Rail transportation

From RationalWiki
Jump to navigation Jump to search
A Conrail freight train in Pennsylvania, USA. 1987.

Rail transportation uses giant boxes running on steel wheels and steel rails for the function of moving bodies and things from Point A to Point B. Rail transportation can be found on every continent, even formerly Antarctica. This is the "legacy network" referred to over at the High speed rail article. Often, trains of this network are diesel, haul freight as well as passengers and obviously, doesn't break 200 km/h (124 mph) in service. Higher-speed railWikipedia falls into this category, due to it covering speeds below the threshold of high speed rail.

United States[edit]

Freight transportation[edit]

There are seven major[note 1] freight railroads operating in the United States (Two of which, Canadian National and Canadian Pacific are Canadian.) Larger railroads were numerous until the second half of the 20th Century. Increased competition from passenger airplanes and the Interstate Highway SystemWikipedia stole away passengers, and trucks swooped in stealing away freight and postal contracts, which eliminated profits on passenger trains, leading to their demise and the goal to phase out service and focus on freight. The increased stress loss of freight traffic and other economic factors, like the loss of manufacturing in the rust belt region contributed to the mergers and bankruptcies.

East of the Mississippi River[edit]

The 1976 bankruptcy of the Penn CentralWikipedia and Erie Lackawanna RailwayWikipedia in 1972. The loss of the Penn Central threatened to cripple the Northeast United States' rail access, leading to the formation of ConrailWikipedia, an actual United States Federal Government success story. In 23 years, Conrail went from the ashes of a number of companies that catastrophically collapsed, with a system that was in such disrepair that derailments were frequent even at low speeds to a network was so desired by the two other major east coast railroads, it led to a takeover fight, before a compromise where the company was split between them.[1][2]

Yes, Chessie System's logo, was a cat. 1986.

Absorbing the split up Conrail system were the Norfolk Southern Railway and CSX Transportation. Norfolk Soutern's merger in 1982 was a simple two company merger between the Norfolk & Western Railway and the Southern Railway.[3] In 1986, CSX[note 2] Transportation came into existence following a merger of the Chessie System Railroads,[note 3] the Baltimore and Ohio, Chesapeake and Ohio, and Western Maryland, with Seaboard System Railroad which was, itself, the result of a merger of the Seaboard Coast Line with it's sister railroads. The Seaboard Coast Line was a result of a merger between the Atlantic Coast Line and the Seaboard Air Line Railroad.[4][5]

West of the Mississippi River[edit]

In the Western United States, the Union Pacific Railroad would continue to expand its network, going on to absorb the Missouri Pacific Railroad, the Chicago and North Western, the Western Pacific Railroad, the Missouri–Kansas–Texas Railroad, the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad, Cotton Belt Railroad and lastly the Southern Pacific Railroad.[note 4][6] Leading former employees of said railroads to nickname UP the "Yellow Borg". Meanwhile, while all of this was going on, in the northwestern United States, a four company merger in 1970 folded the Great Northern Railway, Northern Pacific Railway, Spokane, Portland and Seattle Railway, and the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad into Burlington Northern Railroad.[7] In 1995, a merger with the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway formed Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway (Now known simply as BNSF Railway).[8] The Santa Fe and Southern Pacific earlier attempted a merger in 1985, and with both railroads thinking they had it in the hole, started repainting many of their locomotives ahead of the anticipated merger. Unfortunately for them, the merger was denied by the ICC in a 4-1 vote as being monopolistic. Their appeal was also denied, and railroad journalists, employees and railfans alike joked that the SPSF paint on the locomotives really stood for "Shouldn't Paint So Fast".[9]

An assimilated patched locomotive of the Yellow Borg Union Pacifc.

Passenger transport in the United States[edit]


From the start of railroads in the United States to 1971, passenger operations were a private operation. By the 1940s and 1950s, passenger operations' profitability began to fall, as increasing competition from the automobile, along with interstate highway system, began to siphon off passengers. Airlines also began to steal the railways' long-distance business as air travel became more affordable and was significantly quicker with trip times measured in hours, vs railroads' multi-day trips. Most railroads saw profitability of most routes vanish in 1966 when the United States Postal Service discontinued using rail to transport mail, switching to trucks and airplanes instead. Mail service that had been a part of the passenger services had been propping up dwindling revenue from passengers, and now railroads were staring at hundreds of routes that were in the red.[citation needed]

The California Zephyr, operated by Amtrak in 1975.


