Although road transportation of goods is the primary vehicle in the supply chain in the US, the freight train is still a very important aspect of the transportation network. In the UK the first steam railways came into being not for the movement of passengers but the movement of coal from the mines. Today in the US the movement of bulk goods using the railroad is still a viable alternative to road transportation.
The Development of the Steam Engine Railway
Carts had been developed to move along rails in Germany back in 1550, which were called wagonways. In the late 1700’s the wagonways had developed into trams and were horse driven. The development of the steam engine was the catalyst to move away from horse driven to steam driven transportation. Richard Trevithick developed the first steam driven tramway locomotive which moved a load of 10 tons of iron, 70 men and five extra wagons the 9 miles on a road in Merthyr Tydfil, Wales on February 22, 1804. George Stephenson started to develop his first locomotive, called "Blucher", in 1813. At Cillingwood Railway on July 25, 1814, the engine was successfully tested on a 450 foot uphill track. The locomotive pulled eight loaded coal wagons weighing thirty tons, at four miles an hour, but launched the age of the steam railroad.
George Stephenson went on to create the Stockton & Darlington Railroad Company whch began was the first railroad to carry both goods and passengers on regular schedules using locomotives in September 1825. In the US the concept of steam railways were not far behind as in 1826 John Stevens experimented with a locomotive on a circular track constructed on his estate in Hoboken, New Jersey in 1826.
In 1827 the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad became the first American railway chartered for commercial transport of passengers and freight. The track was started in 1828 and thirteen miles of track was completed in 1830. New York inventor Peter Cooper built the a steam engine for the railroad called the Tom Thumb, and was the first American-built steam locomotive to be operated on a railroad.
In England in 1829 a competition sponsored by the railways to obtain a locomotive for carrying both passengers and freight, called the Rainhill trials, was won by a George Stephenson locomotive called the Rocket which pulled a load of three times its own weight at 12.5 mph and hauled a coach filled with passengers at 24 mph. When the Liverpool and Manchester railway opened in 1831, it used eight Rocket locomotives. By the end of the 1830’s the total length of railroads in the UK had reached almost 1,500 miles, while in the USA the total was over 2,700 miles.
Industrialization and the Railroads
The development of the railroads both in the US and the UK had lead to a period of increasing industrialization as goods and passengers could quickly and safely be moved around the country. Areas that had not seen development due to the limitation of the canal and river transport were now able to experience expansion. In 1869 the transcontinental railroad was completed in the US between Omaha, Nebraska and Oakland, California.
By 1890 a third of the worlds rail system was found in the US, which totaled over 163,000 miles. In the farm belt along Ohio to Iowa eighty percent of the farms were within 5 miles of the railroad so the movement of grain and cattle to large cities, on both coasts, was easily achieved. By the early 1900’s the majority of the railroad system in the US was complete as the advent of motor transport was a threat to the movement of goods by rail. In 1916 the total railroad system in the US reached its peak at 254,000 miles. Although the advent of the diesel locomotive did improve the efficiency and speed of rail transport, the decline of the railroad was in full swing. Goods movements by aircraft as well as larger commercial motor vehicles continued to take business from the railroad.
Rail Transport Today
The convenience and cost of moving freight by commercial motor vehicle, as well as the increase in personal transportation, meant that the railroads fell into decline. The development of the interstate highway system in the 1950’s meant that it was easier for motor vehicles to move goods between major cities quicker than before and it was a great advantage for customers. Many railroads were forced into bankruptcy and by 1971 all long distance passenger rail travel was operated by the government owned Amtrak.
After the bankruptcy of Penn Central in 1970, which was the largest bankruptcy in U.S. history at that point, the government passed the Regional Rail Reorganization Act of 1973 which tried to rescue the freight operations of Penn Central and other rail companies. The government owned Consolidated Rail Corporation (ConRail) began freight operations in 1976. In 1980 the government tried to stimulate the rail freight market with the Staggers Rail act which deregulated the railroad enabling the freight rail companies to be competitive with the national trucking companies.
Today there is around 100,000 miles of railroad left in the US and after a number of mergers there are a small number of freight rail companies who operate across the US. These companies include CSX, Union Pacific, Burlington Northern and Santa Fe (BNSD), Kansas City Southern (KCS) and Norfolk Southern (NS).