Thanks to steady, substantial spending on infrastructure, equipment and technology — $100 billion over the last four years alone — America’s freight railroads move more freight more efficiently, safely and cleanly than ever before.
America boasts nearly 140,000 rail miles. They are operated and maintained by more than 560 private railroads, which typically own their own tracks and locomotives.
American railroads deliver 5 million tons of goods, on average, to ports, distribution centers, businesses and more — every single day. Passenger cars move along America’s freight rail network, too. It takes a mix of types of railroads to get the job done.
America’s seven class I railroads operate in 44 states and the District of Columbia, employ 90% of U.S. railroad workers and bring in more than $453 million in annual revenue. These are the long-haulers of the railroad world, accounting for nearly 70% of the industry’s mileage.
Short Line and Regional
31% of U.S. freight rail mileage moves along America’s 560 short line and regional railroads, which receive traffic from Class I railroads for final delivery. Some are small operators handling a few carloads a month. Others cross state lines and approach class I size. Short line and regional railroads operate in every state except Hawaii and employ 10% of U.S. railroad workers.
Switching and Terminal
Many ports and industrial areas include their own small railroads that pick up and deliver goods. This type of railroad also moves traffic between other, larger railroads.
If you’ve ever traveled between cities on Amtrak or been one of the hundreds of millions of people to work by commuter rail each year, you very likely were carried along tracks or right-of-way owned by freight railroads. Approximately 70% of the miles traveled by Amtrak trains are on tracks owned by freight railroads.
Food & Farm Products
Railroads and farmers have a relationship extending back nearly 200 years when railroads became the critical link between rural farms and emerging urban centers in an increasingly industrialized country. Today, that continued partnership is responsible for delivering much of the food found on dinner tables across the country and around the world, from farm-fresh produce and frozen foods to canned goods and pet food.https://www.aar.org/issue/freight-rail-agriculture-industry/
America’s freight railroads play a critical role in the nation’s ability to build, transporting about 1.5 million carloads of construction materials each year. In 2015, that total included 194,000 carloads of cement, 755,000 carloads of crushed and broken stone, 241,000 carloads of lumber and wood products, and 489,000 carloads of construction steel.https://www.aar.org/issue/freight-rail-construction-industry/
For the automotive industry, railroads deliver it all, from the raw material used to construct auto parts to large parts only rail can move to finished vehicles. Railroads haul some 43.5 million tons of basic steel products a year, move nearly 75% of the new cars and light trucks purchased in the U.S., and serve a majority of the 70-plus automobile manufacturing plants across North America.https://www.aar.org/issue/freight-rail-automotive-inudstry/
The nation’s first major railroad transported coal from Western Maryland and Virginia to Baltimore, the initial “big haul” of the industry. Today, railroads haul nearly 70% of American coal to its destination and move 60% to 70% of ethanol transported in America. Freight rail also carries much of the nation’s growing volumes of crude oil, under rules as rigorous as those governing the transport of hazardous materials.https://www.aar.org/issue/freight-rail-energy-industry/
Rail intermodal — the transportation of shipping containers and truck trailers by rail — allows railroads to provide their customers cost-effective, environmentally friendly service for almost anything that can be loaded into a truck or a container. In 2015, American railroads handled 15.3 million containers and 1.5 million trailers carrying everything from from bananas and beverages to clothing and sporting goods to home appliances and tires.https://www.aar.org/issue/freight-rail-intermodal/
The category “chemicals” consists of thousands of distinct products and includes plastics, synthetic fibers, drugs, soaps, fertilizers and other agricultural chemicals. In 2016, freight railroads moved 174.4 million tons of chemicals. From drugs to fertilizers to plastics to soaps to substances used to make paper and keep drinking water clean, railroads safely transport one-fifth of all chemicals in the U.S.https://www.aar.org/issue/freight-rail-hazmat-safety/
Positive Train Control
What is the future of freight rail technology? Positive Train Control (PTC). PTC is a set of highly advanced technologies designed to automatically slow or stop a train under certain circumstances, will address a leading factor in train accidents: human error. By December 31, 2018, first generation PTC will operate on approximately 80% of the required Class I rail network, well beyond the amount mandated by the federal government. The system will be fully active and interoperable by 2020. This technology will serve as the foundation for future innovation to enhance the safety and efficiency of the network.
