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American Railroads: Decline and Renaissance in the Twentieth Century

Author(s):Gallamore, Robert E.
Meyer, John R.
Reviewer(s):Brown, John Howard

Published by EH.Net (December 2014)

Robert E. Gallamore and John R. Meyer, American Railroads: Decline and Renaissance in the Twentieth Century. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014. xiii + 506 pp. $55 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0-674-72564-5.

Reviewed for EH.Net John Howard Brown, Department of Finance and Economics, Georgia Southern University.

This book presents a historical overview of the American railroad industry through the course of the twentieth century.  The central thesis of the volume is that many of the ills suffered by the rail mode in this century were a product of the regulatory environment they faced.  In particular, in the post-World War II environment where highway transportation became an increasingly effective alternative to both freight and passenger rail service, regulation hampered effective responses by rail firms.  In the early 1970s the rigor mortis induced by regulation combined with the collapse of manufacturing in the Northeastern region of the United States thrust much of the rail capacity in the region into bankruptcy.  Salvation was delivered to the rail industry by the Staggers Act of 1980 which dramatically broadened the scope of business decisions that railroads could make without regulatory monitoring.  This thesis will be uncontroversial for economists and business historians who have studied the industry and particularly its post-1980 resurgence.

The first chapter is a paean to the “Enduring American Railroads.”  The second chapter discusses the ills of regulation in the context of the peculiar economics of the rail industry.  Curiously, given the pivotal role which sunk costs have assumed in economic theories of competition over the last forty years, the term is unmentioned in the text and index, even though the first topic discussed in the chapter is whether railroads are natural monopolies.  Since the expense of roadbed and right-of-way are both substantial and sunk, entry into a market is quite difficult where an incumbent is established, since they have already sunk their costs.  The incumbent can credibly threaten to force rates below average costs making entry unprofitable.  This dynamic often leads to monopoly.  Where entry actually occurs, the alternative is often “destructive competition” featuring rates that cannot recover the full costs of service.  A railroad’s system is thus often a checkerboard of competitive and monopolized routes.  This very characteristic of railways was responsible for attempts to regulate the industry in the nineteenth century, culminating in the Interstate Commerce Act.  The chapter concludes with a box laying out Ten Principles of Transportation Economics.  These are uncontroversial in themselves.  However, they do not offer so much as a hint of the role of sunk costs.

The third chapter summarizes the history of government control of railroads in the first half of the twentieth century.  The authors divide this era into three sub-periods: the antitrust episode, the period of direct government operation, and the period following the Transportation Act of 1920.  The antitrust episode was initiated by the Northern Securities case and represented a strike against what was viewed as excessive concentration of control in the transcontinental roads.  The authors view this episode as ill-conceived since after the Staggers Act of 1980 essentially the same systems were created in a new round of mergers.

The experience of government control during the First World War is in contrast reviewed positively.  Although it is treated as the product of special circumstances and the peculiarity of the design of the American railroad system, the authors do draw some lessons from the events.  These lessons consisted largely of the virtues of eliminating wasteful duplication of efforts.  This was the same reasoning that J.P. Morgan employed in snuffing out competition in many industries during the 1890s.  After the war, however, the roads were rapidly returned to private control.

This leads to the third epoch of the century where public rail policy was determined by the Transportation Act of 1920.   Official policy favored substantial consolidation of rail systems.  However, consolidation was never achieved.

The fourth chapter purports to examine the role that competition from alternative freight transportation modes played in the evolution of the rail industry.  In fact, the chapter is poorly organized, shifting between transport modes, policy recommendations, and historical eras haphazardly.  Three points stand out regarding the topic of intermodal freight competition.  First, prior to about 1950, waterborne carriage provided a limited competitive check on railroads in some regions of the United States, i.e. the Atlantic, Pacific, and Gulf Coasts; the Great Lakes; and the Mississippi-Ohio-Missouri basin.  Next, after 1950, highway transportation and air transport increased competitive pressure on the rail industry in freight markets.  Finally, government policies resulted in substantial subsidies to these alternative modes.  In particular, unlike railroads where right-of-ways are privately owned and maintained, internal waterway improvements, highways, and airports are usually built and maintained at government expense.

