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With a new administration in D.C., it's time to think outside of the box because passenger rail's survival just may depend on it

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Alternative History #2

Railroads adopt the Ripley Plan--or are forced to accept regional consolidation

Point of Departure

A new bill passes Congress in 1925 to lift the most burdensome regulations.The Transportation Act of 1920 meant that tracks were obliged to carry heavy volume without much attention to replacement or maintenance. However, the 1925 bill puts the ICC in a position to make sure that the tracks are well-maintained (this is later transferred to the USDOT). In 1933, regional consolidation is mandated by both Congress and the new Roosevelt Administration in an effort to encourage further efficiency.

As the Interstate Highway System gets going in the early 1960s, the 21 regional railroads start merging. Prior to the effort to stay ahead of the taxpayer subsidized superhighways, the Class I railroads gradually formed seamless north-south and east-west systems by using gentlemen's agreements, but these systems became ironclad by 1966.

The Rail Deregulation Act of 1970 lifts the remaining burdens that were hung on the railroads a half century earlier. President Nixon also funds a selected number of intercity routes because completely nationalizing passenger service was deemed impractical. During this low point of rail travel, only the federally subsidized routes make any kind of a profit.

Today’s Likely Outcome

The Railroads Today

Twenty-one railroads are down to nine big railroads. As more states got interested in providing corridor service, the Class Is got Congress to pass the Rail and Corridor Reform Act of 1997, which transferred most short-distance routes less than 500 miles from the railroads to a state or group of states (in 2008, PRIIA increased the length to 750 miles to accompany the various regional pacts).

This was the ultimate win-win situation because the Class Is shed their money losing corridors and commuter routes to focus on their bread and butter, the overnight trains. Meanwhile, the states won because prior to the R&CRA, most of the overnight trains stopped in major metropolitan areas in the middle of the night--presumably to provide smaller cities and towns in less densely populated states with more marketable times.

Largely due to unconventional means, the railroads no longer need a subsidy from the federal government to make a profit.

The Big Picture

The commuter trains and corridors are run via contracts just as they are in our timeline. The corridors are given names of the Class I railroads that were absorbed into the major railroads (e.g. Pacific Northwest service between Vancouver, BC and Eugene is broken into the Spokane, Portland & Seattle and Oregon Electric routes respectively). The regional pacts are broken into the following: Northeast, Midwest, Southeast, South Central, West, and West Coast and are protected German-style.

Auto-Train Corporation still operates in the same time frame as it did in the official timeline, however, the Class I railroads didn't get serious about auto-ferrying service until gas prices shot up in 2005. Within three years, no fewer than five railroads have joined the Atlantic Coast Line in providing this type of service.

Historic stations in Jacksonville, Buffalo, Detroit, and Chicago are still serving trains today with some of them having new lives as Auto Rail USA terminals. Cleveland Union Terminal and St. Louis Union Station are complemented as shopping centers and hotels rather than having been converted for such uses.

Electrification is in vogue again as some railroads are now developing high speed systems. The New York Central completed its Water Level Route electrification three years ago while the Milwaukee Road's decision to remain electrified in 1974 serves it well as it strives to finish electrification to Seattle Union Station by year's end--nine months ahead of schedule.

Meanwhile, the other railroads have decided to separate freight and passenger trains by building an interstate rail system where the passenger lines will be electrified, double tracked and run with lighter equipment and the freight lines continue to operate as they normally do.


  1. This blog is "jumping the shark". The author has always had the ability to see beyond the local and parochial interests in railroading. But the last few posts have evinced a propensity to self-indulgence, lack of focus and abstruseness. Get yourself sorted, or lose readership.

    1. It's called alternative history for a reason. This is designed to analyze what could have happened if things had gone differently. Who else is analyzing how different things railroading could have been? There are plenty of people who wonder what railroading would be like without Amtrak or if the feds had treated Amtrak like Conrail. These are just my opinions.