Select Page

In the United States, the first commercial steam railroad service was offered in South Carolina. On December 25, 1830, the South Carolina Railroad removed a short passenger train from Charleston. Compared to the trains and lines of the early 2000s, the first trains were small and the lines short. But technology continued to improve, and railways grew in number, size, and strength in the first half of the nineteenth century. In 1830, there were only 23 miles of railroad in the United States. By the mid-1830s more than 1,000 miles of railway had been laid, and by 1850 more than 9,000 miles of railway had existed. The idea of using rails for transport was first developed in the sixteenth century. Early railways used wooden rails to guide horse-drawn carriages. In the eighteenth century, cast iron wheels and rails were used in Europe and England, and in the nineteenth century, horses were replaced by many steam engines as a source of energy. The first public railway equipped with steam engines was a twenty-mile line built in England in the 1820s.

The railroad network in the United States reached its peak in 1920, when there were about 272,000 miles of track. In 2003, there were less than 150,000 miles of track. Railways no longer dominate the transport market as before, but the rail system has been reduced and stabilized. The rails are still needed for heavy and bulky loads. For passenger transportation, Amtrak was founded in 1970 and subsidized by Congress to offer nationwide passenger rail at discounted fares. Amtrak and some shorter private lines offer passenger service in many parts of the country. While the law was supposed to end funding in 2002, the company`s financial situation deteriorated. In 2002, the railway, which employs 24,000 people and operates 265 trains a day, was about $4 billion in debt after losing $1.1 billion in 2001 alone.

Congress approved short-term funding in February 2003, but many have speculated that the company should cease its services and possibly file for bankruptcy. Amtrak`s recent problems came at the same time that many of the nation`s airlines were on the verge of bankruptcy. The federal government sought to take control of California in order to gain a strategic advantage over the Confederacy. Crossing to California by rail was the best way to ensure a connection to the west. In May 1862, Congress passed the Pacific Railroad Act, 43 U.S.C.A. § 942-3, which granted the Union Pacific Railroad public land for every mile of railroad it laid from Nebraska to California. Land concessions were intended to encourage private investment in railways. Soon after, the Central Pacific Railroad began competing with Union Pacific for state land grants.

Young, Earle B. 1999. Tracks to the Sea: Galveston and Western Railroad Development, 1866–1900. College Station: Texas A&M Univ. Press. The railway barons were colourful men. The most famous was Jay Gould (1836-1892). Gould was a former New York tannery operator with little education and took control of the Erie Railroad while still in his early thirties. His methods included a number of illegal or unethical practices: issuing fraudulent actions, bribing legislators, starting a price war against competitors, betraying employees, using his newspaper for financial ruin, and manipulating the gold market. Gould even managed to deceive the U.S.

Treasury, triggering the stock market panic of 1869. At the time of his death, he was worth $77 million. States began to adopt safety measures to protect railroad employees, but state laws varied and did not always protect workers. In 1970, Congress passed the Federal Railroad Safety Act, 49 U.S.C.A. § 20101 et seq., to unify railroad safety regulations. The Act provides for enforcement procedures, track safety standards, freight car safety standards, emergency order procedures, train marking regulations, accident reporting procedures, locomotive safety and inspection standards, safety equipment standards, specifications for brake and drawbar servo and regulations for signalling and train control systems. The American railroad barons of the mid to late nineteenth century hovered over the country`s economy. Unfettered by rules and unhindered by legislators and judges, the handful of railroad owners and managers could practically do whatever they wanted.