Rail transportation in the United States consists primarily of freight train shipments, while passenger service, once a large and vital part of the nation's passenger transportation network, plays a limited role as compared to transportation patterns in many other countries.
During this period, Americans watched closely the development of railways in the United Kingdom. The main competition came from canals, many of which were in operation under state ownership, and from privately owned steamboats plying the nation's vast river system. In 1829, Massachusetts prepared an elaborate plan. Government support, most especially the detailing of officers from the Army Corps of Engineers – the nation's only repository of civil engineering expertise – was crucial in assisting private enterprise in building nearly all the country's railroads. Army Engineer officers surveyed and selected routes, planned, designed, and constructed rights-of-way, track, and structures, and introduced the Army's system of reports and accountability to the railroad companies. More than one in ten of the 1,058 graduates from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point between 1802 and 1866 became corporate presidents, chief engineers, treasurers, superintendents and general managers of railroad companies.
State governments granted charters that created the business corporation and gave a limited right of eminent domain, allowing the railroad to buy needed land, even if the owner objected.Horse-drawn rail lines were in use for short-distance hauling of stone. See Gridley Bryant. Other purpose-built railroads were operating in the 1820s. The Delaware and Hudson Canal Company, which later became the Delaware & Hudson Railroad, built its first tracks in 1826 as a gravity railroad in Carbondale, Pennsylvania, to haul coal from a mine to the canal at Honesdale.
The Baltimore and Ohio Railroad (B&O) was chartered in 1827 to build a steam railroad west from Baltimore, Maryland, to a point on the Ohio River. It began scheduled freight service over its first section on May 24, 1830. The first railroad to carry passengers, and, by accident, the first tourist railroad, began operating 1827. It was the Lehigh Coal & Navigation Company, initially a gravity road feeding anthracite coal downhill to the Lehigh Canal and using mule-power to return nine miles up the mountain; but, by the summer of 1829, as documented by newspapers, it regularly carried passengers. Later renamed the Summit Hill & Mauch Chunk Railroad, it added a steam powered cable-return track for true two-way operation by 1843, and ran as a common carrier and tourist road from the 1890s to 1937. Lasting 111 years, the SH&MC is described by some to be the world's first roller coaster.The SH&MCsbRR carried sundries, groceries, and goods up to Summit Hill, including official postal deliveries.
The first purpose-built common carrier railroad in the northeast was the Mohawk & Hudson Railroad; incorporated in 1826, it began operating in August 1831. Soon, a second passenger line, the Saratoga & Schenectady Railroad, started service in June 1832.
In 1835 the B&O completed a branch from Baltimore southward to Washington, D.C.
Numerous short lines were built, especially in the south, to provide connections to the river systems and the river boats common to the era. In Louisiana, the Pontchartrain Rail-Road, a route connecting the Mississippi River with Lake Pontchartrain at New Orleans was completed in 1831 and provided over a century of operation. Completed in 1830, the Tuscumbia, Courtland & Decatur Railroad became the first railroad constructed west of the Appalachian Mountains; it connected the two Alabama cities of Decatur and Tuscumbia.
Soon, other roads that would themselves be purchased or merged into larger entities, formed. The Camden & Amboy Railroad (C&A), the first railroad built in New Jersey, completed its route between its namesake cities in 1834. The C&A ran successfully for decades connecting New York City to the Delaware valley, and would eventually become part of the Pennsylvania Railroad.
The First Transcontinental Railroad in the U.S. was built across North America in the 1860s, linking the rail transport network of the eastern U.S. with California on the Pacific Ocean coast. Finished on May 10, 1869 at the Golden spike event at Promontory Summit, Utah, it created a nationwide mechanized transportation network that revolutionized the population and economy of the American West, catalyzing the transition from the of previous decades to a modern transportation system. It achieved the status of first transcontinental railroad by connecting myriad eastern U.S. railroads to the Pacific. However it was not the world's longest railroad, as the Canadian Grand Trunk Railway (GTR) had, by 1867, already accumulated more than of track by connecting Portland, Maine, and the three northern New England states with the Canadian Atlantic provinces, and west as far as Port Huron, Michigan, through Sarnia, Ontario.
