Lentis/Rail in America

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Introduction[edit]

This chapter examines the development and current extent of the American railway system in contrast to the historical use of railroads in America. This chapter focuses on long-haul transportation and intercity passenger rail. Rail is widely seen as fuel efficient and environmentally friendly method of travel. Amtrak claims its trains use 2,271 BTU per passenger mile while airlines use 2,735 BTU per passenger mile and automobiles use 3,447 BTU per passenger mile. [1] However, a passenger-distance-traveled metrics are sensitive to passenger occupancy. A 2009 study found that sedans and SUVs with high occupancy (3 or 4 passengers) faired better than medium-occupancy trains on their energy and emissions metrics. [2] Rail is, however, a safe method of transportation, with only 0.43 fatalities per billion passenger mile on Amtrak from 2000 to 2009 compared to 7.28 fatalities for passengers in cars or light trucks. [3]

This book contains some chapters on topically similar material. The California High Speed Rail[1] chapter discusses a proposed high-speed rail system in California. The Disappearing American Streetcar[2] discusses the phenomena of the American streetcar and its disappearance from American life.

Background[edit]

The concept of railways has existed since 700 BC, but they did not gain traction until around the turn of the 19th century in Britain, when iron production increased and the Boulton and Watt steam engine patent expired.[4] Following the success in Britain, railways started being built in America in the early 1800s. Railways started gaining popularity for their advantage over canals and rivers because they would freeze during the winter, while railroads were available almost year round. Railroads were also safer than water transport, because a boat sinking was more likely than a train crashing. Passenger rail had advantages over carriages as they were smoother and faster than the roads carriages traveled on, which had ditches, potholes, and stones.[5]

By 1850, 9,000 miles of track had been built. The First Transcontinental Railroad was completed in 1869, helping unite the country after the Civil War. During Reconstruction, the southern railways expanded from 11,000 miles in 1870, to 29,000 miles in 1890. The Interstate Commerce Act of 1887 was designed to regulate the monopolistic practices of the railroad industry. Following the economic hardships from the Panic of 1893, one quarter of U.S. railroads had failed by 1894, resulting in a loss of 40,000 miles of track. Railroad expansion peaked in 1916 with 254,037 miles of track.[5]

When the U.S. entered WWI in 1917, the United States Railroad Administration (USRA) temporarily took over management of railroads to improve inefficiencies in the system until 1920. During this time, the USRA standardized equipment, reduced duplicative passenger services, and better coordinated freight traffic.[5]

Status of Freight Rail[edit]

American freight rail companies maintain and operate about 140,000 miles of track.[6] The Surface Transportation Board (STB) classifies freight railways by their revenues: Class I railroads make greater than $453 million; class II railroads make between $40 and $453 million; class III railroads make less than $28.8 million. [7] The seven Class I railroads own 67% of the track and 95% of all freight cargo by revenue.[6] Class II railroads operate regional rail lines of at least 350 miles. Class III railroads generally own branch lines that average 55 miles long.[6] The 21 regional railroads and 546 short-line railroads manage the remaining 45,000 miles of track. (2) Class II and Class III railroads operate lines that Class I railroads that they could not make profit on.[6]

Post World War II, US freight railroads experienced severe declines in profitability. Their share of intercity ton-miles fell from near 70% to 37% by 1975. [8] Declining revenue translated to decreased quality of infrastructure that further reducing the railroads’ ability to serve its customers. The reduction in market share was due to increased competition from motor carriers enabled by the growing US highway system as well as air transport. Railroads were hampered in their competitiveness by the strict regulation of the Interstate Commerce Act of 1887. Over time, this resulted in a distorted prices, barriers to exit, inefficient labor organization, and lack of technological innovation.[8] The ICC fixed freight rates on railroads; motor carriers using the federally subsidized highways were not as limited. Also, rail companies were not allowed to stop service on unprofitable lines.

Staggers Rail Act[edit]

The Staggers Rail Act partially deregulated the freight rail system. The STB replaced the authority of the ICC. [6] Railroads were allowed to charge rates based on market pricing unless the ICC deemed there to not be enough competition. Freed from anti-monopoly regulation, many railroad companies merged in parallel and end-to-end fashions. Railroads were able to discontinue unprofitable and duplicate rail lines. As a result the miles of track in American dropped from 270,000 in 1980 to 170,000 in 2007. The traffic density (millions of ton-miles per mile of track) increased from 3.4 to 8.9. Greater freedom to set prices and determine routes gave rail companies greater incentive to renovate old track, adopt new safety technologies, and invest in larger locomotives and railcars. [8] Because of these lower infrastructure costs, rates have fallen more than 50% since 1980. [6]

Status of Passenger Rail[edit]

Competition from other modes of transport[edit]

Henry Ford built the first Model T automobile in 1908, making automobiles affordable to many middle-class Americans.[9] With the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, the building of highways became subsidized.[10] The creation of interstate highways further reduced the need for passenger rail services. The first commercial airline in the U.S. was in 1914 from St. Petersburg, FL to Tampa, FL. In 1925, the Ford Motor Company bought out the Stout Aircraft Company, began construction of the Ford Trimotor, and began the first successful commercial airline in the U.S.[11] Airlines started out as a supplement to rail transportation, but as commercial airlines gained in popularity, they began to compete against passenger and freight rail transportation. Commercial airlines have the advantage of being faster than rail transportation, while the costs are comparable.

Difference in government aid[edit]

Passenger rail receives significantly less in federal subsidies than other transportation modes.[12] The U.S. Department of Transportation’s 2015 report to Congress suggested an annual investment of $17 billion (in 2012 dollars) in public transportation facilities for the next 20 years to maintain the rail system’s current physical conditions.[13]

Geographical limitations[edit]

The United States passenger rail system is often unfavorably compared to the highly efficient rail systems of Europe. However, cities in America are generally located further apart than cities in Europe making it more capital intensive to build intercity rail lines in America. [14] The United States only has one profitable high speed rail line (the Acela Express) which is located in the Northeast Corridor where cities approach a European-like spacing.

Further Considerations[edit]

Has anti-communist sentiment influenced the perception of the railroad industry and train ridership?

How has the idea of personal independence influence the perception of train ridership as opposed to car ownership?

Who are Amtrak passengers?

What are the differences in how funding for roads and automobiles, airlines, and trains has been conceptualized?

References[edit]

  1. https://www.amtrak.com/content/dam/projects/dotcom/english/public/documents/corporate/businessplanning/Amtrak-Five-Year-Service-Plans-FY18-FY23.pdf
  2. http://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/4/2/024008/pdf
  3. https://ac.els-cdn.com/S0739885912002156/1-s2.0-S0739885912002156-main.pdf?_tid=f23efd52-df71-4f7b-b946-e00e74924126&acdnat=1544553885_1fda635e77b5e8cc95c7a3ad6b4b969d
  4. Timeline of railway history
  5. a b c History of rail transport in the United States
  6. a b c d e f https://uic.org/diomis/IMG/pdf/DIOMIS_Benchmarking_Intermodal_Rail_Transport_in_the_US_and_Europe.pdf
  7. https://www.artba.org/government-affairs/policy-statements/railroadtransit-policy/
  8. a b c https://www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/10_railact_winston.pdf
  9. Henry Ford
  10. Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956
  11. Airline
  12. https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/us-rail-infrastructure
  13. https://www.artba.org/government-affairs/policy-statements/railroadtransit-policy/
  14. https://www.reddit.com/r/AskHistorians/comments/a1z5iy/why_is_the_infrastructure_for_passenger_and_cargo/