October 14, 2020 marks the 40th anniversary of the Staggers Rail Act — a visionary and balanced approach to regulation that sparked freight rail’s renaissance from a once failing industry into a safe, efficient, high-tech and sustainable network. From saving taxpayers billions of dollars each year to providing customers an edge in the global economy, this landmark legislation from 40 years ago helps power the myriad benefits of today’s modern freight railroads. Explore how the storied legacy of the Staggers Act reverberates through history and why it remains the cornerstone for a prosperous future.

Freight Rail: Always moving for all of us.

American freight rail is one of the safest, most efficient and cost-effective transportation networks in the world. And it’s only getting better. Thanks to billions of dollars in annual private investments — and technologies once only found in 80s’ sci-fi movies — freight railroads are transforming to increase safety, meet evolving customer needs and further protect the environment. All of these advancements have happened while average rail rates (measured by inflation-adjusted revenue per ton-mile) are 43% lower today than in 1981, meaning the average rail shipper can move much more freight for around the same price it paid nearly 40 years ago.

It’s hard to imagine railroads on the brink of ruin, but that was the reality in 1970.

In 1887 Congress passed the Interstate Commerce Act, which established the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) to regulate the booming rail industry and the monopolies that had been controlling the rails. By the 1970s, those archaic regulations — combined with intense competition from other modes of transportation — left many major railroads bankrupt and lacking funds to maintain their national networks. The industry was rolling to the brink of ruin, with infrastructure so deficient rail cars simply fell off the tracks.

The Staggers Rail Act of 1980 changed everything.

By passing the Staggers Rail Act of 1980, Congress recognized that America’s privately-owned freight railroads needed a common-sense regulatory system that let them manage their assets and price their services like most other businesses. The Staggers Rail Act eliminated many of the most damaging regulations and allowed railroads to take a smart, customer-focused and market-based approach to railroading — while preserving  government intervention for those situations where it was needed most.

Balanced regulations will keep railroads delivering prosperity today…and tomorrow.

The world is rapidly evolving. Marketplaces are becoming more competitive, demand for freight is rising, safeguarding the environment is a top priority and America is undergoing unprecedented changes at warp speed. Thanks to the Staggers Rail Act, freight railroads are meeting these challenges head-on through strategic investments that account for changing customer needs, provide our economy a competitive global edge, protect our environment and deliver for American businesses and consumers.

But the legacy of the Staggers Rail Act is not guaranteed. To keep our nation moving forward, it’s imperative that federal policymakers and regulators — now and in the future — protect the smart regulatory framework borne of the Staggers Act more than 40 years ago.

An Exploration of Staggers' Impact

The birth of the Internet, ubiquitous two-day shipping, and the rise of smart technologies have fundamentally changed the transportation sector in ways that 1980s politicians could never have predicted. The sound economic, market-based regulatory structure that galvanized the myriad benefits railroads deliver today are just as important — and relevant —moving into tomorrow. To understand the power of today’s modern freight rail network — and the long-term impacts of transportation regulation into the future — we need a bit of history. Over the coming  weeks, we’ll commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Staggers Rail Act through a “retro-predictive” series below to explore key provisions of the legislation and show why it matters today — and most importantly, what it means for tomorrow.

1980: Movie Star Politicians, Star Wars & the Staggers Rail Act

1980 may seem like eons ago, when CNN first launched and new wave pop played over the airwaves. But what happened that year for the freight rail industry left an indelible mark in history and is still surprisingly relevant today: Congress passed the Staggers Rail Act, which laid the foundation for our country’s modern freight rail network.


20/20 Vision: How the Staggers Act Prepared American Railroads for Today

When Congressman Harley Staggers and his colleagues helped save the freight rail industry by passing the Staggers Rail Act of 1980, they had no idea the changes America would see over the next 40 years and just how important their legislation would become. Learn more about the impact of the Staggers Act and how the Surface Transportation Board — freight rail’s economic regulators — can help bring to life the bright vision railroads have for the future.