views updated May 23 2018


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 .


views updated Jun 08 2018



To those who witnessed its construction the railroad was a symbol of the progress of human civilization. Historians too traditionally assumed that the new mode of transport had a revolutionary impact. According to W. W. Rostow the railway was undoubtedly "the most powerful single initiator of [economic] takeoff" (p. 302). Doubts were provoked, however, by the counterfactual approach adopted by Robert Fogel in Railroads and American Economic Growth: Essays in Econometric History (1964). On the basis of some very questionable assumptions, the Nobel prize–winning economist attempted to calculate the cost to the economy if the railways had not existed. His conclusion was that "no single innovation was vital for economic growth in the nineteenth century." This really quite unexceptional insight was subsequently applied to most European countries. In accordance with Fogel's approach, the calculations in table 1 subsequently emerged, purporting to show the relatively small amount of "social saving" that resulted from the transport of freight by rail, rather than the alternatives, in Europe.

However, the theoretical and statistical model-building engaged in by the econometricians abstracts out of existence variables that cannot be quantified and tends to make simplistic and static assumptions concerning quantifiable elements. Furthermore the statistical information available is itself fragmentary and the subsequent calculations impossible to verify. Thus, and in spite of the claims made concerning

Social saving derived from use of railways
CountriesDateSocial saving expressed as a percentage of GNP
source: Patrick O'Brien, ed., Railways and the Economic Development of Western Europe (London, 1983).
England and Wales18654.1
England and Wales189011.0

greater intellectual rigor, the results are no more nor less than suggestive pointers to questions that ought to be asked by more empirically minded social and economic historians interested in the perceptions and behavior of the historical actors themselves rather than in assumptions concerning the "rational" actions of the homo economicus beloved of classical economic theory. Furthermore, the assertion that much of the capital invested in railways might have been more profitably employed elsewhere, while valid for underused portions of the rail networks, ignores the intense pressure on governments to ensure construction coming from localities that otherwise would have been excluded from the benefits of "modern civilization." The calculations also tend to underestimate the impact of forward (to markets) and backward (to industry) linkages, as well as the complex interactions between technical systems. In comparison with previous transport technologies, in terms of the resources necessary for its construction as well as the linkages that developed, it still makes sense to claim that the railways promoted a "transport revolution" even if it has become unfashionable to use the term. Nevertheless Fogel's revisionism has had a significant outcome in promoting an important change of emphasis in the assessment of the characteristics of technological innovation and its social impact. It has become more clearly evident that the evolution of the railway as a technical system becomes explicable only in relation to specific economic, technological, and additionally sociocultural and political contexts.


Transport facilities developed in response to perceptions of the need to reduce the cost and increase the efficiency of movement of people, goods, and information. Throughout the eighteenth century political economists such as Adam Smith (1723–1790) in Britain and administrators like Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot (1727–1781) in France insisted with growing force on the close association between improved transport and greater prosperity. Merchants and manufacturers were only too aware of the practical impact of bottlenecks within existing communications networks. From around the 1740s, substantial investment followed in roads, canals, and port facilities. Success in achieving efficiency gains stimulated further innovation. In all of this, Britain, the first to experience the pressures of industrialization, took the lead. The application of steam power to haulage on the wagon-ways linking coal mines to waterways, on which rails had already been laid in order to reduce friction between wagon and surface and increase the pulling power of horses, represented the injection of a complex new technology into the existing road and water transport system, initially piecemeal and as a means of over-coming the shortcomings of existing modes of transport. It was followed by the construction of the first major-purpose-built railway from Liverpool to Manchester, opened on 15 September 1830. Although much of Britain already possessed efficient waterborne transport, there was substantial demand for railway construction. Moreover, throughout northwestern Europe, in relatively advanced societies the capital and skills necessary to build and operate the new networks already existed, while an increasingly widely shared culture of consumption encouraged international technology transfer and the adaptation of best practice to local circumstances. Enthusiasm for the new railway spread relatively rapidly within the more economically dynamic and densely populated areas of western Europe and then more gradually into regions likely to generate less traffic and toward the European periphery where capital and technical expertise were less plentiful.

Investment in rail had come to be seen as a technological imperative, an economic necessity, and additionally a means of promoting political integration. Space-time perceptions were fundamentally

altered. Indeed space appeared to have shrunk. Although in Britain rail construction was essentially left to private companies, on the Continent mixed regimes were the norm, reflecting particular legal and administrative traditions, concerns about public safety, and military-strategic interests. Decisions were the outcome of negotiations between ministers, senior civil servants, politicians representing the socioeconomic elites, and bankers. In France, the provisions of an 1842 law represented a compromise following a highly politicized debate between liberals like Louis-Adolphe Thiers (1797–1877) convinced of the superiority of the market in the allocation of resources and proponents of state intervention concerned to prevent the development of monopoly and protect the public service functions of the new mode of transport. It was agreed that the engineers of the state's Corps des Ponts et Chaussées should plan the layout of the primary network with its tracks, reflecting a political/administrative conception of space, radiating out from Paris and largely following the existing major lines of communication and of economic activity. While the state would finance construction of the roadbed, concessionary companies would accept responsibility for providing the superstructure and rolling stock. The unprecedented financial burden was thus shared.

Typically, in the case of a new technology construction costs would generally prove to be much higher than suggested by overoptimistic estimates. The construction process had a substantial impact on financial markets. In France rail investment amounted to 10 to 15 percent of gross domestic capital formation between 1845 and 1884. Fluctuations in investment by the railway companies inevitably had a significant influence on the business cycle. The provision of capital through the auspices of private banks, with the Rothschilds to the fore, and the subsequent sale of bonds and shares spread the habit of purchasing financial assets. A speculative boom was followed by the collapse of concessionary companies during the lengthy midcentury crisis, and briefly, following the Revolution of 1848, complete nationalization was considered. Instead the establishment of authoritarian government following Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte's coup d'état in December 1851 was followed by efforts to restore business confidence by extending the length of concessions and encouraging amalgamations to create financially stronger regional companies. Public pressure to be linked to the only means of cheap and rapid transport ensured that further construction remained a political imperative, and from 1859 a series of conventions that provided for state guarantees of dividends stimulated further extension of the network. This culminated in the laying of narrow-gauge lines and local tramways at the beginning of the twentieth century.

Elsewhere the situation varied, ranging from a mixture of state and private companies to complete state control in Belgium as a means of reinforcing the independence of the recently created state while at the same time integrating its economy into that of Western Europe. In the various German states, Italy, and Austria-Hungary the balance between state and private companies was increasingly altered by the nationalization of failing companies. External investment of capital and construction skills, initially by Britain and subsequently France, was substantial. For the Austrian Empire the railways appeared to offer an opportunity to secure the political and financial dominance of Vienna and to promote an economic modernization based upon the more intense industrialization of the Czech lands and the commercialization of Hungarian agriculture. In the case of Russia, where the state itself prioritized defense expenditure, there were two major periods of rail construction, in the 1870s and 1890s. In addition to the stimulus afforded to agriculture, the railways also provided efficient links between coal and iron deposits promoting heavy industry in the Donets Basin in Ukraine and engineering in St. Petersburg and stimulating the further development of the established industrial regions around Moscow and the Baltic, and in Warsaw and Łodz in tsarist Poland. While the impact of rail construction varied considerably within countries, in general it was the major urban centers, the lowlands, and major river valleys in which population and economic activity were already concentrated and which had been well placed within the pre-rail water/road networks that especially benefited. Unfavorable topography, particularly in the uplands, could add considerably to both construction costs and, as a result of high fuel costs and low speed, to subsequent operating expenses, while limited utilization in economically less dynamic regions inevitably meant that fixed costs were distributed over a low level of traffic. Along the Scandinavian coasts sea-borne transport continued to be preferred.

