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Rail transportation in the United States today consists primarily of freight shipments. Passenger service, once a large and vital part of the nation's passenger transportation network, now plays a limited role as compared to transportation patterns in many other countries.
The U.S. rail industry has experienced repeated convulsions due to changing economic needs and the rise of automobile, bus, and air transport. Freight railroads play an important role in the U.S. economy, especially for moving imports and exports using containers, and for shipments of coal and oil. According to the British news magazine The Economist, "They are universally recognised in the industry as the best in the world."  Productivity rose 172% between 1981 and 2000, while rates rose 55% (after accounting for inflation). Rail's share of the American freight market rose to 43%, the highest for any rich country.
The sole intercity passenger railroad in the continental U.S. is Amtrak. Commuter rail systems exist in more than a dozen metropolitan areas, but these systems are not extensively interconnected, so commuter rail cannot be used alone to traverse the country. Commuter systems have been proposed in approximately two dozen other cities, but interplays between various local-government administrative bottlenecks and ripple effects from the 2007–2012 global financial crisis have generally pushed such projects farther and farther into a nebulous future point in time, or have even sometimes mothballed them entirely.
The most culturally notable and physically evident exception to the general lack of significant passenger rail transport in the U.S. is the Northeast Corridor between Washington, Philadelphia, New York City and Boston, with significant branches in Connecticut and Massachusetts. The corridor handles frequent passenger service that is both Amtrak and commuter. New York City itself is noteworthy for high usage of passenger rail transport, both subway and commuter rail (Long Island Rail Road, Metro-North Railroad, New Jersey Transit). The subway system is used by one third of all U.S. mass transit users.
Other major cities with substantial rail infrastructure include Boston's MBTA, Philadelphia's SEPTA, and Chicago's elevated system and commuter rail system Metra. Commuter rail systems of San Diego and Los Angeles in California, Coaster and Metrolink, connect in Oceanside, California.
U.S. railroads still play a major role in the nation's freight shipping. They carried 750 billion ton-miles by 1975 which doubled to 1.5 trillion ton-miles in 2005. In the 1950s, the U.S. and Europe moved roughly the same percentage of freight by rail; by 2000, the share of U.S. rail freight was 38% while in Europe only 8% of freight traveled by rail. In 1997, while U.S. trains moved 2,165 billion ton-kilometers of freight, the 15-nation European Union moved only 238 billion ton-kilometers of freight.
U.S. railroads are separated into three classes based on annual revenues:
These classifications are set by the Surface Transportation Board.
In 1900, there were 132 Class I railroads. Today, as the result of mergers, bankruptcies, and major changes in the regulatory definition of "Class I," there are only seven railroads operating in the United States that meet the criteria for Class I. As of 2011[update], U.S. freight railroads operated 139,679 route-miles (224,792 km) of standard gauge in the U.S. Although Amtrak qualifies for Class I status under the revenue criteria, it is not considered a Class I railroad because it is not a freight railroad.
During this period, Americans watched closely the development of railways in England. The main competition came from canals, many of which were in operation under state ownership, and from privately owned steamboats plying the nation's vast river system. The state of Massachusetts in 1829 prepared an elaborate plan. Government support, most especially the detailing of officers from the Army Corps of Engineers - the nation's only repository of civil engineering expertise - was crucial in assisting private enterprise in building nearly all the country's railroads. Army Engineer officers surveyed and selected routes, planned, designed, and constructed rights of way, track, and structures, and introduced the Army's system of reports and accountability to the railroad companies. More than one in ten of the 1,058 graduates from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point between 1802 and 1866 became corporate presidents, chief engineers, treasurers, superintendents and general managers of railroad companies. Among the Army officers who thus assisted the building and managing of the first American railroads were Stephen Harriman Long, George Washington Whistler, and Herman Haupt.
State governments granted charters that created the business corporation and gave a limited right of eminent domain, allowing the railroad to buy needed land, even if the owner objected. The Baltimore and Ohio Railroad (B&O) was chartered in 1827 to build a steam railroad west from Baltimore, Maryland to a point on the Ohio River. Scheduled service on its first section started on May 24, 1830. The first common carrier railroad in the northeast was the Mohawk & Hudson Railroad, first incorporated in 1826, which began operating in August, 1831. A second railroad, the Saratoga & Schenectady Railroad, opened the next year, in June, 1832.:1–115 In 1835 the B&O completed a branch from Baltimore southward to Washington, D.C.:157 The Boston & Providence Railroad was incorporated in 1831 to build a railroad between Boston, Massachusetts and Providence, Rhode Island; the road was completed in 1835 with the completion of the Canton Viaduct.