The following chapter tells a similar story regarding rail passenger traffic.  Once again, competition from competing modes was ineffectual prior to World War II.  Afterwards, both highways and air travel supplanted railroads in passenger service.  Some of this was attributable to the improved comfort and safety of these modes due to technical improvements, particularly the development of passenger jet aircraft.  Additionally, as was the case for rail freight, the implicit subsidies provided by governmental investments in highways, airports, and the air traffic control system placed the rails at a disadvantage.

The trends related in these two chapters paint a picture of steadily mounting pressure from competing and partially-subsidized modes.  The classic response of railroads to competition has always been deferral of maintenance.  Thus the rail system entered the nineteen sixties with substantial portions of its trackage functionally obsolete or at least in sore need of maintenance.  One possible solution, merger, is the topic of the succeeding chapter.

The sixth chapter discusses the dynamics of railroad mergers during the 1950s and 60s.  As always, public policy makers were ambivalent about the issue of rail consolidation.  Two different approaches to railroad mergers were available.  Parallel mergers joined firms whose route structures were largely overlapping.  On their face, such mergers reduce competition while perhaps reducing costs by elimination of duplicate functions.  End-to-end mergers joined roads which already had a collaborative relationship due to their interchange of freight.  These mergers might improve services available to shippers but were not anticipated to result in substantial cost reductions. Having pointed out that regulators generally opted for parallel and cost saving mergers, even though they threatened to reduce competition, the authors engage in a detailed rehearsal of the details of rail mergers.  The chapter concludes with the wreck of the Penn Central.

The seventh chapter discusses the rather muddled public policy response to the crisis induced by Penn Central’s collapse.  The 1970s featured more Congressional policy making for railroads than any prior decade.  The initial responses in the form of the so-called 3R and 4R bills can be classified as attempts at muddling through.  The most consequential result of these acts was the creation of the United States Railway Administration (USRA).  This body was charged with nothing less than the reorganization of the entire railway system.  The acts also created Conrail, an empty vessel into which the USRA was to pour its reorganization plan.  The Staggers Act concluded the decade with a radical departure from the prior eighty years of American public policy, although it was a logical extension of the deregulatory fervor which seized official Washington and the Carter administration.

The following chapter discusses the Frankenstein creation which was Conrail.  The chain reaction bankruptcies induced by the failed Penn Central merger threatened to exterminate rail freight service throughout much of the northeastern United States.  The creation of Conrail was the ad hoc response to the perceived crisis.  Like Frankenstein’s monster, Conrail took on a life of its own, far outlasting the crisis that birthed it, in the process besting a cabinet secretary determined to privatize it by merger.  Instead, it prospered as an independent, private firm up to the 1990s.

The ninth chapter backtracks chronologically to discuss the development of the Staggers Act and the consequences of deregulation.  Two features of the act were essential: streamlining the process by which railroads could abandon legacy lines that could not achieve economic traffic density and phasing out common carrier obligations.  Class I railroads aggressively pruned their route systems. All railroads took advantage of their newly acquired freedom to enter into private contracts.

The Staggers Act permitted the Interstate Commerce Commission, and its successor, the Surface Transportation Board, to “protect” captive shippers from exploitation by railroads.  The balance of the ninth chapter comprehensively covers the struggles between shippers and railroads over rates which could adequately compensate the railroads without exploiting shippers.  No very satisfactory result was ever achieved in squaring this circle.  Nor is it clear to the authors that any regulatory solution would be desirable.

The tenth chapter takes up the story of the post-Staggers Act consolidation of the U.S. rail industry into five Class I roads and innumerable short lines erected on tracks abandoned by the Class I roads.  The different mergers and their competitive logic (or occasionally lack thereof) are discussed in detail.  One flaw in this chapter is recurrent name dropping about rail executives who are mentioned positively without providing detailed evidence to support the judgments.

The final result of the flurry of mergers was paired duopolies, Burlington Northern-Santa Fe and Union Pacific-Southern Pacific west of the Mississippi and Norfolk Southern with CSX in the east.  Kansas City Southern remains an anomaly operating routes predominantly north and south while the other Class I operators’ traffic flows are east to west.  The authors conclude with a report card of the final four.