Authorized by the Pacific Railway Act of 1862 and heavily backed by the federal government, the first transcontinental railroad was the culmination of a decades-long movement to build such a line and was one of the crowning achievements of the presidency of Abraham Lincoln, completed four years after his death. The building of the railroad required enormous feats of engineering and labor in the crossing of plains and high mountains by the Union Pacific Railroad (UP) and Central Pacific Railroad, the two federally chartered enterprises that built the line westward and eastward respectively. "An Act to aid in the construction of a railroad and telegraph line from the Missouri river to the Pacific ocean, and to secure to the government the use of the same for postal, military, and other purposes 12 Stat. 489, July 1, 1862 The building of the railroad was motivated in part to bind the Union together during the strife of the American Civil War. It substantially accelerated the populating of the West by white Homestead Act, leading to rapid agriculture of new farm lands. The Central Pacific and the Southern Pacific Railroad combined operations in 1870 and formally merged in 1885; the Union Pacific originally bought the Southern Pacific in 1901 and was forced to divest it in 1913, but took it over again in 1996.
Much of the original roadbed is still in use today and owned by UP, which is descended from both of the original railroads.
Many Canadian and U.S. railroads originally used various broad gauges, but most were converted to by 1886, when the conversion of much of the southern rail network from gauge took place. This and the standardization of couplings and air brakes enabled the pooling and interchange of and rolling stock.
|+ Railroad mileage increase by groups of states|
Source: Chauncey Depew (ed.), One Hundred Years of American Commerce 1795–1895 p 111
|Western States and Territories||1,276||11,400||24,587||52,589||62,394|
|Pacific States and Territories||23||1,677||4,080||9,804|
The railroad had its largest impact on the American transportation system during the second half of the 19th century. The standard historical interpretation holds that the railroads were central to the development of a national market in the United States and served as a model of how to organize, finance and manage a large corporation.Alfred D. Chandler Jr., The Visible Hand: The Managerial Revolution in American Business(1977) pp 81–121.
Contemporary American economic historians have challenged this conventional view. The respective findings of Robert Fogel and Albert Fishlow do not support Rostow’s claim that railroads stimulated widespread industrialization by increasing demand for coal, iron, and machinery. Drawing upon historical data, Robert Fogel found that the impact of railroads on the iron and steel industries was minimal: from 1840 to 1860, railroad production used less than five percent of the total pig iron produced. In addition, Fogel argues, only six percent of total coal production from 1840 to 1860 was consumed by railroads through consumption of iron products.Fogel, Robert W. (1971), Railroads and American Economic Growth. ed. Stanley L. Engerman and Robert W. Fogel. New York: Harper Row. pp. 201. Like Fogel, Fishlow showed that most railroads used very little coal during this time period because they were able to burn wood instead.Fishlow, Albert (1965). American Railroads and the Transformation of the Ante-Bellum Economy Cambridge: Harvard University Press. pp. 14–157. Fishlow also found that iron used by railroads was only 20% of net consumption in the 1850s.
Fogel makes several key assumptions and decisions in his analysis. First, his calculations comprise transportation between the primary markets of the Midwest and the secondary markets of the East and South (interregional) and transportation between cities and rural areas (intraregional). Second, he chooses to focus on the shipment of four agricultural commodities: wheat, corn, beef, and pork. Third, Fogel’s social saving calculation accounts for costs not included in water rates (which include the cargo losses in transit, transshipment costs, extra wagon haulage, time lost because of slower speed and because canals froze in the winter, and capital costs). One criticism citation of Fogel’s analysis is that it does not account for the externalities or "spill-over" effects of the railroads, which (if included) may have increased his estimate for social savings definition. Railroads provided much of the demand for the technological advances in a number of areas, including heat dynamics, combustion engineering, thermodynamics, metallurgy, civil engineering, machining, and metal fabrication. Furthermore, Fogel does not discuss the role railroads played in the development of the financial system or in attracting foreign capital, which otherwise might not have been available.