Railroads are taking to the skies and mastering technologies once found only in the pages of science fiction novels. Railroads use drones to inspect bridges and other areas of their network that are difficult for employees to safely reach. Today, Class I railroads across the nation are deploying drones for a variety of safety and environmental purposes. In remote areas, drones are exploring thousands of miles of track to ensure that freight trains continue to safely traverse unforgiving terrain. Railroads also use drones to inspect bridges.
Ultrasound & Radar
Tracks, rail ties and ballast (the stone bed tracks rest on) are the foundation of the private, 140,000-mile rail network. Together, they must support 6,600-ton trains as they move across the country. Tiny flaws imperceptible to the human eye can lead to accidents, so railroads rely on technology, such as ultrasound and radar, to look deep inside a track. Radar allows employees to peer into a track while ground-penetrating electromagnetic radar detects any abnormalities in ballast. Railroads use this data to proactively schedule preventive maintenance, helping to keep small issues from becoming big problems. Thanks in large part to technologies such as these, mainline track-caused accidents have dropped 54% since 2008
Can you imagine taking thousands of images in one second? That’s something railroads do every day with trackside machine visioning technology, which captures 50,000 images per second of nearly every component on a passing train. Specialized software analyzes the images in real-time and alerts rail personnel to anomalies that require attention.
Recently a team of researchers at the Transportation Technology Center, Inc. (TTCI), a technology subsidiary of AAR, developed an advanced machine visioning system that can inspect ballast, the rock foundation tracks sit on. The current process is slow and labor-intensive, but with this new iteration of machine visioning, railroads will be able to perform evaluations quicker and identify potential problems sooner.
Using a combination of smart sensors, industry-wide data sharing and advanced analytics software, railroads monitor the health of the network and equipment in real-time. For example, thousands of smart sensors, known as wayside detectors, positioned along rail track throughout the country, monitor the integrity of railcars as they move at up to 60 MPH. Using a host of technologies, such as infrared and X-ray, the sensors assess the health of bearings, axles, wheels, springs and other equipment components in real-time. This information allows railroads to react quickly, preventing bigger repairs and even accidents.
Preventive maintenance also allows railroads to schedule repairs and fixes at optimal times and places, so trains stay as close to schedule as possible. And with fewer breakdowns, more trains are out on the tracks delivering goods and raw materials, instead of in the rail yard waiting for repair.
Wheeling & Lake Erie Railway
Canadian National Railway
Canadian Pacific Railway
Ferrocarril del Istmo de Tehuantepec
Florida East Coast Railway
Genesee & Wyoming
The Indiana Rail Road Company
Kansas City Southern Lines
Pan Am Railways
Vermont Rail System
1825: John Stevens, the Father of American Railroads
In Hoboken, N.J. the father of American railroads, Colonel John Stevens, demonstrated the feasibility of steam locomotives. Stevens had already designed and built the first steamship to navigate the open ocean, when he assembled a half-mile circular track on his own estate and operated the first steam-powered train locomotive in 1825. Five years later, Stevens formed the Camden and Amboy Railroad and Transportation Company.
Photo courtesy of Special Collections and University Archives, Rutgers University Libraries
1825: Rebecca Lukens: America's First Female CEO & Industrialist
Along the banks of Pennsylvania’s Brandywine Creek, Rebecca Lukens defied the odds to become America’s first female CEO — and a major supplier to America’s railroads. Daughter of a steel mill owner, Rebecca and her husband, Dr. Charles Lukens, began managing the dilapidated Brandywine Nail and Iron Company in 1816. In 1825, the Brandywine mill was nearing bankruptcy when Charles died — leaving Rebecca to manage the business. In the face of personal loss and professional adversity, Rebecca fulfilled the largest order in the mill’s history: supplying the steel for the first iron hulled steamboat in America. Under Rebecca’s direction, the company continued to thrive — becoming a leader in the production of steel for locomotives and iron rails for railroads. Rebecca retired from her role as CEO in 1847, but the company continued to operate until it was purchased by Bethlehem Steel in 1997.
