History of the railroad in North America

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The history of the railways in the United States , Canada, and Mexico is closely linked. US railways built routes in Canada and Mexico. Railways from Mexico and Canada have shares in US railways or operate routes in the US. These links have been strengthened since NAFTA was formed in 1994 and are also evident in the rolling stock: almost all US, Canadian and Mexican locomotives and wagons can move freely between the three countries.

United States of America

1826–1860 The beginnings

Until the advent of the railways, roads and rivers were the most important means of transport, as in Europe. The first railroad in the United States opened in Quincy, Massachusetts in 1826 . Their job was to move granite from quarries for shipment to the Neponset River. At the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th century, the construction of canals began to improve the transport system. The construction of the Erie Canal between Buffalo and Albany created a connection between New York City and the Great Lakes . However, due to the geographical conditions, it was not possible that canals could be built everywhere. The Appalachians prevented the construction of a waterway from Baltimore to the west. On February 28, 1827, the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad was founded as the first American railroad company to build a railroad to the Ohio . It was planned from the beginning to offer scheduled freight and passenger traffic.

As on the European continent, the English initially dominated the market with their many years of experience. In the early years, 114 English locomotives were exported to the USA. The first locomotive to operate in the United States was the Stourbridge Lion , built in England in 1828 and making its first run on American soil on August 8, 1829. With it the two other machines Hudson and Delaware from the same manufacturer Foster, Rastrick and Company as well as four months earlier the Pride of Newcastle from Robert Stephenson's workshop were all delivered for the Delaware & Hudson Canal Company .

The New York-built The Best Friend of Charleston and the Tom Thumb, built by Peter Cooper's Canton Eisenwerk near Baltimore, are considered to be the first steam locomotives, both built exclusively in the USA in 1830 .

On May 24, 1830, the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad between Baltimore and Ellicott's Mills opened with the Tom Thumb . As expected, she won the same year horse and carriage race. A year later, on January 15, 1831, the South Carolina Railroad began operating with the Best Friend of Charleston . As early as June 1831, the locomotive was destroyed by a bang , like many of the first steam locomotives in England.

1831 founded Matthias William Baldwin in Philadelphia , the Baldwin Locomotive Works , which until 1945 the world's largest steam locomotives - Manufacturers developed. In the years that followed, railway companies were set up in all states on the east coast, primarily to develop the west. At the end of the 1850s there was already a coarse network of small and large railway companies with a total length of 48,000 km, which connected the Atlantic coast with the Mississippi River and the Great Lakes .

In 1840, the Bohemian mathematician Franz Anton Ritter von Gerstner described typical North American rail operations using the Toledo - Adrian connection :

“A machine operator and a stoker are employed for each locomotive, and they are also responsible for the necessary repairs in the workshops. 4 four-wheeled passenger cars, each with 24 seats, and 20 freight cars (16 covered and 4 open), also four-wheeled, are quite sufficient for traffic. [...] You just make one trip a day in each direction and transport travelers and goods together; only occasionally, when a lot of goods are piling up, an extra trip is organized. A trip with all stops usually takes 3 hours; the speed while driving itself is 15 miles per hour. - A traveler pays $ 1 50 cents, or 4½ cents per mile, for the entire 33 mile distance; 5 cents per mile is usually charged for shorter distances. […] A train usually consists of 2 passenger cars and 3 or 4 freight cars. The conductor who accompanies him receives the tickets from those travelers who leave Toledo or Adrian, as well as the money from the passengers who get on along the way, since no tickets are sold at the intermediate stations. For the loading and unloading of the goods along the track, two packers (porters) also come along. The conductor enters the number of passengers and the money received in his route list on every journey, and delivers the same, together with the money, to the manager in Toledo every evening. "

1860–1880 development of the west

The American Civil War marked a first cut and an interruption in the expansion of the railway system . Many railway systems were destroyed by the various military operations. But the railways were also of great importance for the transport of troops.

