The Modern Railroad

A brief introduction to railroading today

The story of the modern railroad era is one of decline and revitalization. Competition from trucks and automobiles forced the industry to contract during the 1950s and 1960s, and many economists believed that the railroad was doomed. Passenger train service, never profitable, drained the financial resources of many railroads to the point of disaster. By the late 1960s the American inter-city passenger train network was a costly national scandal, prompting the creation of Amtrak in 1971.

The freight train has also been updated to serve the needs of the 21st century. Unit trains (carrying only a single commodity), more powerful and efficient locomotives, and containerization have transformed the way freight trains look. Train crew size has been reduced, and the caboose is gone. Computers are common aboard locomotives, and many lightly used or unprofitable routes have been abandoned or sold, leaving the remaining railroad lines more effective and able to handle greater amounts of traffic.

A very dramatic change in the face of modern railroading has resulted from mergers. Companies are combining in order to become more efficient and profitable, causing some well-known names to disappear. The Great Northern, the Northern Pacific, and the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy railroads disappeared into the new Burlington Northern. The BN in turn merged with the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe to form today's Burlington Northern Santa Fe.

The Western Pacific and the Missouri Pacific became parts of the Union Pacific; the once-mighty Southern Pacific and the Denver & Rio Grande Western merged; and in turn all of these companies became part of today's Union Pacific Railroad. The resulting combinations have meant that effectively two major railroads serve the West; a similar situation exists in the East, and more combinations are probably inevitable.

Even railroad passenger services are enjoying a dramatic rebirth. In California, for instance, thanks to a forward-thinking partnership between the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) and Amtrak, new trains have been introduced on medium-distance routes once thought hopeless. Ridership growth has been especially stellar on the Capitol Corridor trains between Sacramento and the San Francisco Bay Area, and on the San Joaquins serving the San Jose/ Sacramento-Stockton-Bakersfield corridor. With the introduction in 2000 of new equipment, the newly renamed Surfliners running between San Luis Obispo-Santa Barbara-Los Angeles-San Diego have also seen recent ridership growth.

New commuter railroad services are also booming, such as San Diego's Coaster, the metropolitan Los Angeles Metrolink network, and the Stockton-San Jose ACE service. In Los Angeles today for instance, thanks to the new commuter trains, the grand Los Angeles Union Station is busier than it ever was except during wartime. And California's oldest commuter rail passenger service (and its only to have never ceased operation) continues to make big strides in carrying an ever-increasing number of riders between San Jose and San Francisco.

Today railroad employees and the equipment they operate carry forward an honorable 135-year tradition of service and occupy an essential place in the nation's economy. Every aspect of railroading is enjoying a renewed interest; the California State Railroad Museum preserves the distinguished history of the railroad industry in the West, helps promote public understanding of the role railroads play today, and looks forward to their bright prospects for tomorrow.