1827: Chartering the B&O Railroad
On February 28, 1827 the state of Maryland chartered the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Company (B&O) — the first freight and passenger railroad to serve the American public. Designed to connect the bustling port of Baltimore with the inland waterway of the Ohio River, the B&O Railroad would support the economy of Maryland and facilitate the growth of a young nation. Ground was broken for the railroad on July 4, 1828 and the first section of the track opened for business on May 24, 1830. In the earliest years, the B&O operated with horse-drawn carriages traveling 12-15 miles per hour before transitioning to steam-powered locomotives in the 1830s.
Photo courtesy of The B&O Railroad Museum
1830: The Tom Thumb Race
Inventor, industrialist and philanthropist Peter Cooper designed Tom Thumb, the first American-made steam locomotive in 1830. At the time, the newly formed Baltimore & Ohio (B&O) Railroad relied upon horses to pull passenger cars along 13 miles of track between Baltimore, Md. and Ellicott City, Md. Cooper developed Tom Thumb in an attempt to demonstrate the superior power and speed that steam locomotives could provide. On August 28, 1830, Cooper’s Tom Thumb was challenged to a race by the driver of a horse-drawn passenger car operating along parallel tracks. Tom Thumb was able to easily pull away from the horse until a belt on the locomotive slipped-off, causing the locomotive to lose power. Nonetheless, the demonstration marked a turning point for steam-powered railroads. On July 31, 1831, steam locomotives replaced all horses on the B&O Railroad.
1833: President Andrew Jackson Rides an Iron Horse
Three years after Peter Cooper’s Tom Thumb proved the superiority of steam-power railroads, President Andrew Jackson became the first American president to travel by rail. On June 6, 1833 Jackson boarded a train operated by Baltimore & Ohio Railroad in Ellicott’s Mills, Md. and traveled to Baltimore aboard the so-called “Iron Horse.” Jackson’s journey added the prestige and authority of the presidency to this emerging mode of transportation.
1837: How Railroads Named Atlanta
In 1836, the State of Georgia approved a plan to build a railroad from Chattanooga, Tenn. to a point east of the Chattahoochee River in central Georgia. When complete, the Western and Atlantic Railroad would connect the port of Savannah with the growing populations of the American Midwest. In 1837, construction began and a post was driven into the ground to mark the eastern terminus of the railroad. In the years that followed, a small community formed around the eastern end of the rail line. As it grew, the community changed names multiple times; Thrasherville, Terminus and Marthasville were all used at various points. In 1845, the chief engineer of the Georgia Rail Road suggested renaming the community once again and changing the city’s name to “Atlantica-Pacifica.” Soon afterward, the name was shortened to “Atlanta,” which it is still known as today.
1840s: First Women Telegraph Workers
One of the earliest fields for women in the workforce was telegraphy â€“ and many of these women worked with America’s railroads. The first known woman telegrapher was Sarah Bagley, who began operating a telegraph on February 21, 1846 at the Lowell Mill rail depot in Lowell, Massachusetts. Later, women such as Elizabeth Cogley, Abbie Strubel Vaughan, and Maria Hogan would operate telegraphs for railroads, including the Pennsylvania Railroad and the B&O Railroad.
Photo courtesy of S. Burman Collection
1854: Grab Hold of the Flimsy
As railroad traffic grew, coordinating the movement of trains — and avoiding collisions — was a daily concern. Relying upon an official timetable that outlined the movements of all trains along a track, dispatchers developed specific orders that determined the right of way for each train. These “train orders” were handwritten on thin onionskin paper, known as a “flimsy.” To deliver these orders to passing trains, bamboo hoops with metal clips were installed at train stations. As the train passed through the station, a conductor would reach out and “grab hold of the flimsy” and toss the hoop to ground. Station workers would then retrieve the hoop and place a new set of orders into it for the next train. This manual transmission of orders continued into the 20th Century, when technology allowed for centralized and electronic rail traffic control.
1861: Armored Rail Cars & the American Civil War
With the start of the American Civil War in 1861, railroads routinely carried soldiers and supplies to the front lines of battle. As a result, rail lines became both strategic assets and targets of attack. Given the importance of railroads to the war effort, it quickly became clear that trains needed to be armored — particularly the Baltimore and Ohio (B&O) Railroad, which operated along the dividing line of a nation at war. The B&O Railroad was the first to create ironclad railcars and rifle cars — two inventions that would serve as the precursors to modern tanks. Installed on both ends of the train, these railcars were covered in iron and provided small openings for cannons and rifles. These armored cars allowed railroads to continue operating in the midst of battle and helped reunite a nation.
