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Railroad Transportation in Canada and the United States

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  • Charles William Seibold (1899 - 1969)
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    Orale Udale "Buddy" Caffey, 92, of Temple, Texas, passed from this life on November 20, 2012, at a Temple Hospital. Services will be held at 1 p.m., Saturday, November 24, 2012, at Harper-Talasek Funer...
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  • Troy Edmond Roach (1904 - 1977)
    Obituary Obituary in the Galesburg Register Mail, Fri., April 15, 1977.
  • Sira Rufus Willey (1871 - 1942)
    Name: Sira Rufus/Willey Sex: Male Death Date: 03 Mar 1942 Death Place: Hinton, Summers, WV Note: hospital Age at Death: 70y 9m 13d Burial Date: 05 Mar 1942 Cemetery: Willey Cem. Birth Date: 20 May 1871... _Canada _and_the_United_States

Rail transportation in Canada and the United States today consists primarily of freight shipments. Passenger service, once a large and vital part of the nation's passenger transportation network, now plays a limited role as compared to transportation patterns in many other countries.

The U.S. rail industry has experienced repeated convulsions due to changing economic needs and the rise of automobile, bus, and air transport. Freight railroads play an important role in the U.S. economy, especially for moving imports and exports using containers, and for shipments of coal and oil. According to the British news magazine The Economist, "They are universally recognised in the industry as the best in the world." [1] Productivity rose 172% between 1981 and 2000, while rates decreased by 55% (after accounting for inflation). Rail's share of the American freight market rose to 43%, the highest for any rich country.[2]

The sole intercity passenger railroad in the continental U.S. is Amtrak. Commuter rail systems exist in more than a dozen metropolitan areas, but these systems are not extensively interconnected, so commuter rail cannot be used alone to traverse the country. Commuter systems have been proposed in approximately two dozen other cities, but interplays between various local-government administrative bottlenecks and ripple effects from the 2007–2012 global financial crisis have generally pushed such projects farther and farther into a nebulous future point in time, or have even sometimes mothballed them entirely.

The most culturally notable and physically evident exception to the general lack of significant passenger rail transport in the U.S. is the Northeast Corridor between Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York City and Boston, with significant branches in Connecticut and Massachusetts. The corridor handles frequent passenger service that is both Amtrak and commuter. New York City itself is noteworthy for high usage of passenger rail transport, both subway and commuter rail (Long Island Rail Road, Metro-North Railroad, New Jersey Transit). The subway system is used by one third of all U.S. mass transit users.

Other major cities with substantial rail infrastructure include Boston's MBTA, Philadelphia's SEPTA, and Chicago's elevated system and commuter rail system Metra. The commuter rail systems of San Diego and Los Angeles, Coaster and Metrolink, connect in Oceanside, California.

U.S. railroads still play a major role in the nation's freight shipping. They carried 750 billion ton-miles by 1975 which doubled to 1.5 trillion ton-miles in 2005.[3][4] In the 1950s, the U.S. and Europe moved roughly the same percentage of freight by rail; by 2000, the share of U.S. rail freight was 38% while in Europe only 8% of freight traveled by rail.[5][6] In 1997, while U.S. trains moved 2,165 billion ton-kilometers of freight, the 15-nation European Union moved only 238 billion ton-kilometers of freight.[7]

U.S. railroads are separated into three classes based on annual revenues:

Class I for freight railroads with annual operating revenues above $346.8 million (2006 dollars) Class II for freight railroads with revenues between $27.8 million and $346.7 million in 2000 dollars Class III for all other freight revenues. These classifications are set by the Surface Transportation Board.

In 1900, there were 132 Class I railroads. Today, as the result of mergers, bankruptcies, and major changes in the regulatory definition of "Class I," there are only seven railroads operating in the United States that meet the criteria for Class I. As of 2011, U.S. freight railroads operated 139,679 route-miles (224,792 km) of standard gauge in the U.S. Although Amtrak qualifies for Class I status under the revenue criteria, it is not considered a Class I railroad because it is not a freight railroad.


During this period, Americans watched closely the development of railways in England. The main competition came from canals, many of which were in operation under state ownership, and from privately owned steamboats plying the nation's vast river system. The state of Massachusetts in 1829 prepared an elaborate plan. Government support, most especially the detailing of officers from the Army Corps of Engineers - the nation's only repository of civil engineering expertise - was crucial in assisting private enterprise in building nearly all the country's railroads. Army Engineer officers surveyed and selected routes, planned, designed, and constructed rights-of-way, track, and structures, and introduced the Army's system of reports and accountability to the railroad companies. More than one in ten of the 1,058 graduates from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point between 1802 and 1866 became corporate presidents, chief engineers, treasurers, superintendents and general managers of railroad companies.[8] Among the Army officers who thus assisted the building and managing of the first American railroads were Stephen Harriman Long, George Washington Whistler, and Herman Haupt.