Chapter eleven returns to passenger rail and the Amtrak experience.  The dilemma of rail passenger service policy is twofold.  On one hand, Congress has sought to have Amtrak succeed on a commercial basis, i.e. cover expenses from passenger revenues.  This policy implies minimal federal subsidies.  However, only a few high-density corridors in the United States, particularly between Boston and Washington and some very large metropolitan areas, could commuter traffic support rail service on such a basis.  Once subsidies are required, the logic of legislative deal making demands passenger routes that can never be successful on a commercial basis in order to build legislative majorities.  For example, Amtrak’s transcontinental routes are not economically viable.

Chapter twelve documents the remarkable technological progressiveness of American railways in the twentieth century despite their not infrequent economic distress.  Broadly speaking two sources of technical progress can be identified, innovations embodied in physical capital and innovations in business practices.  The first is represented for railroads by the replacement of steam locomotives with diesel at mid-century.  The development in the post-Staggers era of the unit train illustrates the second category of technical change.

In addition, some improved technology was developed specifically for railroads, such as the diesel-electric locomotive and improved systems for braking and train control.  Other technologies were generated as a part of the twentieth century’s remarkable technological efflorescence but were readily adapted to the needs of railroads, e.g. computers and communication systems. The cumulative, synergistic effects of these changes was the transformation of a labor- and fuel-intensive industry in the late nineteenth century into an industry of unmatched productivity with respect to both in the early twenty-first.

The thirteenth chapter provides a summing up, consisting of ten propositions regarding the experience of the railroad industry during the twentieth century.  The first is that regulation was hugely damaging to the industry in the first eight decades of the century.  At the same time the authors concede in their second point that railroads represent an industry “affected with the public interest.”  Financial crises and bankruptcy under the competitive pressure from alternative modes constitute their points three through five.  Points six, seven, and ten take up the story of the chaotic 1970s, the belated regulatory reforms, particularly the Staggers Act, and the resurgence the railroads experienced in the final two decades.  Propositions eight and nine cover the notable progress of railway technology and the travails of passenger rail service.  There is nothing to criticize in this summary.  Although, as is too frequently the case, the organization of the presentation leaves something to be desired.

A final chapter closes the book with some observations about further regulatory reforms which might reinforce the current good health of the American rail industry.  They also highlight some post-millennial developments and their implications for the future of the industry.   These recommendations and observations are of particular interest in light of recent proposals of further Class I mergers.

This book is comprehensive and the authors clearly quite knowledgeable.  John Meyer, now deceased, was a professor at Harvard University and Robert Gallamore, was a former student, now retired from the rail industry and teaching at Michigan State University.  However, this book disappoints.  The authors have chosen a narrative structure that is neither fish nor fowl.  The chapter organization is largely topical.  However, the organization of the topics follows an imperfect chronological ordering.  The internal organization of chapters leaves much to be desired also, since they tend to leap from subject to subject with little connective logic.

The book appears also to suffer from sloppy editing.  Thus in one chapter we read that, “no comparable period in U.S. history had less success in actual railroad consolidations than the forty-year span, 1920 to 1940” (p. 66).  In several other places, tables displaying economic values over substantial time periods are reported in nominal, rather than real terms (see Figure 5.1, p. 121 and Figure 11.2, p. 333).  The latter figure distorts the levels of support Amtrak has received over its lifetime by understating subsidies in the 1970s and overstating the subsidies of the twenty-first century.

In summary, this book imperfectly fills the need for a comprehensive historical treatment of the American railroad industry in the last century.  Given the inherent interest and importance of the subject, this is unfortunate.

John Howard Brown is an Associate Professor of Economics in the Department of Finance and Economics at Georgia Southern University.  His article, “The ‘Railroad Problem’ and the Interstate Commerce Act” was published in a special issue of the Review of Industrial Organization on the 125th anniversary of the Interstate Commerce Act.

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Subject(s):Transport and Distribution, Energy, and Other Services
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII
20th Century: WWII and post-WWII