Progress would be slowest where low levels of economic activity and governmental instability discouraged outside investors. As a result, in Italy the existing disparities between the north (Turin, Milan, Genoa) and the south became even more pronounced. Outside the Po valley, where the major lines had been constructed even before the establishment of national unity in 1861, the trunk routes were primarily of political and strategic importance. A rugged terrain ensured high operating costs. In more "peripheral" areas of the Iberian Peninsula and the Balkans, rail construction would in particular facilitate the development of agriculture and mineral extraction. Designed to support the export of raw materials, the configuration of the Spanish network typically took on a quasi-colonial shape.

Various forms of state subsidy sought to reduce the uncertainties in order to accelerate the process of "modernization." Nevertheless, even where private companies predominated, the establishment of freight and passenger tariffs involved constant negotiation. While the companies were anxious to

Length of railway track and use, 1913
CountryTrack length (km)Track (km) per 1,000 sq. kmMetric ton/km of freight (millions)Index of use made of lines
source: Data from B. R. Mitchell, International Historical Statistics: Europe 1750–2000 (Houndmills, U.K., 2003) and Norman J. G. Pounds, An Historical Geography of Europe (Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1985), pp. 496–497.
Great Britain32,623139.5

maximize their returns and adapt charges to the diversity of demand, government officials were concerned about the quasi-monopoly powers enjoyed by railway companies on most of their routes. The commercial flexibility of the companies was thus restricted. Direct state ownership, on the other hand, tended to result in higher charges designed to supplement the public revenue. Even so, substantial and repeated reductions in transport costs undoubtedly stimulated economic growth and increased traffic. In Germany freight rates by 1900 were one-quarter of their 1845 level; in Belgium they fell from 10.8 centimes per metric ton-kilometer in 1845 to 3.6 by 1913.

Historians have generally focused on the "big" innovations and neglected the incremental impact of smaller changes. Technologies tend to be improved as part of the process of diffusion. The reduction in freight rates and passenger fares achieved by the railways was thus not a once-and-for-all achievement. Over time, as traffic built up and the shortcomings of the earlier lines became evident, considerable improvements were made in their operating efficiency. This was achieved as a result of improved mechanical and civil engineering that involved most notably the replacement of iron with steel in the construction of more durable steel engine boilers and production of rails capable of carrying heavier trains. The development of more powerful and fuel-efficient compound engines ensured that in France, whereas the typical Crampton goods engine had weighed 125 kilograms for every horsepower generated in the 1870s, by 1913 this had been reduced to 50 kilograms. The introduction of continuous brakes (from 1869) and electric signals (from 1885) represented responses to safety concerns and to the congestion evident on most major lines from the 1870s. With traffic generally exceeding expectations, passenger stations, goods yards, and engineering workshops were all rapidly in need of enlargement. In Britain rail freight amounted to some 38 million tons in 1850 and 1.996 billion (expressed in U.S. figures) by 1875. In France traffic increased by around 4 percent per annum between 1851 and 1913, with 70 percent of all freight being moved by rail. More bureaucratic and systematic business procedures and accounting practices also contributed to the efficient utilization of equipment and labor. Major stations like Frankfurt, with a staff of over one thousand in 1904, were vital hubs of activity. Military-style regulations were imposed on the labor force in the interests of both safety and efficiency. Efforts were also made through complex bonus systems and pensions to instill a sense of pride and loyalty within a labor force that in Britain had grown to 600,000 and in France to 355,000 on the eve of World War I.


The broader impact of rail construction has generally been discussed in terms of "backward" and "forward" linkages. The most profound effect of improved communications was to reduce market fragmentation. As markets were widened many enterprises experienced a crisis of adaptation as new opportunities for profit were created but within more competitive markets—a situation

that promoted technical and organizational innovation. The reduction in transport costs and, in effect, of the cost of the final product for consumers, as well as the more rapid diffusion of marketplace information, was especially significant for products of low value in relation to weight such as coal, iron ore, building materials, and agricultural produce and for the finished products of the metallurgical, engineering, chemicals, and textiles industries. Falling prices stimulated the growth in demand for a wide range of products, further stimulating the creation of a mass market. This was particularly evident in regions lacking efficient waterborne communication, as in Germany, where fragmentation of economic space due to the lack of east-west river links had been particularly evident.

In the case of backward linkages, a massive stimulus was afforded to metallurgy and engineering. Demand for rails and rolling stock accounted for 13 to 18 percent of iron and steel orders in France during the height of the railway boom between 1845 and 1884 as well as for 12 to 18 percent of building materials, although subsequently demand was increasingly restricted to extensions to the network and replacement. The needs of the railway, together with competitive pressure, provided a vital stimulus to innovation designed to increase both the volume and quality of production. In metallurgy this involved the transition from small charcoal-based to large coke-using furnaces and the development of the refining, puddling, and rolling processes. Initial dependence on imports and on technological borrowing from Britain and Belgium was short-lived. Thus by the mid-1850s Germany had already achieved self-sufficiency in locomotive production, and companies like Borsig in Berlin were already looking for export markets. The supply of coal was also substantially increased as falling transport costs for domestically produced coal and rising demand from industry and the railways themselves encouraged increased production and in areas like the Ruhr or northern France led to the emergence of coal-based technical systems. Coal producers in an area like the Loire basin, which had previously dominated regional markets due to its position within the waterway network, now however faced competition from more efficient mines in the north, the owners of which themselves complained about the competitive threat from Belgian and from seaborne British coal, penetrating inland as a result of rail company efforts to generate traffic from the ports serving their networks. Improved transport not only increased the elasticity of supply of coal and other raw materials and reduced their cost, but by providing for the greater regularity of supply also ensured that industry was less susceptible to price fluctuations, as well as allowing the reduction of stocks, which had previously tied up substantial capital.

The railways thus served as a "leading sector" stimulating the modernization of key sectors of the industrial and commercial economy and also the development of agriculture. Thus the equalization of regional and then of international grain prices substantially reduced the age-old association between climatic conditions and food prices and considerably increased food security. By the 1880s half the Russian wheat harvest was being transported to western Europe from rapidly developing ports like Odessa. Cereals from the Hungarian plains increasingly met Austrian needs. The bulk transport of wine and livestock, as well as of perishables like meat, fruit, vegetables, and dairy products, encouraged agricultural specialization and modified dietary practices. The more intensive commercialization of farming sustained a growing demand for inputs including chemical fertilizers as well as for manufactured goods at the same time, however, that the concentration and increased scale of industrial production effected a rapid decline in dispersed rural manufacture and the deindustrialization of many regions. Furthermore, competition from large industrial flour mills at the ports sounded the death knell for numerous rural mills, while the construction of railways outside Europe and particularly in North America, together with falling maritime freight rates, promoted a process of globalization and heralded the onset of the "great depression" in European agriculture. It was hardly surprising, as import penetration increased, that both rail freight rates and tariff protection would become major political issues.

