Prior to the late 1800s, every city and town across America had it’s own time determined by the sun. For example, when it was noon in Washington D.C., it was 12:08 in Philadelphia, 12:12 in New York and 11:51 in Lynchburg, VA. When it was noon in Chicago, it was 12:31 in Pittsburgh, 12:24 in Cleveland, 12:09 in Louisville, 11:50 in St. Louis, 11:27 in Omaha, and 9:05 in Sacramento. This made it very confusing for the railroads and for people who used the railroads to coordinate with one another. Between Maine and California, for example, a traveler would have to change his watch 20 times. In the railroad stations there had to be different clocks for each railroad. In Pittsburgh alone, there were 6 different time standards for train arrivals and departures.
This all changed in 1883. At a meeting of an association of railroad officers (the General Time Convention) on October 11, 1883, Standard Time was adopted. The plan was for five time zones -- four in the United States, and one in the Eastern Provinces of Canada -- based on mean sun times on the 60th, 75th, 90th, 105th and 120th meridians west of Greenwich, England. The new Standard Time was implemented on November 18, 1883. This system was established in U.S. law with the Standard Time Act enacted in 1918.
Railroads Go to War
According to military historian Cyril Falls, "The Civil War was the first that could be called a war of railways, one in which they played a dominant part." Both the North and South used the railroads to ferry troops and materiel. But the North had two critical advantages: a more developed rail network and use of a common gauge the width between rails that permitted equipment to move freely from one line to another.
Railroads moved practically all of the troops and supplies of the American Expeditionary Force to seaports during World War I. During the war, the government took control of the railroads to solve problems caused by lack of skilled labor much of the rail peacetime work force was in the Armed Forces and lack of capital to invest in equipment and personnel. This experiment in government control of the railroads cost taxpayers about $2 million a day. The railroads were returned to private ownership in 1920.
Again during World War II, railroads were called on to move most personnel and supplies to seaports to support American forces both in Europe and Asia. From December 1, 1941, to the end of August 1945, U.S. railroads carried approximately 43.7 million service men and women in troop trains, hospital trains and special cars attached to regular trains. This time the railroads remained in private hands and operated efficiently and profitably.
By the end of World War II, railroads were responsible for almost 70 percent of both intercity freight and for hire intercity passenger transportation.
Railroads After World War II
After World War II, railroads began an extensive period of modernization. The most dramatic was the replacement of steam locomotives with diesel locomotives.
Hundreds of millions of dollars were also spent on new passenger trains that brought an increased level of comfort and speed to the rails.
Government policy, however, favored competing modes of transportation by pouring billions of tax dollars into highways, waterways and airways. Because of this and because of unyielding economic regulation railroads entered a period of long decline after World War II. By 1970, railroads provided just 5.7 percent of the intercity passenger transportation. By 1978, the rail share of the freight transportation market as measured in ton miles had fallen to 35.2 percent while the truck share had climbed above 24 percent.
Through much of the 1970s, more than 20 percent of the rail industry's route mileage was operated by railroads that were bankrupt.
A Rail Freight Revival
In 1971, Congress created Amtrak to operate remaining intercity passenger trains throughout the United States. In exchange for one time payments to Amtrak, the freight railroads were relieved of annual out of pocket losses that were approaching $200 million and intercity rail passenger service was preserved in hundreds of cities that otherwise would have lost it.
In 1973, Congress passed the Regional Rail Reorganization Act which established the Consolidated Rail Corporation -- Conrail -- as a publicly owned American railroad company whose aim was to take over six bankrupt northeastern railroads: Central Railroad Company of New Jersey, Erie Lackawanna Railway Company, Lehigh & Hudson River Railway Company, Lehigh Valley Railroad Company, Penn Central Transportation Company, and Reading Company. Conrail commenced operations in 1976 with the aid of federal loans. Although it still lost money in its early years, by 1983 the Corporation had become profitable and by 1987 the federal government put Conrail stock up for sale to the public.
In 1980, Congress passed - and President Carter signed - the Staggers Rail Act of 1980 which eased economic regulation of railroads. The Staggers Act unleashed an unprecedented wave of investment, innovation and efficiency gains in the freight rail industry.
Since 1980, average rail rates - as measured in average revenue per ton mile - have fallen more than 50 percent on an inflation adjusted basis.
Since 1980, railroads have spent more than $200 billion to maintain and improve track, advanced communications and signaling systems, freight cars and high tech locomotives, including some that generate as much as 6,000 horsepower.
The rail share of the freight transportation market as measured in ton miles has begun to inch upward, topping 40 percent in both 1995 and 1996 for the first time since 1970. Shares for other modes in 1996: truck, 27.7 percent; water, 14.2 percent; pipeline, 17.7 percent; and air, 0.4 percent.