Railroad history in the United States is nearly as old as the country itself, dating back to the mid-1820s. As we know, this great nation would not have grown and prospered as it did without the railroads, which brought together the young country and allowed for unprecedented prosperity. The “Golden Age” lasted from roughly the 1880s until the 1920s, at which time other modes (automobiles and airplanes) slowly eroded the railroads’ transportation monopoly. In addition, stifling government regulation beginning in the early 20th century eventually choked them to the point of desperation. Unable to set their own freight rates, abandon unprofitable routes, or rid themselves of money-losing passenger trains many were on the brink of collapse by the 1970s; names like the Penn Central, Rock Island, Milwaukee Road, Reading, Jersey Central, and others. Following deregulation in 1980 the industry made a comeback and today is witnessing a renaissance. In this section we will look at the history of our country’s involvement with trains from its earliest beginnings in the 1820s through today.

Today, the American Railroad network is widely considered one of the most dynamic freight systems in the world. The $60 billion industry consists of 140,000 rail miles operated by seven Class I railroads [1] (railroads with operating revenues of $433.2 million or moreExternal Link), 21 regional railroads, and 510 local railroads. [2] Not only does the 140,000 mile system move more freight than any other freight rail system worldwide but it also provides 221,000 jobs [3] across the country and numerous public benefits including reductions in road congestion, highway fatalities, fuel consumption and greenhouse gases, logistics costs, and public infrastructure maintenance costs.

The U.S. freight railroads are private organizations that are responsible for their own maintenance and improvement projects. Compared with other major industries, they invest one of the highest percentages of revenues to maintain and add capacity to their system. The majority of this investment is for upkeep to ensure a state of good repair while 15 to 20 percent of capital expenditures, on average, are used to enhance capacity. [4]

The documents Freight Railroad BackgroundExternal Link and Impact of the Staggers Rail Act of 1980External Link offer more information about the current state of the U.S. freight rail industry. In addition, FRA’s Railroad Geographic Information SystemExternal Link provides an interactive tool that allows users to view various aspects of freight rail infrastructure in the U.S. Public datasets are available in the National Transportation Atlas DatabaseExternal Link.