As well as promoting the concentration of industrial and commercial activity and thus the increased concentration of population, the railways made possible the massive transportation of the building materials needed for urbanization. The construction and then reconstruction of passenger stations with train sheds made of iron and glass behind more traditional facades, and of extensive goods yards, was in itself a central feature of the redevelopment of city centers. By the end of the century Paris had eight rail termini and Berlin seven. Their construction fundamentally affected land use and the flows of traffic and people. City centers were increasingly clogged by vast numbers of horse-drawn carriages, buses, trams, and carts. While the areas inhabited by the better-off classes were largely spared, large numbers of poorer people were displaced by the construction of lines, bridges, viaducts, and stations, and even if the relatively impoverished were increasingly likely to travel by train or tram it was the middle classes who were best placed to enjoy the suburban living that cheap mass transport made possible. In countless small towns and rural areas too the station offered a new hub for economic activity, ever more closely focused on provisioning the growing urban centers. Road traffic, which had been displaced from routes parallel to the railways, grew substantially for relatively short-distance movement to the nearest railway station. Migration too was made easier, whether to the city or to the ports and on, across the Atlantic. Construction of the Trans-Siberian Railroad from 1905 eased the movement of around 250,000 people each year from western Russia in search of a better life.

In addition to facilitating the movement of goods and people the railways, together with the electric telegraph (introduced by the Great Western Railway in Britain in 1839 and in France from 1845), combined to considerably increase the

Passenger traffic, 1913
CountryPassenger kilometers (in millions)Index
source: Data from B. R. Mitchell, International Historical Statistics: Europe 1750–2000 (Houndmills, U.K., 2003) and Norman J. G. Pounds, An Historical Geography of Europe (Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1985).

speed and volume of information diffusion. The latter had initially served as an "enabling technology," constructed alongside the railway as a means of controlling traffic and then spreading outward. The number of telegrams dispatched rose in France from 500,000 in 1858 to 51 million in 1913. The first transatlantic cable entered service in 1866, heralding a growing globalization reinforced by the development of more efficient rail-borne postal services and of mass-circulation newspapers. In France the number of items sent through the post rose from 254 million in 1850 to 3.724 billion in 1913;in Germany the rate of increase was even more rapid, from 85.9 million to 7.024 billion during the same period. As well as reinforcing trends toward market integration, rail and telegraph also brought political centralization closer by increasing the efficiency of administrative reporting systems and the potential for central control over the provinces. The telephone represented further technical innovation to provide a more flexible means of communication in the office and home and became increasingly attractive as more extensive networks developed. There were 12,000 telephones in use in France in 1889 and 310,000 by 1913. In that year 430 million calls were made. In Germany the corresponding figures were 37,000 rising to 1,428,000, with the number of calls reaching 2,518 million. As well as stimulating business and personal contacts, improved communications also had substantial military implications, both for internal security and the waging of war. In 1846 Prussian troops were transported to Kraków to suppress a Polish revolt; in order to achieve concentration for the 1859 campaign against Austria fought in northern Italy, the French moved substantial numbers of men and horses by rail. The experience of the Franco-Prussian war in 1870 and of mobilization in 1914, however, revealed that, on the one hand, incompetent planning could result in chaos, and on the other, that sustained efforts to remedy deficiencies might result in the rigidities associated with the Schlieffen Plan (Germany's early-twentieth-century military deployment plan). Moreover, movement away from railheads continued to be on foot or dependent on horse transport.


The railway might be viewed as a means of easing transport bottlenecks in an advanced economy (Britain, Belgium) or else as a leading sector promoting broader economic development (France, Germany, Russia). Nevertheless, even if the impact of railway construction, and that of the improvements in information diffusion it stimulated, varied between regions, there can be little doubt that it was everywhere considerable. The economic and social geography of Europe was modified substantially. In spite of continuities, the construction of national rail networks, followed by the development of international links, contributed to rising levels of productivity in both agriculture and industry. Even if the benefits were shared unequally, widespread and substantial improvements in living standards were evident. The development of coal-based technological systems also, however, substantially increased the capacity of states to wage destructive military campaigns and to sustain the war effort over long periods. In the last analysis, the impact of the railway, and of any technology, thus has to be assessed to a considerable degree in relation to the perceived interests of those who controlled its development and subsequent use.

See alsoCoal Mining; Industrial Revolution, First; Industrial Revolution, Second; Science and Technology; Transportation and Communications.


Caron, François. Histoire des chemins de fer en France, 1740–1883. Paris, 1997.

Cohen, Jon S., and Giovanni Federico. The Growth of the Italian Economy 1820–1960. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 2001.

Mitchell, Allan. The Great Train Race: Railways and the Franco-German Rivalry. New York, 2000.

O'Brien, Patrick, ed. Railways and the Economic Development of Western Europe, 1830–1914. London, 1983.

Pierenkemper, Tony, and Richard Tilly. The German Economy during the Nineteenth Century. New York, 2004.

Price, Roger. The Modernization of Rural France: Communications Networks and Agricultural Market Structures in Nineteenth-Century France. London, 1983.

Rostow, W. W. The Stages of Economic Growth. Cambridge, Mass., 1960.

Roth, Ralf, and Marie-Noëlle Polino, eds. The City and the Railway in Europe. Aldershot, U.K., 2003.

Schram, Albert. Railways and the Formation of the Italian State in the Nineteenth Century. Cambridge, U.K., 1997.

Szostak, Rick. The Role of Transportation in the Industrial Revolution: A Comparison of England and France. Montreal, 1991.

Teich, Mikulus, and Roy Porter, eds. The Industrial Revolution in National Context. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1996.

Ville, Simon P. Transport and the Development of the European Economy, 1750–1918. London, 1990.

Roger Price


views updated Jun 11 2018


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.


views updated May 29 2018


Railroads use flanged wheels rolling over fixed rails for human transportation; the vehicles on these rails are commonly called trains because they are usually composed of a train of cars linked together. Trains have distinct characteristics that have called for specialized legal and policy regulation, and to some extent for the application of ethical principles.

Prior to the development of steam locomotion, early horse-drawn trains ran on tracks serving mines, where the ground was otherwise too uneven for wheeled vehicles. The first horse-drawn trains began operating at English coal mines in the 1630s. In 1758, the British Parliament established the Middleton Railway in Leeds; it began to adopt steam locomotives in 1812. The Middleton Railway claims to be the oldest railway in the world; however, at this time it carried only freight, not passengers. The first public steam-operated passenger railway was the Stockton & Darlington in England, which began operations in 1825. Commenting on railroad developments and aspirations at the time, the English Quarterly Review wrote: "What can be more palpably absurd and ridiculous than the prospects held out of locomotives traveling twice as fast as stagecoaches! We should as soon expect the people ... to suffer themselves to be fired off on ... [a] rocket, as to put themselves at the mercy of such a machine, going at such a rate" (Bianculli 2001, vol. I, p. 15).

The Nineteenth Century Experience

Early American railroads competed with canals, packet steamers, stagecoach lines, and turnpike companies for investment. Government did not immediately intervene on the side of the new technology; as late as 1856, the Erie Canal was subsidized by a tax on rail traffic. Local interests did not always want the railroad in the early years. Farmers tended to oppose them because the locomotives set fire to crops, scared livestock, and, most significantly, brought in cheap produce from elsewhere to compete with local products.

In February 1815 the New Jersey legislature passed the first railroad charter in the United States, authorizing a horse-drawn train to connect Trenton and New Brunswick. During the 1820s, almost every state granted railroad charters. John Stevens (1749–1838) built the first successful American steam locomotive in 1825, the same year the Stockton & Darlington began operation in Great Britain.

From the outset, an excitement for the technological possibilities was attached to railroad development that drove an unprecedented rush of development and adoption. Trains were seen as powerful tools and symbols of nation building. Just two years after the opening of the Stockton & Darlington, the Baltimore & Ohio was chartered as the first westward-bound railroad in the United States; and in 1831, President Andrew Jackson (1767–1845) in a message to Congress portrayed railroads as the binding force that would hold the most remote parts of the new nation together. A French observer remarked, "The American seems to consider the words democracy, liberalism, and railroads as synonymous terms" (Bianculli 2001, vol. I, p. 17). Jackson later became the first U.S. president to ride a steam-powered train.

