscowSt. Petersburg line, which, according to legend, the tsar designed by drawing a line on a map between the two cities using a straight-edge and pencil. One hundred fifty years later, the railway system had expanded to almost 150,000 kilometers (90,000 miles), or almost two-thirds the length of the network serving the United States. With 2.3 times the territory of the United States, however, the net density of the Soviet Union's rail system was only about one-fourth as concentrated. It was, and is, a system of trunk lines with very few branches, which supplied only minimum service to major sources of tonnage.

Naturally, this spartan system was severely strained at any given time. Soviet freight turnover was more than 2.5 times as great as that of the United States, making it the most densely used rail network in the world. At the time of the collapse of the USSR, Soviet railways carried 55 percent of the globe's railway freight (in tons per kilometer) and more than 25 percent of its railway passenger-kilometers. Compared to other domestic transportation alternatives, Soviet railways had no comparison: They hauled 31 percent of the tonnage, accounted for 47 percent of the freight turnover (in billions of ton-kilometers), and circulated almost 40 percent of the inter-city passenger-kilometers.

regional rail systems and commodities

In the Russian Federation of the early twentyfirst century, the leading rail cargoes, ranked according to tonnage, comprise coal, oil and oil products, ferrous metals, timber, iron ore and manganese, grain, fertilizers, cement, nonferrous metals and sulfurous raw materials, coke, perishable foods, and mixed animal feedstocks. The most conspicuous Russian carrier is the Kemerovo Railway, which hauls more than 200 million tons of freight per year, two-thirds of which is coal from the mines of the Kuznetsk Basin (Kuzbas), Russia's greatest coal producer. When the West Siberian and Kuznetsk steel mills operate at full capacity, the Kemerovo Line also carries iron and manganese, iron and steel metals, fluxing agents, and coke. Rounding out the freight structure are cement and timber.

The only other railway that ships more than 200 million tons of freight is the Sverdlovsk, or Yekaterinburg, Railway in the Central Urals. The system's most important cargoes include timber from the nearby forests; ferrous metals from iron and steel mills at Nizhniy Tagil, Serov, Chusovoy and others; and petroleum products from the refineries at Perm and Omsk. Other heavily used railways comprise the October (St. Petersburg), Moscow, North Caucasus, South Ural, and Northern lines, each shipping more than 140 million tons per year. The much-heralded Baikal-Amur Mainline (BAM) Railway, which became fully operational in December 1989, remains Russia's most lightly used network. Three-fifths of the freight it transports is coal from the South Yakutian Basin.

regional bottlenecks

In terms of combined freight and passenger turnover (ton-and passenger-kilometers), the world's most heavily used segment of railroad track stretches between Novokuznetsk in the Kuzbas and Chelyabinsk in the southern Urals. Parts of the Kemerovo, West Siberian, and South Urals railways each maintain a share of this traffic. While touring the Soviet Union in 1977, geographer Paul Lydolph observed train frequencies on this segment as often as one every three minutes in different locations and at various times during the day. By the 1990s, operating at 95 percent of its capacity, the West Siberian arm of the Trans-Siberian Railway was critically overloaded. Ironically, 40 percent of the freight cars were usually empty: Had these cars not been on the track, the West Siberian line would have been running at only 48 percent of capacity! Such was the waste inherent in the Soviet centrally planned command economy.

Since 1991, because of the alterations in the freight-rate structurethe Soviet system was heavily subsidized to keep the rates artificially low and the post-Soviet depressed economy throughout Russia, particularly in coal mining, iron and steel, and other bulk sectors, both the Kemerovo and West Siberian railway networks have witnessed sharp declines in usage. They continue to represent bottlenecks, but these were much less severe than the ones they became in the Soviet period. The worst bottlenecks in the post-Soviet era occur in portsboth river and seaand at junctions. The absolute worst are found in Siberia and the Russian Far East, where traffic is heavy, there are few lines, and management traditionally has been lax.

postsoviet problems

Since 1991, railway headaches have been less associated with capacity and more with costs. In the early 1990s, the Yeltsin government introduced freemarket principles and eliminated the artificial constraints on prices and freight rates that had prevailed in the USSR. The de-emphasis on the military sector, which controlled at least one-fourth of the Soviet economy, proved to be a devastating blow to heavy industry and rail transport. The multiplier effect diffused throughout the economy of the Russian Federation, and soon fewer goods and less output required circulation, and those needing it had to be sent it at burdensome rates. Spiraling inflation and underemployment brought many industries to the edge of bankruptcy. Those industries that survived often were deep in debt to the railroads, which carried the output simply because they had nothing else to carry. Soon the railroads, which were themselves in debt to their energy suppliers, began to demand payment from the indebted industries. This engendered a vicious cycle wherein everyone was living on IOUs: industries owed the railways, which owed the energy suppliers, who in turn owed the mining companies that owed the miners, who could not buy the products of industry.

By 1991, the Soviet rail network was 35 to 40 percent electrified, and much of this electricity came from coal-fired power plants. When the railways could not pay their energy bill, coal miners did not get paid. Since 1989, miners' strikes over wages and perquisites have often crippled the electrified railways. At times the miners have blocked the track to protest their privations. Since the year 2000, this vicious cycle has been alleviated because of high international prices on petroleum and natural gas. The resultant increase in foreign exchange income

has brought some relief to the Russian economy. Wage arrears have been eliminated at least temporarily, and the economy, including the Russian railways, appears to have turned the corner.

See also: baikal-amur magistral railway; industrialization; trans-siberian railway


Ambler, John, et al. (1985). Soviet and East European Transport Problems. New York: St. Martin's Press.

Hunter, Holland. (1957). Soviet Transportation Policy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Lydolph, Paul E. (1990). Geography of the USSR. Elkhart Lake, WI: Misty Valley Publishing.

Mote, Victor L. (1994). An Industrial Atlas of the Soviet Successor States. Houston, TX: Industrial Information Resources, Inc.

Westwood, John N. (1964). A History of the Russian Railways. London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd.

Victor L. Mote

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rail·road / ˈrālˌrōd/ • n. 1. a track or set of tracks made of steel rails along which passenger and freight trains run: [as adj.] a railroad line. ∎  a set of tracks for other vehicles. 2. a system of such tracks with the trains, organization, and personnel required for its working: [in names] the Union Pacific Railroad. • v. 1. [tr.] inf. press (someone) into doing something by rushing or coercing them: she hesitated, unwilling to be railroaded into a decision. ∎  cause (a measure) to be passed or approved quickly by applying pressure: the Bill had been railroaded through the House. ∎  send (someone) to prison without a fair trial or by means of false evidence. 2. [intr.] [usu. as n.] (railroading) travel or work on the railroads.

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344. Railroads

See also 399. TRAVEL ; 408. VEHICLES

a mock classical term for enthusiasm about railroads. ferroequinologist, n.
a device for recording the speed of locomotives and the time, place, and length of all their stops.
an abnormal fear of railroads or of traveling on trains.
an obsession with railroad travel.

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