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For more than 180 years, railroads have
united a nation, revolutionized transportation, and catalyzed
economic development. Today, freight railroads connect
thousands of American communities to the global economy and
operate the most efficient and cost-effective freight rail
system in the world. As a result, customers — and consumers —
save billions of dollars each year. Freight railroads help ease
highway congestion, save energy, and reduce carbon emissions.
Almost two hundred years after the first American freight train
rumbled down a track, America’s railroads remain the backbone of
the nation’s economy and the engine that moves America.
Operating across nearly 140,000 miles, U.S. freight railroads manage a complex nationwide rail system efficiently, reliably and affordably. As a result, the U.S. is home to the most efficient and cost-effective rail system in the world, benefitting U.S. businesses and consumers. But railroad's impact on the U.S. economy goes well beyond their tracks. U.S. rail industry spending supports $274 billion in economic activity each year. So, for every dollar railroads spend, ten dollars in economic activity is generated. From 1980 to 2016, privately-owned freight railroads spent more than $630 billion of their own funds on locomotives, freight cars, tracks, bridges, tunnels and other infrastructure and equipment to keep the economy moving. In 2017, America's freight railroads project to spend an estimated $22 billion to sustain and enhance the network on which America's economy rides.
Learn more about the freight rail network
From construction to automotive to energy, freight railroads serve almost every industrial, wholesale, retail and resource-based sector of the economy. Each day, railroads deliver an average of five million tons of goods, making them a critical component of the nation’s integrated transportation network that ships 54 tons of goods annually for each American. In today’s global economy, American railroads also play a key role in the nation’s ability to compete in markets around the world, hauling approximately one-third of U.S. exports to ports and other distribution centers around the nation. As the economy grows, railroads will continue to provide the foundation on which U.S. businesses rely.
Learn more about the commodities and products freight trains carry
trailers and containers consisting mainly of consumer products
Greeting cards, furniture, frozen chickens, computers and more — just about everything found on retailers’ shelves can travel on an intermodal train. Intermodal uses multiple modes of transportation — rail, ship and truck. Rail intermodal is a cost-effective and environmentally-friendly way to ship goods. As the fastest growing segment of its business, the rail industry invests billions of dollars in new terminals, track upgrades and other intermodal-related infrastructure projects.
What We Haul: Intermodal
carloads, enough to power approximately 78 percent of American homes
While coal is only produced in a handful states, it’s delivered all across the country for energy generation. Railroads ship enough coal to power around 78 percent of American homes — and each rail car carries enough coal to power 21 homes for a year. Coal is also used in manufacturing and to produce steel and pharmaceuticals. Nearly all coal transported by rail moves in unit trains, which operate around the clock and have lower costs per unit shipped than non-unit trains.
What We Haul: Energy Products
carloads of essential chemicals that keep our drinking water clean and our farms bountiful.
Safe, fast and efficient — rail is a natural partner for chemicals that keep drinking water clean, farms bountiful, perishable foods packaged safely and medical care effective. Railroads’ continued private investment in the rail network means that 99.999 percent of rail hazmat carloads reach their destination without a release caused by a train accident, and rail hazmat accident rates are down 95 percent since 1980 and 66 percent since 2000.
“Railroads and Chemicals” Background Paper
carloads of lumber and paper products, including wood used to
In a typical year, America’s freight railroads carry more than a million carloads of lumber and paper products, including wood used to build our homes, newsprint and magazine paper, paperboard for packaging and more. Railroads also haul tens of thousands of carloads of scrap paper each year for recycling.
What We Haul Construction
carloads of finished vehicles, parts and accessories that support America's auto industry.
With cost-effective routes and newer, more flexible auto-carrying rail cars, U.S. railroads are involved in nearly every cycle of the automaking process. From the coal used to make steel to auto parts and finished vehicles, railroads play a huge role in getting your next car into your driveway. As the auto industry expands, so does the rail equipment fleet with thousands of new multi-level rail cars being added by railroads each year.
What We Haul: Automotive
carloads of wheat, corn and other agricultural products for use throughout the U.S. and around the world.
The U.S. is the world’s top grain producer with rail moving the lion’s share of product to ports. As demand for U.S. grain has grown, rail has responded with new high-capacity cars and efficient “shuttle trains” to move high volumes in an efficient and cost-effective way. And thanks to freight rail’s fast, reliable and sophisticated refrigerated cars, farm-fresh produce and frozen foods from across the country are available to consumers year-round.
What We Haul: Food and Farm Products
Railroads carry huge amounts of metallic ores, petroleum, nonmetallic minerals, cement and many other products.
Railroads also carry millions of carloads of raw material and industrial products that are critical to our way of life, including metallic ores, steel, crude oil, crushed stone and grave, cement, scrap metal for recycling and much more.
What We Haul
What Does Freight Rail Ship for You
Ever Wonder What Fits in One Rail Car?
When You Buy a Car, Think About Trains
A Business Expands With Freight Rail
Freight Rail and Whirlpool
The Best Way to Ship Perishable Products
Moving American Industry
Railroads and Coal
The U.S. freight rail industry employs approximately 166,000 highly skilled professionals who are among the best compensated workers in the nation. The average rail employee earns 60 percent more than the average U.S. employee. With competitive wages and benefits, technical training and professional growth opportunities, freight rail employees often stay in the industry for the entirety of their career and have family railroad legacies that stretch back through generations. Railroads are also military-friendly employers with nearly a quarter of current employees having served their country. With careers in fields such as train operations, information technology systems and law enforcement, railroads offer a wide range of opportunities for any skill set.Learn more about the railroad industry's 21st Century workforce.
Railroads not only deliver economic prosperity to towns and cities across America, they also strive to be responsible members of those communities. From cutting edge technologies that increase fuel efficiency to first responder training programs in communities, railroads undertake numerous initiatives to improve the safety and reduce the environmental impacts of their business operations. And those efforts have paid off: freight rail is not only the most environmentally sound way to move goods over land, it is also one of the safest.Learn more about the industry's safety and sustainability efforts
The driving of the Golden Spike in 1869 brought with it a new era of transportation that would transform the United States into the most powerful and prosperous nation on Earth. Today, railroads continue to play an important role in the growth of our nation. In small towns and big cities across the United States, the whistle of the freight train is the sound of industries, jobs, and an economy in motion. Just as they did in the early years of our nation, Americaâ€™s freight railroads will continue to deliver prosperity across America â€” now and for generations to come.
John Stevens, the Father of American Railroads >
Chartering the B&O Railroad >
First Women Telegraph Workers >
Chartering the First Transcontinental Railroad >
The Golden Spike >
Railroads Create U.S. Time Zones >
Association of American Railroads Formed >
Passenger Service Transfers to Amtrak >
Congress Passes the Staggers Rail Act of 1980 >
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
On February 28, 1827 the state of Maryland chartered the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Company (B&O) â€“ 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
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
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.
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
When human beings first began keeping track of time, communities set their clocks to the local movement of the sun â€“ 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 â€“ 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.
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 â€“ 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 â€“ joined together to form the Association of American Railroads, which still exists today.
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.
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 â€“ 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.