As early as the 1930s, automobile travel had begun to cut into the rail passenger market, somewhat reducing economies of scale, but it was the development of the Interstate Highway System and of commercial aviation in the 1950s and 1960s, as well as increasingly restrictive regulation, that dealt the most damaging blows to rail transportation, both passenger and freight. General Motors and other were convicted of running the streetcar industry into the ground purposefully in what is referred to as the Great American Streetcar Scandal. There was little point in operating passenger trains to advertise freight service when those who made decisions about freight shipping traveled by car and by air, and when the railroads' chief competitors for that market were interstate trucking companies.
Soon, the only things keeping most passenger trains running were legal obligations. Meanwhile, companies who were interested in using railroads for profitable freight traffic were looking for ways to get out of those legal obligations, and it looked like intercity passenger rail service would soon become extinct in the United States beyond a few highly populated corridors. The final blow for passenger trains in the U.S. came with the loss of railroad post offices in the 1960s. On May 1, 1971, the federally funded Amtrak took over (with a few exceptions) all intercity passenger rail service in the continental United States. The Rio Grande, with its Denver-Ogden Rio Grande Zephyr and the Southern with its Washington, D.C.–New Orleans Southern Crescent chose to stay out of Amtrak, and the Rock Island, with two intrastate Illinois trains, was too far gone to be included into Amtrak.
Freight transportation continued to labor under regulations developed when rail transport had a monopoly on intercity traffic, and railroads only competed with one another. An entire generation of rail managers had been trained to operate under this regulatory regime. Labor unions and their work rules were likewise a formidable barrier to change. Overregulation, management and unions formed an "iron triangle" of stagnation, frustrating the efforts of leaders such as the New York Central's . In particular, the dense rail network in the Northeastern U.S. was in need of radical pruning and consolidation. A spectacularly unsuccessful beginning was the 1968 formation and subsequent bankruptcy of the Penn Central, barely two years later.
Historically, on routes where a single railroad has had an undisputed monopoly, passenger service was as spartan and as expensive as the market and ICC regulation would bear, since such railroads had no need to advertise their freight services. However, on routes where two or three railroads were in direct competition with each other for freight business, such railroads would spare no expense to make their passenger trains as fast, luxurious, and affordable as possible, as it was considered to be the most effective way of advertising their profitable freight services.
The National Association of Railroad Passengers (NARP) was formed in 1967 to lobby for the continuation of passenger trains. Its lobbying efforts were hampered somewhat by Democratic opposition to any sort of rail subsidies to the privately owned railroads, and Republican opposition to nationalization of the railroad industry. The proponents were aided by the fact that few in the federal government wanted to be held responsible for the seemingly inevitable extinction of the passenger train, which most regarded as tantamount to political suicide. The urgent need to solve the passenger train disaster was heightened by the bankruptcy filing of the Penn Central, the dominant railroad in the Northeast U.S., on June 21, 1970.
Under the Rail Passenger Service Act of 1970, Congress created the Amtrak (NRPC) to subsidize and oversee the operation of intercity passenger trains. The Act provided that
The original working brand name for NRPC was Railpax, which eventually became Amtrak. At the time, many Washington insiders viewed the corporation as a face-saving way to give passenger trains the one "last hurrah" demanded by the public, but expected that the NRPC would quietly disappear in a few years as public interest waned. However, while Amtrak's political and financial support have often been shaky, popular and political support for Amtrak has allowed it to survive into the 21st century.
Similarly, to preserve a declining freight rail industry, Congress passed the Regional Rail Reorganization Act of 1973 (sometimes called the "3R Act"). The act was an attempt to salvage viable freight operations from the bankrupt Penn Central and other lines in the northeast, mid-Atlantic and Midwestern regions.Regional Rail Reorganization Act of 1973, Pub.L. 93-236, 87 Stat. 985, , 1974-01-02. The law created the Consolidated Rail Corporation (Conrail), a government-owned corporation, which began operations in 1976. Another law, the Railroad Revitalization and Regulatory Reform Act of 1976 (the "4R Act"), provided more specifics for the Conrail acquisitions and set the stage for more comprehensive deregulation of the railroad industry.Railroad Revitalization and Regulatory Reform Act, Pub.L. 94-210, 90 Stat. 31, , 1976-02-05. Portions of the Penn Central, Erie Lackawanna, Reading Railroad, Ann Arbor Railroad, Central Railroad of New Jersey, Lehigh Valley, and Lehigh and Hudson River were merged into Conrail.
