• What If: The End of the American Railroad

  • General discussion about railroad operations, related facilities, maps, and other resources.
General discussion about railroad operations, related facilities, maps, and other resources.

Moderator: Robert Paniagua

  by mtuandrew
As we all know, the American railroad is a huge economic powerhouse, thanks in large part to coal shipments and container traffic, as well as grain and ore in smaller part. It's a very convenient slot between waterborne and roadbound shipping. However, what if a few decisions had been modified or reversed?

1956: The National Interstate and Defense Highways Act is passed. Surprisingly, the maximum gross vehicle weight is fixed at 120,000 lbs. Within three years, EMD is offering an Electrohauler semi-tractor, with a 6-567 and generator powering one front and three rear axles through 4 motors.

1968: The Penn Central merger occurs.

1969: Alco ceases US operations.

1970: The BN merger occurs. Meanwhile, the Penn Central goes bankrupt.

1971: Amtrak is formed.

1976: The 4-R Act is passed, nationalizing Penn Central, the E-L and others as Conrail.

1977: Coal slurry pipelines are allowed to pass over railroad rights-of-way by use of eminent domain, in a Supreme Court case. Two years later, the Chicago and North Western abandons its ideas for a Powder River extension in favor of investment in a slurry pipeline to compete with BN's coal lines.

1980: The Rock Island ceases operations entirely, and the federal government reluctantly folds them into Conrail.

1981: Rep. Harley Staggers (D-WV) retires, having failed to pass railroad deregulation.

1982: The Milwaukee Road ceases operations and the Western Extension (still intact but unused) goes to Conrail, with the eastern section eventually being bought by the Soo Line.

1985: The Sabin and Davis Locks at Sault Ste. Marie, MI are replaced with a single set of locks, larger than the three other locks at the Soo. Shipyards immediately begin building a larger class of ore laker, and Canada begins work on expanding the Welland Canal.

1986: The Panama Canal finishes a third, considerably larger series of locks.

1983 through 1987: Due to a falling standard of railroad maintenance, a number of major passenger railroad accidents, and the rising cost to the government of maintaining lines, President Reagan gathers enough support to cut Amtrak from the 1987 budget. It's added again in 1988, but never regains support, and is cut again for good in 1994 by President Clinton. The NEC operations are contracted to NJ Transit, Metro-North and the MBTA after 1987.

After that... you'll just have to use your imagination. I doubt the government would have tolerated a fully-dependent Conrail for very long, and most of the major railroads would have been losing money on their branchlines that the ICC mandated that they use. Eventually they would have been deregulated, but with larger locks on the Great Lakes and in Panama, coal pipelines, maintenance-deferred main lines and considerably more highway shipping, the industry would have to scrabble for traffic. It may well even have folded and converted its rights-of-way into private freight highways.

  by 2nd trick op
A"fun" post, definitely! "Alternative history" is a fascinating subject. What if the Confederates had siezed the high ground at Gettysburg? or if Hitler hadn't declared war on the United States two days after Pearl Harbor?

But economic and societal forces are also somewhat self-correcting; here are a couple of factors I think were missed:

That 50% bigger EMD highway "horse" would have put additional strain on our domestic fuel supply while encourging development of a more vulnerable land transport system. Had that been the case when the oil embargo was imposed in the wake of the Yom Kippur War, I think our public officials would have taken a close look at where this was leading, especially since the wear-and -tear on our highways would likely have escalated at a greater rate than merely the 50% jump in vehicle weights,
I-80 across Pennsylvania had to be just about completely rebuilt within 20 years of its completion. With those behemoths, who knows?

Regardless of the effect of the eminent domain decision, I believe the efficiencty of coal slurry pipelines has been overstated. To my knowledge, they haven't seemed to have caught on anywhere else in great numbers

The movement of bulk commodities on the Great lakes began to decline long before the Edmond Fitzgerald went down, due in large part to the steel industry's reduced reliance on pig iron. Economic trends would have inveighed against those larger locks, regardless. As for the Panama Canal, political instability likely deep-sixed that one when the canal was turned over to a third-world nation. Increasing stabilty around the globe might reverse that someday, but not just yet.

The post makes no mention of the rationalization of crew sizes and districts in the mid 1980's, which seems to be the event most closely timed to the rail industry's rebound.

Finally, as some forgotten tunesmith said,

(and this one dates from the first oil shock, back in '73:)

"There is only so much oil in the ground,
sooner or later, there won't be none around."

Had the scenario depicted above actually played out, we'd be a lot further up that well-known creek than we already are.
Last edited by 2nd trick op on Tue Aug 26, 2008 7:54 pm, edited 1 time in total.
  by henry6
But the Burlington Northern and the Penn Central mergers were niether the only nor necesarily the most telling. Probable the mergers that didn't happen are more telling: DL&W with NKP would have made a lot of waves. So would have the N&W and PRR especially next to a C&O -NYC coupling. The emerging of regional giants would probably have taken place in New England, the South, Southwest, and far West, too.

Another event would have been for environmentalists to waylay teh St.Lawrence Seaway project. There are so many variables that could have or could have not happened that the mind boggles out!
  by David Benton
some things that could have happened .
- all lines been abandoned were rail banked for possible future use as hsr or freight lines .
- conrail was split into right of way and operating divisions . operating division was sold off and the right of way made open access .
-the railroads were offered relief in the 70's from right of way costs in exchange for open access over their lines .

how would things look now ?
  by scharnhorst
How about the failed Southern Pacific -- Santa Fe merger that never was where or what would this network look like and would it have worked?

Or the failed attmpet of Santa Fe and Norfolk Southern wanting to buy and split Conrail in the early 80's? Would eather of these railroads have survived if this had happened?
  by Otto Vondrak
I generally frown on this kind of fictionalized rationalization for conversation. The American railroad system, while it has its faults, has not completely failed.

Is there a point to this "flight of fancy?"

-the guy who rains on your parade-
  by mtuandrew
No, no real point to this thread. :-D Mr. Norman and I had discussed it briefly in a thread on the Amtrak forum, and he suggested I post my thoughts in this section of the forum. During the 1960s and 1970s this was an entirely plausible future, though there weren't any heavy highway trains as I suggested. Should the American railroad industry again enter a period of weakness, a few capacity upgrades on the world's shipping channels and some new energy and shipment technologies could really put the hurt on the Big Six.

It's definitely a flight of fancy. Just the same, you have to admit that it has at least as much validity as the innumerable "Amtrak needs to operate this new/old route", "let's rebuild the Erie and Milwaukee", and "why doesn't a Class 1 go back to steam" threads over the years. :wink:
  by UPRR engineer
I'm with Otto also there dude, i dont care much for "what if" topics. If ya want to talk about the future of railroading, oil is gonna be our biggest factor.