Numerous short lines were built, especially in the south, to provide connections to the river system. From 1829-1830, the Tuscumbia, Courtland & Decatur Railroad, the first railroad constructed west of the Appalachian Mountains, was built connecting the two Alabama cities of Decatur and Tuscumbia. The Pontchartrain Rail-Road, a 5-mile (8.0 km) route connecting the Mississippi River with Lake Pontchartrain at New Orleans, Louisiana was completed in 1831, starting over a century of operation.
Soon, other roads that would themselves be purchased or merged into larger entities, formed. The Camden & Amboy Railroad (C&A), the first railroad built in New Jersey, completed its route between its namesake cities in 1834. The C&A eventually became part of the Pennsylvania Railroad.
By 1850, 9,000 miles (14,000 km) of railroad lines had been built. The B&O's westward route reached the Ohio River in 1852, the first eastern seaboard railroad to do so.:Ch.V Railroad companies in the North and Midwest constructed networks that linked nearly every major city by 1860.
The First Transcontinental Railroad in the U.S. was built across North America in the 1860s, linking the railroad network of the eastern U.S. with California on the Pacific coast. Finished on May 10, 1869 at the Golden spike event at Promontory Summit, Utah, it created a nationwide mechanized transportation network that revolutionized the population and economy of the American West, catalyzing the transition from the wagon trains of previous decades to a modern transportation system. It achieved the status of first transcontinental railroad by connecting myriad eastern U.S. railroads to the Pacific. However it was not the world's longest railroad, as the Canadian Grand Trunk Railway (GTR) had, by 1867, already accumulated more than 2,055 kilometres (1,277 mi) of track by connecting Portland, Maine, and the three northern New England states with the Canadian Atlantic provinces, and west as far as Port Huron, Michigan, through Sarnia, Ontario.
Authorized by the Pacific Railway Act of 1862 and heavily backed by the federal government, the first transcontinental railroad was the culmination of a decades-long movement to build such a line and was one of the crowning achievements of the presidency of Abraham Lincoln, completed four years after his death. The building of the railroad required enormous feats of engineering and labor in the crossing of plains and high mountains by the Union Pacific Railroad (UP) and Central Pacific Railroad, the two federally chartered enterprises that built the line westward and eastward respectively. The building of the railroad was motivated in part to bind the Union together during the strife of the American Civil War. It substantially accelerated the populating of the West by white homesteaders, led to rapid cultivation of new farm lands. The Central Pacific and the Southern Pacific Railroad combined operations in 1870 and formally merged in 1885; the Union Pacific originally bought the Southern Pacific in 1901 and was forced to divest it in 1913, but took it over again in 1996.
Much of the original roadbed is still in use today and owned by UP, which is descended from both of the original railroads.
Many Canadian and U.S. railroads originally used various broad gauges, but most were converted to 4 ft 8 1⁄2 in (1,435 mm) by 1886, when the conversion of much of the southern rail network from 5 ft (1,524 mm) gauge took place. This and the standardization of couplings and air brakes enabled the pooling and interchange of locomotives and rolling stock.
The railroad had its largest impact on the American transportation system during the second half of the 19th century. It is the conventional historical view that the railroads were indispensable to the development of a national market in the United States in the late 19th century.
In his Rostovian Take-off Thesis, Walt W. Rostow was one of the first economic historians to propose and justify the conventional view that railroads were crucial to American economic growth. According to Rostow, railroads were responsible for the “take-off” of American industrialization in the period of 1843-1860. This “take-off” in economic growth occurred because the railroad helped to decrease transportation costs, transport new products and goods to commercial markets, and generally widen the market. Furthermore, the development of railroads stimulated the growth of the modern coal, iron, and engineering industries, all of which were essential for wider economic growth. According to Rostow’s Take-off Thesis, railroads generated new investment, which simultaneously helped develop financial markets in the United States. Like Rostow, American economic historian Leland Jenks (having conducted an analysis based on Joseph Schumpeter's theory of innovation) similarly claims that railroads had a direct impact on the growth of the United States’ real income and an indirect impact on its economic expansion.