In May 1, 1971, Amtrak was formed by the United States government to take over intercity passenger train operations from railroads.[10] The agreement for the formation provided Amtrak with rail equipment and stations, but no tracks, which were retained by the freight railroads.[11] The bankruptcy of the Penn Central allowed Amtrak to obtain control of the Northeast Corridor.[citation needed] With the densely populated corridor that linked numerous major cities on the Boston-Washington corridorWikipedia, it had control over the maintenance and assignment of train priority, favoring passenger service above freight; Amtrak grew the corridor into a efficient service that moved 39% (12.02 million) of the Amtrak's 31.7 million passengers in 2017.[12]

Outside of the Northeast Corridor, Amtrak's routes suffer from a few key problems:

  • Freight train interference - Under federal law, passenger trains have priority over freight trains.[13] However, the enforcement of the law has only occurred once in the 40 years Amtrak has been around, right around when Amtrak first started operations, and the Department of JusticeWikipedia (of all people) is charged with enforcing it. A 2017 Amtrak assessment of its 'host railroads' for their ability to not delay Amtrak operations was a mixed board. Some railroads did quite well at minimizing delays, while others not only managed to delay them with freight trains, but also sub-par infrastructure.[14] The 2018 assessment saw 14 of 15 long distance routes fail to meet a 70% 'on time' rate (And the 1 route that barely passed: 72%).[15]
  • Speed limits - In the United States, train speed limitsWikipedia are regulated by Federal Rail AdministrationWikipedia based off the signal system, train protection systems and condition/upkeep of the tracks. Outside of the Northeast Corridor, freight railroads own and maintain most tracks used by Amtrak. There's minimal to zero incentive for freight railroads to maintain a track at Class 6 standards with necessary signalling improvements[note 5] to obtain speeds of 110 mph (177 km/h) when moving cargo that isn't time-sensitive. Reality: freight railroads aren't getting a bonus for getting a trainload of coal from A to B on Class 6 tracks at 110 mph (177 km/h) than if they just moved the same train on Class 4 track at 60 mph (96 km/h), so they aren't going to waste the money doing that.
  • Older equipment - This problem has dropped off since 2000s, however for about the first 30 years of its existence, Amtrak's routes were dogged by its Heritage FleetWikipedia, inherited from the railroads getting rid of passenger operations. The introduction of the Amfleet (1970sWikipedia, Superliners (Late 1970/1980s)Wikipedia and Viewliners (1990s and 2010s)Wikipedia has helped address this problem, with the few remaining 'heritage fleet-era cars being baggage cars and dinning cars finally killed off by the Viewliner IIWikipedia in 2018.
  • Locomotive flaws - A serious, borderline amusing, but expensive problem: On two separate occasions Amtrak was saddled with locomotives (EMD SDP40FWikipedia and GE E60Wikipedia) that derailed themselves due to design flaws. Other notable failures include the GE P30CHWikipedia and the Bombardier–Alstom HHP-8Wikipedia, both of which proved to be mechanically unreliable and the latter was expensive to maintain, resulting in their retirement after only 18 years (compared to the 36 years that Amtrak got out of the AEM-7Wikipedia.)
  • Politics - No matter how much money Amtrak makes, it seems the Republicans can't ever get enough of trying to kill it.[17] There's no clear answer as to why, but it can be chalked up to conservative politicians being bought by the airline lobby to keep Amtrak down and make flying look more attractive, thus allowing airlines to engage in price-gouging (when they aren't competing against each other, dealing with controversy, or being targeted by terrorists).[citation needed]

In Canada[edit]

In Canada, rail transport is provided primarily by three major companies, Canadian NationalWikipedia, the largest and only transcontinental railway in Canada, and formerly a Canadian Crown corporation, until privatization in 1995; Canadian PacificWikipedia, the other large railway in Canada. Both companies formerly operated passenger services, until the formation of VIA Rail in 1977.

A VIA Rail train in 2007, using the F40PH-2 with passenger cars that date to the 1950s.

VIA Rail[edit]

Formed in 1977, VIA RailWikipedia exists in a way similar to America's Amtrak, with many of the same problems, compounded by the fact that Canada is less populated[note 6] with larger stretches of empty space compared to the United States,[note 7] and doesn't own the CorridorWikipedia exclusively like the Northeast Corridor in the United States, and it has a ridiculously low maximum speed of 100 miles per hour[note 8] Equipment age is also catching up to VIA, as they are running rebuilt F40PH locomotives, a locomotive model completely retired in the early 2000s by Amtrak, and replaced by a newer P40DC. A large amount of their long distance train cars were built in the 1950s and earlier, these same types of cars which have have been almost fully[note 9] replaced by Amtrak. It also has the same unpleasant problem of a legislator that would like to do away with it (or at least giving it any money).