In 1830 the Baltimore & Ohio began operations, pulled initially by horses and mules, switching to its steam locomotive, the "Tom Thumb," a few months later. A New York City to Washington line was in place by 1840, and a decade later, the country had 9,000 miles of track in service. Railroads permitted the development of urban centers not on rivers, and most railroad development was east-to-west, connecting rivers to each other instead of running parallel to them. However, most early railroads were short, local, and did not connect to one another.

Railways were the most capital-intensive enterprise the world had ever seen, far exceeding mills. They largely drove the development of the joint-stock company and therefore of modern Wall Street-style finance.

From scarcely twenty-five miles of public railroad worldwide in 1825, the mileage grew to over 160,000 miles in fifty years, with approximately one third of that being in the United States. As American eyes looked to the west, the railroads took on a new importance as the tool by which western lands would be secured to the Union and then controlled. In addition to other financial incentives, the federal government offered railroads ten to twenty square miles of adjoining land for every mile of track built. This resulted in the grant of 338,000 square miles to the railroads, which then realized additional profits developing or selling this land or leasing it out. In some cases, these land grants emboldened the railroads to lay track away from the nearest large towns, confident new towns would develop right alongside. In other cases, the railroads demanded subsidies from towns in order not to bypass them. When San Bernardino refused to pay the Southern Pacific, the railroad created the town of Colton, California, just five miles away.

A race began to finish the transcontinental railroad; the Union Pacific, originating at Omaha, Nebraska, headed west, while the Central Pacific, beginning in Sacramento, laid track east. The two competitors bickered over where the lines would meet; if the Ulysses S. Grant (1822–1885) administration had not intervened to force both roads to accept a meeting place in Utah, they would have ended up running parallel to one another for some 1,500 miles. The transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869.

From 1870 through about 1890, the railroads played a major role in the settlement of the west. In this twenty-year period, the Denver population increased from 5,000 to 107,000, while Minneapolis went from a town of 13,000 people to one of 164,000. But already by 1871, land grants were a fertile source of political scandal, with accusations that the railroads were charging exorbitant fees and foreclosing on tenants who could not pay.

The nineteenth-century railway was a major tool of nation-building and national identity. Canadian technology and media philosopher Harold Innis saw the railway as a bulwark of centralization, territorial expansion, nationalism, and state authority. Like the United States, Canada also was consolidated by the building of a transcontinental road, which reinforced the new nation's extremely tenuous control west of Ontario. "[T]he drive for railways embodied a sense of divine purpose, a mission to conquer the surrounding wilderness, that made the colonists, rather unexpectedly, less British and more American" (den Otter 1997, p. 12). For cultural historian Wolfgang Schivelbusch (1986), by forcing the creation of time zones to help schedule train traffic and turning journeys across great distances into well-ordered experiences, the railroad brought about the industrialization of time and space.

The Twentieth Century

From 1850 to about 1950, trains were the primary means of inland transport, but in the age of automobiles and airplanes there is some question as to whether trains are still needed. Unlike Europe, where the train has deep aesthetic, environmental, and cultural appeal, the United States flagged in its commitment to a national railway system. They are "of marginal utility and relevance to most people ... more nostalgia than interest" (Perl 2002, p. 1). In the United States, those who defend the perpetuation of rail lines often do so on sentimental and historical grounds, though environmental arguments (that each train obviates the hydrocarbon emissions of a number of automobiles and trucks) are also applicable. Trains were already perceived as a fading technology in the United States as early as the 1940s, as government aggressively supported the automobile by building highways everywhere.

In the face of competition from the car and later from the passenger airline, private American railroads in the 1950s began to close down passenger service while maintaining the more lucrative freight contracts. Although state railroad boards sometimes fought aggressively to preserve passenger service, regulatory responsibility shifted to the federal Interstate Commerce Commission, which agreed that the train was of declining utility. From 1958 to 1971, about 75 percent of passenger train mileage was abandoned by the railroads. But at the same time it became harder for them to compete with trucks and aviation in the freight business, and the railroad share of intercity freight declined from 68 percent in 1944 to 44 percent in 1960.

When automobiles and then airplanes first became prevalent, the railroads struggled to cover their fixed costs (track building and maintenance) out of a declining revenue. By contrast, automobile and aviation interests never became financially responsible for their entire infrastructure: Automobile manufacturers and trucking companies did not own the highways, airlines did not build airports. The infrastructure they require is paid for with public money, while the railroads had long been responsible for their own costs.

The Amtrak Corporation was founded in 1971 with $25.4 billion in federal subsidies and grants, as a response to the frightening bankruptcy of the Penn Central Railroad, which had been losing $375,000 a day on its passenger service. Amtrak took over passenger lines from twenty participating railroads, which were offered a choice of stock in Amtrak or a tax break. Only one tax-paying railroad chose the stock. At the time, the National Association of Railroad Passengers said that Amtrak was "operated by people who don't want it to succeed." Amtrak was also described as a "policy blocker," preventing more radical legislation (Perl 2002,
p. 99). Amtrak has been a failure as a commercial entity, losing much more money than anyone anticipated. As of early 2005, the George W. Bush administration was proposing that Amtrak receive no further funding from the federal government.

Aesthetic and environmental considerations aside, trains only make sense if they provide speed and convenience equal to or greater than automobiles, at less cost than airplanes. Japan has succeeded in creating high-speed rail lines that connect directly to airports and travel more rapidly than cars. The trend at Amtrak has been the opposite. After debuting the Metroliner, which went from New York to Washington in under three hours, Amtrak has slowed this train down so that it is barely faster than the regular, less expensive service.

Anthony Perl (2002) notes that passenger railroads suffer from the perception that they should be profit-making entities rather than a national service. No one complains that New York subway fares only cover 71 percent of the cost of operating the system, while Amtrak is considered a failure for recouping 78 percent of its costs.

Public Service or Private Enterprise?

The question of whether trains should be a public service or private enterprise has played out most dramatically in Great Britain, where the nationalization of British Rail during the Thatcher era was based on the premise that "private = good, public = bad" (Murray 2001, p. 2). Andrew Murray describes the nationalization of British Rail as privatization run amok, a solution without a problem, since the entity that was replaced had a very high record of safety and reliability. It has been supplanted by a strange patchwork of several principal players and hundreds of subsidiary ones, with the tracks all owned by one entity, Railtrack, the rolling stock placed in separate leasing companies and leased back to franchisees, and maintenance and repair services sold to thirteen other companies that subcontract much of the work. The piece most visible to the public—the franchisee train operators, which include several of Britain's major bus companies and also Virgin Airways—own nothing except their trademarks.

The result has been a substantial increase in bureaucracy, decline in decisiveness and speed of decision-making, and a general lack of cooperation among the various entities. Examples include the fact that operators will no longer wait for connecting trains to arrive (they pay a fine if they start late, regardless of the reason); tickets on one line are not accepted on competing lines rolling over the same tracks, so if you miss your connection to London you often cannot go out on the next train without buying another ticket; substantial increases in overtime, and therefore in exhausted workers driving trains, as the lines make their declining base of experienced employees work harder, rather than hiring and training additional ones; and a terrible lack of interest in safety measures unless mandated by government. Some train crashes have resulted, with substantial loss of life and stories of safety systems switched off or malfunctioning. Murray is skeptical that these problems can be solved without re-nationalizing the railroads.