Contemporary American economic historians have challenged this conventional view. The respective findings of Robert Fogel and Albert Fishlow do not support Rostow’s claim that railroads stimulated widespread industrialization by increasing demand for coal, iron, and machinery. Drawing upon historical data, Robert Fogel found that the impact of railroads on the iron and steel industries was minimal: from 1840 to 1860, railroad production used less than five percent of the total pig iron produced. In addition, Fogel argues, only six percent of total coal production from 1840 to 1860 was consumed by railroads through consumption of iron products. Like Fogel, Fishlow showed that most railroads used very little coal during this time period because they were able to burn wood instead. Fishlow also found that iron used by railroads was only 20% of net consumption in the 1850s.
Fogel concludes that railroads were important but not essential to late 19th century growth in the U.S.. To conduct his analysis, Fogel measures the “social saving” created by railroads, which he defines as the difference between the actual level of national income in 1890 and the theoretical level of national income if transportation adjusted in the most efficient way possible to the absence of the railroad. He found that without the railroad, America’s gross national product (GNP) would have been 7.2% less in 1890. While the largest contribution to GNP growth made by any single innovation before 1900, this percentage only represents 2–3 years of GNP growth.
Fogel makes several key assumptions and decisions in his analysis. First, his calculations comprise transportation between the primary markets of the Midwest and the secondary markets of the East and South (interregional) and transportation between cities and rural areas (intraregional). Second, he chooses to focus on the shipment of four agricultural commodities: wheat, corn, beef, and pork. Third, Fogel’s social saving calculation accounts for costs not included in water rates (which include the cargo losses in transit, transshipment costs, extra wagon haulage, time lost because of slower speed and because canals froze in the winter, and capital costs). One criticism of Fogel’s analysis is that it does not account for the externalities or "spill-over" effects of the railroads, which (if included) may have increased his estimate for social savings. Railroads provided much of the demand for the technological advances in a number of areas, including heat dynamics, combustion engineering, thermodynamics, metallurgy, civil engineering, machining, and metal fabrication. Furthermore, Fogel does not discuss the role railroads played in the development of the financial system or in attracting foreign capital, which otherwise might not have been available.
Fishlow estimates that the railroad’s social savings—or what he terms “direct benefits”—were higher than those calculated by Fogel. Fishlow’s research may indicate that the development of railroads significantly influenced real income in the United States. Instead of Fogel’s term “social saving,” Fishlow uses the term “direct benefits” to describe the difference between the actual level of national income in 1859 and the theoretical level of income using the least expensive, but existing alternative means. Fishlow calculated the social savings in 1859 at 4 percent of GNP and in 1890 at 15 percent of GNP—higher than Fogel’s estimate of 7.2% in 1890.
The difference in the approximations of the two theorists can be attributed to the different definitions of social saving. Fishlow compares railroads to the existing alternatives at the time, while Fogel compares railroads to an efficient network of transportation that he predicts would have been built in the absence of railroads. Fishlow notes that railroads had the biggest positive impact on agriculture because they made possible the building of new farms and the growth of towns and cities, which in turn managed a growing food and cattle surplus. Therefore, while Fogel’s analysis focuses on the development that would have occurred without railroads, Fishlow’s analysis focuses on the impact of railroads on the economy at that time. These impacts include the lowering of freight and passage costs, “backward linkages” that stimulated economic development by creating demand for construction and machinery, and the “forward linkages” that widened markets for raw materials and production. Fishlow also disagrees with the idea that railroads were created ahead of demand, claiming that most railroads were built in areas with already significant economic activity.
The historical views about the economic impact of railroad development in the United States have changed over time with the rise of cliometrics. While traditional economic historians applied existing theory to hypothesize that railroads were indispensable to American economic growth, recent economic historians like Fogel and Fishlow use statistics and mathematical modeling to quantify the actual effect of railroads. It is unclear how accurately such studies can fully estimate the economic conditions under the counterfactual.
|Western States and Territories||1,276||11,400||24,587||52,589||62,394|
|Pacific States and Territories||23||1,677||4,080||9,804|
Industrialists such as Cornelius Vanderbilt and Jay Gould became wealthy through railroad ownerships, as large railroad companies such as the New York Central, Grand Trunk Railway and the Southern Pacific spanned several states. In response to monopolistic practices (such as price fixing) and other excesses of some railroads and their owners, Congress created the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) in 1887. The ICC indirectly controlled the business activities of the railroads through issuance of extensive regulations. Congress also enacted antitrust legislation to prevent railroad monopolies, beginning with the Sherman Antitrust Act in 1890.