During the war, on July 1, 1862, President Lincoln granted permission to build a railroad to California . California became a state in 1850 and was now to be linked to the rest of the United States. There were several routes studied to choose from: a northern route from St. Paul to the Columbia River , a central route via Omaha , Salt Lake City to San Francisco , a route from Kansas through southern Colorado , through Nevada and over the Sierra Nevada , one Route from Fort Smith , Arkansas to Los Angeles , as well as the southernmost route through Texas via El Paso to Los Angeles.

During the war, hardly any construction work for the transcontinental route was possible. Serious construction work began in 1865. Construction began in Omaha by the Union Pacific Railroad and in Sacramento by the Central Pacific Railroad .

Completion of the first transcontinental railway line between the Atlantic and the Pacific. Photograph of the solemn meeting of the Central Pacific Railroad and the Union Pacific Railroad on May 10, 1869 at Promontory Point , Utah, presented to the press .

The state supported the construction by granting a corresponding grant for each laid section of the route and also by donating land along the railway line to the railway companies. Due to this regulation, the companies tried to lay as many tracks as possible as quickly as possible. At the beginning of 1869, the two companies built almost parallel tracks, one from east to west and the other from west to east. Eventually it was agreed to connect the two routes in the hills on the Great Salt Lake in Utah . On May 10, 1869, the connection was celebrated with a symbolic golden track nail. The location of the celebration is now designated as the Golden Spike National Historic Site . A train journey between New York and Sacramento took around seven and a half days.

Transcontinental connections 1887

Further transcontinental connections were established in the early 1880s: in 1881 the " Santa Fe " and the Southern Pacific Railroad established a connection from Kansas to Los Angeles. In 1883 the Santa Fe was able to reach Los Angeles on its own tracks, the Southern Pacific made a connection from Los Angeles to New Orleans and the Northern Pacific Railway connected Duluth with Portland .

In addition to the transcontinental connections, the entire system has also been expanded. In particular, the war-damaged south was rebuilt and the mid-west was opened up by the railroad. In many cases, many locations were connected by two or more railways in order to achieve a competition. Speed ​​and cheapness in railway construction as well as simplicity of operation were the main requirements for those railways that were supposed to manage their own traffic. Because of the abundance of lumber, wooden structures were used everywhere. Flat, light rails were nailed to frames of long and cross sleepers; this is how the American superstructure system came into being.

Early and significant technical innovations

Around 1868 George Westinghouse developed the air brake , for the production of which he founded WABCO ( Westinghouse Air Brake Company ) in 1869 and patented his system in 1872. The compressed air brake subsequently became the most widespread braking system for rail vehicles not only in the USA but also worldwide .

In 1873, the freight office secretary Eli Janney patented the automatic carriage coupling named after him . The Janney coupling was used in all of North America and Mexico as well as in Australia , South Africa and the People's Republic of China , in addition to the USA .

In 1893, the compressed air brake and the Janney coupling were prescribed as mandatory equipment for railways in the USA with the “Safety Appliance Act”. This then led to a rapid reduction in accidents with rail vehicles. Outside the USA, too, the adoption of compressed air brakes and automatic couplings increased the efficiency and safety of rail operations.

1880–1950 competition and regulation

With the expansion of railroads, the influence of the railways and railroad companies rose sharply in the Gilded Age . The competition was organized by the owners of the major railway companies such as E. H. Harriman ( IC , UP ), James J. Hill ( NP , GN ) and Cornelius Vanderbilt ( NYC ). The railway magnates tried to outdo their respective competitors by all means. You bought connecting and competing routes or built lines to make it difficult for the opponent to expand. The dream of many entrepreneurs was to create a transcontinental railroad company, but it was never realized.

Since some companies had monopoly on transport in certain regions of the Midwest , they made full use of it. They set the tariffs or only granted discounts to selected shippers . This called politics on the scene. Finally, in 1887, the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) was established as a regulatory authority. The ICC more or less stipulated the prices at which the companies had to transport or which routes had to be traveled to what extent. In 1916, the route network reached its greatest extent of 254,000  miles . In 1917, the United States entered the First World War one. In order to coordinate the operation of the railroad, all US railroad companies were placed under the United States Railroad Administration (USRA) on December 26, 1917 . This made it possible to lift the restrictions of the ICC with regard to the setting of tariffs and the barriers to the cooperation of the individual railway companies and to implement efficient rail traffic. USRA was predominantly run by long-term rail managers. Control of the USRA ended on March 1, 1920.