The history of trains, like that of dams and other nineteenth-century technologies, describes an arc from symbol of political and economic power to a nostalgia-supported technology left behind in a strictly technological competition with other interests and solutions. The future of trains will depend very much on the practicality of new technological innovations to make them compete effectively with automobiles, at prices that make sense. Without massive federal subsidies and a major change in governmental thinking, trains may not prevail for environmental or sentimental reasons alone.


SEE ALSO Bay Area Rapid Transit Case;Roads and Highways;Ships.


Bianculli, Anthony J. (2001). Trains and Technology: The American Railroad in the Nineteenth Century, 3 vols. Newark: University of Delaware Press. A detailed technological history of nineteenth century steam locomotion.

den Otter, A.A. (1997). The Philosophy of Railways: The Transcontinental Railway Idea in British North America. Toronto: University of Toronto Press. Describes the social impact of Canadian railway building.

Innis, Harold Adams. (1971). A History of the Canadian Pacific Railway. Toronto: University of Toronto Press. Technology philosopher Harold Innis, a predecessor of Marshall McLuhan, analyzes the impact of the railroad on conceptions of nationhood, distance and time.

Murray, Andrew. (2001). Off the Rails: Britain's Great Rail Crisis—Cause, Consequences, and Cure. London: Verso. A sarcastic and lively analysis of the effects of railway privatization in Great Britain.

Perl, Anthony. (2002). New Departures: Rethinking Rail Passenger Policy in the Twenty-first Century. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press. An analysis of the results of the nationalization of U.S. passenger service via creation of the Amtrak Corporation.

Schivelbusch, Wolfgang. (1986). The Railway Journey: The Industrialization of Time and Space in the Nineteenth Century, trans. Anselm Hollo. Berkeley: University of California Press. Original German publication, 1977.


views updated May 18 2018



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).


views updated May 14 2018


Jewish financiers played a considerable role in the construction of railroads in France and in Central and Eastern Europe from the 1830s until the beginning of the 20th century. These Jewish financiers were the only investors – besides the British – among the private bankers dominant in Europe until the second half of the 19th century (see also *Banking) who were prepared to risk their capital in the pioneer stage of railroad construction. In the second half of the 19th century, when large banking joint-stock firms sprang up and expanded, private banks were increasingly pressed into the background, and the share of private Jewish capital in railroad investment diminished accordingly. In the majority of European countries this tendency became linked to nationalization of the railroads when financial crises occurred in private railroad companies. The nationalization of Prussian railroads was organized on the financial side by Bismarck's adviser Gerson von *Bleichroeder. In the 19th-century era of "railroad fever" former *court Jews who had become private bankers with considerable funds took part in furthering the industrial revolution through their investments in railroad construction.

The *Rothschilds were urged by Nathan Mayer Rothschild soon after the opening of the first successful railroad in England (1825) to invest money on the continent in railroad construction. Salomon Rothschild of Vienna sent Professor F.X. Riepel from the Vienna Institute of Technology to England to study the new means of transportation with Roth-schild's secretary, Leopold von Wertheimstein. Subsequently they proposed the construction (1829) of a first line to run straight through the Hapsburg Empire, connecting Vienna with Galicia and Trieste. The July Revolution postponed the execution of Rothschild's plans. It was only in 1836, after overcoming many obstacles (especially the rivalry of the Viennese banking houses of *Arnstein and *Eskeles) that he began construction of the northern line from Vienna to Bochnia, in Galicia. The railroad was only completed in 1858. The house of Rothschild sold the shares on the stock market mainly to small investors.

James Rothschild of Paris was encouraged to construct the local line between Paris and St. Germain (opened in 1837) by Emile *Pereire. Emile Pereire and his brother Isaac viewed the railroad as the salvation of the future, producing work for the masses, connecting nations, and conducive to world welfare and peace. The two brothers could later boast that through their efforts more than 6,000 miles (10,000 km.) of railroads had come into existence. In the 1840s they were the rivals of the Rothschilds in this field.

After the success of the Paris-St. Germain line, James Rothschild and the *Fould brothers (apostate Jews), were eager to receive the concession for the Paris-Versailles line. The government eventually approved two plans, so that Rothschild constructed his line on the left bank of the River Seine and the Foulds on the right bank. In 1839 the railroad was opened, and in 1840 the two companies merged. This did not diminish the rivalry between them and the Pereire brothers. James Rothschild also succeeded in obtaining the concession for the construction of a northern line connecting Paris with England and the industries of northern France. The financial means of the Rothschilds were thereby severely strained, but the line was at last opened in 1846.

Nathan Mayer Rothschild and his sons helped finance the state-constructed railroad network in Belgium in the years 1834 to 1843. The Antwerp-Ghent line was built by the first private railway company in Belgium formed by Leopold *Koenigswarter. The Rothschilds were the chief financiers of the world-spanning railroad politics of Leopold i. They also raised funds for building railroads in Italy, Spain, and Brazil.

The Pereire brothers were second only to the Rothschilds in the first stage of railroad network development on the continent until 1869. The first half of their organizational activity was spent on a substantial part of the French railroad network. While the Rothschilds constructed the "northern" line in the 1840s, the Pereires were responsible for the "southern" one. The 1848 revolution plunged the railroads into a severe crisis (the "southern" line, managed by Isaac Pereire, was also financially ruined). The Pereire brothers wished to overcome this crisis by diverting to plans for a "railroad bank," a bank that would solve all the current financial difficulties of the French economy. The Crédit Mobilier (1852) also was intended not only to finance railroad construction but also heavy industry. Pereire introduced a new type of railroad security, the 500-franc capital bond (obligation), paying 15 francs annual interest and issued at whatever the market would bring, generally between 300 and 400 francs. With interest guaranteed by the state these bonds were ideally suited to the investor of moderate means. They quickly replaced other types of railroad borrowing and greatly facilitated railroad finance.

In the first years of its establishment the Crédit Mobilier financed (through advance payments and increased circulation of bonds) the "southern" line, the "grand central," the French "eastern" line, and many others in their first years. Through its contribution the railroad network expanded from 2,000 miles (3,600 km.) in 1852 to 11,000 miles (18,000 km.) in 1870. The Pereire brothers did not neglect to finance railroad construction and industrial ventures abroad. They contributed to the predominance of French finance in the development of foreign railroads in the post-1850 decade: in Austria, where there was fierce competition between the Pereires and the Rothschilds, the Pereires founded the important Austrian State-Railroad Company, in conjunction with Sina, Arnstein, and Eskeles, while the Rothschilds were successful in buying the Lombard-Venetian and the Central Italian Railway (1856). In Spain there was lively rivalry between the Rothschilds, Pereires, and Jules Isaac *Mirès; and in Hungary they built the "Franz-Joseph" line (1857). The Crédit Mobilier also financed Swiss railroads.

The importance of railroads was grasped in Russia only after its defeat in the Crimean War. The Grande Société des Chemins de fer Russes (1857) had, besides the Pereires, other Jewish bankers as founders: Alexander *Stieglitz of St. Petersburg, S.A. Fraenkel of Warsaw, and the *Mendelssohns of Berlin. An important figure in Russian railroad construction in the 1860s and 1870s was Samuel *Polyakov. He built railroads of supreme importance for the Russian grain export trade, and also wrote on the political aspect of railroad construction. He and other Jewish entrepreneurs succeeded in attracting foreign capital (Leopold *Kronenberg, J.J. Sack, Gerson von Bleichroeder, Sulzbach Brothers, etc.) without which their plans would have been unattainable. Railroad construction by Jewish bankers in Russia created employment for numbers of Jews, who filled technical and administrative posts. The advent of the railroad brought many changes in Jewish economic and social life, described, for instance, in the poem Shenei Yosef ben Shim'on of J.L. *Gordon.

