Before there were locomotive-hauled trains, humans and their animal-drawn conveyances traveled at speeds below 10 MPH on land. Only adventurers traveled far from home, and shipped goods were expensive. The speed and range of travel, made possible by trains, changed everything. From the 1830s to the Roaring Twenties, rail grew to dominate surface transportation and ushered in a transportation revolution [Gilbert, R; Perl, Anthony - “Transport Revolutions–Moving People and Freight Without Oil,” 2nd edition, New Society Publishers, May 1, 2010; see review]. Trains and America grew up together, conquering frontiers and launching the Industrial Age.
During their heyday, the privately owned rail companies continuously improved their tracks, equipment and signaling to handle huge volumes of passengers, time-sensitive freight and bulk commodities. Most double-tracking and other capacity improvements took place by 1930 when rail mileage totaled 250,000 route miles.
Everyone was rail reliant until the internal combustion engine and improved roads and motor vehicles began eroding railroads’ market share prior to World War II. Railroads rebounded to help win that war. Rail executives fully expected to repair their worn out system and resume modernization to handle the post war economic growth. There was even an expectation of transitioning straight from coal burning locomotives to electric locomotives.
Former double track line reduced to single track.
Cheap oil and the advent of the Interstate Highway System and commercial aviation changed the fortunes of the private railroad industry. By the 1970s, many rail companies were bankrupt. Mergers and deregulation saved the industry but at the cost of great downsizing. Premium services such as less-than-carload traffic, mail, express, and most passenger trains were discontinued. Many shops, yards, stations and real estate were closed or sold. Rolling stock – the industry’s fleet of cars and locomotives – was drastically reduced.
The US rail network is down to 141,000 miles, with Class 1 railroads operating 100,125 miles, 16,000 miles of which is double/multiple track. The rail network we have today handles less than 30% of combined truck/rail freight [Truck/Rail ton-mile share here], much of it coal and other bulk commodities.
Wholesale modernization of rail lines is confined to routes served by High Speed Rail (New Haven to Boston) and Emerging High Speed Rail (Illinois, Washington State and North Carolina, to name a few). Two exceptions for freight rail are the transcontinental routes of Burlington Northern Santa Fe and Union Pacific Railroads, which are being double-tracked between the Rockies and Chicago. East of the Mississippi River, rail upgrades consist mainly of restoring double track and passing sidings that were pulled up between the 1960s and 1980s. Nationally, rail route mileage continues to shrink.
The rail network has evolved to handle the products that make up the largest share of rail tonnage. This usually translates to long, heavy, infrequent trains, carrying bulk products for very long distances, on mostly single-track lines, at speeds below 55 MPH. The US rail industry mean train speed is around 22.5 MPH. [U.S. Department of Transportation, Research and Innovative Technology Administration, Bureau of Transportation Statistics, calculations using data reported by Class I railroads to the Association of American Railroads for posting at http://www.railroadpm.org/, and Surface Transportation Board (STB), Statistics of Class I Railroads in the United States.]
Clearly, we tend to use the transportation mode that receives the greatest investment. No wonder we have few choices but to drive or fly. We can organize to change those investment decisions and build the Steel Interstate System.