Because of the large number of railway companies, the ICC was asked by Congress to present a plan to combine the companies. As a result, in 1929 it was proposed to form 19 new societies. The plan was never carried out. The world economic crisis in 1929 did the rest, many railway companies had to file for bankruptcy. Only those societies that had a sufficient economic basis survived this time unscathed. In the Second World War there was no state control of the railways.

In the mid-1930s, the Union Pacific Railroad (UP) and the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad (CB6Q) began offering novel innovative streamlined passenger trains. For the UP it was the M-10000 railcar with a car body made of aluminum alloy and for the CB&Q it was the "Zephyr" with the cars made by Budd from rustproof material. Other societies soon followed this trend.

Another step into the future was the appearance of the first large diesel locomotive from EMD in 1939. As a result, diesel locomotives were increasingly used, which could be adapted more flexibly to changing train size and route requirements by coupling several units together. In addition, the diesel locomotives were ready to start faster, while the steam locomotives that had prevailed up to now had to preheat for hours. In the United States, for example, the last steam locomotive deliveries for some railroad companies and the decline of the largest steam locomotive manufacturers Baldwin , LIMA and ALCO in the 1950s and 1960s marked the end of the steam locomotive era in the USA between the world wars .

1950–2000 decline and rise again

With the upswing of the economy after the Second World War, the decline of the railways began at the same time. With the advent of cars , trucks and airplanes, as well as the construction of highways , the volume of transport decreased dramatically. Because of the restrictions, the companies could not simply stop unprofitable trains. They had to prove that there was no longer any need. By restricting the service and other measures, customers were downright “deterred” on certain routes. However, these measures also had an impact on well-functioning connections, so that at the beginning of the 1970s there were hardly any passenger trains. The state therefore felt compelled to found Amtrak on May 1, 1971 . It didn't look any better for freight traffic either. Due to the competition from trucks and the restrictions imposed by the ICC regulations, the companies were unable to respond adequately to the new competition.

It was soon realized that many societies could only survive if they were of a certain size. Thus began the so-called "merger era". Many medium-sized companies merged into larger units, but large companies also merged. In 1968 the two big rivals New York Central Railroad and Pennsylvania Railroad merged to form Penn Central . However, this company had to file for bankruptcy as early as 1970 . Since many companies in the northeastern United States were intertwined and Hurricane Agnes also caused further damage, a total collapse of rail traffic was to be feared.

The federal government therefore founded on April 1, 1976 from the remnants of the bankrupt companies the Conrail , which brought in the first profits in 1981. Another problem was the failed takeover of Rock Island by the Union Pacific Railroad . In 1964 the UP announced it would take over Rock Island . The decision of the ICC took over ten years. In 1974 Rock Island was almost bankrupt and the UP no longer wanted it. In 1980 the Rock Island had to cease operations. A network of around 11,000 km was sold to competitors or most of it was shut down.

Due to the restrictions imposed by the ICC , many companies were unable to respond to corresponding merger intentions by competitors with discounts and improved services; they only had the option of objecting or counter-offers. With the signing of the Staggers Rail Act on October 14, 1980, the way was paved for improved competition. Many of the restrictions imposed by the ICC have been lifted. It was now possible for the railways to set tariffs much more freely, and individual contracts could be concluded with certain shippers. It was also made much easier for the railways to sell or shut down routes.