Bethel Henry *Strousberg started by working for English firms, and when he had accumulated enough capital, founded railway companies in Prussia and later in Hungary. He also acquired locomotive factories and rolling mills for rails, and subsequently coal mines. A careless venture into Romanian railroad construction ruined his enterprise. His bankruptcy influenced public opinion in favor of nationalization of railroad lines in Germany. It also revealed malpractices and bribery, which were given a prominent place in antisemitic propaganda.

Jewish bankers were large-scale investors in railroad construction outside Europe. Baron Maurice de *Hirsch bought, in 1869, the concession for railroad building in Turkey from the bankrupt International Land Credit Company. His connection by marriage with the Jewish banking enterprise Bischoffsheim and Goldschmidt aided him initially. In 1869 he began the first stage of extending the Austro-Hungarian lines southward. However, before beginning construction on the Oriental Railroad, he took steps to secure financial backing, and chose a new type of 3% government loan. "Turkish lottery bonds," which attracted small investors in France and Germany, were offered on the general market. Hirsch concluded his project in 1888.

At first Jewish financiers, mainly of German origin, acted as intermediaries between foreign finance and the United States. When the Civil War broke out in 1861, railway bonds, mainly distributed by Jewish bankers in Europe, served as a means of payment for munitions bought in Europe. The Speyer, Stern, and *Seligman New York banking houses all dealt in railway shares. A leading personality in late 19th and early 20th century American financing was Jacob H. *Schiff. In 1875 he became a member of the banking firm of Kuhn, Loeb & Company (a firm long engaged in railroad financing) which he eventually dominated. In 1897 he reorganized the Union Pacific Railroad, which was described in the period as being "battered, bankrupt and decrepit." According to financial authorities the Harriman-Schiff railway combination became the most powerful and most successful that America had ever known. Schiff was one of the first supporters and associates of James Hill, who, by building the Great Northern Railway, virtually became the founder of a vast empire in the northwest. His firm aided other railroads by financial operations until the end of World War i. Schlesinger-Trier in Berlin, together with other Jewish banks, imported the shares of the Canadian Pacific railroad and offered them on the Berlin stock market.

A position similar to that of Schiff in financing railway companies in the United States was held by Sir Ernest *Cassel in England. He had a share in developing Swedish, American, and Mexican railway companies. The Vickers and Central London Railway Company was connected with his name.


K. Grunwald, in: ylbi, 12 (1967), 163–212; 14 (1969), 119–61; idem, Tuerkenhirsch (1966); R.E. Cameron, France and the Economic Development of Europe, 1880–1914 (1961); E.C. Corti, Rise of the House of Rothschild (1928); idem, Reign of the House of Rothschild (1928); P.H. Emden, Money Powers of Europe (1937); J. Plenge, Gruendung und Geschichte des Crédit Mobilier (1903); ajyb, 23 (1921). add. bibliography: J.M. Landau, The Hejaz Railway and the Muslim Pilgrimage (1971).

[Michael Graetz]


views updated Jun 11 2018


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


views updated May 11 2018


Latin American leaders of the mid- to late nineteenth century, committed to modernization through technological advance, welcomed the advent of the railroad. Along with the promise of progress and national integration, however, there developed a host of challenges and problems associated with a new industry vast in both scale and impact. Financing, structure and management, developmental questions, and relations with labor and consumers were among the concerns that had to be addressed.

The railroad era dawned in Mexico in 1837 when work began on the Mexico City-Veracruz line. By 1860 only short segments totaling about 93 miles had been constructed. During the rule of the emperor Maximilian (1864–1866), concession rights were controlled by the London-registered Imperial Mexican Railway Company. Construction directed by British engineers progressed over tremendously difficult terrain but was forced to a halt in 1866 because costs had nearly bankrupted the company. A subsidy provided by the government of Benito Juárez allowed work to resume on the line, renamed the Ferrocarril Mexicano, and service was inaugurated in 1873. Other lines were built in rapid succession and by 1911 Mexico had 15,000 miles of track.

The province of Buenos Aires early in 1854 enacted Argentina's first railroad legislation, which created the provincially owned Western Railroad. By 1914 the Argentine rail network had grown to 20,857 miles, with about 70 percent under British ownership. Four large British-owned lines, the Buenos Aires Great Southern, the Buenos Aires Western, the Buenos Aires and Pacific, and the Central Argentine controlled about half of the network, with the remainder in the hands of smaller British, French, or government-owned lines.

Brazil's early railroads were largely the achievement of Irineu Evangelista de Sousa (Viscount de Mauá). The first, inaugurated in 1854, ran just nine miles from Rio de Janeiro to the foot of the escarpment just below Petrópolis. Its purpose was to facilitate passenger travel between the winter and summer capitals of the empire. The first major line, the Companhia Paulista de Estradas de Ferro, incorporated in São Paulo in 1868, served the coffee export economy. These and most other lines in Brazil were linked to English capital, directors, engineers, and equipment. By 1900 Brazil could count 9,517 miles of track.

Chile's most important railroads were owned by the state. The early lines were built in the populous northern Central Valley. One, the Ferrocarril de Santiago a Valparaíso, was completed in 1863, and another, the Ferrocarril del Sur, was completed in 1875 after twenty years of construction.

Peru began the construction of its railway system in 1869 when contracts were signed between the government and the North American entrepreneur Henry Meiggs. The two most important systems were the Central Railway of Peru, Ltd., and the Southern Railway of Peru, Ltd., both of which linked the coast with the interior. By 1920 the republic had 1,718 miles of track.

Colombia's need to transport coffee stimulated a modest extension of that nation's rudimentary rail system in the early nineteenth century. In 1885 there were only 126 miles in use; this gradually grew to 2,026 miles in 1934, a relatively unimpressive network relative to much of the rest of Latin America.

In the 1850s and 1860s Latin American railroads were backed by a combination of domestic private and government funding, with additional modest amounts coming from abroad. Denationalization of rail networks occurred in the 1870s and 1880s, once the profitability of the lines, the stability of host governments, and concomitant risk reduction convinced investors of the safety of their capital. Latin American governments pragmatically divested themselves of railroads, having provided the initial pump-priming investment and guaranteeing themselves certain levels of profitability. Foreign investment bore the costs of further expansion and modernization. Denationalization did not result in loss of control by host governments. Legislation in all countries, enacted from the 1870s to the turn of the century, articulated regulations concerning personnel, train schedules, rights of way, acquisition of new equipment, extension of networks, rates, and capitalization.

With the growth of nationalism in Latin America in the twentieth century, foreign-owned or managed railroads were returned to state control. In Mexico the government, through the purchase of the majority of shares in the lines, effectively controlled the foreign-owned railroads by 1911. British managers were kept in positions of responsibility until 1937, when the administration of Lázaro Cárdenas completed the process of nationalization. In Peru, although the state owned the railways, from 1890 the lines were operated by the London-based Peruvian Corporation under a lease agreement. Colombia nationalized its railroads in the 1930s and Argentina followed in 1947.

There was much diversity among lines in the management of railroads. For every well-run company, such as the Buenos Aires Great Southern, there was the poor leadership of the Ferrocarril Mexicano or the Central Railway of Peru. Successful companies grew confident with assured markets and traffic. Once Latin American governments, in the closing decades of the nineteenth century, made the decision to push hard for modernization and the development of their infrastructures, railroad management responded aggressively to new opportunities.

Zonal amalgamation, pooling agreements, developmental rates policies, and vertical diversification of the industry were typical managerial responses to an auspicious business climate. Managers reduced rates for long-distance hauls to promote increased economic activity; bureaucracies were streamlined; and, in Argentina, agricultural experiment stations were established by the railroads to improve crop yields and livestock quality. Companies in 1910 jointly invested in the exploitation of Argentine oil fields, with an eye to substituting cheap petroleum for expensive Welsh coal.

