Sources: Rand McNally (1898) Miles of railroads in the United States, 1830-1893. Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC), Statistics of Railways in the United States. BTS and Association of American Railroads (AAR).
Note: A Class I railroad is a large rail operator. Data represent miles of road owned (aggregate length of road, excluding yard tracks, sidings, and parallel lines).
The evolution of rail transportation in the United States can be conceptualized as a cycle composed of phases of introduction, rapid growth, maturity, and rationalization.
- Introduction (1830-1860). From modest beginnings and untested technology, rail transportation emerged in the 1830s with the construction of numerous local lines, dominantly in the Northeast. By 1840, 3,000 miles of tracks were laid, but rail transportation was still uncompetitive in regard to waterways, which had a wider coverage (e.g. Erie Canal, Mississippi). Many of the first rail lines were actually portage segments within the canal system or routes aiming at complementing existing canals. A set of independent feeder rail networks was also being established. As the network extended, the Appalachian mountains were crossed in the early 1850s, and rail transportation was able to compete more effectively in the resource-rich Midwest, with 30,000 miles of tracks laid by 1860. The cost of moving farm products and manufactured goods over long distances fell by 95% between 1815 and 1860. This underlined the capacity of the rail system to answer the needs of the national economy and its subsequent phase of rapid expansion.
- Growth (1860-1915). As the advantages of rail transportation became widely acknowledged, a massive phase of growth ensued, with rail achieving dominance over the roads and waterways. One priority was the construction of a transcontinental line linking the East and the West coasts, which was completed in 1869. From that point, numerous branches and trunks were constructed, leading to an interconnected national rail system. A standard gauge of 1.4351 meters was also agreed upon (in 1860, 23 different gauges were still in use). However, there were complaints made by users stating that the rates charged by railroad companies were high and discriminatory, particularly because of the monopoly they had on several parts of the emerging railway system. In response, the US Congress created the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) in 1887, with the authority to regulate the rates railroads could charge (this agency also became responsible for collecting railway data). The growing level of regulation of the rail sector was associated with the end of its spatial growth. The extent of the rail system peaked in 1916, with 254,000 road-miles.
- Maturity (1915-1950). This period marked the age of rail transportation dominance. By 1930, a rail network of 250,000 miles accounted for about 65% of all the freight tonnage carried in the United States and was close to the totality of long-distance passenger transport. Rail technology was standardized and showed little improvement in terms of speed. However, competition from trucks was beginning to be felt, notably for short hauls. Mileage started to decline with unprofitable lines being abandoned. The Great Depression of the 1930s marked the first significant rationalization with the abandonment of more than 16,000 road-miles between 1930 and 1940. By 1950 the system was downsized to 224,000 road-miles. In addition, heavy regulations from the ICC led to a standard private sector response; lack of investments, increased accidents, reduced punctuality, and the bankruptcy of several companies.
- Rationalization (1950-2000). The post World War II era was one of intense rationalization for rail transportation. By the 1970s, the US railway system was facing serious financial difficulties; several railway companies were going bankrupt. One of the most significant bankruptcy was the Penn Central in 1970, which controlled more than 10,000 road-miles. The response of the Federal Government was deregulation. In 1980, the Staggers Rail Act enabled rail companies to fix their own rates, service levels, as well as to abandon, sell or lease unprofitable rail segments. Between 1950 and 2000, 79,300 road-miles were abandoned, which left the rail system with 144,500 miles of road-miles in 2000, a mileage similar to the mid-1880s. Just between 1975 and 1980, 12,300 road-miles were abandoned. Rail transportation was losing passengers to road and air modes, which meant the loss of revenue and the abandonment of numerous passenger services. The role of rail as support for long-distance passenger travel was collapsing. While there were about 2,000 scheduled passenger trains per day in 1950, this number fell to 200 in the 1990s. As a result, rail transportation became dominantly freight oriented, and the development of long-distance intermodal transportation in the 1970s justified further rationalization within the rail industry, mainly through mergers. Among the most significant was the Burlington Northern / Santa Fe merger in 1995, followed by the acquisition by Union Pacific of Southern Pacific Railroad in 1996 and the split-up of Conrail (a company created in 1976 by the Federal Government to consolidate the assets of bankrupt rail companies) between Norfolk Southern and CSX in 1999. Freight rates were cut in half. While in 1960, there was 106 Class I rail operators, this figure dropped to 7 in 2002 and has remained as such since then.
- Resurgence (2000-). As of the beginning of the 21st century, rationalization appears to be completed, leaving a more efficient rail system based on high-capacity long-distance corridors connecting major maritime gateways and inland terminals. These corridors are almost all double-tracked. Additionally, rail freight has faced a surge in demand linked with globalization, a level of de-industrialization of the North American economy, as well as rising energy prices making rail more competitive. The three most important factors behind the recent growth of rail traffic involve a growth of international containerized trade, growing quantities of utility coal being shipped to power plants (namely from the Powder River Basin), and the growth of Mexican trade. A new wave of investments along long-distance corridors (double or triple tracking) and intermodal rail terminals have improved the efficiency and capacity of the system. Prospects about the future of rail transportation appear favorable, even if the network has experienced no growth in its extent; as of 2020, the American network mileage was standing at 93,150 miles. Rail operators are focusing on efficiency and corridor and inland terminal development.
Through time, statistics about the rail system were collected by different agencies, so there is a discontinuity in information sources. For most of the 19th century, the mileage was compiled by Poor’s Manual of Railroads of the United States (here summarized by an 1897 Rand McNally publication). Then, the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) assumed the responsibility between 1890 and 1977. With deregulation in 1980, the Association of American Railroads took over the compilation of various rail statistics.
Similar phases of rail development were also observed in Europe.