As a result, many branch lines of the major railways were sold. At the beginning of the 1980s, a large number of so-called shortlines emerged that were more or less viable. One consequence was that the large companies limited themselves more and more to one core network. By 1990 the number of major railroad companies ( Class 1 companies ) in the USA had reduced to 9:

But that was not the end of the merger. In 1995 the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway merged with the Burlington Northern Railroad to form the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway (BNSF), in 1996 the Union Pacific Railroad took over the Southern Pacific Railroad , and in 1999 the Canadian National took over the Illinois Central Railroad . The last major takeover battle was fought in 1998/1999 for the takeover of Conrail . The two competitors Norfolk Southern and CSX Transportation had each submitted a takeover bid. Finally, the two opponents agreed on the division of the "Conrail".

There have also been major changes in labor regulations and collective agreements. The companies have succeeded in making substantial savings by reducing the train crew from five to two.

21st century

40% of the transport performance is provided by the railways
Route network of the Class 1 railway companies

With the takeover of the Southern Pacific Railroad by the Union Pacific Railroad , major problems had arisen in the operations of the UP in 1997/1998 ("UP meltdown"). These had an impact on all of North America's rail traffic. The Surface Transportation Board , the successor to the ICC, imposed an 18-month moratorium on other so-called mega-mergers in March 2000 . At that time, the BNSF and the Canadian National were in negotiations to form a joint company, which were subsequently discontinued.

Thus, at the beginning of the 21st century there are two major railroad companies in the east (Norfolk Southern and CSX) and in the west (BNSF and Union Pacific). Then there are the two Canadian transcontinental railroad companies Canadian Pacific Railway and Canadian National , with the latter now also having a connection to the Gulf of Mexico through the acquisition of the Illinois Central Railroad . The smallest of the five Class 1 companies is the Kansas City Southern system . Through its participation in the Mexican Transportacion Ferroviaria Mexicana , which it took over completely in 2005 and renamed Kansas City Southern de México , this company can provide a transport connection from Chicago via Kansas City to Mexico City and to the Mexican ports of Lázaro Cárdenas on the Pacific and Veracruz on the Gulf of Mexico.

The class 1 companies are now striving to further optimize their network. This means that unnecessary routes are sold or closed. But other companies are also being bought up to a lesser extent in order to close gaps. Since mergers are no longer on the agenda, the companies have started to increasingly conclude agreements on “ haulage rights ” and “ trackage rights ” or on the joint marketing of offers. The transport volume has risen sharply in the last few years due to the economic upturn in the USA. The railway companies have responded to this changed situation by hiring new staff and buying new, more powerful and more economical locomotives .

The class 2 and class 3 railways are also showing signs of stabilization, as these companies are also benefiting from the growing transport volume. The process that has already been recorded in the past of individual companies expanding by acquiring additional routes has continued. The companies Genesee and Wyoming , Watco Companies and Omnitrax should be mentioned in particular . These companies operate individual so-called short or regional railroads all over the country.

There has been no change in passenger transport compared to the 1990s. The state-owned company Amtrak is still dependent on grants in the millions and is unable to operate its trains economically despite investments and restructuring. Contributing to the problems is that Amtrak does not own most of the routes it operates, but has to acquire traffic rights and its trains are disadvantaged compared to the slow freight trains. The safety standard is limited for mixed operations; the establishment of Positive Train Control , a train control system , was only required by law in 2008 . The expansion should be completed by 2015 on the routes used by passenger and freight trains. This goal was missed, so the congress postponed the completion date to the end of 2018. Compared to long-haul traffic, there is the further expansion of commuter and local traffic in the major centers of the north-east corridor, in and around Chicago and in California.

2017 2002 1980 1930
Number of railway companies 614 (freight transport) 554
Route length 220,316 km 228,415 km 466,610 km 691,681 km
Total truckloads 30,663,000 28,572,187 21,613,063 45,877,974
Output in million t-km 2,151,866 570,927 238,321
Total employees 167.257 251.075 458.994 1,660,850
Locomotives 28,396 56,582
Freight wagons 1,710,827 2,276,867


The first railroad company was the Champlain and St. Lawrence Railroad in 1836 . Further railroad companies emerged in the following period in the valley of the St. Lawrence River and spread to Ontario in the west and the Atlantic coast in the east. In 1871 British Columbia became part of the Canadian Confederation. However, British Columbia demanded, among other things, the construction of a transcontinental railroad in order to join. Some private individuals therefore founded the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1881 and built a railway line through the wilderness of Canada to Vancouver . At the same time branch lines were built to open up the region between Calgary and Winnipeg . In the following years, the Canadian Pacific Railway acquired other railroad companies across Canada and in the United States.