Mergers and amalgamation improved efficiency and helped local economies. Between 1901 and 1914 the Argentine Great Western merged with the Trasandino and the Buenos Aires and Pacific railways. As a result, the Great Western was able to build new branch lines, double the track of its main line, and expand station facilities. Merging with the Pacific gave the Great Western access to needed rolling stock and working capital. The subsequent economic boom in the province of Mendoza was underwritten by the improved capability of the railway to serve the province.

The railroads made pooling agreements to prevent ruinous rate-cutting competition. In Mexico in 1909 the British-owned Ferrocarril Mexicano agreed with the government-owned Ferrocarriles Nacionales de Mexico to pool all freight and passenger traffic between Veracruz and Mexico City and not to compete for traffic. Critics contended that such agreements conspired to maintain high prices for moving freight. In Chile, where all trunk lines were state owned, it was the government that directed the construction and operation of the railroads and set artificially low rates for freight, which by 1911 had resulted in perennial deficits. At times, in Argentina and Brazil, governments stimulated conservative foreign railroad management to extend their networks with threats of state competition through the construction of parallel lines.

Railroads were in many cases the largest employers of Latin American industrial workers, from the unskilled laborer, which included Chinese coolies in Chile, Peru, and Mexico, to the highly qualified engine drivers and machine-shop personnel. The labor policies of Latin American railroads were shaped by many factors, including the emergence of independent unions beginning in the 1880s, management responses to labor unrest and workers' demands, and the impact of those demands on the policies of Latin American governments. Labor policies involved far more than matters of an economic character. Rather, social, economic, political, and cultural elements interacted in a complex manner.

As a rule, management's relations with labor were highly paternalistic regardless of the ownership of the railroad. Chilean managers treated laborers in much the same way that rural laborers were treated and control over their lives was stringent. On British lines paternalism was used to foster staff loyalty and thwart unionization. Benefits and services were offered to workers on an individual basis in exchange for their loyalty to the company. By the 1930s and 1940s Latin American governments such as Argentina under Juan Perón, Brazil under Getúlio Vargas, and Mexico under Lázaro Cárdenas, had won the support of the rail workers.

By the 1990s the use of railroads in countries such as Argentina and Peru was declining. Instead, riders turned more to bus routes.

See alsoCoffee Industry; Economic Development; Engineering; Mauá, Visconde de.


Richard Graham, Britain and the Onset of Modernization in Brazil, 1850–1914 (1968).

Eduardo A. Zalduendo, Libras y rieles: Las inversions británicas para el desarrollo de los ferrocarriles en Argentina, Brazíl, Canadá e India durante el siglo XIX (1975).

John H. Coatsworth, Growth Against Development: The Economic Impact of Railroads in Porfirian Mexico (1981).

Colin M. Lewis, British Railways in Argentina, 1857–1914: A Case Study of Foreign Investment (1983).

Arthur Schmidt, The Social and Economic Effect of the Railroad in Puebla and Veracruz, Mexico, 1867–1911 (1987).

Additional Bibliography

Kogan, Jorge H. Rieles con futuro: Desafios para los ferrocarriles de América del Sur. Caracas: Corporación Andina de Fomento, 2004.

Rowe, D. Trevor. The Railways of South America. London: Locomotives International, 2001.

Thomson, Ian. Integración en el sector transporte en el Cono Sur: Los ferrocariles y su contribución al comercio inter-nacional. Buenos Aires: Banco Interamericano de Desarrollo, Instituto para la Integración de América Latina y el Caribe, 1997.

                                       Paul B. Goodwin Jr.


views updated Jun 11 2018


The transportation revolution helped America become a modern nation. In 1815 most Americans lived as subsistence farmers. They either made, raised, grew, or bartered for everything their families needed. High transportation costs made commercial farming (growing crops for sale) unprofitable for most farmers. New York's Erie Canal, completed in 1825, and then railroads, changed Americans' lives. By 1850 canals and railroads had reduced transportation costs by 95 percent. Farmers were now able to grow all the crops they could produce and sell them for cash. They could now buy items they previously had to make themselves. Factory-made cloth replaced the homespun clothing that had been produced after hours of labor by farm wives and daughters. Farmers in the North bought newly invented farm machinery to increase their crop production so they could make more money. They became consumers in America's industrial revolution.

Railroads were ideally suited for America's vast size. They ran all day, every day, and covered greater distances by more direct routes than did transportation by roads, canals or riverboats. America had 3,000 miles of track in 1840, 10,000 in 1850, and 30,000 in 1860. With 5 percent of the world's population, the United States had 50 percent of the world's railroad miles in 1855. Railroads' far-flung operation presented unique management problems that led to the development of modern management practices.

Railroads also introduced speed to business practices. Indeed, railroads started what Americans today call "standard" time. Before 1883, every town measured noon by when the sun stood directly overhead. This greatly complicated the setting of timetables and increased the danger of accidents. So the railroads adopted "railroad time" based on the concept, used earlier by some British railroads, of time zones in which the minute hand remains the same throughout the zone. The United States adopted railroad time as its official time with the Standard Time Act of 1918.

Railroads were still an emerging technology at the beginning of the Civil War. None had bridged the Ohio River or the Hudson River south of Albany. They ran on thirteen different gauges, the distance between the rails. It was not until 1886 that all railroads finally converted to the four-foot, eight-and-a-half-inch "standard" gauge. Local laws often required railroads to locate train stations at city limits in order to prevent fires and reduce unpleasant noise and smoke. This meant that passengers and freight had to be unloaded, carried through the city to the next station, and reloaded. Many railroads refused to allow their cars to travel on other rail lines for fear that they would lose them. Rail companies also refused to pull other companies' cars for fear of the wear and tear on equipment. The pressure to keep up with higher volume during the Civil War, however, encouraged efficiency and fostered greater cooperation among Northern railroad companies. The war set the stage for an integrated 200,000-mile national rail system by 1900.

the civil war

Some historians call the Civil War the first modern war. It became a conflict increasingly driven by logistics, the practice of obtaining military supplies and distributing them as needed. Governments had to supply food and military supplies to armies fighting on several fronts and campaigning through thinly populated areas. Civil War armies rarely, with notable exceptions, provided their own food by taking supplies from local farmers, as armies did in earlier wars. Accurate rifled muskets greatly increased ammunition use and thus the need for renewed ordnance. Railroads carried wounded soldiers from battlefields to distant hospitals. Although railroad construction declined during the Civil War, railroads had an impact on the war's outcome.

Logistics requirements made the Civil War a railroad war. Every major battle took place within twenty miles of a railroad or river port. Union strategic planners deliberately targeted rail junctions, such as Manassas, Petersburg, Nashville, Chattanooga, Corinth, and Atlanta. Each side's skill in managing its railroads became an important factor in fighting the war and its ultimate outcome.

The Union received excellent service from Northern railroads. The government paid two cents per mile for carrying troops and a sliding scale for freight. High military traffic volume made the arrangement very profitable to the railroads. The profits, however, provided the money necessary to maintain tracks, locomotives, and railroad cars. Congress passed a law in February 1862 giving the president the authority to take control of the railroads during military emergencies. It also created the independent U.S. Military Railroad (USMRR) to repair or build tracks and to operate railroads in captured Confederate territory. By the end of the war, the USMRR was the largest railroad in the world, with 25,000 employees and 2,100 miles of track. Efficient Northern railroads gave Union armies an advantage of speed that offset the Confederacy's advantage of size.

