Transportation Act of 1920

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TRANSPORTATION ACT OF 1920, also known as the Esch-Cummins Act. The U.S. government took over and ran the railroads from 26 December 1917 to 1 March 1920. During the period of government operation, the tracks were obliged to carry a heavy volume of traffic with little attention to replacements or ordinary maintenance. This was more a result of circumstances than the fault of the government; nevertheless, the railroads were in a deplorable condition when, after a little more than two years, they were returned to private operation.

As a result, some remedial legislation was imperative. The Transportation Act of 28 February 1920 was the result. The Senate bill, introduced by Sen. Albert B. Cummins, and the House bill, proposed by Rep. John Jacob Esch, required a conference committee to produce a compromise measure, which became effective on 1 March, a little more than three months after President Woodrow Wilson returned the railroads to private operation.

To help the railroads financially, the bill authorized consolidations, established a six-month guarantee period, and authorized extensive loans for a variety of purposes. Congress provided for arbitration without power of enforcement and established voluntary adjustment boards to settle labor disputes. These provisions were to be enforced by the Railroad Labor Board, consisting of nine members and having national jurisdiction. Hotly contested in Congress, the Transportation Act of 1920 engendered controversy for years thereafter. Advocates contended that favorable terms were necessary to avoid paralysis of the national transportation system; detractors claimed that railroads and financial interests had dictated terms to their own advantage.


Berk, Gerald. Alternative Tracks: The Constitution of American Industrial Order, 1865–1917. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994.

Himmelberg, Robert F., ed. Business-Government Cooperation, 1917–1932: The Rise of Corporatist Policies. Vol. 5 of Business and Government in America since 1870. New York: Garland, 1994.

W. BrookeGraves/c. w.

See alsoRailroad Administration, U.S. ; Railroads ; Transportation and Travel .

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Transportation Act of 1920

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