Why the U.S. has a terrible but brilliant railway system.

Dear reader,

If you are of the internationally minded type, and know much about the United States of America, you will notice that Americans very rarely reference going on a train. You have probably heard of the New York subway, and you might have seen some very lucky American making some journey on a metro somewhere, but on the whole, Americans get around by car or by aeroplane (what they would, quite incorrectly, call an airplane).

It might surprise you, dear reader, to find out that once America’s railroads were the primary mode of transport, and that this state of affairs continued until well into the 1940s. This was no Victorian obsession.

The story of how things went from that state of affairs to that it is now is complicated, and involves many surprising parties, some measure of betrayal and more than a little cold war suspicion. I am not an expert on this period, but I will attempt to do it some justice in the limited space here.

Our story really begins in the late 1930s. It is not true to say that cars were not a factor during this time; in the country that had given birth to the Model T Ford 20 years earlier, automobiles were nothing new. Nor were automobile focused streets and highways a particularly new concept; many schemes were already under construction.

It is also not true to say that at this time there was no competition from aircraft. And I do say aircraft because at the time there was a distinction made between lighter than air (airships, though they were on the way out) and heavier than air aircraft (aeroplanes, helicopters were not yet a thing). Mail by air was reasonably common, and the transport of passengers not uncommon, at least among the very rich.

Despite this, though, the railroads were still large, complex, and powerful. It was possible and indeed desirable to travel from coast to coast by train, as well as to innumerable cities across the country. Competition between companies was rife, famously between the Pennsylvania and New York Central, each with its glamourous flagship train (Pennsylvania had the Broadway Limited, and the New York Central had the 20th Century Limited, which it confusingly dubbed ‘the most famous train in the world’).

U.S. railroads led the world in numerous ways. While in Britain, most freight trains were still loose coupled affairs with minimal brakes, in the U.S. continuous braked freight trains had long been the norm. Further, while British train guards and firemen would be climbing down between coaches to couple trains, automatic couplers were entirely standard on US railroads.

Steam engines were still very common but diesel power was being pioneered in many different forms, from streamlined railcars to multi-unit locomotives.

Speaking of streamlining, this was very in vogue in this period. Although much of the work was to make trains look more stylish, some had a serious point; reducing aerodynamic drag. The U.S. railroads excelled not so much at ultimate top speed as sustained speed over distance, as befits the wide distances between cities, and speed and comfort over what the rest of the world might consider rubbish track.

This gives you, dear reader, a flavour of how things were, but does not explain why that’s not the case today. The answer really begins at World War 2, as so much of the 20th century does.

World War 2 spurred a hitherto unheard of level of technical innovation, particularly in the field of aviation. At the beginning of the war, biplanes had finally given way to monoplanes, and piston engines were pushing 1,000 hp. By the end of it, pilots were flying around in some parts of the world in swept wing jet fighters that could touch well over 400 mph. Pilots who were less lucky could expect to fly in aircraft with piston engines with over 2,000 hp.

One other unexpected side-effect of the war was the construction across large parts of the world of high quality paved runways, in order to service the large air forces of the various powers. Combine this with the large factories used to mass producing large all-metal aeroplanes, and the stage was set for a post-war aviation boom.

Large airliners were going further, faster and more comfortably between airports that were capable of serving them. Further, the U.S. government continued to subsidise the air mail business, hoping to encourage new air routes and continue U.S. innovation in aviation.

These were beginning to make inroads into the railroad’s business, at least on long haul routes of many hundreds of miles. It would take the arrival of the jet airliner in the late 1950s to almost completely destroy this market, but in the meantime, the shorter haul routes between nearby cities seemed safe.

Or were they? I had mentioned before that cars and highways were nothing new, but after the war, both were taken to new heights. The large factories that had fed the U.S. war machine could in peacetime be turned to other things, one of which was cars. Cheaper, more capable cars rolled off production lines and onto the driveways of new suburbs, which had been created primarily for the benefit of car drivers.

