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Decline of Passenger Railroads in the United States

An attempt to answer the question of why passenger railroads in the United States declined, and if there could be a resurgence.

Charlie Murphy

on 23 March 2011

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Transcript of Decline of Passenger Railroads in the United States

Why did passenger railroads in the United States decline to the state they are in now? There is no doubt that railways built the United States into what it is today. Railways transported goods and people from coast to coast, they expedited communication, and allowed the many regions of the country to interact like never before. Railroads were and are still today an extremely efficient mode of transportation, which makes one wonder even more as to why they declined. To understand railroad history one must first
learn about its origins. The concept of moving objects using wheels on rails is one that has been around for centuries. The earliest evidence of a railway is located in Greece where the people cut grooves into rock to move boats from one body of water to another. Propulsion was provided by humans pulling wheeled carts. By the 16th century railways were operating in mines
to transport coal. They were also propelled by human power.
They started out using wooden rails until it was found that
using metal wheels riding on metal rails was far more efficient. Mines used small narrow gauge railways extensively.
Mining was big business and new technologies were constantly being developed to make it more efficient. One such innovation, invented by Thomas Newcomen, was the idea of using boiled water to create mechanical motion, or what would become known as the steam engine to pump water out of mine shafts. This steam engine was designed by James Watt in 1774.
It was revolutionary for the time. However, its low pressure
and high weight made it unsuitable for use in a self-propelled
vehicle. Technology was advancing rapidly during the 18th and 19th centruy. With the improvements made in boiler technology, inventor Richard Trevithick was able to build on Watt's design to develop a small high pressure steam engine. Combining the smaller boiler with smaller compression cylinders, Trevithick was able to make the first steam locomotive in 1801. The invention of the steam locomotive was the starting point of the railroads as we know them today. With its development, large railroad networks could be developed that conected people like never before. To understand the decline of passsenger railroads
in the U.S. one must look at how they developed
and the developments made that ultimately made
them decline. In the early 1800s transportation in America consisted of bumpy dirt roads and non-extensive canal systems. The need for a more extensive transportation network was seen by businessmen in Baltimore, Maryland who wanted their port city to be connected with the Ohio River. These men had heard of a new form of transportation being developed in Britain called a railroad. The concept seemed like it would suit their needs and thus the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad was created in July of 1828. The first locomotive to operate on the B&O was the Tom Thumb which achieved speeds of 15mph while still having a smooth ride! This was the beginning of the journey that railroads would take to help build the United States. This journey would include linking the eastern and western sections of the United States with a transcontinental railroad, and unprecedented changes in traveling speeds. People and goods from the Atlantic and Pacific coasts were now connected by a fast and efficient transportation system. In addition intercity railroads developed which meant people could commute to work and did not have to live in cities. By the 20th century every state in the Union was tied into the vast railroad network Railroads were doing quite well in the first part of the 20th century. However, two problems would truly test their willingness to survive. Karl Friedrich Benz is credited with designing the first practical automobile
in 1886. Automobiles were slowly becoming more popular. They were also
becoming more common with the introduction of the assembly line by
Henry Ford. Although road networks were somewhat primative during the
early 1900s, the automobile was becoming a direct competitor of the
railroads. One event that affected not only the railroad industry, but also the entire world was the Great Depression. Starting with the stock market crash on October 29, 1929, the U.S. and many countries throughout the world were forced into hard times. Due to these harsh economic conditions, and competition from automobiles, the railroads were forced to make changes in the way they operated to increase ridership and save money. The election and subsequent passing of new legislation by Franklin D. Roosevelt would attempt to help the railroads and the United States. The First New Deal allowed for relaxed antitrust regulations so that railroads could experiment with new materials, methods, and locomotives Ralph Budd, a railroad executive, figured out that he could benefit from this legislation. Trains of the time were pulled by improved versions of the steam locomotive. These updated steam locomotives were dirty, inefficient, slow, high maintenance, and wore out the rails they rode upon. Budd needed something that was sleek, clean, and efficient. To do this, Budd would combine two technologies that would revolutionize the railroad industry and help them recover from their first period of decline. To lighten his future train, Budd turned to a factory owner named Edward G. Budd. Edward Budd perfected the fabrication of stainless steel which was a lightweight metal alloy perfect for use on railcars and locomotives. Now that he had the lightweight materials he needed to fabricate his new train he would need something to power it. In 1897, Rudolf Diesel successfully tested his new internal combustion engine. This engine uses compression alone to ignite fuel in the cylinders. It is noted for being highly efficient, reliable, and durable. Over time Rudolf Diesel's invention evolved, becoming larger and more powerful. It was also light enough to be put into a locomotive. Realizing this Ralph Budd decided that this was the power source that could be used in his new train. Debuting in 1934, Budd's new train, called the Zephyr, would be America's first so called streamliner. It started a revolution in the passenger-rail industry where all major companies were rushing to create a streamliner of their own. With the development of the streamliner, passenger rail traffic greatly increased. Diesel-electric locomotives started to gradually replace aging steam locomotives. Trains started to increase in speed, and with this increase, people expected to arrive at their destination quickly and on time. From the end of the Great Depression to the mid to late 1950s the passenger railroads prospered. During World War II, passenger railroads hauled record numbers of people. Troop trains traveled throughout the country to mobilize it for war.