The freight industry continued its decline until Congress passed the Staggers Rail Act in 1980, which largely deregulated the rail industry. Since then, U.S. freight railroads have reorganized, discontinued their lightly used routes and returned to profitability.
U.S. railroads still play a major role in the nation's freight shipping. They carried 750 billion ton-miles by 1975 which doubled to 1.5 trillion ton-miles in 2005.U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics. Washington, D.C. (2000) "Ton-Miles of Freight by Mode: 1975–2025." The Changing Face of Transportation. Report No. BTS00-007.National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. "Railroads to Mid-Century: Salisbury, North Carolina, 1927." America on the Move. In the 1950s, the U.S. and Europe moved roughly the same percentage of freight by rail; by 2000, the share of U.S. rail freight was 38% while in Europe only 8% of freight traveled by rail. Increasing EU Rail Share: Insights From the US Rail Experience See Alternate Link 7International Union of Railways "DIOMIS: Benchmarking Intermodal Rail Transport in the United States and Europe" Alternate Source for Dead Link In 2000, while U.S. trains moved 2,390 billion ton-kilometers of freight, the 15-nation European Union moved only 304 billion ton-kilometers of freight. In terms of ton-miles, railroads annually move more than 25% of the United States' freight and connect businesses with each other across the country and with markets overseas.
U.S. freight railroads are separated into three classes, set by the Surface Transportation Board, based on annual revenues:
A regional railroad is a line haul railroad with at least and/or revenue between $40 million and the Class I threshold. There were 33 regional railroads in 2006. Most have between 75 and 500 employees.
Local line haul railroads operate less than and earn less than $40 million per year (most earn less than $5 million per year). In 2006, there were 323 local line haul railroads. They generally perform point-to-point service over short distances.
Switching and terminal (S&T) carriers are railroads that primarily provide switching and/or terminal services, regardless of revenue. They perform pick up and delivery services within a certain area.
North American railroads operated 1,471,736 freight cars and 31,875 locomotives, with 215,985 employees. They originated 39.53 million carloads (averaging 63 tons each) and generated $81.7 billion in freight revenue of present 2014. The average haul was 917 miles. The largest (Class 1) U.S. railroads carried 10.17 million intermodal containers and 1.72 million piggyback trailers. Intermodal traffic was 6.2% of tonnage originated and 12.6% of revenue. The largest commodities were coal, chemicals, farm products, nonmetallic minerals and intermodal. Other major commodities carried include lumber, automobiles, and waste materials. Coal alone was 43.3% of tonnage and 24.7% of revenue. Class I Railroad Statistics, Association of American Railroads, February 7, 2013 Coal accounted for roughly half of U.S. electricity generation and was a major export. As natural gas became cheaper than coal, coal supplies dropped 11% in 2015 but coal rail freight dropped by up to 40%, allowing an increase in car transport by rail, some in tri-level railcars.
The fastest growing rail traffic segment is currently intermodal. Intermodal is the movement of shipping containers or truck trailers by rail and at least one other mode of transportation, usually trucks or ocean-going vessels. Intermodal combines the door-to-door convenience of trucks with the long-haul economy of railroads. Rail intermodal has tripled in the last 25 years. It plays a critical role in making logistics far more efficient for retailers and others. The efficiency of intermodal provides the U.S. with a huge competitive advantage in the global economy.
The vast majority of the 22,000 or so miles over which Amtrak operates are actually owned by freight railroads. By law, freight railroads must grant Amtrak access to their track upon request. In return, Amtrak pays fees to freight railroads to cover the incremental costs of Amtrak's use of freight railroad tracks.
Privately run new inter-city passenger rail operations are under development. Brightline is a higher-speed rail train, run by All Aboard Florida. It began service in January 2018 between Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach, with eventual connections to Miami and Orlando. Iowa Pacific is seeking to operate Eastern Flyer, a passenger train between Oklahoma City and Tulsa. This would be the first passenger trains to serve Tulsa since 1967. Iowa Pacific operated test runs on the route in 2014.
American mail cars first appeared in the 1860s and at first followed English design. They had a hook that would catch the mailbag in its crook.