By itself, this might have been a challenge that the railroads could rise to, but they quickly found that the game had been rigged, by a rather unlikely source. And to explain that, we have to take a detour into a world of Cold War paranoia.

Following the end of the Second World War, the world found itself with two principal superpowers; the U.S.A and the U.S.S.R, each keen to demonstrate the superiority of its economic system (if Soviet Socialism can even be described as such), and expand its global influence. To this end, the world became increasingly split into nations that supported one or the other, and the Cold War began.

The two principal nations in this battle of wills had nuclear weapons, and, while this made a conventional military conflict impossible, it left a few problems. Not least of these was the possibility that one side could cripple the other’s capabilities by taking out its nuclear weapons first, the so-called ‘first strike’ scenario.

In the early days of the Cold War, when each side relied heavily on aircraft dropping their nuclear weapons, the vulnerable points were airfields. But what if there was some way of having large, flat, straight, paved areas as a standard feature? What if there was just so much pavement that destroying it all was practically impossible? What if they could also use these for other military vehicles? What about for rapid evacuations and troop movements?

And so, what some in the car world had dreamed of for years finally came to pass. It would be, and remains, the single largest, most expensive infrastructure project in history: the Interstate Highway System. With Department of Defense funding, this became a reality.

Ah, you may say, with all this investment and good fortune for the other modes of transport, surely the railroads got something good too? Well, they certainly got some extra freight business during the war, keeping the war machine turning, but beyond that… not much. Suffice to say, the 1950s saw the railroads in decline, and the 1960s saw almost a complete collapse.

Eventually, in the 1970s, what passenger trains remained were combined and nationalised to form AmTrack. AmTrack owned very little track of its own, just the North-East corridor (which would later be reborn into the almost European-style mainline railway it is today). But this story is not about passenger trains, at least not from this point.

Because, while for passengers the railroads were no longer a good option, there is one inescapable property of railways that counts in their favour. Railways run trains with steel wheels on steel rails, producing very low rolling resistance. Much lower than a road vehicle, and without the immense power needed to achieve flight. This can be exploited to transport very heavy loads without much force being needed, ideal for freight.

Particularly in the last 30 years, U.S. railroads have become possibly the greatest, most efficient freight transport system in the world. They transport a far greater proportion of freight by rail than in just about any other developed nation, with private companies competing to slash freight rates and get ever more efficient.

Part of this is due to the extreme train lengths and weights they achieve. In Great Britain, for reference, a very heavy freight train might be pushing 2,500 tonnes, no small amount compared to the few tonnes a lorry might carry. In the U.S. certain types of freight train average over 10,000 tonnes, and even their container trains can achieve averages of nearly 5,000.

This sheer scale, mated to low rolling resistance, means efficiency unheard of elsewhere. For example, Union Pacific estimates that it can move a tonne of freight 480 miles with just 1 gallon of diesel. If you drive a Ford Fiesta, this is roughly equivalent to getting 397 mpg, a huge improvement over Ford’s claimed best of 65.7 mpg.

Of course, we do have to mention the rather lower standards of trackwork in the U.S., as well as the rather poorer safety record of their railroads. I appreciate that given recent events this might not sound true, but in Britain we have by far the safest railway in Europe and worldwide we are amongst the best performing for safety. U.S. standards and safety devices (or lack thereof) are, I must admit, a bit shocking to a British audience, but the fact of the matter is that with the vast majority of trains being freight, through routes largely in the middle of nowhere, the potential for injury and loss of life is lower.

By finding a market that very few others can touch them in, that is, long distance, heavy freight for very low prices, the U.S. railroads have become world leaders once again. While in Europe we may scoff at their lack of proper high speed routes or even passenger trains at all in some parts, it is undeniable that nothing in Europe can touch the Americans for freight.

Either way, dear reader, I do hope you have come away from this article marginally better informed than you were, and that you have a splendid day.

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