In the United Kingdom[edit]


From 1948 to 1997, railways within the United Kingdom, were operated by a state run company, British Rail. Bad planning in the form of The Modernisation PlanWikipedia in the 1950s would haunt British Rail for decades to follow, with a focus on building large yards for wagonload freight and replacing steam locomotives with diesels and electrics. The flaw was multiple: building large, expensive infrastructure for wagonload freight that was dying off, and replaced by container traffic which required space and different yard layouts. Unreliable diesel locomotive designs replacing reliable steam locomotives that in some cases were barely a decade old, with many years left in them, and in some cases with locomotives that had no real purpose.[note 10][18]

A British Super Sprinter (Class 158) diesel multi-unit in 1993, with branding for a British Rail brand, "Regional Railways".

Beeching cuts[edit]

Beeching cutsWikipedia were devised in the 1960s in an effort to reduce increasing losses as passenger drain from roadways and loss of rail subsidies, by reducing the size of the entire system by 55% (2,363) stations and 30% (5,000 miles) of the track mileage. The cuts actually had a worsening effect on traffic rates, since the reasoning behind closures sometimes overlooked unprofitable smaller lines feeding profitable major lines. British Rail would never see the promised savings of the claims in the original plan.[19] The 1980s found major changes in British Rail's organizational structure, and gradual improvements and investments in the system, such as electrifying key routes, new rolling stock, starting to replace stock from the 1950s.


In 1994, privatization of British RailWikipedia was commenced by John Major, and completed by 1997, putting Britain's entire rail system into private hands. The process was carried out in approximately 4 years. No thanks to these clownsWikipedia, itWikipedia largelyWikipedia endedWikipedia badlyWikipedia. The only improvement that replacing those clowns with these geniusesWikipedia, is that the geniuses are a "public sector body", instead of the clowns who were a private, for the profit of the shareholders company, which in various ways contributed to those four accidents.[note 11] No longer motivated by greed, Network Rail has managed to go since 2007 2020 without a derailment or accident resulting in a passenger fatality. Yeah, it appears to be absolutely sheer luck, following the Stonehaven derailmentWikipedia, resulting in the first passenger fatality since 2007, and first train driver fatality since 2004.

Infrastructure flaws aside, promises and guarantees of improvements in train quality were also overblown, with the assurances that the then 40 year old Mark 1Wikipedia Slam door trainsetsWikipedia[note 12] would vanish by 1999, 2003, an "absolute deadline" of 2004, 30 November 2005... By government legislation, forcing their removal from service unless extensively retrofitted.[20] Attention turned to the PacersWikipedia, which were low cost diesel railbuses.[note 13] The Pacers are despised by passengers due to their rough ride, being noisy, small size on some busier routes, and had a 20 year lifespan, which ran out in 2000. The Pacers are only being removed from service in December 2019 because the 2010 Equality ActWikipedia requires that from 2020 public transport be accessibleWikipedia, something none of the the Pacers can comply with, unless extensively (and pointlessly) retrofitted.[21]

Improvements in service was also kind of a joke. Since most trains don't cross franchise lines,[note 14] passengers have to transfer trains, even if the origin and destination station are close. In 2002, train operating companies WAGNWikipedia and Anglia RailwaysWikipedia received praise for managing to coordinate their services, so passengers traveling between Cambridge and Norwich[note 15] could easily transfer between the two different railway franchises. This 'improvement' is kind of empty when you realize prior to privatization, a passenger could just take a train from Cambridge to Norwich, no transfer involved.[22]

On top of all of this, train ticket prices, which under this new competitive free market should have gone down? They've consistently risen every year since at least 2003.[23][24][25]


Rail's huge advantage, that has only been growing in recent years, is the volume of cargo or people that can be moved versus the energy spent moving it. In the United States, on average, a ton of freight was being moved 770.8 kilometers (479 miles) on one gallon of fuel.[26] Further, rail has advantages in countries where electrification systems are common, enabling further options to reduce pollution by using alternative power generation to power trains. Further, trains can free up roadway capacity, by moving the equivalent of dozens of trucks in a single train.