State governments granted charters that created the business corporation and gave a limited right of eminent domain, allowing the railroad to buy needed land, even if the owner objected.[9] The Baltimore and Ohio Railroad (B&O) was chartered in 1827 to build a steam railroad west from Baltimore, Maryland to a point on the Ohio River. Scheduled service on its first section started on May 24, 1830. The first common carrier railroad in the northeast was the Mohawk & Hudson Railroad, first incorporated in 1826, which began operating in August 1831. A second railroad, the Saratoga & Schenectady Railroad, opened the next year, in June 1832.[10]:1–115 In 1835 the B&O completed a branch from Baltimore southward to Washington, D.C.[11]:157 The Boston & Providence Railroad was incorporated in 1831 to build a railroad between Boston, Massachusetts and Providence, Rhode Island; the road was completed in 1835 with the completion of the Canton Viaduct.

Numerous short lines were built, especially in the south, to provide connections to the river system. From 1829-1830, the Tuscumbia, Courtland & Decatur Railroad, the first railroad constructed west of the Appalachian Mountains, was built connecting the two Alabama cities of Decatur and Tuscumbia. The Pontchartrain Rail-Road, a 5-mile (8.0 km) route connecting the Mississippi River with Lake Pontchartrain at New Orleans, Louisiana was completed in 1831, starting over a century of operation.

Soon, other roads that would themselves be purchased or merged into larger entities, formed. The Camden & Amboy Railroad (C&A), the first railroad built in New Jersey, completed its route between its namesake cities in 1834. The C&A eventually became part of the Pennsylvania Railroad.


By 1850, 9,000 miles (14,000 km) of railroad lines had been built.[12] The B&O's westward route reached the Ohio River in 1852, the first eastern seaboard railroad to do so.[13]:Ch.V Railroad companies in the North and Midwest constructed networks that linked nearly every major city by 1860.

Transcontinental railroad

The First Transcontinental Railroad in the U.S. was built across North America in the 1860s, linking the railroad network of the eastern U.S. with California on the Pacific coast. Finished on May 10, 1869 at the Golden spike event at Promontory Summit, Utah, it created a nationwide mechanized transportation network that revolutionized the population and economy of the American West, catalyzing the transition from the wagon trains of previous decades to a modern transportation system. It achieved the status of first transcontinental railroad by connecting myriad eastern U.S. railroads to the Pacific. However it was not the world's longest railroad, as the Canadian Grand Trunk Railway (GTR) had, by 1867, already accumulated more than 2,055 kilometres (1,277 mi) of track by connecting Portland, Maine, and the three northern New England states with the Canadian Atlantic provinces, and west as far as Port Huron, Michigan, through Sarnia, Ontario.

Authorized by the Pacific Railway Act of 1862 and heavily backed by the federal government, the first transcontinental railroad was the culmination of a decades-long movement to build such a line and was one of the crowning achievements of the presidency of Abraham Lincoln, completed four years after his death. The building of the railroad required enormous feats of engineering and labor in the crossing of plains and high mountains by the Union Pacific Railroad (UP) and Central Pacific Railroad, the two federally chartered enterprises that built the line westward and eastward respectively.[14] The building of the railroad was motivated in part to bind the Union together during the strife of the American Civil War. It substantially accelerated the populating of the West by white homesteaders, led to rapid cultivation of new farm lands. The Central Pacific and the Southern Pacific Railroad combined operations in 1870 and formally merged in 1885; the Union Pacific originally bought the Southern Pacific in 1901 and was forced to divest it in 1913, but took it over again in 1996.

Much of the original roadbed is still in use today and owned by UP, which is descended from both of the original railroads.

Rail gauge selection

Many Canadian and U.S. railroads originally used various broad gauges, but most were converted to 4 ft 8 1⁄2 in (1,435 mm) by 1886, when the conversion of much of the southern rail network from 5 ft (1,524 mm) gauge took place. This and the standardization of couplings and air brakes enabled the pooling and interchange of locomotives and rolling stock.

Impact of railroads on the economy

The railroad had its largest impact on the Canadian and American transportation system during the second half of the 19th century. It is the conventional historical view that the railroads were indispensable to the development of a national market in the United States in the late 19th century.