Wooden Wheels to Magnetic Levitation

Ever-adaptable railroads just might be on the verge of a renaissance in the U.S.
Publish date:

H.G. Wells

, author of such classics as

Time Machine


The War of the Worlds

, was considered a seer of sorts a century ago when, in a series of essays for the respected

North American Review

, he speculated as to what America might be like 100 years later. As things turned out, he was surprisingly accurate.

Among his predictions was the endurance of the railroad in America. To many, that was a no-brainer. Was there any doubt? The railroad was in its Golden Age as the 20th century began, having proven itself superior to the Conestoga wagon, canal barge and river steamboat. Motoring was in its infancy. Horseless carriages were introduced in 1895. By 1900, fewer than 4,000 of them -- most of which were considered experimental models -- had been manufactured, and there were only 200 miles of paved roads in the U.S.

The concept of a railroad goes back to the 16th century, when horse-drawn wagons with wooden wheels and rails were used in mining operations in England. Introduced to the U.S. in the early 1800s, they had been improved over time by making the wheels and rails out of cast-iron and replacing the horses with steam locomotives, first fueled by wood and later by coal.

Railroads took a long time to plan and build and were expensive. Bonds had to be sold, largely in Europe, to finance their construction. In 1840, only 2,800 miles had been in operation, most near the Atlantic coast. A decade later, it would nearly quadruple in track, more than half of which was located in New England and mid-Atlantic states. By 1865, the U.S. system was made up of more than 35,000 miles of track, with much of the new construction in the West. Four years later, the transcontinental railroad was completed.

After the Civil War, according to the

The Confident Years: The Period Between the Civil War and World War I

, edited by Ralph G. Andrist, the railroad, dominated by some of the legendary robber barons, became the most important industry in the U.S. -- and the backbone of commercial expansion in the businesses of coal, steel, oil and agriculture. The railroad truly had been an empire builder. By 1890, most American cities were linked by rail.

It is commendable that Wells anticipated, in 1901, that the railroads would peak but not vanish. He foresaw the coming competition of the automobile, "the motor truck" and the construction of a national road network that could reach farther than the railroad. He noted, nonetheless, that there still was "a profit to be made from a certain section of heavy goods traffic." Indeed, Wells speculated that the diversion of passengers to autos might be good for railroads because it would allow them to carry goods "more efficiently." He predicted optimistically that "almost all of the railroads will probably still be in existence and in diverse ways busy a hundred years from now."

Wells was mostly right, which is not bad for a forecast a century in the future. Most of the track in existence 100 years ago is still in use -- some 173,000 miles of it.

However, there are far fewer carriers operating on those tracks. Today, railroads require large investments to produce modest annual revenues, an equation that does little to attract new capital.

The trend is to consolidate. For example, June 1 is the projected date when Eastern railroads


(CSX) - Get Report


Norfolk Southern

(NSC) - Get Report

are to split up $10 billion worth of


operations in the Northeast and about 45,000 miles of its track. Conrail, privatized in 1987, had been a government-financed salvage in 1976 of six bankrupt Northeast railroads, converting them into a single viable freight system.

Also, just last weekend

Burlington Northern Santa Fe


, which was created four years ago by the merger of

Burlington Northern


Santa Fe Pacific

, announced it was eliminating 1,400 current or scheduled positions to try to lower costs in its railway operations.

The railroads were spared some of the onerous tasks of doing business, such as carrying passengers and following government regulation, a while ago.

Intercity passenger service, other than commuter lines, has been provided since 1971 by the congressionally created


. Legislation in 1980 deregulated the industry, allowing railroads to price their services at market levels and making it easier for them to shed unprofitable lines. As a result, the number of major railroads has dropped from 40 in 1980 to a handful today.

What is down the line for railroads?

Marvin Cetron and Owen Davies, authors of

Probable Tomorrows

, are quite bullish on the future of railroads in the 21st century, predicting that even inter-urban passenger service is "in for a boom."

Their reasons include safety (they say rail travel is 18 times safer times than car travel), energy savings (they say energy expenditure per passenger mile is two-thirds less than that of a car) and less pollution (they say rail travel produces no carbon monoxide and 60% less nitrogen oxide per passenger mile than car travel). But, the principal cause for optimism is the continued improvement of the high-speed-rail, or HSR, system.

Developed abroad and coming to America via Amtrak, these high-powered trains, built on lightweight frames, can easily exceed 150 miles an hour. According to

Probable Tomorrows

, the most revolutionary new train design is the magnetic levitation train, or maglev. The train is lifted by a magnetic field, so, rather than run on steel track with steel wheels, it silently and without friction glides a few inches above the surface of a raised track.

Prototypes are operating in Japan and Germany, and experimental trains using less energy than conventional trains have reached speeds of more than 350 miles an hour. The tracks will be expensive to build -- $40 million to $50 million per mile. But so were the first railroad lines, relatively speaking.

In the end, the nation got good use out of them for more than 150 years. And the network of tracks, easements and right-of-ways that the U.S. still has may make a renaissance for railroads in the 21st century more likely.

Richard B. Marrin has practiced litigation and corporate law for nearly 30 years and is a partner in New York City law firm Ford Marrin Esposito Witmeyer & Gleser. He is the author of several books and a number of articles on American history. He can be reached at


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