Everyone was forced to make sacrifices during the war. For the railroads this meant that ridership increased since a rationing of automotive related materials was in effect. In fact, passenger traffic was so high that an excise tax had to be imposed on tickets to discourage civilians from traveling. Due to the massive movements of trains across the country’s railroad network, rails and equipment had been worn down. Despite this fact, the railroads were optimistic about what the future held after the war. After World War II, railroad executives expected the country to flock to the railroads as one of its primary means of transportation. Because of this notion they ordered new passenger cars and locomotives to replace worn out equipment from the days of the war. Little did they know that developments made due to WWII would have a profound impact on their future The idea of a limited access, paved, high speed highway was concieved during the days of the Weimar Republic in Germany. However, due to economic problems the project moved very slow. With the rise of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party in 1933, many new building projects were undertaken including development of the limited access road known as the Autobahn. This project was to link Germany with an extensive highway network, in addition to being a means to move the military, and a propaganda tool. During WWII, General Dwight D. Eisenhower experienced the Autobahn firsthand while leading Allied forces in Germany. When Eisenhower was elected president in 1953, he called for a highway system to be developed. He justified it as an important piece of infastructure to use to evacuate citizens and mobilize the military encase of a foreign attack. It could also be used for further economic growth. The signing of the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956 started construction of these new highways. The government had clearly forgotten about the railroads and was now focused on awarding contracts to various companies to build America’s new interstate system. One innovation that was foreseen by the railroads was the up and coming airline business. A business once enjoyed by the rich and powerful, was now coming to the middle class. After the war there were many pilots returning from active duty who wanted to continue flying. There were also military transport planes that had been developed during the war that found new life as passenger liners. The U.S. government began focusing heavly on the development of the commercial aviation industry. Many new airports would have to be built to serve this up and coming industry. These airports would be largely paid for by the railroads through various taxes. Along with these new taxes came new regulations which further increased their budgets. The railroads tried to compete with commercial aviation with things such as high-tech electronic ticketing machines, eye catching advertisements, station lounges, as well as baggage handling procedures similar to those used by the airlines. As ridership decreased, the railroads began to focus more heavily on freight operations. Many railroads merged with one another but this was simply not enough. In 1970 the goverment had to step in. This government intervention consolidated the passenger railroads under the National Railroad Passenger Corporation or Amtrak. Overnight the major passenger carriers of the country were consolidated into one big corporation, and on May 1, 1971, Amtrak started operations. Problems were still not fully solved by the creation of Amtrak. Many passengers complained of the trains being in poor condition or the service on them being below par. So many complaints were heard that Amtrak was forced to purchase new equipment and hire new employees. Things seemed to be looking up during the oil embargo of 1974, but it was only a temporary upsurge in passenger traffic. It seemed as though the railroads were peoples backup when all else failed, but when everything worked the railroads were of no significance. Today Amtrak still provides service to major cities, but its services do not match the extensiveness of its predecessors. In big metropolises such as Chicago the commuter rail business is doing well. Also in places like California where highways are clogged with traffic the commuter rail business has found a place where it can thrive. In the Northeast Corridor, which includes places like Philadelphia, Boston, and New York, passenger traffic is steady. There is no doubt that the country faces an energy crises and that alternatives to automobiles will have to be found. If America wants to end its dependence on foreign oil, using the railroad to travel may be the first step. It will have to be a team effort on the part of the citizens of the United States as well as the government to keep the passenger railroads alive. The passenger train will endure as it has endured as long as the people, driven by economic and energy related factors allow it to. As Henry Thoreau once said “we do not ride upon the railroad, it rides upon us.” Reutter, Mark. "The Lost Promise of the American Railroad." The Wilson Quarterly. 18(1) (Winter 1994): 10-37.

Ault, Phil. "All Aboard!" The Story of Passenger Trains in America. New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1976.

Yenne, Bill. All Aboard! The Golden Age of American Rail Travel. Greenwich: Brompton Books Corp., 1989.





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