Often, talk comes from politicians of trying to save money by eliminating subsidies to railways, particularly passenger railways. Unsurprisingly this isn't always effective, see British Rail. While it dropped for a few years instantly following privatization, following several horrific rail crashes, the subsidies ended up at one point over double the highest for British Rail in the 10 years prior to its dissolving.[27] Expansion of railroads or increasing operations on existing lines is often opposed by NIMBYs, including people who don't understand rail tracks are private property and are annoyed by trains interrupting their jog along the tracks, or moving into houses next to tracks and not grasping trains make noise.

Global warming denialism[edit]

See the main articles on this topic: Global warming and Denialism

In the United States, 70% of coal is shipped by rail and coal makes up about 1/3 of all rail freight by weight.[28] Because of this, "The four largest American freight railroads—BNSF Railway, Norfolk Southern, Union Pacific, and CSX—have sat at the center of the climate-denial movement nearly since it began…"[28][29][30][31]

Conspiracy theories[edit]

FEMA trains auto carriers[edit]

Inside a FEMA car auto carrier.

Railroads have found themselves dragged into the Alex Jones conspiracy bulletin board after a 1995 film tried to connect the Amtrak Beech Grove Repair Facility with the FEMA camp conspiracy, which gained new 'traction' after clips of the film got on YouTube in the late 2000s. Moreover, this theory has expanded to include "FEMA Trains" with theories that auto carriersWikipedia, rail cars for carrying automobiles, are actually for the transport of either prisoners or coffins of dead bodies and FEMA has been amassing them.[32][33] This theory was helped with the combined election of Obama in 2008 as the auto industry tanked causing thousands of auto carriers mothballed on sidings for months all over the nation, which gave plenty of time for anyone with a video camera to make a video about FEMA Cars in their town waiting for the word from the government for martial law

Large clusters of rail cars, particularly boxcars and auto carriers or rail tracks in proximity to "military bases" are further evidence of the conspiracy being afoot.[34][35] Wait until they find out about Bailey Yard.[note 16]

Rather interestingly, the Venn-diagram of people who think the Holocaust was made up, and people who think FEMA cars are a thing, overlap quite a bit, despite the Holocaust actually using trains to carry people to death camps.[citation NOT needed]

Diminishing (American) individualism[edit]

From establishment conservatives to wingnuttiest of the right-wingers there is an ideological trope that purports progressives wanted to crush individualism to, instead, sneakily subjugate the masses under the egalitarian kosh of Big Government which is why left-(of-centre-)leaning politicians supposedly advocate on behalf of affordable mass & high-speed rail transit.[36] Maybe though they're onto something since not even the smart-assiest of the smart right-wingers can always elude the allure of functioning, publicly funded infrastructure.[37]

See also[edit]

Icon fun.svg For those of you in the mood, RationalWiki has a fun article about Railroad woo.

External links[edit]


  1. "Major" meaning "Class I", the top tier for North American guidelines classifying railroads. To be a Class I railroad, it must have annual carrier operating revenue of 250 million or more in 1991 dollars. (Some examples: Norfolk Southern, CSX, Union Pacific.)
  2. Officially "CSX" doesn't stand for anything, though the letters were deliberately picked as being the first letters of the merging companies ('C' for Chessie and 'S' for Seaboard), plus a letter 'X'.
  3. Chessie System was a holding company, using a common paint scheme between the three companies involved.
  4. And, in a way it basically resembles the railroad version of Stephen Colbert's AT&T/Cingular skit from 2004. Seriously, go read the explanationWikipedia of it at the other wiki.
  5. Train speeds are limited to 79 mph (130 km/h) if the tracks are not equipped with either cab signalsWikipedia, automatic train stopWikipedia or automatic train controlWikipedia, regardless of the track's condition.[16]
  6. Canada: 36 Million to USA: 324 Million - (2016)
  7. Canada: 8.3/sq mi to USA: 90.6/sq mi
  8. The Acela Express train serving the Northeast Corridor can beat this with speeds of up to 150 mph, and it will be faster when a new generation of trains are introduced in the mid-2020s.
  9. Amtrak is in the middle of replacing the last of these older cars, mostly baggage and dining cars, as of 2018.
  10. For example, buying large numbers of yard locomotives for yards that sat empty.
  11. Yes, a company that operated no trains, and simply brought in money by charging an access fee for tracks, was operated as a for profit, shareholder company that was obsessed with its stock price and dividend returns.
  12. Named for their doors that did not have a train crew controlled lock and had to be 'slammed' shut to ensure they were closed properly.
  13. Literally, the Class 141, the first 'Pacer', was actually designed from & used parts from a Leyland National busWikipedia.
  14. Open access operators are exceptions to this. They operate trains over a very specific route. Hull TrainsWikipedia is an example, operating trains between Kingston Upon Hull and London's Kings Cross.
  15. About 65 miles (105 km) by rail.
  16. The world's largest railroad yard, in North Platte, NE. It's in the literal middle of nowhere.
  17. Granted, anyone who has ever watched a security camera, or police dashcam clip show, knows that rail transport does have an answer to the automobile.