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The principal mainline railroads concentrated their efforts on moving freight and passengers over long distances. Unlike railroads in Europe and elsewhere, they left suburban traffic to Streetcar and Interurban lines. The Interurban was an almost uniquely North American concept which relied almost exclusively on passenger traffic for revenue. Unable to survive the Great Depression, the failure of Interurbans left most US conurbations without suburban passenger railroads. The major railroads passenger flagship services were usually multi-day journeys on luxury trains resembling hotels, which were unable to compete with airlines in the 1950s. Rural communities were served by slow trains no more than twice a day. They survived until the 1960s because the same train hauled the Railway Post Office cars, paid for by the US Post Office. RPOs were withdrawn when mail sorting was mechanized.
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As early as the 1930s, automobile travel had begun to cut into the rail passenger market, somewhat reducing economies of scale, but it was the development of the Interstate Highway System and of commercial aviation in the 1950s and 1960s, as well as increasingly restrictive regulation, that dealt the most damaging blows to rail transportation, both passenger and freight. Some conspiracy-minded opponents of automobiles claim there was a Great American Streetcar Scandal. There was little point in operating passenger trains to advertise freight service when those who made decisions about freight shipping traveled by car and by air, and when the railroads' chief competitors for that market were interstate trucking companies. Soon, the only things keeping most passenger trains running were legal obligations. Meanwhile, companies who were interested in using railroads for profitable freight traffic were looking for ways to get out of those legal obligations, and it looked like intercity passenger rail service would soon become extinct in the United States beyond a few highly populated corridors. The final blow for passenger trains in the U.S. came with the loss of railroad post offices in the 1960s. On May 1, 1971, the federally funded Amtrak took over (with a few exceptions) all intercity passenger rail service in the continental United States. The Rio Grande, with its Denver-Ogden Rio Grande Zephyr and the Southern with its Washington, DC-New Orleans Southern Crescent chose to stay out of Amtrak, and the Rock Island, with two intrastate Illinois trains, was too far gone to be included into Amtrak.
Freight transportation continued to labor under regulations developed when rail transport had a monopoly on intercity traffic, and railroads only competed with one another. An entire generation of rail managers had been trained to operate under this regulatory regime. Labor unions and their work rules were likewise a formidable barrier to change. Overregulation, management and unions formed an "iron triangle" of stagnation, frustrating the efforts of leaders such as the New York Central's Alfred E. Perlman. In particular, the dense rail network in the Northeastern U.S. was in need of radical pruning and consolidation. A spectacularly unsuccessful beginning was the 1968 formation and subsequent bankruptcy of the Penn Central, barely two years later.
Historically, on routes where a single railroad has had an undisputed monopoly, passenger service was as spartan and as expensive as the market and ICC regulation would bear, since such railroads had no need to advertise their freight services. However, on routes where two or three railroads were in direct competition with each other for freight business, such railroads would spare no expense to make their passenger trains as fast, luxurious, and affordable as possible, as it was considered to be the most effective way of advertising their profitable freight services.
The National Association of Railroad Passengers (NARP) was formed in 1967 to lobby for the continuation of passenger trains. Its lobbying efforts were hampered somewhat by Democratic opposition to any sort of subsidies to the privately owned railroads, and Republican opposition to nationalization of the railroad industry. The proponents were aided by the fact that few in the federal government wanted to be held responsible for the seemingly inevitable extinction of the passenger train, which most regarded as tantamount to political suicide. The urgent need to solve the passenger train disaster was heightened by the bankruptcy filing of the Penn Central, the dominant railroad in the Northeast U.S., on June 21, 1970.
Under the Rail Passenger Service Act of 1970, Congress created the National Railroad Passenger Corporation (NRPC) to subsidize and oversee the operation of intercity passenger trains. The Act provided that
The original working brand name for NRPC was Railpax, which eventually became Amtrak. At the time, many Washington insiders viewed the corporation as a face-saving way to give passenger trains the one "last hurrah" demanded by the public, but expected that the NRPC would quietly disappear in a few years as public interest waned. However, while Amtrak's political and financial support have often been shaky, popular and political support for Amtrak has allowed it to survive into the 21st century.
Similarly, to preserve a declining freight rail industry, Congress passed the Regional Rail Reorganization Act of 1973 (sometimes called the "3R Act"). The act was an attempt to salvage viable freight operations from the bankrupt Penn Central and other lines in the northeast, mid-Atlantic and Midwestern regions. The law created the Consolidated Rail Corporation (Conrail), a government-owned corporation, which began operations in 1976. Another law, the Railroad Revitalization and Regulatory Reform Act of 1976 (the "4R Act"), provided more specifics for the Conrail acquisitions and set the stage for more comprehensive deregulation of the railroad industry. Portions of the Penn Central, Erie Lackawanna, Reading Railroad, Ann Arbor Railroad, Central Railroad of New Jersey, Lehigh Valley, and Lehigh and Hudson River were merged into Conrail.
