"Re-Training" America - Part I

  • Railroads Thru the Ages
  • Railroads Thru the Ages
  • Railroads Thru the Ages
Transforming Railroad Transportation in America *

America’s Energy and Transportation Challenge...

Trains are wonderfully fuel efficient but Amtrak is in shambles. Airlinesdue to the high cost of jet fuelare hemorrhaging daily and our highways are a jungle of aggressive fume-belching trucks and road-rage-inducing traffic jams. High-speed railsthe much touted quick responseare not the only panacea for our transportation woes. Throwing money at glamorous-sounding techno-marvels can only exacerbate the problem.

The American railroad system is currently in a sorry state of affairs but there are glimmering packets of hope amid the wreckage. Some states and local communities have picked up the slack with amazing results. We have much to learn by examining and understanding the symbiosis behind these successes.

Yes, railroads could provide a much-needed solution to our nation's transportation problemit's a needed and viable alternative that can deliver freight and people at a lower cost to the environment. But fixing the system will involve government support, creative thinkng on a regional and local level and above alla change in mindset by the American people is needed to wean ourselves from the automobile and forge a responsible 21st-century solution.

*NOTE: hover over buttons in the montage above to scroll through images

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly...

Waiting on a TrainWhat should be required reading for anyone interested in rail improvement is James McCommons' Waiting on a Train. It's a highly-readable but brutally-honest assessment of the highs and lows of "ridin' the rails" in America today. Much of this narrative is based on or prompted by this book.

With the enormous cost increase in energy, trains suddenly make sense to a lot of people who never paid attention to them before. "Green"and "smart growth" policy types, and now even highway planners and billionaire financiers all have taken a keen interest in railroads. But there’s a problem. Aside from foamers (excessively enthusiastic rail fans), there are few people left in America who know much about rail.

Did you know that very few Americans have much of a connection with railroads? A train is just not much of a part of everyday for many. Only 2 percent have ever set foot on an intercity train and just 3 percent use light rail and/or commuter trains to get to and from work. This wasn't always so...

In 1946, just prior to the enormous rise in automobile and air travel, about 1.5 million Americans (out of a population of 137 million) worked for the railroads! Ten of thousands of trains criss-crossed the country each day. Folks rode trolleys, interurbans and streamliners. But between 1947 and 1972, as people took to the highways and trucks grabbed more and more of the freight business, the industry lost anywhere from 40,000 to 150,000 jobs annually. Not until the 1990s did the industry stabilize and start to grow again.

"Someday I'd like to live in a place where all I have to do is walk down the street and get on a train or even a bus that would whisk me to a railhead in less than an hour. We ought to make it easier to live in this country without a car. More mass transit will lessen pollution and congestion, create more livable neighborhoods, curb suburban sprawl and improve our quality of life..." - James McCommons

A Short History

USA Railroads (peak)Ironically, America once had a passenger railroad system that was the envy of the world. In the 1800s, U.S. trains penetrated the wilderness, moved goods and people, tied together a nation andin the long runcreated a modern, mobile industrial society.

Railroads were THE engines of growth. At their peak in the 1920s, more than 1,000 companies operated over a network of 380,000 miles of track and moved 1.27 billion passengers annually.

The railroad system was reliable, efficient all weather and democratic mode of transportation. It enabled America to become one nation and expand on a continental basis. In 1946, ten of thousands of trains criss-crossed the country each day. Folks rode trolleys, interurbans and streamliners.

In 1934, Burlington's Pioneer Zephyr ran the 1,105 mile Chicago to Denver route in just 13 hours and 5 minutes, averaging 77.6 mph and topping out at 112. People turned out by the thousands to watch this modern marvel stream by and nation-wide, radio networks tracked its progress.

The New York Central Railroad Twentieth Century LimitedThe Lake Shore - The Twentieth Century Limited, once called the world's greatest train, ran the water level route of the old New York Central Railroad between New York City and Chicago from 1902 to 1967. Making just three intermediate stops, it covered the 960 miles in 16 hours. The Lake Shore today makes seventeen stops and takes nineteen hours.

Even today, the Acela Express—composed of locomotive and train cars designed and built overseas rarely hits 150 mph and usually averages only 88 mph—no faster than many steam locomotives in services over eighty years ago.

As cities developed at odd intervals across the United States throughout the nineteenth century they found they required infrastructures for transporting their citizens. Mass transit was born. Most cities adopted some sort of system that involved cars on rails. Electrification of streetcars rail service led to the interurban.

The interurbans seemed to fill a travel void for much of America. The interurbans were bright and clean, stopped almost everywhere, and ran far more frequently than the steam trains, for one car made a train. Once in town the cars usually operated through the streets and went right downtown. Extended further they could service rural communities, making regular travel to "the city" reasonable and connecting cities to their suburbs.

At one time, nearly every city in the U.S. with population over 10,000 had at least one streetcar company. It is estimated that in 1920, 90 percent of all trips were by rail using 1,200 separate electric street and interurban railways with 44,000 miles of track, 300,000 employees, 15 billion annual passengers, and $1 billion in income.

In the 1920s, just about every metropolitan area in the country could boast interurban service but before the 1930s were over the interurban was almost dead.

What Happened? - Decline (Competition and Conspiracy)

Rusty BridgeBeginning around the end of World War I the industry began a decline, accelerated primarily in the 1920s by the growth in automobile ownership combined with state construction of durable concrete highways.

Often these highways flanked the interurban lines, and in some cases the state would pressure the struggling interurban to abandon service so that the state highway could be widened after tracks were removed. As a result of this shift in transportation methods, the small and unprofitable lines were discontinued. By the 1930s, most of the interurbans had disappeared.