As locomotive technology progressed in the mid-19th century, trains grew in length and weight. Passenger cars grew along with them, first getting longer with the addition of a second truck (one at each end), and wider as their suspensions improved. Cars built for European use featured side door compartments, while American car design favored a single pair of doors at one end of the car in the car's vestibule; compartmentized cars on American railroads featured a long hallway with doors from the hall to the compartments.
One possible reason for this difference in design principles between American and European carbuilding practice could be the average distance between stations on the two continents. While most European railroads connected towns and villages that were still very closely spaced, American railroads had to travel over much greater distances to reach their destinations. Building passenger cars with a long passageway through the length of the car allowed the passengers easy access to the restroom, among other things, on longer journeys.
Dining cars first appeared in the late 1870s and into the 1880s. Until this time, the common practice was to stop for meals at restaurants along the way (which led to the rise of Fred Harvey's chain of Harvey House restaurants in America). At first, the dining car was simply a place to serve meals that were picked up en route, but they soon evolved to include galleys in which the meals were prepared.
By the 1920s, passenger cars on the larger standard gauge railroads were normally between long. The cars of this time were still quite ornate, many of them being built by experienced coach makers and skilled carpenters.
With the 1930s came the widespread use of stainless steel for car bodies. The typical passenger car was now much lighter than its "heavyweight" wood cousins of old. The new "lightweight" and streamliner cars carried passengers in speed and comfort to an extent that had not been experienced to date. Aluminum and Cor-ten were also used in lightweight car construction, but stainless steel was the preferred material for car bodies. It is not the lightest of materials, nor is it the least expensive, but stainless steel cars could be, and often were, left unpainted except for the car's that were required by law.
By the end of the 1930s, railroads and car builders were debuting car body and interior styles that could only be dreamed of before. In 1937, the Pullman Company delivered the first cars equipped with —that is, the car's interior was sectioned off into compartments, much like the coaches that were still in widespread use across Europe. Pullman's roomettes, however, were designed with the single traveler in mind. The roomette featured a large picture window, a privacy door, a single fold-away bed, a sink and small toilet. The roomette's floor space was barely larger than the space taken up by the bed, but it allowed the traveler to ride in luxury compared to the multilevel semiprivate berths of old.
Now that passenger cars were lighter, they were able to carry heavier loads, but the size of the average passenger load that rode in them didn't increase to match the cars' new capacities. The average passenger car couldn't get any wider or longer due to side clearances along the railroad lines, but they generally could get taller because they were still shorter than many freight cars and locomotives. As a result, the railroads soon began building and buying dome car and bilevel cars to carry more passengers.
Carbody styles have generally remained consistent since the middle of the 20th century. While new car types have not made much of an impact, the existing car types have been further enhanced with new technology.
Starting in the 1950s, the passenger travel market declined in North America, though there was growth in commuter rail. The higher clearances in North America enabled bi-level commuter coaches that could hold more passengers. These cars started to become common in the United States in the 1960s.
While intercity passenger rail travel declined in the United States during the 1950s, ridership continued to increase in Europe during that time. With the increase came newer technology on existing and new equipment. The Spain company Talgo began experimenting in the 1940s with technology that would enable the axles to steer into a curve, allowing the train to move around the curve at a higher speed. The steering axles evolved into mechanisms that would also tilt the passenger car as it entered a curve to counter the centrifugal force experienced by the train, further increasing speeds on existing track. Today, tilting passenger trains are commonplace. Talgo's trains are used on some short and medium distance routes such as Amtrak Cascades from Eugene, Oregon, to Vancouver, British Columbia.
In August 2016, the Department of Transportation approved the largest loan in the department's history, $2.45 billion to upgrade the passenger train service in the Northeast region. The $2.45 billion will be used to purchase 28 new train sets for the high-speed Acela train between Washington through Philadelphia, New York and into Boston. The money will also be used build new stations and platforms. The money will also be used to rehabilitate railroad tracks and upgrade four stations, including Washington’s Union Station and Baltimore’s Penn Station.
Typically, railroads operating in the United States reserve one- to four-digit identification numbers for powered equipment such as diesel locomotives and six-digit identification numbers for unpowered equipment. There is no hard and fast rule for how equipment is numbered; each railroad maintains its own numbering policy for its equipment.