1862: Chartering the First Transcontinental Railroad
In the midst of a civil war that divided a nation from north to south, President Abraham Lincoln forged ahead with a transcontinental railroad to unite a nation from east to west. In 1862, President Lincoln signed the Pacific Railroad Act, which authorized the construction of a new railroad line extending from Council Bluffs, IA to Sacramento, CA. Under the legislation, the Central Pacific Railroad of California was authorized to build a rail line east from Sacramento and the Union Pacific Railroad Company was authorized to begin building a rail line west from Council Bluffs.
1868: First Locomotive Brakes
By the end of the Civil War, the value of railroads was clear, but safety improvements would be necessary to expand their use. Early steam-powered locomotives did not yet have brakes. In order to stop a moving train, the engine was either put into reverse, or brakemen were required to apply brakes on individual cars after receiving a signal from the engineer. Both methods were time-consuming and prevented trains from stopping quickly in emergency situations. Finally, in April 1869, a young inventor named George Westinghouse patented the air brake, a system that allowed an engineer to quickly stop a train with the pull of a single lever. Soon, railroads adopted the new air brake system, which drastically improved the safety of trains and helped to save countless lives.
1869: The Golden Spike
On May 10, 1869, the first transcontinental railroad was completed at Promontory Summit, Utah after navigating more than 2,000 miles of the most forbidding landscape in the U.S. It was here that the Central Pacific Railroad and the Union Pacific Railroad were joined together just six years after construction began. In a ceremony that was broadcast live via telegraph, a final golden spike was driven into the ground to mark the completion of the ambitious railroad project. Following completion of the transcontinental railroad, travel between America’s west and east coasts was reduced from months to less than a week.
Photo courtesy of Union Pacific Railroad
1860s-1870s: The Reefer Car & American Agriculture
In 1867, the first patent for a refrigerated rail car, or “reefer” was issued by the U.S. government. Adoption of this unproven technology was slow among railroads and driven almost solely by the demands of beef packers, who saw the new rail cars as a profitable way to reach new customers in major cities such as Baltimore and New York City, located far from the cattle fields of the American Midwest. Soon public demand for fresh food — both meat and vegetables — became insatiable, and railroads began investing heavily in refrigerated rail cars. By the early 1900s, freight railroads had helped to transform American agriculture into a nationwide network of growers and distributors helping to feed a growing and prosperous nation.
1870: Modern Railroad Improvements
Throughout history, technological advancements have gone hand in hand with the improved safety. In 1870, Eliza Murfey — the most prolific woman inventor of her age — helped reduce the likelihood of train derailments when she invented several new materials and processes for packing the journals and bearings of railroad car axles. Used to lubricate the axles with oil to prevent train wheels from seizing, Murfey’s 16 patented devices greatly improved the safety and reliability of America’s freight rail.
1879: Early Stewards of the Environment
Just nine years after Eliza Murfey developed her journal and bearing devices, American inventor Mary Walton put railroads on the path to a cleaner, greener future. In 1879, Walton pioneered a new method of emissions control by funneling smoke stack emissions through water tanks. The method was soon applied to railroad locomotives. By adopting this process, freight railroads were able to significantly reduce the amount of exhaust that was released by a typical steam-powered train. Soon after, Walton set to work reducing the noise emitted by trolleys, many of which ran on elevated railroad tracks near her New York City home. Working with a model train set, Walton developed a system to absorb the vibration of a passing trolley, thereby eliminate the noisy clang of the passing train. In 1891, she received a patent for her innovative system and sold the rights to her patent to New York City’s Metropolitan Railroad.
1883: Railroads Create U.S. Time Zones
When human beings first began keeping track of time, communities set their clocks to the local movement of the sun often based upon “high noon,” or when the sun was at its highest point in the sky. However, as railroads began reducing travel time between cities from days and months to a matter of mere hours, the existence of a unique time zone in each community became a scheduling nightmare. Often, railroads were forced to publish timetables with dozens of local time zones for a single train. In order to end the growing confusion, American and Canadian railroads agreed to divide North America into four major time zones creating dividing lines very similar to the ones still used today. At high noon on November 18, 1883 railroads began using the new time zone system, and in 1918, Congress formally adopted the railroad time zones as the official time code system of the United States.