Southern railroads were less advanced than Northern railroads, partly because of the seasonal nature of the South's agricultural production. Still, they formed an "imperfect skeleton" of a transportation system—or would have, had the Confederate government taken the necessary steps to organize it. Southern railroads used only two track gauges, the standard gauge or five-foot. The government sought to have the tracks of different railroads joined so as to form an integrated rail system with the capability to shift locomotives and cars to other tracks. However, although the Confederate Congress passed a law giving the Quartermaster General the power to take control of Southern railroads in time of emergency, it never enforced it. In spite of clear wartime need, railroads and the communities they served refused to join their tracks to other railroads.

The Confederate government also agreed to pay Southern railroads a two-cents-per-mile rate, but this did not cover the railroads' operating costs. Further, it paid with Confederate bonds that rapidly lost their value. Cash-starved railroads thus had no money with which to maintain their tracks and rolling stock. Finally, Confederate officers routinely disrupted railroad operations. As a result of the Confederacy's failure to organize its railroads, Southern railroad efficiency declined during the war. Its armies became immobile in a war of mobility.

The Confederacy proved very resourceful in using railroads despite these limitations. At the first battle, Bull Run, or Manassas, General Rene Beauregard shuttled soldiers by train from the Shenandoah Valley during the battle. These reinforcements helped to secure the Confederate victory. In 1862 General Braxton Bragg moved 30,000 soldiers from Mississippi to Chattanooga, Tennessee, to stop a Union advance. Its most famous movement occurred in September 1863, when 13,000 soldiers from General James Longstreet's corps traveled from Virginia to northwest Georgia. Half the soldiers arrived in time to play a significant role in the Confederate victory at Chickamauga. That half of Longstreet's force did not reach the battlefield in time, however, shows the shortcomings of Southern railroads.

In contrast to the South, the Union showed its railroading expertise after the battle of Chickamauga. It sent 23,000 soldiers from the 11th and 12th Corps, their artillery, horses and wagons, and other equipment 1,300 miles over eight railroads to reinforce its army in Chattanooga. The first infantry regiments reached the area five days after leaving Virginia. The last combat units arrived in fifteen days. They helped to secure eastern Tennessee for the Union. Chattanooga became General William Tecumseh Sherman's staging area for his Atlanta campaign in 1864. The Union and Confederacy proved the value of railroads in conducting modern war. Railroads provide an example of America's increasing expertise in logistics.

after the civil war

In the decades following the Civil War, the United States chartered four transcontinental railroad lines. The first one was completed in May 1869, with the joining of the Central Pacific and Union Pacific Railroads at Promontory Point, Utah. All the railroad companies, benefiting from enormous financial support from federal and state governments in the form of generous land grants and loan agreements, brought great wealth to their investors and founders. These railroad lines fostered Western settlement by Euro-Americans, improved communication between people on the East and West coasts, and eased the transportation of manufactured and agricultural products. Tragically, the railroads hastened the demise of American Indians, their culture, and their way of life.


Black, Robert C., III. The Railroads of the Confederacy. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1952.

Taylor, George Rogers. The Transportation Revolution, 1815–1860. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1951.

Turner, George Edgar. Victory Rode the Rails. New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1953.

Weber, Thomas. The Northern Railroads in the Civil War. New York: King's Crown, 1952.

John E. Clark, Jr.

See also:Age of Westward Expansion; Indian Removal and Response.


views updated May 14 2018


CSX Transportation, Inc. v. Georgia State Board of Equalization

Since the introduction of railroads to the United States there have been ongoing legal disputes between railroad companies and the state governments over how much railroads should be taxed. By the 1970s, when the rail industry went into decline, the federal government stepped in to deal with discriminatory tax schemes imposed by the states. The Railroad Revitalization and Regulatory Act of 1976, 90 Stat. 31, gave railroads a tool to fight what they perceived as unfair taxation by the states. Railroads had been able to challenge the state's application of its valuation method, but there had been a split in the federal circuit courts of appeal over whether the law allowed railroads to challenge in court the state's valuation methods themselves. In CSX Transportation, Inc. v. Georgia State Board of Equalization, __U.S.__, 128 S. Ct. 467, 169 L. Ed. 2d 418(2007), the Supreme Court resolved the conflict, ruling that the act did permit the railroad to challenge the methods used to appraise their property.

CSX Transportation, Inc., a freight carrier with multiple routes across the state of Georgia, was subject to state taxes on its real property. Under Georgia law railroad property was initially valued by the Georgia State Board of Equalization, which then certified the proposed valuations to the county boards for adoption or modification. In 2001 the board valued CSX's tax liability at $4.6 million. In 2002 the figure increased dramatically to $6.5 million. The rise was caused by the state's appraiser using a different combination of methods to calculate the value of SCSX property. The market value jumped by 47 percent in just one year due to the change in valuation method. CSX filed suit in federal district court , arguing that the 2002 tax assessment violated the 1976 railroad act. It contended that the state had grossly overestimated the market value of its in-state property, while accurately valuing other commercial and industrial property in Georgia. CSX claimed that its property was taxed more than 5 percent greater than the same ratio for the other property in the state.

CSX submitted the testimony of its own expert appraiser, who used a combination of valuation methods different from those used by the state appraiser. The CSX appraiser found the market value of the property to be $6 billion, not $7.8 billion as calculated by the state. The district court ruled in favor of Georgia, finding that the state had not violated the railroad act because it had used widely accepted methods to calculate market value. The court also held that the act did not permit a railroad to challenge the state's chosen method of valuation as long as the methods are rational and not motivated by discriminatory intent. The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals upheld this decision and the Supreme Court took CSX's appeal to resolve a split in the federal circuits over whether railroads could contest the methods of valuation.

In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court reversed the Eleventh Circuit, ruling that CSX should have been allowed to demonstrate that the methods used by Georgia were flawed. Chief Justice John Roberts, writing for the Court, stated that the purpose of the law, fair taxation, could not be achieved if the railroads were barred from suggesting alternative valuation methods that would reflect true market value. Reviewing the text of the law, Roberts could not find any language that distinguished between method and the application of a method. A district court's factfinding would be crippled if it was forced to accept the state's method as the starting point and then determine if the application of that method was discriminatory. In the Court's view the valuation of market value “is not a matter of mathematics” but more like “an applied science, even a craft.”

Most appraisers use a combination of methods to estimate fair market value . These methods produce a range of possible market values that the appraiser uses to fix fair market value. In the present case the Georgia appraiser used three models, from which he derived five values that ranged from $8.1 billion to $12.3 billion. He selected a number at the low end of the ranged and subtracted $400 million to account for intangible property not covered by the railroad tax. Because chosen methods can affect the determination of value, it made no sense for the district court to accept the state's method, as it was one of the parties to the lawsuit.

Chief Justice Roberts dismissed Georgia's fear that allowing railroads to present alternative valuation methods would lead to a “futile clash of experts, which courts will have no reasonable way to settle.” Congress was not troubled by this prospect when it passed the 1976 act and instructed the courts to find true market value. Moreover, the courts are used to dealing with issues of fair market value, which in the end is just “an issue of fact about possible market prices.” In most cases the court will look at the two appraisals and determine which is more credible. The Court concluded that if Congress had meant to impose a limit on the types of evidence courts may consider it could have done so. The fact that the law was silent on this issue meant Congress had no objection. Georgia was free to use any mix of methods to ascertain fair market value but it had to realize a railroad could offer alternative methods to demonstrate a discriminatory tax.

About this article


All Sources -
Updated Aug 18 2018 About encyclopedia.com content Print Topic