The freight industry continued its decline until Congress passed the Staggers Rail Act in 1980, which largely deregulated the rail industry. Since then, U.S. freight railroads have reorganized, discontinued their lightly used routes and returned to profitability.:245–252
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In terms of ton-miles, railroads annually move more than 25% of the United States' freight and connect businesses with each other across the country and with markets overseas.
There are four different types of freight railroads: Class I, regional, local line haul, and switching & terminal. Class I railroads are defined as those with revenue of at least $346.8 million in 2006. They comprise just one percent of the number of freight railroads, but account for 67 percent of the industry's mileage, 90 percent of its employees, and 93 percent of its freight revenue.
A regional railroad is a line haul railroad with at least 350 miles (560 km) and/or revenue between $40 million and the Class I threshold. There were 33 regional railroads in 2006. Most have between 75 and 500 employees.
Local line haul railroads operate less than 350 miles (560 km) and earn less than $40 million per year (most earn less than $5 million per year). In 2006, there were 323 local line haul railroads. They generally perform point-to-point service over short distances.
Switching and terminal (S&T) carriers are railroads that primarily provide switching and/or terminal services, regardless of revenue. They perform pick up and delivery services within a certain area.
U.S. freight railroads operate in a highly competitive marketplace. To compete effectively against each other and against other transportation providers, railroads must offer high-quality service at competitive rates. In 2011, within the U.S., railroads carried 39.9% of freight by ton-mile, followed by trucks (33.4%), oil pipelines (14.3%), barges (12%) and air (0.3%). However, railroads' revenue share has been slowly falling for decades, a reflection of the intensity of the competition they face and of the large rate reductions railroads have passed through to their customers over the years.
North American railroads operated 1,471,736 freight cars and 31,875 locomotives, with 215,985 employees, They originated 39.53 million carloads (averaging 63 tons each) and generated $81.7 billion in freight revenue. The average haul was 917 miles. The largest (Class 1) U.S. railroads carried 10.17 million intermodal containers and 1.72 million piggyback trailers. Intermodal traffic was 6.2% of tonnage originated and 12.6% of revenue. The largest commodities were coal, chemicals, farm products, nonmetallic minerals and intermodal. Other major commodities carried include lumber, automobiles, and waste materials. Coal alone was 43.3% of tonnage and 24.7% of revenue. Coal accounts roughly half of U.S. electricity generation and is a major export.
The fastest growing rail traffic segment is currently intermodal. Intermodal is the movement of shipping containers or truck trailers by rail and at least one other mode of transportation, usually trucks or ocean-going vessels. Intermodal combines the door-to-door convenience of trucks with the long-haul economy of railroads. Rail intermodal has tripled in the last 25 years. It plays a critical role in making logistics far more efficient for retailers and others. The efficiency of intermodal provides the U.S. with a huge competitive advantage in the global economy.
Prior to Amtrak's creation in 1970, intercity passenger rail service in the U.S. was provided by the same companies that provided freight service. When Amtrak was formed, in return for government permission to exit the passenger rail business, freight railroads donated passenger equipment to Amtrak and helped it get started with a capital infusion of some $200 million.
The vast majority of the 22,000 or so miles over which Amtrak operates are actually owned by freight railroads. By law, freight railroads must grant Amtrak access to their track upon request. Amtrak pays fees to freight railroads to cover the incremental costs of Amtrak's use of freight railroad tracks.
The basic design of a passenger car was standardized by 1870. By 1900 the main car types were: baggage, coach, combine, diner, dome car, lounge, observation, private, Pullman, railroad post office (RPO) and sleeper.
The first passenger cars in the resembled stagecoaches. They were short, often less than 10 ft (3.05 m) long, tall and rode on a single pair of axles.
American mail cars first appeared in the 1860s and at first followed English design. They had a hook that would catch the mailbag in its crook.
As locomotive technology progressed in the mid-19th century, trains grew in length and weight. Passenger cars grew along with them, first getting longer with the addition of a second truck (one at each end), and wider as their suspensions improved. Cars built for European use featured side door compartments, while American car design favored a single pair of doors at one end of the car in the car's vestibule; compartmentized cars on American railroads featured a long hallway with doors from the hall to the compartments.