1934: Association of American Railroads Formed
Eight months after the United States entered into World War I, President Woodrow Wilson announced the nationalization of most American railroads in order to support the war effort. At the end of the war the railroads were returned to their private owners, but the US government soon requested that the various railroad professional organizations in existence merge into a single group. In 1934, five major groups (the American Railway Association, the Association of Railway Executives, the Bureau of Railroad Economics, the Railway Accounting Officers Association, and the Railway Treasury Officers Association) joined together to form the Association of American Railroads.
1971: Passenger Service Transfer to Amtrak
By 1970, multiple forces had put pressure on the continued operation of passenger rail in the United States, including public subsidies for federal highways and outdated regulations on railroads. With numerous railroads facing bankruptcy, President Nixon signed the Passenger Rail Act of 1970. This legislation established the National Railroad Passenger Corporation to assume operation of inter-city passenger rail service in the United States. On May 1, 1971, the Corporation began operating under the name Amtrak when Clocker No. 235 left New York’s Penn Station en route to Philadelphia. By 1998, passenger revenues for Amtrak reached $1 billion for the first time, and during Fiscal Year 2013, Amtrak carried a record 31.6 million passengers.
1972: Increasing Pedestrian & Driver Safety Around the Tracks
In 1972 when the average number of collisions at U.S. highway-rail grade crossings had risen above 12,000 incidents annually, the Idaho governor’s office, along with the Idaho Peace Officers and Union Pacific Railroad launched a six-week public awareness educational campaign called Operation Lifesaver to promote highway-rail grade crossing safety. After Idaho’s crossing-related fatalities fell that year by 43%, the successful program was adopted by Nebraska (1973) and Kansas and Georgia the following year. Within a decade, it had spread around the country; in 1986 a non-profit national Operation Lifesaver office was created to help support the efforts of state OL programs and raise national awareness on highway-rail grade crossing issues.
1980: Congress Passes the Staggers Rail Act of 1980
By the late 1970s, freight railroads were operating under outdated and overly-burdensome regulations. Many of these regulations were written during the late 19th and early 20th Century, when railroads were the only viable form of freight transportation in the country. Such restrictive oversight prevented railroads from competing with the explosive growth of trucking, air cargo, and international shipping that occurred during the middle of the 20th Century. Congress took action to reform the unbalanced regulatory system when it passed The Staggers Rail Act of 1980. Since the passage of the Staggers Rail Act, American freight railroads have returned to profitability allowing them to invest $575 billion in private funds to modernize the American rail system, and build a freight rail network that is now the envy of the world.
1982: Creating Cutting-edge Technology
The Transportation Technology Center, Inc. (TTCI) is the railroad industry’s world-class rail research and testing facility that works to improve the safety and efficiency of freight railroads throughout North America and the world. In state-of-the-art laboratory facilities and on 48 miles of test tracks, TTCI’s team of researchers, engineers, and other experts develop and test the emerging technologies that keep railroads on the cutting edge.
1985: Training the Nation's First Responders
Established in 1985, the Security and Emergency Response Training Center (SERTC) is operated by the Transportation Technology Center, Inc. (TTCI). Its original mission was to train railroad officials to safely handle accidents involving tank cars carrying hazardous materials. The training proved to be so successful that attendance was opened to other emergency responders. Since its inception, SERTC has trained over 63,000 emergency responders worldwide.
1999: Leveraging Near Real-time Data for a Safer, More Efficient Network
As a wholly-owned subsidiary of AAR, Railinc is the leading provider of information technology, related network operations and financial services, and near rail-time network data to North America’s railroads. Beginning as an information technology department within the AAR, Railinc has evolved to meet the dynamic information needs of the railroad industry. Today, Railinc’s product lines help railroads, rail equipment owners, third party logistic providers, and others increase productivity, achieve operational efficiencies, and keep their assets moving safely.
2014: AskRail App Launched
The AskRail app is a collaborative effort among the emergency response community and all North American Class I railroads. The app provides first responders — from all 50 states and eight Canadian provinces — with immediate access to accurate, timely data about what type of hazardous materials a railcar is carrying so they can make an informed decision about how to respond to a rail emergency.