With the success of the Canadian Pacific Railway , other railroad companies began to build a line to the Pacific. The route built by the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway , however, was not taken over by this, so that operations had to begin in 1915 under government supervision. Other routes ran into financial problems in the years that followed. The Canadian government eventually formed the Canadian National Railways from these troubled railroad companies . In the 1990s, the Canadian National Railway was privatized by issuing shares. Due to the close ties between Canada and the USA, the two large Canadian railroad companies also play an important role in the USA. On the one hand, they have their own subsidiaries in the USA, and on the other hand they have access rights to the most important markets through agreements. Compared to US competitors, they can offer transport between the oceans on their own tracks.

As in the USA, passenger traffic came to a standstill in the 1970s . In April 1977, after a forerunner company, VIA Rail Canada was founded as a state company under the direction of the Canadian National Railway . Since this did not solve the problems, from 1978 the company was directly subordinated to the Canadian Ministry of Transport. The company bought the passenger train equipment from Canadian National Railway and Canadian Pacific Railway .


The first railway line was built between 1864 and 1873 between Veracruz and Mexico City . In the period that followed, railway lines in particular were built from the US border to Mexico City or the Pacific coast. In 1909, the state Ferrocarriles Nacionales de México was created. In the following period until 1946 all routes in Mexico were nationalized. The meter- gauge lines were expanded to standard gauge , and many lines were partially or completely re-routed.

Nevertheless, the railway operations were in high deficit due to high overstaffing and inadequate administration. The state tried to remedy this from 1996 by privatizing the state railway. In order to increase the attractiveness, the passenger traffic was discontinued in 1997 except for the tourist train connections Ferrocarril Chihuahua al Pacífico and Tequila Express (in Guadalajara ).

The privatization took place through the award of 50-year concessions for freight transport. Three large railway companies ( Ferrosur , Ferromex and TFM ) and three smaller companies were created. However, the ownership of the tracks and the real estate remained in the hands of the state. Numerous important railway lines were abandoned. After the restructuring, US railroad companies were anxious to regain a foothold in Mexico. The greatest influence from US railways is Kansas City Southern , which has created direct access to Mexico City, Veracruz, Tampico and the Pacific by taking over the TFM , which has now been renamed Kansas City Southern de México . Ferromex is held by Grupo México and the Union Pacific Railroad , Ferrosur by Grupo México.

The railway company Ferrocarriles Chiapas-Mayab , active south and east of the isthmus of Tehuantepec , has been operating again as a state-owned company since 2016, after three private companies gave up or lost their concession. A subsidiary of Genesee and Wyoming had ceased operations after the severe Hurricane Stan in autumn 2005, which severely damaged bridges and railway tracks, and returned the concession in 2007. Ferrosur was then the operator of the sub-network until 2012 and Viabilis Holding from 2013 to 2016 .

See also

An overview of the railway companies is provided by the list of North American railway companies and the list of former North American railway companies .


Web links

Individual evidence

  1. ^ Franz Anton, Ritter von Gerstner: The inner communications of the United States of North America. Edited and edited posthumously by L. Klein, Vienna 1842–1834, Volume 2, p. 30 f
  2. ^ Profile Showing the Grades upon the Different Routes Surveyed for the Union Pacific Rail Road Between the Missouri River and the Valley of the Platte River . 1865. Retrieved July 16, 2013.
  3. ^ Ceremony at "Wedding of the Rails," May 10, 1869 at Promontory Point, Utah . May 10, 1869. Retrieved July 21, 2013.
  4. Rail Fast Facts For 2017. (PDF) (No longer available online.) Association of American Railroads , December 2018, archived from the original on January 5, 2019 ; accessed on January 5, 2019 .