  1. "American-Rails.com: The Penn Central Railroad". Retrieved 11/25/2018.
  2. "A Brief History of Conrail". Consolidated Rail Corporation. 2003. Archived from the original on 11/21/2010. Retrieved 2/16/2011.
  3. Family Tree of Norfolk Southern 2018/11/25.
  4. Family Tree of Chessie System Railroads 2018/11/25.
  5. Family Tree of CSXT Transportation 2018/11/25.
  6. Family Tree of Union Pacific Railroad 2018/11/25.
  7. Family Tree of Burlington Northern Railroad 2018/11/25.
  8. Family Tree of Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway 2018/11/25.
  9. Santa Fe–Southern Pacific mergerWikipedia
  10. How Amtrak Started in 1971, Amtrak
  11. Many Famous Trains Roll Into History, Lewiston Morning Tribune, May 1, 1971
  12. Amtrak Monthly Performance Report, September FY 2017, Amtrak, December 27, 2017
  13. FRA final rule sets minimum standard for measuring Amtrak performance, Progress Railroading, November 17, 2020
  14. Lopez , Edwin. Amtrak blasts freight railroads' 'undisciplined' operations. Supply Chain Dive. 28 March, 2018.
  15. Amtrak. Amtrak Host Railroad Report Card 2018. Amtrak. 2018.
  16. Ask Trains from November 2008, Trains.com
  17. How Republicans Became Anti-Train, Urban Milwaukee, November 15, 2019
  18. Gourvish, Terry (2002). British Rail: 1974–97: From Integration to Privatisation. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-926909-2.
  19. Westcott Richard. Did Dr Beeching get it wrong with his railway cuts 50 years ago? 27 March 2013. Archived
  20. BBC. (19 August 2005). Slam-door trains at end of line
  21. Kelly, Jon. BBC (7 March 2016). Pacers: The train that the UK has struggled to get rid of
  22. Vaughan, Adrian. Ian Allan. (2003). Railway blunders.
  23. BBC. (2 January 2013). Rail commuters hit by 4.2% average fare rise
  24. Topham, Gwyn. The Guardian. (30 November 2018). UK rail fares to rise 3.1% in new year
  25. Espiner, Tom. BBC. (5 March 2023). Train tickets go up in England and Wales by 5.9%
  26. Association of American Railroads. arr.org. Retrieved 11/25/2018. PDF. Freight Rail: The Most Environmentally Friendly Way to Move Freight Over Land
  27. Government support to the rail industry - Table 1.6 [Excel]. (2015). London: Office of Road and Rail.
  28. 28.0 28.1 A Major but Little-Known Supporter of Climate Denial: Freight Railroads: For nearly 30 years, America’s four biggest rail companies—which move the majority of the country’s coal—have spent millions to deny climate science and block climate policy. by Robinson Meyer (December 13, 2019) The Atlantic.
  29. "Networks of Opposition: A Structural Analysis of U.S. Climate Change Countermovement Coalitions 1989–2015" by Robert J. Brulle (21 October 2019) Sociological Inquiry" doi:10.1111/soin.12333.
  30. Exposing the Networks of Climate Action Opposition, It’s Not Just Oil… by Emily Storz (October 22, 2019) Drexel University News Blog.
  31. American Utilities and the Climate Change Countermovement: An Industry In Flux by Cole Triedman et al. (2019) Brown University Climate and Development Lab.
  32. Scribd document of a forum talking about FEMA ordering 100,000 boxcars auto carriers. It pretty much like all the major points for this as a conspiracy.
  33. FEMA Ordered 102,000 Boxcars With Shackles!
  34. Train Cars At Chaffee Crossing Lead To Conspiracy Theories 2015.
  35. Fear of FEMA 3/2/2010. "... nearby railroad tracks and aircraft runways near many of these sites [military bases] are proof there are FEMA camps in the vicinity..."
  36. https://krugman.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/03/01/dagny-taggart-wept/
  37. https://krugman.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/04/03/diminished-individualism-watch/