Many interurban and streetcar lines were bought out in the Great American Streetcar Scandal and deliberately destroyed. The General Motors streetcar conspiracy (also known as the National City Lines conspiracy) refers to allegations and convictions in relation to a program by General Motors (GM) and a number of other companies to purchase and dismantle streetcars (trams/trolleys) and electric trains in many cities across the United States and replace them with bus services.

During the period from 1936 to 1950, National City Lines and Pacific City Lines were involved in the conversion of over 100 electric surface-traction systems into bus systems in 45 cities.

GM and other companies were subsequently convicted in 1949 of conspiring to monopolize the sale of buses and related products via a complex network of linked holding companies including National City Lines and Pacific City Lines.

During the time of the 1973 oil crisis, controversial new testimony was presented to a United States Senate inquiry into the causes of the decline of transit car systems in the U.S. This alleged that there was a wider conspiracy—by GM in particular—to destroy effective public transport systems in order to increase sales of automobiles and that has been blamed by some for the virtual elimination of effective public transport in nearly all American cities by the 1970s.

Death Knell
The completion of the interstate highway system in the 1950s swung the balance of power in transporting freight to motor trucks which could deliver goods door to door, not simply railyard to railyard like trains. This road network also encouraged the abandonment of central cities and the development of suburbs, while the popularity of the automobile eroded the passenger base which had been a regular source of railroad income.

Another Perspective - The Switch from Steam to Diesel or Electric?
In 1941, GM thru a merger created the Electro-Motive Division (EMD) producing and marketing powerful gasoline and diesel engines using the competitive strategies and economies of scale it already had brought to the automobile industry. GM also used its muscle to extend easy credit to convince railroads that had electrified their infrastructures and were already running powerful electric locomotives to tear down their overhead wires and run diesels instead.

At the time it seemed like a wise economic decision because diesels were a cheaper alternative to building or maintaining an electric infrastructure but soon this limited their ability to compete efficiently against trucks and cars by running higher-speed trains. While other countries electrified, America dieselized and as a result, there are few electrified lines in America today.

Fuel Duels

Railroads could provide much-needed solutions to the nation's transportation problem. Railroads are a viable alternative that can deliver freight and people at a lower cost to the environment.

Freight Facts

"A single train moves the same load as 280 tractor trailers and a ton of freight can go some 400 miles on a single gallon of fuel." - CSX commercial

The railroad freight lines move 65% of the country's coal and 60% of the nation's grain harvest. When it comes to long-haul shipping and moving big, heavy stuff, American railroads, in terms of tonnage and efficiency, do it even better than anywhere else in the world. Europe has a great passenger system but only 10% of its goods move by rail.

Facts on freight rail’s fuel efficiency:
  • Freight TrainOne train can haul the load of 280 trucks or more.
  • In 2009, Class I railroads generated 1.53 trillion revenue ton-miles.
  • Class I railroads reported fuel consumption in freight service of 3.192 billion gallons.
  • Dividing 1.532 trillion ton-miles by 3.192 billion gallons of fuel yields 480 ton-miles per gallon. That’s up from 436 in 2007 and 457 in 20089 (480 was the average last year for all rail traffic across all Class I railroads).
  • What's the most environmentally-friendly way to transport goods? The answer is freight rail. The EPA estimates that every ton-mile of freight that moves by rail instead of by highway reduces greenhouse emissions by two-thirds.
  • A train gets about 100 miles per gallon per ton whereas a truck (tractor trailer) gets 10 miles per gallon for the same payload. When used for transporting passengers instead of freight the difference even increases: 468 passenger-miles per gallon for trains versus 30 for a compact car.
  • A train can move a ton of freight 436 miles on one gallon of fuel-three times far than a truck. One intermodel double-stacked train takes 250 to 300 trucks off the road.

With the emergence of the containers—first patented by an American Malcolm Mc Lean in 1956—freight is easily transferred between ships train and trucks and freight trains are much "greener" than trucks moving items across the continent.

Due to the use of containers, intermodal movement of goods has proved increasingly successful. Ramping this up is important as fuel prices climb inevitably higher in the years ahead. Trucks will move goods the final miles, but long-haul trucking is losing its economic advantage and should not be subsidized. One guy behind the wheel of a mammoth tractor trailer driving from California to New Jersey cannot compete against a two-mile long train of containers running a 70 mph and likely 90 mph in the future.

Passenger Train Positives
The increased demand for passenger rail due to increased energy costs has already begun to increase mass transit ridership. Traffic will continue to grow across America because population is growing. Trains won't cure congestion any more than additional roads will. What trains will do is change some settlement patterns and plant seeds for developers who build higher-density development closer to the tracks. Rail can promote a more conservative use of the land because infrastructure influences settlement.
In United States, 80% of all travel is less than 500 miles and most Midwestern cities are situated 100 to 500 miles apart too close to fly and too inconvenient to drive particularly in severe weather. A regional system of fast trains would have the added benefit of relieving the strain on Chicago's O-Hare airport (the second busiest airport in the world). Currently 1/3 of all flights out of O'Hare are less than 500 miles. Map of existing intercity railroad system >
Where passenger trains are present, railroads may need to maintain their tracks to a different standard. On curves, for example, the outside rail is elevated above the inside rail to bank the turn. The amount of elevation depends on the speed of the trains. Faster passenger trains require higher elevations. All trains put more weight on the lower rail as they round the curve. Passenger trains are relatively light and put little wear and tear on the track but heavy freight trains going through these curves can cut in half the amount of time rail can safely be used—consequently there are higher maintenance costs.

next >


KT « Home
KT Knowledge Tree »