Although recent news concerning freight trains has been negative, trains are inextricably tied to the growth of our country. The history of early railroad development in the United States dates back to the early 19th century when the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad (aka. B&O Railroad) opened for business in 1830. You might recognize this company as one of the four railroads you can buy in Monopoly.
Back in the early days of the railroad industry there were many small and competing railroads. Many were financed by local governments and were built to serve local markets or specific industries.
The tracks were often made of wooden rails and the locomotives were powered by horses or mules. However, with the advent of steam power, the railroads began to expand rapidly, connecting more cities and spurring economic growth.
One of the most significant early developments in the railroad industry was the construction of the transcontinental railroad, which linked the East and West coasts of the United States. In 1869 the Union Pacific, starting in Omaha, connected to the Central Pacific, which started in Sacramento.
As the industry grew and expanded, it began consolidating into fewer and fewer firms. The first major wave of railroad consolidation occurred in the late 1800s. Many of the smaller railroads were absorbed by larger companies, and by the mid-20th century, a few major companies came to dominate the industry.
This consolidation accelerated in 1980, with the passage of the Staggers Rail Act.
Prior to the Staggers Rail Act, the railroad industry in the United States was heavily regulated by the federal government. This regulation included strict controls on the rates that railroads could charge for their services, as well as restrictions on mergers and other forms of consolidation.
The Staggers Rail Act sought to deregulate the railroad industry, with the goal of promoting competition and efficiency. Among other provisions, the Act gave railroads greater flexibility in setting rates for their services and reduced the regulatory hurdles for mergers and acquisitions.
As a result, the railroad industry in the United States saw a wave of consolidation in the 1980s and 1990s. Many smaller railroads were acquired by larger ones, leading to the creation of further consolidation of large railroads into an oligopoly of seven major providers.
This consolidation has given heavy market power to the top players. They are able to avoid spending any money on new and updated electronically controlled pneumatic (ECP) braking systems for their trains costing a couple billion while spending more than $10 billion in buybacks and dividends over the first six months of 2022.
These measures, along with chronically understaffing, were directly related to the myriad of train derailments seen over the past few decades.
While the current state of the rail industry is difficult to stomach for train lovers, there are still areas where you can go to appreciate the locomotive siren.
As part of the aforementioned Central Pacific railroad, a rail line was built through Niles Canyon. After serving the Tri-Valley for a number of years, the line ceased its operations in 1984 and gave its land over to Alameda County. A group of rail enthusiasts formed the Pacific Locomotive Association with the goal of preserving and restoring historic railroad equipment and acquired the line.
Over the next several years, the Pacific Locomotive Association worked to restore the track and equipment, and in 1987, the Niles Canyon Railway began offering heritage train rides to the public. Today, the railway operates regular weekend excursions along a scenic stretch of track through Niles Canyon, offering visitors a glimpse into the history of railroading in the Bay Area.
I remember going to the track as a kid on a field trip and loving it. In this day and age, the historic tour helps us remember the foundational role trains played in our nation's history. It strikes home the importance of ensuring this important mode of transportation is strong, safe, and resilient.