One possible reason for this difference in design principles between American and European carbuilding practice could be the average distance between stations on the two continents. While most European railroads connected towns and villages that were still very closely spaced, American railroads had to travel over much greater distances to reach their destinations. Building passenger cars with a long passageway through the length of the car allowed the passengers easy access to the restroom, among other things, on longer journeys.
Dining cars first appeared in the late 1870s and into the 1880s. Until this time, the common practice was to stop for meals at restaurants along the way (which led to the rise of Fred Harvey's chain of Harvey House restaurants in America). At first, the dining car was simply a place to serve meals that were picked up en route, but they soon evolved to include galleys in which the meals were prepared.
By the 1920s, passenger cars on the larger standard gauge railroads were normally between 60 and 70 feet (18 and 21 m) long. The cars of this time were still quite ornate, many of them being built by experienced coach makers and skilled carpenters.
With the 1930s came the widespread use of stainless steel for carbodies. The typical passenger car was now much lighter than its "heavyweight" wood cousins of old. The new "lightweight" and streamlined cars carried passengers in speed and comfort to an extent that had not been experienced to date. Aluminum and Cor-ten were also used in lightweight car construction, but stainless steel was the preferred material for car bodies. It is not the lightest of materials, nor is it the least expensive, but stainless steel cars could be, and often were, left unpainted except for the car's reporting marks that were required by law.
By the end of the 1930s, railroads and carbuilders were debuting carbody and interior styles that could only be dreamed of before. In 1937, the Pullman Company delivered the first cars equipped with roomettes—that is, the car's interior was sectioned off into compartments, much like the coaches that were still in widespread use across Europe. Pullman's roomettes, however, were designed with the single traveler in mind. The roomette featured a large picture window, a privacy door, a single fold-away bed, a sink and small toilet. The roomette's floor space was barely larger than the space taken up by the bed, but it allowed the traveler to ride in luxury compared to the multilevel semiprivate berths of old.
Now that passenger cars were lighter, they were able to carry heavier loads, but the size of the average passenger load that rode in them didn't increase to match the cars' new capacities. The average passenger car couldn't get any wider or longer due to side clearances along the railroad lines, but they generally could get taller because they were still shorter than many freight cars and locomotives. As a result, the railroads soon began building and buying dome and bilevel cars to carry more passengers.
Carbody styles have generally remained consistent since the middle of the 20th century. While new car types have not made much of an impact, the existing car types have been further enhanced with new technology.
Starting in the 1950s, the passenger travel market declined in North America, though there was growth in commuter rail. The higher clearances in North America enabled bi-level commuter coaches that could hold more passengers. These cars started to become common in the United States in the 1960s.
While intercity passenger rail travel declined in the United States during the 1950s, ridership continued to increase in Europe during that time. With the increase came newer technology on existing and new equipment. The Spanish company Talgo began experimenting in the 1940s with technology that would enable the axles to steer into a curve, allowing the train to move around the curve at a higher speed. The steering axles evolved into mechanisms that would also tilt the passenger car as it entered a curve to counter the centrifugal force experienced by the train, further increasing speeds on existing track. Today, tilting passenger trains are commonplace. Talgo's trains are used on some short and medium distance routes such as Amtrak Cascades from Eugene, Oregon, to Vancouver, British Columbia.
Every piece of railroad rolling stock operating in North American interchange service is required to carry a standardized set of reporting marks. The marks are made up of a two- to four-letter code identifying the owner of the equipment accompanied by an identification number and statistics on the equipment's capacity and tare (unloaded) weight. Marks whose codes end in X (such as TTGX) are used on equipment owned by entities that are not common carrier railroads themselves. Marks whose codes end in U are used on containers that are carried in intermodal transport, and marks whose codes end in Z are used on trailers that are carried in intermodal transport, per ISO standard 6346). Most freight cars carry automatic equipment identification RFID transponders.
Typically, railroads operating in the United States reserve one- to four-digit identification numbers for powered equipment such as diesel locomotives and six-digit identification numbers for unpowered equipment. There is no hard and fast rule for how equipment is numbered; each railroad maintains its own numbering policy for its equipment.
Federal regulation of railroads is mainly through the United States Department of Transportation, especially the Federal Railroad Administration which regulates safety, and the Surface Transportation Board which regulates rates, service, the construction, acquisition and abandonment of rail lines, carrier mergers and interchange of traffic among carriers.
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